William McKell

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Sir William McKell

12th Governor-General of Australia
In office
11 March 1947 – 8 May 1953
MonarchGeorge VI
Elizabeth II
Prime MinisterBen Chifley
Robert Menzies
Preceded byThe Duke of Gloucester
Succeeded bySir William Slim
27th Premier of New South Wales
Elections: 1941, 1944
In office
16 May 1941 – 6 February 1947
GovernorThe Lord Wakehurst (1941–46)
Sir John Northcott (1946–47)
DeputyJack Baddeley
Preceded byAlexander Mair
Succeeded byJames McGirr
Member of the New South Wales Parliament
for Redfern
In office
24 March 1917 – 18 February 1920
Preceded byJames McGowen
Succeeded byDistrict abolished
In office
8 October 1927 – 6 February 1947
Preceded byNew district
Succeeded byGeorge Noble
Personal details
Born(1891-09-26)26 September 1891
Pambula, New South Wales
Died11 January 1985(1985-01-11) (aged 93)
Waverley, New South Wales
Resting placeNorthern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney
Political partyLabor Party
Spouse(s)Mary Pye

Sir William John McKell GCMG, PC (26 September 1891 – 11 January 1985), often known as Bill McKell, was an Australian politician who served as the 12th Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1947 to 1953. He had previously been Premier of New South Wales from 1941 to 1947, as leader of the Labor Party.

McKell was born in the small town of Pambula, New South Wales, but grew up in Sydney. He left school at the age of thirteen, training as a boilermaker at Mort's Dock. McKell soon became involved with the union movement, and after a brief period on the railways began working full-time as a union secretary. He sided with the anti-conscriptionists during the Labor Party split of 1916, and at the 1917 state election defeated James McGowen, a former Labor premier who had been expelled from the party. In 1920, aged 29, McKell was made Minister for Justice under John Storey. He also served as a minister under John Dooley and Jack Lang.

During the Labor Party's internal tensions in the 1930s, McKell came to be seen as a compromise candidate for the leadership of the party. He replaced Jack Lang as leader of the opposition in 1939, and became premier following Labor's surprise victory at the 1941 state election. As premier, McKell oversaw both the war effort and the initial stages of post-war reconstruction, carrying out an ambitious programme of public works as well as various social reforms. He was re-elected with an increased majority at the 1944 election, making him the first Labor premier to win multiple elections in New South Wales.

McKell had planned to retire from public life in 1946, but was instead convinced by Ben Chifley to become governor-general. His appointment was initially controversial due to its openly political nature; Robert Menzies called it "shocking and humiliating". However, when Menzies returned as prime minister in 1949 they formed an amicable working relationship. Some of McKell's actions as governor-general were unpopular amongst his old Labor Party colleagues, notably his acceptance of a knighthood and his decision to grant Menzies a double dissolution in 1951. In later life, he served as a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground and as a member of the Reid Commission, which drafted the Constitution of Malaysia.

Early life[edit]

Bill McKell was born in Pambula, New South Wales, the eldest of four children. His father, Robert Pollock McKell, was a butcher who moved the family to Surry Hills in Sydney in 1898. Three years later he abandoned them. For the rest of his life, McKell concealed the matter by saying his father had died young.[1] The family moved to Redfern, with McKell's mother working at various menial tasks to support the family. He was educated at Bourke Street Public School in Surry Hills. McKell supplemented the family income by working part-time and then becoming a messenger boy when he left school at 13. As well as being a good student, McKell was a talented footballer, cricketer and boxer.[1]

In 1906, McKell became an apprentice boilermaker at Mort's Dock at Balmain in Sydney. He joined the Federated Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Ship-Builders and organised fellow apprentices to fight for improved conditions. Completing his articles, McKell worked for the New South Wales Government Railways from 1913-14. He became full-time Assistant Secretary of the Boilermakers' Society in 1914.[1]

McKell was also active in the Labor Party (ALP), which he joined in 1908. He was prominent in a militant faction, the Industrial Section, which took control of the Party in 1916. McKell became a member of the State Executive. When Labor split over the proposed introduction of conscription in that year, McKell was a vigorous anti-conscriptionist. James McGowen, MLA for Redfern and first ALP Premier of New South Wales, had been expelled from the party for supporting conscription. Although McGowen, a fellow boilermaker, had been something of a mentor, McKell made the painful decision to seek Labor pre-selection. He won and subsequently defeated McGowen at the 1917 election.[2]

