ANDERSON, Sir Kenneth McColl (1909–1985)
Senator for New South Wales, 1953–75 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Kenneth McColl Anderson was born at sea on board a German vessel, the SS Scharnhorst, causing his parents, David More Anderson and Florence, née McWhirter, returning from England, to cable their family that they were bringing home a ‘seagull’. Anderson believed his date of birth to have been 11 October 1909, but the Scharnhorst’s list of the passengers reveals that ‘Child Anderson’ was born on board on 2 October 1909, between Fremantle and Melbourne.

Ken’s father was a building contractor, estate agent and property owner in the Ryde district of Sydney. An alderman on Ryde Council and mayor, he was also MLA for the New South Wales seats of Ryde (1920–27) and Eastwood (1927–30). Imbued with Scottish values, the family attended the Kirk and were members of the local Caledonian society. Ken, who had four brothers and three sisters, belonged to a strict household: ‘When I was a boy … I did not speak until I was spoken to. I did everything almost by numbers’. His mother’s death in 1926 came as a cruel blow.[1]

Educated at Ryde Public School and Petersham Intermediate High School, Ken was initially employed as an insurance clerk and later as auctioneer and estate agent, becoming a qualified valuer of the Real Estate Institute of New South Wales. As a boy, he had collected rents for his father, who, in the early 1930s, provided financial assistance for the purchase of a small real estate business in Eastwood. This enabled Ken to acquire a larger, well-established agency in West Ryde, which he retained until 1939. About this time, he became secretary of the local Ratepayers’ and Citizens’ Association. He played rugby union for the Eastwood club, becoming a referee, and enjoyed bowls and golf. On 17 June 1936, at the Meadowbank Presbyterian Church, he married Madge Martha Merrion, a cashier, who had been raised in Dubbo.[2]

On 2 July 1940 Anderson enlisted in the AIF, having served previously in the militia. In November 1941 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 8th Division Signals, based in Malaya. Following the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Anderson was captured by the Japanese and worked on the infamous Burma–Thailand railway, spending the last months of the war in Changi prison. Records show that Anderson suffered from chronic dysentery and recurrent malaria. A fellow prisoner of war, Sir John Carrick, later recalled that Anderson was close to death on several occasions. He was rescued from Changi on 22 September 1945, and after a period in hospital returned to Sydney at the end of that year.[3]

Anderson, Madge had run the real estate business in Anderson’s absence, and now he became a registered valuer for land sales control. In 1948 he was elected to the newly amalgamated Ryde and Eastwood Council, and became mayor (1948–50). From 1949 to 1951 he was a member of the Sydney-wide planning authority, the Cumberland County Council. By this time he was an active member of the Liberal Party, and by 1950 was president of the Ryde branch.[4]

Anderson made an unsuccessful bid for preselection for the new federal seat of Bennelong for the 1949 election, but in the following year gained Liberal preselection for the Legislative Assembly seat of Ryde (once held by his father), winning by 479 votes over his Labor opponent. In his first speech in the Assembly, Anderson addressed the financial problems experienced by New South Wales as a result of uniform taxation, which he opposed. He was also concerned with landlord and tenant legislation, the needs of disabled children, and supported the establishment of a baby health centre in Ryde. Following a redistribution, Anderson lost Ryde in the 1953 state poll, but gained preselection for the 1953 half-Senate election, securing second position on the joint Liberal–Country Party ticket.[5]

Elected to the Senate in May 1953, Anderson was sworn on 8 September. In his first speech, Anderson congratulated the Government for reducing income tax and modifying payroll tax. ‘I came here to serve’, he said. ‘I set about serving on the 2 July, 1940, and I shall not turn back now … I just want to do whatever is within my power to help my fellow man’. He was re-elected in 1958, 1964, 1970 and 1974. From 1956 to 1964, he served on the Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, which reported on a wide range of government enterprises, including airports and works undertaken in the Northern Territory. In May 1959 he moved for the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Road Safety, which he chaired. Between 1956 and 1964 he was a temporary chairman of committees.[6]

Following a Cabinet reshuffle in June 1964, Prime Minister Menzies appointed Anderson Minister for Customs and Excise, asking whether he held any particular view (presumably on censorship) as a matter of conscience. Despite once declaring himself ‘a bare-boards Presbyterian’, Anderson assured the Prime Minister that he did not. Anderson regarded his time in the portfolio as ‘the best years’ of his ministerial life. A major priority was the Customs Tariff Bill 1965, which recast Australia’s customs tariff legislation into the internationally recognised form known as the Brussels Nomenclature. The bill was supported by the Opposition, and Anderson was praised for the clarity of his treatment of a complex subject. Anderson remained in customs and excise when Harold Holt became Prime Minister in 1966. In 1967 Labor’s John Wheeldon took Anderson to task over the number of books said to be of literary and artistic merit still on the banned list. In response, Anderson pointed out that he acted on the advice of the Literary Censorship Board. In October 1965 he had expressed relief that with Lady Chatterley’s Lover off the prohibited list he would no longer be criticised over it. Asked whether he would permit distribution of a booklet containing bawdy prose by Robert Burns, albeit in Gaelic, he said: ‘I’m the son of a Scot, my mother was the daughter of a Scot, I lived in a Scots home and I’m not going to find my place in history as being the person who banned the immortal bard’.[7]

