BROINOWSKI, Robert Arthur (1877–1959)
Clerk of the Senate, 1939–42

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn on 1 December 1877, Robert Arthur Broinowski was the sixth of eight children of a Polish immigrant, Gracjusz (Gracius) Broinowski, and his wife, Jane, née Smith. Jane was the daughter of the captain of an English whaler, while Gracius, who at some time used the pseudonym Gracius Browne, was a salesman for the publisher, Hamel and Ferguson, and an artist who produced books of quality lithographs of Australian mammals and birds; his Australian friends included the poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and the young Edmund Barton.

In 1880 the family moved to Sydney where Robert was educated at Milson’s Point Primary School and the newly established Jesuit school, St Aloysius, situated successively at Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills, where his father taught art. The standard of teaching at St Aloysius was variable and harsh physical punishment rife, yet Robert came through with a solid educational grounding, although not with any religious convictions. Two recollections of his youth in Sydney were important to him. In 1885, outside his father’s front door in Macquarie Street, he watched the New South Wales contingent march off to war in the Sudan, and in January 1901 he was among the crowds in Sydney’s Centennial Park when the Governor-General proclaimed the Commonwealth of Australia.[1]

Broinowski’s first job, obtained with the help of Edmund Barton, was as a clerk in the fledgling Department of Defence in Melbourne, which he joined in February 1902, remaining until November 1907, when he became private secretary to the Minister for Defence—working successively for T. T. Ewing (1907-08), Senator Pearce (until 1909), Joseph Cook (1909–10) and again Pearce (1910-11). Broinowski was with Pearce in 1910 when the Minister greeted the first units of the nascent Royal Australian Navy, the destroyers, HMAS Yarra and Parramatta, on their arrival from England.[2]

On 1 March 1911 Broinowski transferred to the position of clerk and shorthand writer in the Department of the Senate. He joined a small group of parliamentary officers, housed in Victoria’s Parliament House and divided between five departments—Senate, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Library, Parliamentary Reporting Staff (Hansard) and Joint House (responsible for amenities and catering). The principal characteristics of the parliamentary bureaucracy were, and remained throughout Broinowski’s career, order, respect for the status quo, a measured progression through the hierarchy, and a heavy emphasis on the importance of apprenticeship. Promotion depended on seniority and knowledge of parliamentary practice.

Broinowski was a committed parliamentary man whose thirty years of service followed this pattern. He was promoted to the position of Clerk of the Papers on 1 July 1915, and to that of Usher of the Black Rod, Clerk of Committees and accountant on 28 August 1920. In early 1927 he transferred with all other parliamentary staff from Melbourne to Canberra. In his capacity as Usher of the Black Rod he took part in the opening of the provisional Parliament House by the Duke of York on 9 May. Rupert Loof remembers the fine, tall figure Broinowski cut in his black trousers and gaiters and lace as Usher of the Black Rod, leading the procession from the House of Representatives into the brand new Senate chamber.

He would continue his career with the Senate for the next sixteen years. As Clerk of Committees, Broinowski acted as secretary to a number of select committees, among them the influential select committee of 1929, which inquired into the creation of an expanded committee system. In December 1930 he was promoted to the senior position of Clerk-Assistant, which carried with it responsibilities for the Joint House Department. He held both positions until 31 December 1938, becoming Clerk of the Senate on 1 January 1939.

The record contains little about his concrete achievements as a parliamentary officer, although his job, particularly as Clerk of the Senate, demanded sound knowledge of procedural and constitutional issues as well as discretion. As he had written to a literary friend, Kate Baker, on 5 September 1917: ‘. . . in the corner where I am, a man must keep out of politics, although he is surrounded by them. I may stand in the centre of the merry-go-round, but I must not ever ride on the horses’.[3] He had also a reputation as a fierce defender of the dignity and forms of the Senate. He was, as Gavin Souter described him in Acts of Parliament, ‘a stickler about formality and propriety . . . a quirky amalgam of sophistication, erudition and severity’. On one memorable Remembrance Day he banished poppy-sellers from the parliamentary precincts. On another occasion he prohibited the playing of ping-pong within Parliament House, thus inspiring C. J. Dennis:

Oh, his brows were wreathed with thunder
as he gazed in stupid wonder,
As he heard the sinful pinging and the
sacrilegious pong.
And he said, ‘Henceforth I ban it. If I
knew who ’twas began it
I would have him drawn and quartered,
for ’tis obviously wrong.’
Then back adown the corridors, unbending
as a god,
Went the adamantine Usher of the Big
Black Rod.