In 1919, McKell bought a house in Redfern that was to be his home for almost three decades. The following year he married Mary 'Minnie' Pye. The first of three children soon followed. In 1933, McKell bought a property near Goulburn. He sold it in 1946 and purchased a nearby property of 1,400 acres which his son Bill eventually took over.[1]

Parliamentary career[edit]

Except for the period of proportional representation (1920–1927), when he was a member for Botany, McKell represented the seat of Redfern until he resigned to become Governor General in 1947.[3]

McKell had improved his education by attending Workers’ Educational Association lectures. Even before he was elected he had begun studying for the Bar and was admitted in 1925. Practising as a barrister was to bring him income, experience, and contacts. As a parliamentarian, he developed formidable debating skills and revelled in the hard work involved in the mastery of legislation and procedure. McKell developed a lifelong respect for the institution. When he became Premier, McKell ensured debate in the Legislative Assembly was full and free.[2][4]

McKell's ability soon brought him to the attention of ALP Leader John Storey, another boilermaker turned politician. With Storey's support, McKell became Minister of Justice after Labor won the 1920 election and retained the position until the Government was defeated in 1922.[2] When Labor regained office under John Thomas (Jack) Lang's Leadership in 1925, McKell returned to the Justice portfolio. He also became Lang's assistant at Treasury which gave him a valuable insight into public finance. Lang's manipulative, authoritarian style made him unpopular with his colleagues and caused deep division in the Government. In May 1927, he reconstructed his Cabinet with hand-picked loyalists. McKell at first retained his post but was dropped on 8 June. When Lang won the 1930 election, McKell became a Minister but was relegated to the minor portfolio of Local Government. In June 1931, McKell again became Justice Minister, where he remained until Lang's dismissal by Governor Game in May 1932.[2]

Growing resentment in the labour movement at Lang's dictatorial control and lack of electoral success led to the formation of a breakaway Industrial Labor Party in February 1938 led by MLA for Botany, Bob Heffron. Although Heffron was the public face of the opposition to Lang, McKell had the numbers in Caucus. In 1939, the ALP Federal Executive intervened and a unity conference was held in August. Lang's opponents had a comfortable majority and took control of the Executive. The unity conference returned to the Parliamentary Labor Party the right to elect its own Leader. This automatically meant the end of Lang who was too unpopular with his colleagues to have any chance of success. In the Caucus ballot on 5 September 1939, McKell had 13 votes, Lang 12 and Heffron seven. In the next ballot, all of Heffron's votes went to McKell. Within weeks of the outbreak of World War Two, McKell was Leader of the Opposition.[2][5]

Premier of New South Wales[edit]

In the May 1941 election campaign, McKell outlined an unusually well co-ordinated programme of reforms for both city and country NSW with a touch of vision and an emphasis on orderly planning. Drawing on his long experience and his copious research and reading, he had formulated much of this ‘master plan’ himself. McKell contrasted Labor's comprehensive platform for change with United Australia Party Premier Alexander Mair's attitude that all social and other reform had to be postponed because of the war. The Government's standing had been damaged by internal divisions. Its campaign was a negative one, raising the spectre of Lang and claiming that a change of government in wartime was too risky. It was a complete misjudgement of the mood of the times. Leaving the Depression behind and not yet feeling the effects of total war - as Japan had not entered the conflict - the voters were ready for change. The result was a resounding victory for McKell, with Labor winning 54 of the 90 seats. The ALP did particularly well in rural areas, to which McKell had paid much attention. He had persuaded the Party Executive to let him personally vet all country candidates which resulted in an exceptionally strong team.[6]

Historian David Clune has described the McKell style of government as cautious, pragmatic, reasoned and controlled. There was a deliberate attempt to minimise risk-taking and anticipate and deal with potential problems by careful planning. As little as possible was left to chance and decisions were made only after taking the best advice available and with a solid grasp of facts. Also prominent was a preference for compromise rather than confrontation, and the use of negotiation to bridge differences. Above all there was a belief in the realistically achievable, that the continued ability of the Government to implement Labor's programme was more important than any single reform. In political terms, McKell's main concern was to establish and maintain a stable and responsible style of Government. He strove to project an image of unity and competence. It was important to convince the electorate that the Labor Party could govern in this manner, particularly after the turbulent history of the two preceding Labor governments under Lang. In practice, this aim manifested itself in the deliberate avoidance of crisis and confrontation. McKell's pragmatic political style was not, however, an end in itself. Electoral success was seen as a means of implementing Labor's policy. By his practical approach to politics McKell aimed to create conditions that would enable him to put into effect as much of his election platform as possible. McKell was a pragmatist with a purpose. He believed that the implementation of Labor policy and the winning of electoral support could be complementary rather than conflicting goals. In reconciling these two aims he was largely successful.[7]

