DUFFY, Charles Cashel Gavan (1855–1932)
Clerk of the Senate, 1917–20

Charles Cashel Gavan Duffy, the third Clerk of the Senate, made a notable contribution to the work of the early federal parliaments. He was born on 27 August 1855 at Blackrock, near Dublin, the second son of Charles Gavan Duffy and his second wife, Susan, née Hughes. He came to Australia with his parents in 1856 but returned to Britain in 1865, where he attended Stonyhurst, a Jesuit college in Lancashire, subsequently completing his schooling at St Patrick’s College, Melbourne. In 1871, he joined the Victorian public service as private secretary to his father, then premier of Victoria, and subsequently became secretary to four of his father’s successors.

In 1878, the son transferred to the staff of the Legislative Assembly as Clerk of Committees and Clerk of Private Bills. He was also again private secretary to his father, who was now Speaker and resisting Government attempts to purge the public service of appointments made by the previous government. Young Duffy graduated LLB from the University of Melbourne in 1880 and was admitted to the Bar the following year, but never practised. Also in 1880, after his father’s retirement, he was appointed Assistant at the Table of the Legislative Assembly. Nine years later, he became second Clerk-Assistant and in 1891 Clerk-Assistant. In 1894, he was secretary to the Victorian royal commission on constitutional reform, working with Alfred Deakin, Isaac Isaacs and George Turner. He acted as Assistant Clerk to the Melbourne meeting of the Australasian Federal Convention in 1898, for which he was paid, as a bonus, the equivalent of two months’ salary. On 16 March 1897, Duffy worked all night with Robert Garran, committing, in the latter’s words, ‘frightful breaches of the Factories Act’, to have the final schedule of amendments to the draft Constitution printed and proofed for the last day of meeting.[1]

In January 1901, Duffy was appointed Clerk-Assistant of the Senate, which entailed a small reduction in salary. He was spared financial disadvantage when George Jenkins (the Clerk of the Victorian Legislative Assembly and secretary of the Australasian Federation Conference in Melbourne in 1890) declined appointment as Clerk of the House of Representatives. Duffy prompted the Victorian Speaker and the Chairman of Committees to write to the federal Speaker, Frederick Holder, supporting his claims to the clerkship as the senior of the two Clerks-Assistant of the Federal Parliament. On the recommendation of Holder, but by the decision of Prime Minister Barton, Duffy was appointed Clerk of the House of Representatives on 8 July 1901.

Duffy established his Commonwealth credentials during the long and exacting tariff debates of 1902, and the CMG he was awarded in 1904 reflected regard for that, and possibly for his work with the 1898 federal convention. He had contributed to the literature of his profession with his Victorian Speakers’ Rulings and an Index to the Principal Resolutions Passed by the Victorian Legislative Assembly and was already an authority on procedure. The ‘Regulations for the Inter-State Press Gallery’, which he drew up in 1901, prescribing access by Speaker’s pass, strict silence, no conversation with members during proceedings, no standing in passages, no reading, and minimal disturbance, were the foundation on which the Gallery’s privileges largely appear to have rested until they were reformulated in 1966 by its then senior figure, Alan Reid.[2]

Duffy was acutely conscious of parliamentary propriety. When the printing committees of the two chambers were taking evidence in 1902 with a view to reducing expenditure, he was cautious about expressing his own views until reassured by the Presiding Officers. On the other hand, when he gave evidence in 1908 to the joint select committee on parliamentary powers, privileges, or immunities, he advocated, in cases of breach of parliamentary privilege, trial before a judge sitting without a jury. Attempts by the Victorian Parliament to deal with such matters had met with ‘very little success as a rule’, he said. He thought it work that Parliament ‘is not efficient to perform, and . . . generally gives rise to considerable unpleasantness and ill-feeling’. In its report, the committee recommended Duffy’s suggested procedure, but it was not adopted.[3]

A severe test of his procedural grasp and presence of mind occurred on 28 July 1909, when the House was electing a new Speaker following the death of Sir Frederick Holder. The Opposition, objecting to a government meeting held earlier to pick a candidate, initiated a debate. From the Clerk’s chair, Duffy directed the call until a motion to adjourn the debate produced a tied vote. Duffy declared that he would not take responsibility for stopping the debate and exercised a casting vote with the ‘noes’. It was raised as a point of order that the Clerk could not vote. Duffy held that if he had not exercised a casting vote the motion would, for want of a majority, have failed anyway, and explained that he relied on the standing order that authorised the Clerk to act as chairman of the House prior to the election of a Speaker. After Speaker Salmon was elected, the Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, thanked Duffy for ‘the able manner in which he discharged his duties under extremely trying conditions, which it was impossible for him to foresee, and prepare for’.

