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|The Right Honourable
Sir William McKell
|12th Governor-General of Australia|
11 March 1947 – 8 May 1953
|Prime Minister||Ben Chifley (1947–49)
Robert Menzies (1949–53)
|Preceded by||HRH The Duke of Gloucester|
|Succeeded by||Sir William Slim|
|27th Premier of New South Wales
Elections: 1941, 1944
16 May 1941 – 6 February 1947
|Governor||The Lord Wakehurst (1941–46)
Sir John Northcott (1946–47)
|Preceded by||Alexander Mair|
|Succeeded by||James McGirr|
|Member of the New South Wales Parliament
24 March 1917 – 18 February 1920
|Preceded by||James McGowen|
|Succeeded by||District abolished|
8 October 1927 – 6 February 1947
|Preceded by||New district|
|Succeeded by||George Noble|
26 September 1891|
Pambula, New South Wales
|Died||11 January 1985
Sydney, New South Wales
|Political party||Australian Labor Party|
Sir William John McKell GCMG (26 September 1891 – 11 January 1985) was an Australian politician, Premier of New South Wales from 1941 to 1947, and the 12th Governor-General of Australia from 1947 to 1953. He was the longest-lived Governor-General, aged 93 when he died.
McKell was born in Pambula, New South Wales, the son of a butcher named Robert Pollock McKell, who abandoned his wife and their four children. For the rest of his life, McKell avoided discussing the matter by saying his father had died young. He was educated in Sydney at Bourke Street Public School and became a boilermaker, and was state secretary of the Boilermakers' Union from 1915.
He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as a Labor member for Redfern in 1917 and retained the seat until he resigned to become Governor-General in 1947, except for the period of proportional representation (1920–1927), when he was a member for Botany. In 1920 he married Mary Pye. While in Parliament he studied law, and became a barrister in 1925. In Jack Lang's Labor governments of 1925–27 and 1931–32 he was Minister for Justice, and was also Minister for Local Government in 1930–31.
During the 1930s McKell became a leader of that element within the Labor Party which was becoming increasingly frustrated at Lang's dictatorial attitudes and continued unpopularity with voters (having lost the premiership in 1932, Lang was again easily defeated in the elections of 1935 and 1938). In 1939 McKell and his supporters compelled Lang to resign from the opposition leadership.
Premier of New South Wales
McKell led the ALP to a convincing victory over the incumbent anti-ALP government of Alexander Mair in the 1941 election, and became Premier as a result. This triumph was brought about mainly by McKell's determination in choosing locally popular candidates for numerous rural seats which previous Labor leaders had never taken seriously. During McKell's time as Premier, the Kosciusko State National Park was established, while increased levels of funding were made available for art galleries, libraries, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In addition, various reforms were carried out in soil conservation, education, child welfare, and workers’ compensation. In 1944, an Annual Holiday Act was passed, providing all workers in New South Wales with two weeks paid leave.
During World War II McKell became a close collaborator of Labor Prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley; with the latter he was on particularly good terms. In 1944 he won another election victory, the first time a New South Wales Labor government had been re-elected. On 13 February 1946 he announced he would be retiring from politics before the next state election.
In 1947 Chifley gained formal agreement from King George VI for McKell's appointment as Governor-General. This occurred only after very considerable opposition from the King and a detailed correspondence between them, also involving the incumbent governor-general (George's brother, the Duke of Gloucester) and the British Foreign Office, the details of which did not come to light till over 50 years later. The objection was not personal (George VI had never met McKell) but centered on his being closely associated with a particular political party, and with a particular state. There was no precedent for a serving politician, let alone a party leader and head of government, to be named Australian governor-general, although there was a South African precedent. In the end, George VI had no option but accept Chifley's assurances of McKell's personal integrity and that the Crown would not be exposed to any political controversy.
The official announcement was made on 31 January 1947, and McKell resigned from parliament and from the ministry on 6 February, but not before participating in the caucus vote to elect his own successor (5 February); he had favoured Bob Heffron, but James McGirr had the numbers.