McKell faced the onerous challenge of war. He immediately set up a War Effort Co-ordination Committee chaired by himself. Much of Australia's industrial and construction capacity was in NSW and the Premier made sure it was mobilised to the full. The Government built ships, roads, air strips and other defence works. NSW produced munitions and grew food. A vigorous civil defence and air raid precaution programme was instituted.[8]

McKell's approach to government was triumphantly vindicated by the 1944 election. In his policy speech, he summarised in detail the Government's record in promoting the war effort and in the social, industrial and rural areas. McKell then went on to outline the Government's plans for the postwar world with promises of a vast program of essential works and improvements in housing, social welfare, health, education and working conditions. The Government won 56 seats, two more than 1941. Most Labor MLAs greatly increased their majorities, particularly in rural areas. McKell became the first NSW Labor Premier to serve a second consecutive term. On 26 March 1945, he broke Lang's record as the longest serving ALP Premier.[9]

With the Government safely re-elected and the end of the war in sight, McKell's attention turned increasingly to postwar reconstruction. From 1944 onwards, the Government initiated an ambitious program of major works including dams, railways, schools, housing, and hospitals. In 1946, McKell set up a State Development Council, chaired by himself and consisting of five other Ministers, to co-ordinate and oversee the State's postwar development and public works programs.[10]

McKell's drive to implement his ‘vision splendid’ came up against some harsh political realities. Probably the major problem was widespread post-war industrial disruption as unions battled for their share of the fruits of victory. McKell did what he could to deal with a complex and intractable situation. He tried to become as publicly and actively involved as possible in solving disputes in the hope of convincing the voters that everything feasible was being done to deal with a situation that admitted of no easy solution. A subsidiary aim was to persuade the electorate that Labor was more competent and better placed with its links to the union movement to deal with industrial unrest than the opposition. Another central policy was unwavering support for the principles of arbitration as the best means of resolving disputes and as a bulwark against industrial anarchy. McKell also strongly attacked Communist influence in the union movement and called on militant union leaders to show a sense of responsibility to the State as a whole by minimising stoppages. He strove to project an image of the Government working together with reasonable elements in the unions to minimise strikes. Finally, McKell was also prepared to give some concessions to ease the industrial pressure. The main example was an extra week of annual leave, a key union demand, which McKell legislated for in 1944.[10]

McKell's unrelenting tenacity resulted in an impressive record of achievement: miners’ pensions; a Housing Commission; tougher occupational health and safety provisions; the re-establishment of the Government Insurance Office as a provider of general insurance; compulsory third party motor vehicle insurance; improvements to workers' compensation; increased legal aid; protection of consumers from exploitation; two weeks annual leave; the Joint Coal Board; debt adjustment measures that revitalised country NSW; rural electrification. McKell was also responsible for pioneering achievements in regional development, urban planning, and soil, water and forest conservation. These included Kosciusko National Park, the State's first Conservation Department and - with his friend and collaborator Prime Minister Ben Chifley - the Snowy Mountains Scheme.[10]

As his term progressed, McKell was increasingly troubled by a rebel group in the ALP Caucus. As well, he was physically and emotionally exhausted by his enormous workload, the demands of implementing his program, and the burden of wartime leadership. On 13 February 1946, McKell announced that he was retiring from politics before the next election. The Labor Party responded by organising votes of confidence in his leadership and urging him to stay on. The Premier relented in response and agreed to the Executive's request to carry on until after the 1946 Budget. Then came Chifley's offer of the Governor-Generalship which McKell accepted. The official announcement was made on 31 January 1947. McKell resigned from Parliament and the Premiership on 6 February.[7]


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 for over 50 years. 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 Australian politician, let alone a party leader and head of government, to be named governor-general, although there was a South African one and several former governors-general had strong ties with British political parties. 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.[11][1]

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".[12]

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. 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. Menzies even extended McKell's term by 14 months from its initial five years.[1]

The most controversial moment in McKell's vice-regal 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.[1]

Sections of the Labor Party condemned McKell for granting the double dissolution, claiming he had 'ambushed' his old Party. However, NSW Justice Minister Reg Downing had a conversation with the Governor-General during the crisis which left him convinced that McKell was going to grant the double dissolution and he conveyed this information to Chifley.[1]

On 13 November 1951,[13] 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.[1] 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.[2] Also it was unprecedented and was still considered somewhat inappropriate, for a Governor-General not to be at least a knight (many 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's Official Secretary for the first few weeks was Sir Leighton Bracegirdle, whose retirement was overdue after serving McKell's three predecessors over 16 years. He was succeeded by Murray Tyrrell.