After Holt’s disappearance when swimming in December 1967, Anderson voted for Leslie Bury, MHR for Wentworth, in the Liberal Party leadership ballot. With Bury eliminated in the first round, Anderson then voted for John Gorton, who, once Prime Minister, invited him to become Minister for Supply. Anderson was also elected in the party room to the position of Leader of the Government in the Senate. Anderson, who came to have reservations about Gorton’s ‘presidential’ style of government, was the sole minister in the Senate, responsible not just for his own work, but for all matters pertaining to the portfolios of ministers sitting in the House of Representatives. He felt this to be a heavy workload, especially given his indifferent health.

Nonetheless, faced with a party deprived of an absolute majority in the Senate between 1968 and 1972, the ‘affable and cautious’ Anderson forged a sound working relationship with other party leaders, notably the ALP’s Lionel Murphy and Vince Gair of the Democratic Labor Party. On 4 and 11 June 1970 Anderson played an important role in the establishment of the Senate’s new standing committee system. He opposed Murphy’s proposals for seven policy committees, the legislative and general purpose standing committees, instead moving for five estimates committees which were to operate as unique entities. Both motions were passed on 11 June, the estimates committees becoming operational immediately. Anderson, favouring the policy of ‘gradualism’, managed in August to have a motion passed which delayed the establishment of five of the policy committees until October 1971, though not before the Bulletin commented tartly that what ‘Sir Kenneth wanted was a standing committee system to deal with the Upper House’s trivia but not its meat’. Fellow Cabinet member Billy Snedden believed that Anderson was too cautious as Senate leader, while others characterised him as ‘an unspectacular figure whose persuasive manner and obvious integrity achieved surprising results’. He went on to serve on several of the committees that he had helped to create, as well as the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory.[8]

He enjoyed the supply portfolio, which included defence procurement, where he gained Cabinet approval for the development of the Australian light fixed wing utility defence aircraft, the ‘Nomad’. He also visited the USA as part of the Apollo space program, notably in July 1969, when he represented Australia at NASA’s launch of Apollo 11 at Cape Kennedy in Florida, meeting Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts.

The previously unflappable Anderson became ‘absolutely furious’ when he was ‘frozen out’ of decisions affecting his portfolio by Malcolm Fraser, then Minister for Defence, and later Prime Minister. Journalist Alan Reid also records a meeting of Liberal senators, initiated by Senator Cormack, which was called four days after the House of Representatives election of 1969, and from which Anderson appears to have been deliberately excluded.[9]

In August 1971, five months after William McMahon had become Prime Minister, Anderson was offered the health portfolio in the wake of the report of the Commonwealth Committee of Enquiry into Health Insurance in 1969, known as the Nimmo Report, and the ALP’s controversial scheme of compulsory health insurance. Journalist Mungo McCallum suggested that McMahon was determined to keep the portfolio out of the House of Representatives and to make the most of Anderson’s proven ability in ‘not fighting anyone’, while in the Sunday Australian Richard Farmer commented that Anderson

is a politician who adopts the low posture. For years now he has consciously tried to keep out of the public eye. When he makes statements they are framed in considered and unprovocative language. The basis of his view of politics seems to be to keep out of trouble first and foremost.

The third federal health minister in twelve months, Anderson was soon negotiating with the powerful Pharmacy Guild of Australia, which sought a better deal for Australian chemists. In April 1972, after a ‘marathon’ meeting, agreement was reached regarding such matters as remuneration for dispensing pharmaceutical benefits, and the right to arbitration where there was disagreement between the guild and the Government. Anderson also sustained prolonged and at times tense discussions with the General Practitioners’ Society in New South Wales, and with the Australian Medical Association, over the level of the common fees for general practitioners under the medical benefits scheme. In the election year of 1972, the doctors were given their desired fee increase, and the Opposition in turn gave Anderson a hard time.[10]