Another portrait of Broinowski, this time as Clerk, came from the pen of Richard Hughes, a Sunday Telegraph journalist, who, in an article in June 1942, criticised the Senate’s disallowance of a regulation permitting the sale of beef from a Melbourne Board of Works farm at Werribee, fertilised by sewage. Hughes called the senators ‘meddlesome’ and the Senate ‘a comfortable Home for Old Men’, presided over by the President but ruled by its Clerk (Broinowski)—‘a thin querulous fellow, with a beaky nose, light, angry eyebrows, and a small wig. He hisses acid instructions and advice to the timid Senators like a bad-tempered stage prompter’. As a result of the article, Hughes and four other Consolidated Press journalists were banned from Parliament House for several months. Then there was the journalist who contrived to have a circus elephant led up the front steps of Parliament House in order to have the beast photographed inside the entrance. The caption alongside the newspaper picture read: ‘An elephant looks at a White Elephant’. The journalist was saved from being expelled from the house by Broinowski when the President of the Senate, Sir Walter Kingsmill, intervened and let him off with a warning over a whisky.[4]

In 1931, as secretary of the Joint House Department (then administratively part of the Senate Department), Broinowski, with strong support from President Kingsmill, initiated through state rose societies and prominent rose growers, a successful campaign to establish rose gardens in the largely barren areas on the Senate and House of Representatives sides of Parliament House. In 1933, supported by the then President, Senator Lynch, he broadened his search for potential donors by approaching organisations such as the Brisbane City Council, Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company, North Sydney Council and the NRMA. Individuals were invited to buy a rose bush and have it planted in Canberra for one shilling and four pence. Broinowski persuaded Enid Lyons and a number of other parliamentary wives to contribute to a ‘Ladies Rose Garden’. He also ensured the planting of trees and bulbs, receiving gifts of bulbs from Holland and Britain, and donations from Canada and the United States. One parliamentarian reputedly set up his beehives among the roses.

Broinowski also thwarted a proposal by Cabinet, conceived in December 1933, to erect the new National Library on the site of the Senate rose garden which, by then, in common with the other gardens near Parliament House, formed part of the National Rose Garden. News of the proposal became public through an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, opposing the plan, which was almost certainly by Broinowski. Acting quickly through the Christmas–New Year period, he enlisted the support of the presiding officers to appeal to Prime Minister Lyons against the decision. Their entreaties were successful and the scheme was dropped.[5]

With the onset of World War II, Broinowski’s duties widened. In July and August 1939 he accompanied the President of the Senate, J. B. Hayes, on a trip to Papua and New Guinea (Broinowski’s only trip outside Australia). He was one of thirteen departmental officers who volunteered for unpaid duty in Canberra to assist the war effort. With parliamentary officials allocated more diverse administrative tasks than in peacetime, in January 1942 Broinowski assisted the Minister for Trade and Customs, Senator R. V. Keane, in investigating possible delays on the waterfront of imported goods intended for war purposes. One of Broinowski’s few forays into writing about parliamentary matters was his analysis in the Journal of the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Empire Parliaments of the question of whether or not the life of the Parliament could be extended if that were deemed necessary during the war. While the matter was discussed briefly in the House of Representatives, no further action was taken.[6]

As Clerk of the Senate, Broinowski defended the principle that the Senate was best served by promoting its own officials, rather than by appointing public servants ‘no matter how efficient and valuable’ they had been in executive departments. He was no less forthright in rejecting executive criticism of Senate expenditure. In the margin of a 28 July 1942 letter from the Prime Minister, John Curtin, to the President of the Senate, James Cunningham, Broinowski wrote: ‘. . . the framed estimates are already drafted with due regard for economy and the necessities of administration. Certain increases were included in view of increased commitments in connection with parliamentary committees etc. These are unavoidable’. Without doubt, Broinowski was uncomfortable with the executive’s increasing domination of Parliament, recalling the ‘first decade of “pure politics” . . . when men mattered more than parties’.

His retirement as Clerk in November 1942 brought expressions of appreciation from senators for the ‘efficiency and courtesy’ with which he had discharged his duties. That he retained his interest in Parliament can be seen from the fact that in 1950, with his successor John Edwards, he gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Constitution Alteration (Avoidance of Double Dissolution Deadlocks) Bill.[7]

Broinowski’s non-parliamentary life was diverse and somewhat complicated. While in Melbourne he had married, at Holy Trinity Church of England, Kew, on 21 February 1906, Grace Creed (Daisy) Evans, a violinist. There were two sons of the marriage, Gracian Robert and Theo Philip. Robert and Grace were divorced on 6 December 1926. Just before the move to Canberra, on 20 April 1927, at 154 Collins Street, Melbourne, Robert married Kathleen Elizabeth Knell. They were to have one daughter, Ruth Elise, who became a senior librarian at the National Library. Robert’s interests were varied, but were focused on literature, especially poetry, and his love of the Australian bush. In Melbourne he contributed to the literary magazine Birth, and edited the Spinner and the poetry page of Stead’s Review. In Canberra, he was president of the original Arts and Literature Society, and donated the Broinowski Cup for the winner of an annual tennis tournament among public servants. He arranged a similar trophy for Canberra hockey players.