Later life[edit]

McKell retired in May 1953. From June 1956 to 1957 he served as a member of the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia).[1]

In later life, McKell faded almost entirely from public view. Living quietly in a modest apartment in Sydney's Double Bay, he spent his time playing bowls, going to the races and keeping up with old friends. A long time Trustee and former Chairman, McKell was a regular at the Sydney Cricket Ground. From the 1970s onwards there was a revival of academic and Labor Party interest in McKell and his legacy. Neville Wran named a new State office building after him and the ALP named a research body the McKell Institute.[2][1]

McKell died in the Sydney suburb of Waverley in January 1985 aged 93. A memorial service was held at St Andrew's Cathedral. His widow, Lady (Mary) McKell, survived him by only six months. Both Sir William's and Lady McKell's ashes are interred at Northern Suburbs Crematorium, North Ryde.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Cunneen, Christopher (2000). William John McKell: boilermaker, Premier, Governor- General. Sydney: UNSW Press. ISBN 0868405876.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Turner, Ken (2006). 'William John McKell' in D Clune and K Turner eds, The Premiers of NSW, vol 2. Sydney: Federation Press. ISBN 1862875510.
  3. ^ "Sir (Bill) William John McKell (1891–1985)". Former Members of the Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  4. ^ Clune, David; Griffith, Gareth (2006). Decision and Deliberation: the Parliament of NSW, 1856-2003. Sydney: Federation Press. pp. 360–5. ISBN 186287591X.
  5. ^ Clune, David (1984). "The NSW election of 1941". Australian Journal of Politics and History. 30 (3).
  6. ^ Clune, David (2001). '1941' in M Hogan and D Clune eds The People’s Choice: electoral politics in twentieth century NSW', vol 2. Sydney: NSW Parliament and Sydney University. ISBN 0909907404.
  7. ^ a b Clune, David (1988). 'The McKell style of government' in M Easson ed, McKell: the achievements of Sir William McKell. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. ISBN 0043303897.
  8. ^ Five Critical Years: the story of the McKell Labor Government in New South Wales. Sydney: Government Printer. 1946.
  9. ^ Clune, David (1993). "From McKell to McGirr". Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. 79, pts 1 and 2.
  10. ^ a b c Clune, David (2001). '1947' in M Hogan and D Clune eds, The People's Choice: electoral politics in twentieth century NSW', vol 2. Sydney: NSW Parliament and Sydney University. ISBN 0909907404.
  11. ^ Waugh, John (2006). "Appointing the Governor-General: The Case of William McKell". Public Law Review (abstract). 17 (1): 49–59. SSRN 1118630.
  12. ^ Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, 1988, pp. 382–383
  13. ^ It's an Honour: GCMG
New South Wales Legislative Assembly
Preceded by
James McGowen
Member for Redfern
District abolished
Preceded by
Thomas Mutch
Member for Botany
With: Burke, Hickey/Ratcliffe, Lee, Mutch
Succeeded by
Thomas Mutch
New district Member for Redfern
Succeeded by
George Noble
Political offices
Preceded by
Edward McTiernan
Minister for Justice
Succeeded by
Thomas Bavin
Preceded by
Thomas Bavin
Minister for Justice
Succeeded by
Thomas Ley
Preceded by
Thomas Ley
Minister for Justice
Succeeded by
Andrew Lysaght
New title Assistant Colonial Treasurer
Succeeded by
Robert Cruickshank
Preceded by
Michael Bruxner
Minister for Local Government
Succeeded by
James McGirr
Preceded by
Joseph Lamaro
Minister for Justice
Succeeded by
Daniel Levy
Preceded by
Jack Lang
Leader of the Opposition of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Alexander Mair
Preceded by
Alexander Mair
Premier of New South Wales
Succeeded by
James McGirr
Preceded by
Athol Richardson
Colonial Treasurer
Party political offices
Preceded by
Jack Lang
Leader of the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales
Succeeded by
James McGirr
Government offices
Preceded by
The Duke of Gloucester
Governor-General of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir William Slim