On a tour of the Northern Territory with the Director-General of Health, Dr Refshauge, Anderson was appalled at the state of Aboriginal health, and subsequently obtained Cabinet approval for the federal Government to purchase a motel in Alice Springs as a convalescent facility. In August 1972 Anderson became seriously ill. He returned to the Senate in October, and in November announced that he would not seek a further term as minister should his party win the December 1972 House of Representatives election, which it did not. Billy Snedden, who had been elected Leader of the Opposition after the 1972 poll, considered Anderson to be ‘a very nice guy’, but decided not to include him in the shadow ministry. Also excluded, along with Anderson, were Gorton and McMahon. Snedden believed that all three were ‘aged and were giving us a geriatric appearance’. Anderson never forgave Snedden, and supported Malcolm Fraser’s deposition of Snedden from the party leadership in March 1975.[11]

A liberal on health care and Aboriginal issues, Anderson was more conservative on some other social questions. He believed that the death penalty should apply in certain cases of treason or for murder where the crime was motivated by money. In 1959 he objected to Garfield Barwick’s Matrimonial Causes Bill on the grounds that it made divorce easier (a conscience vote was allowed), and in 1974 to Lionel Murphy’s Family Law Bill, moving an amendment (which was lost) to reintroduce a measure of fault. Following the double dissolution of 11 November 1975, Anderson decided not to contest the forthcoming election, thus concluding twenty-two years of parliamentary service.[12]

In 1954 he had declared, ‘Without [the party system] … the Parliament would be a rabble’. Better at healing wounds and maintaining the status quo than he was in initiating policy or playing rough politics, in 1976 Anderson became president of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party during a period of internal strife. He resigned as president in 1978, but retained a seat on the state executive, on which he had served previously (1953–59, 1963–65). He also worked for the Ryde branch, and at state levels in various capacities, including stints as ex-service representative.

He had served on the Ryde District Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital Board (1938–40), of which his father had been founder and long-time chairman, and resumed this position in 1946, holding various honorary offices until 1971, when he became patron. He was president of the Food for Babies Fund, a member of the Good Samaritan Association for twenty-five years, and chairman of the Thalidomide Foundation. He was also president of the Ryde Bowling Club (1950–53), and of the Field of Mars Cemetery Trust (Presbyterian). He was a member of the Ryde RSL.

Knighted in 1970 and created KBE in 1972, Anderson died on 29 March 1985 at Caroline Chisholm Nursing Home in Lane Cove. His state funeral, on 3 April, was held at St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Macquarie Street. He was survived by Madge, and their daughter. Lady Anderson, who had been appointed an MBE in 1960 for her work in community services, died in April 1993.

Sir John Carrick, who knew Anderson well, said that he was ‘very much in his attitudes the Presbyterian Scot’, gentle in manner, but with a ‘firmness’ that reflected his disciplined system of values.[13]

Clive Beauchamp

[1] Sir John Carrick, Tribute at Anderson’s funeral, 3 Apr. 1985; Sir Kenneth Anderson, Transcript of oral history interview with Mel Pratt, 1977, TRC 121/90, NLA, pp. 1:1/2–3, 1:1/5; M. C. I. Levy, Wallumetta: A History of Ryde and Its District 1792 to 1945, W. E. Smith, Sydney, 1947, pp. 159–60, 261; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Angela Phippen, Ryde City Library; ‘Mayors of Ryde…’, City of Ryde Council, Sydney, viewed 3 Mar. 2009, < mayors_history.pdf>; CPD, 17 May 1956, p. 805.

[2] Anderson, Transcript, pp. 1:1/4–10.

[3] Anderson, Kenneth McColl—Defence Service Record, B883, NX56071, NAA; Anderson, Transcript, pp. 1:1/10, 1:1/14, 1:1/25, 1:1/34, 1:2/1; Papers of Captain R. M. Mills, PR86/211, AWM; Carrick, Tribute, 3 Apr. 1985.

[4] Anderson, Transcript, pp. 1:1/3, 1:2/7–10; SMH, 4 Dec. 1948, p. 5; ‘Election of Aldermen/Councillors 1871–present’, City of Ryde Council, Sydney, viewed 3 Mar. 2009, < RESOURCES/DOCUMENTS/PDF/CivicServices/councillors_history.pdf >; SMH, 18 Dec. 1948, p. 4, 15 Dec. 1949, p. 4.

[5] John Cramer, Pioneers, Politics and People: A Political Memoir, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1989, pp. 100–2; SMH, 25 Feb. 1950 p. 5; NSWPD, 20 Sept. 1950, p. 270, 6 Nov. 1952, pp. 1971–6, 6 Nov. 1951, p. 4065, 30 Sept. 1952, p. 965, 24 Sept. 1952, pp. 841–2; SMH, 14 Mar. 1953, p. 3; Liberal Opinion (Syd.), May 1953, p. 5; SunHerald (Syd.), 22 Mar.1953, p. 1.