After his retirement, Broinowski and his wife and daughter moved to Sydney, where he reviewed books for the Sydney Morning Herald and was an occasional ABC radio broadcaster, joining the panel on 2CH’s ‘Stump the Experts’. He wrote verse and made records of children’s stories and plays for Columbia Records. His skill as a mimic of animal and bird sounds can be heard in his recording of Betty and Byamee the Kangaroo. In Sydney, as in Canberra, he was a prominent member of Rotary. He died at his Lindfield home on 16 August 1959, and, after a service at St David’s Presbyterian Church, Lindfield, was cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, survived by the two sons of his first marriage, and his second wife and daughter. There were many tributes, the Chatswood Rotary Clubdescribing him as ‘a modern Mr Chips’.[8]

Richard Broinowski


[1] The entry draws heavily on Richard Broinowski’s biography of his grandfather, A Witness to History: The Life and Times of Robert Arthur Broinowski, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 2001; A. H. Chisholm, ‘Broinowski, Gracius Joseph’, ADB, vol. 3; Letter, R.A. Broinowski to Mrs N. Francis, 7 Oct. 1924, Broinowski Papers, MS 599, NLA; John R. Thompson, ‘Broinowski, Robert Arthur’, ADB, vol. 7; R. A. Broinowski, ‘Declaration of the Commonwealth’, MS 599, NLA.

[2] R. A. Broinowski—Civil Honour, A463/61, NAA; Broinowski, A Witness to History, p. 45.

[3] Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 18 Mar. 1911, 10 July 1915, 2 Sept. 1920, 16 July 1931, 1 Oct. 1931; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 398–9; CPP, Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, reports, 1930; Broinowski, A Witness to History, pp. 49, 61; Letter, R. A. Broinowski to Kate Baker, 5 Sept. 1917, Baker Papers, MS 2022/1/156, NLA.

[4] Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 262, 351–2;  Herald (Melb.), 17 July 1929, p. 6; CPD, 13 May 1942, pp. 1104, 1131;Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 17 May 1942, p. 21; CT, 3 June 1942, p. 2; Herald (Melb.), 24 June 1942, p. 4; Broinowski, A Witness to History, p. 152.

[5]Greg McIntosh, As It Was In The Beginning: Parliament House in1927, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Legislative Research Service, Canberra, 1988, pp. 2–3;Lionel Wigmore, The Long View: A History of Canberra, Australia’s National Capital, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1963, pp. 140-1; John Gray, Restoration of Old Parliament House Gardens, National Capital Planning Authority, Canberra, 1994, pp. 12-23; Broinowski, A Witness to History, pp. 36–40; SMH, 22 Dec. 1933, p. 8.

[6] Letter, R. A. Broinowski to Senator J. B. Hayes, 19 June 1940 and Memorandum, R. A. Broinowski to Chairman, Commonwealth Public Service Board, 19 June 1940, correspondence file, 1939–1940, Department of the Senate; SMH, 14 Jan. 1942, p. 10; R. A. Broinowski, ‘Commonwealth of Australia: Prolongation of the Fifteenth Parliament’, Journal of the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Empire Parliaments, vol. 9, 1940, pp. 129–32; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 2nd edn, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1959, p. 260.

[7] Letter, Broinowski to Senator J. B. Hayes, 23 March 1939, correspondence file, 1939–1940, Department of the Senate;  Broinowski, A Witness to History, pp. 151–2; R. A. Broinowski, ‘The Precursors’, MS 599, NLA; CPD, 9 Oct. 1942, pp. 1585–6; CPP, Select Committee on the Constitution Alteration (Avoidance of Double Dissolution Deadlocks) Bill, report, 1950; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 1st edn, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1953, pp. 18–19.

[8] Bulletin (Syd.), 26 Aug. 1959, p. 14; Jim Gibbney, Canberra 1913-1953, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, pp. 168, 179; SMH, 18 Aug. 1959, p. 16; Advertiser (Adel.), 18 Aug. 1959, p. 3; Broinowski, A Witness to History, p. 229.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 472-476.

BROINOWSKI, Robert Arthur (1877–1959)

Commonwealth Parliament

Clerk of the Senate, 1939–42

Clerk-Assistant, 1930–38

Usher of the Black Rod, 1920–30

Clerk of the Papers, 1915–20