Chifley was determined that the Duke of Gloucester's successor should be an Australian, and he seems to have deliberately chosen a Labor man with a working-class background to make a political point. There was an outcry from the Liberal opposition and the conservative press: Robert Menzies called the appointment "shocking and humiliating". In a debate on a censure motion on 20 February, Menzies said the fact that McKell was actively engaged in politics when the appointment was announced (even though he had since vacated the political stage) was "a grave disqualification" which "strikes at the very foundation of the office of the Governor-Generalship, because that office in Australia should be as far removed from party politics as is the Crown itself in Great Britain". Chifley, in response, accepted full responsibility for the appointment, said that he offered no apologies, and "I am completely confident that as time goes on I shall have no reason to regret my action". McKell kept a dignified silence on the matter of his appointment, rather than conducting a public defence of it. Nevertheless, Chifley publicly argued that any suitable Australian should be capable of being chosen as governor-general.
Once McKell took office on 11 March, however, the continuing respect for the Crown and its representative meant that there was no further criticism. McKell carried out the usual round of his formal duties with dignity, behaved with unfailing respect towards the King himself, and succeeded in winning over all but the most inflexible anglophiles. When Menzies succeeded Chifley as Prime Minister in December 1949, his relations with McKell were initially civil rather than friendly, but later on the two men formed a cordial working relationship, and Menzies even extended McKell's term by 14 months from its initial five years.
The most controversial moment in McKell's career came in March 1951, when Menzies asked him for a double dissolution election. Labor had retained control of the Senate after the 1949 election, and the Senate had referred the government's banking bill to a committee. Menzies argued that this constituted "failure to pass" in terms of Section 57 of the Australian Constitution.
Many in the ALP, though not Chifley, thought that McKell should and would refuse Menzies a double dissolution, but the Governor-General agreed (with little hesitation) to grant one. McKell took the view that an election was necessary (since the government's lower-house majority was still so big that there was no prospect of it losing a House of Representatives vote of confidence, such as in 1941 had ended Sir Arthur Fadden's far more vulnerable administration), and that it was for the electorate, not for himself, to determine whether the Senate or Menzies was right. He saw it as his duty to act on the advice of his Prime Minister.
On 13 November 1951, McKell accepted a knighthood (Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George) from King George VI, who personally invested him at Buckingham Palace while McKell was on an official visit to the United Kingdom. This caused considerable controversy in the Labor Party, as it was Labor policy to have nothing to do with knighthoods (a policy confirmed by the case of Queensland union leader Jack Egerton a generation afterwards); but there was nothing Labor could do about it, since McKell had severed all connections with the party on assuming office. Also it was unprecedented, and was still considered somewhat inappropriate, for a governor-general not to be at least a knight (many governors-general had been peers). McKell was the only Australian governor-general to be knighted during his term, until Quentin Bryce was appointed a Dame of the Order of Australia in March 2014.
McKell retired in May 1953, having had his initial term extended by 14 months by Menzies. From June 1956 to 1957 McKell served as a member of the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia).
Upon his return from Kuala Lumpur, McKell lived in Sydney for 28 years, becoming considered one of the grand old men of the New South Wales Labor Party, although he never resumed any party or political activity. He died in Sydney in January 1985. His widow, Lady (Mary) McKell, survived him by only six months.
- McKell Institute
- "Sir (Bill) William John McKell (1891–1985)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 8 February 2010.
- "Biography of Sir William John McKell (1891–1985)". Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Retrieved 8 February 2010.
- Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991
- Waugh, John (2006). "Appointing the Governor-General: The Case of William McKell". Public Law Review (abstract). 17 (1): 49–59. SSRN http://ssrn.com/abstract=1118630.
- Carr, Robert (1996). "Heffron, Robert James (1890–1978)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 14. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
- Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, 1988, pp. 382–383
- It's an Honour: GCMG
- ABC Rural: Bush Telegraph
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