[6] SMH, 11 May 1953, p. 5; CPD, 16 Sept. 1953, p. 81, 19 May 1960, pp. 1078–9, 21 Sept. 1960, pp. 575–6, 12 Oct. 1960, pp. 1063–8; CPP, S2/1960.

[7] Anderson, Transcript, pp. 2:1/5–18; CPD, 16 Apr. 1985 (R), p. 1152, 21 May 1965, pp. 1037–41, 1058–63, 17 May 1967, pp. 1675–8, 19 Oct. 1965, p. 1017.

[8] Anderson, Transcript, pp. 2:2/4, 2:2/9–11, 2:2/14; Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1971, pp. 37–8; CPD, 4 June 1970, pp. 2057–64, 11 June 1970, pp. 2342–3, 2356–9, 19 Aug. 1970, pp. 103–9; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, pp. 480–6; Bulletin (Syd.), 5 Sept. 1970, pp. 24–5; Billy Mackie Snedden and M. Bernie Schedvin, Billy Snedden: An Unlikely Liberal, MacMillan, South Melbourne, 1990, p. 131; Don Whitington and Rob Chalmers, Inside Canberra: A Guide to Australian Federal Politics, Rigby, Kent Town, SA, 1971, p. 14.

[9] Anderson, Transcript, pp. 3:1/4, 3:1/18–19, 3:2/2–6; Cabinet decision 63, 14 Jan. 1970, A5869, 32 and decision 276 (M), 21 July 1971, A5908, 119, NAA; CT, 24 July 1971, p. 3; SMH, 31 Jan. 1969, p. 3; James Killen, Killen: Inside Australian Politics, Methuen Haynes, North Ryde, NSW, 1985, p. 156; Reid, The Gorton Experiment, p. 355.

[10] CPD, 17 Aug. 1971, p. 8; Review (Syd.), 13 Aug. 1971, p. 1237; Sunday Australian (Syd.), 23 Jan. 1972, p. 4; Peter Sekuless, The First Fifty Years: An Historical Review of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia 1928–78, Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Canberra, 1978, p. 32; J. C. H. Dewdney, Australian Health Services, John Wiley & Sons, Sydney, 1972, p. 77; Race Mathews, ‘Health Wars’, in Whitlam, Wran and the Labor Tradition: Labor History Essays, vol. 2, Pluto Press in association with the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party, Sydney, 1988, p. 62; SMH, 7 Dec. 1971, p. 17; CPD, 22 Feb. 1972, p. 8.

[11] Anderson, Transcript, pp. 3: 2/10–11; Age (Melb.), 9 Sept. 1971, p. 11; Herald (Melb.), 1 Oct. 1971, p. 8; CPD, 23 Feb. 1972, p. 98, 17 Aug. 1972, p. 153, 10 Oct. 1972, p. 1369; Mercury (Hob.), 2 Nov. 1972, p. 11; Snedden and Schedvin, Billy Snedden, p. 168.

[12] CPD, 30 Sept. 1971, pp. 1066–7, 25 Nov. 1959, pp. 1798–1802; Australian (Syd.), 22 Nov. 1974, p. 4; CPD, 26 Nov. 1974, p. 2785.

[13] CPD, 12 Aug. 1954, p. 194; SMH, 27 Oct. 1976, p. 6, 12 Aug. 1978, p. 5; Liberal Party of Australia, NSW division, State executive minutes, 1953–59, 1963–65, MLMSS 2385, K53635 item 14, K53621 item 4, Y4709 item 9, SLNSW; Sheena Coupe, A Healthy Memorial: History of the Ryde Hospital, Ryde Hospital and Ryde-Hunters Hill Area Health Service, Eastwood, NSW, 1984, pp. 35–6, 49, 58; Ryde District Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, Annual report, 1939–40, pp. 11–12; Ryde Recorder, 30 Apr. 1985, p. 5; Kevin Dring, A History of Ryde City Bowling Club, Palaban, West Ryde, NSW, 1998, pp. 19, 82; The editor acknowledges the assistance of John F. Diews, honorary secretary, Ryde District RSL sub-branch; Northern District Times (Syd.), 21 Apr. 1993, p. 12; CPD, 16 Apr. 1985, p. 1021.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 399-404.

ANDERSON, Sir Kenneth McColl (1909–1985)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1953–75

Minister for Customs and Excise, 1964–68

Minister for Supply, 1968–71

Minister for Health, 1971–72

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1968–72

New South Wales Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales for Ryde, 1950–53

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1953–62

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1956–64

Select Committee on Road Safety, 1959–60

Standing Orders Committee, 1968–72

Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1969–70

Estimates Committee D, 1973

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1973–75