During the extended sitting hours of 1910–11, when the House debated the Land Tax Assessment Bills and the tariff, Duffy became seriously ill. Forced to take leave at the end of 1911, he did not resume duty until the following year. In July 1915, the Fisher Government established a joint, bipartisan parliamentary war committee of which Duffy was secretary. The committee, intended to advise on matters referred to it by the executive, received nosubstantial reference until April 1916, when its recommendations on improving recruitment by means other than  conscription were rejected. The committee’s most important subsequent work related to repatriation.[4]

On the basis of seniority, Duffy could have expected to succeed Blackmore to the Senate clerkship, which, with its honorific of Clerk of the Parliaments, was thought the more prestigious post. Strict adherence to seniority may have also transferred the House’s Clerk-Assistant, Walter Gale, to the Senate, but the Speaker was unwilling to lose both table officers. In the event, Charles Boydell, the Senate Clerk-Assistant, leapfrogged Duffy, the awkward question of primacy overcome by allowing the title, Clerk of the Parliaments, to fall into abeyance. When, at the end of 1916, Boydell in turn retired, it may have been Duffy who made ‘urgent representations’ to President Givens that led the President to decide that promotion should be in accordance with seniority within the whole Parliament. Twitted in the press for the pursuit of status, Duffy was appointed on 1 February 1917. There was no additional salary, but Duffy was said to have reached the ‘Ultima Thule’ of his parliamentary career.[5]

Duffy died on 23 February 1932 in Ormington Private Hospital, South Yarra, and after a requiem mass at St Joseph’s was interred in the Boroondara Cemetery, Kew. At Maffra in Gippsland, on 18 April 1893, he had married Ella McLean, daughter of Allan McLean, subsequently the coalition partner of George Reid in the Reid–McLean federal Ministry of 1904–05. Duffy’s wife had predeceased him in 1930. There was one child of the marriage, Charles Allan Gavan, who became a surgeon and moved to England.

Duffy had reached the top of his profession. While Punch obliquely and unfairly contrasted his achievements with those of his brothers, notably Frank Gavan who became Chief Justice of the High Court, and his half-brothers, John Gavan and George, those whom he served in the Parliament knew what was his due. In May 1920, President Givens, in anticipation of Duffy’s retirement in August, wrote to the Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, strongly recommending that the Clerk receive a knighthood. While this did not eventuate, Givens referred to Duffy’s length of service, his work with the federal convention and with the federal parliamentary war committee; also his son’s service in the AIF. In the Senate valedictories to Duffy, George Pearce said that the Clerk had done ‘all that any man could do . . . to provide the necessary oil for the smooth working of the parliamentary machinery’.[6]

G. A. Mawer

[1] Punch (Melbourne), 15 February 1917, p. 244; VPP, Report of the royal commission on constitutional reform, 1894; Robert Randolph Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, A & R, Sydney, 1958, p. 122.

[2] G. S. Reid Papers, MS 8371, NLA; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 400–401; C. Gavan Duffy (comp.), Speakers’ Rulings, 1856–7 to 1893, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1894; Index to the Principal Resolutions Passed, and Motions Negatived, Withdrawn, and Lapsed in the Legislative Assembly of Victoria, 1864–5 to 1898; also Returns Ordered, 1878–1897, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898; CPD, 8 February 1917, pp. 10308–10309, 10322, 27 August 1920, p. 3931; Reid and Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament, pp. 444–445.

[3] CPP, Report of the printing committee, 1901; CPP, Report of the joint select committee on parliamentary powers, privileges, or immunities, 1908; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 3rd edn, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1967, p. 462.

[4] A. R. Browning (ed.), House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1989, pp. 201–202; H of R, V & P, 1909, pp. 61–62, 67; CPD, 28 July 1909, p. 1728; Age (Melbourne), 29 July 1909, p. 9; CPD, 21 July 1915, p. 5172, 9 May 1916, pp. 7679–7680, 10 May 1916, p. 7769; CPP, War contribution of Australian troops for active service abroad, 1916.

[5] Reid and Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament, pp. 409–410; CPP, Report of the select committee on Senate officials, 1921; CPD, 8 February 1917, p. 10322; Punch (Melbourne), 15 February 1917, p. 244.

[6] Letter, T. Givens to W. M. Hughes, 29 May 1920, G. S. Reid Papers, MS 8371, NLA; CPD, 27 August 1920, p. 3931; H. A. Finlay, ‘Duffy, Sir Frank Gavan, and Charles Gavan’, ADB, vol. 8.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 386-389.

DUFFY, Charles Cashel Gavan (1855–1932)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Clerk of the Senate, 1917–20

Clerk of the House of Representatives, 1901–17


Victorian Parliament

Department of the Legislative Assembly, 1878–1901