CORMACK, Sir Magnus Cameron (1906–1994)
Senator for Victoria, 1951–53, 1962–78 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Magnus Cameron Cormack was born on 12 February 1906 at Wick, Scotland, eldest of five children of William Petrie Cormack, a medical practitioner, and his wife Violet, née Cameron. The family migrated to South Australia in about 1912, their destination influenced by Dr Cormack’s health, and by the presence in Adelaide of his cousin, Senator Sir Josiah Symon. The family first lived on the Eyre Peninsula, south of Whyalla. Dr Cormack worked as a railway workers’ surgeon, later setting up a ‘struggling’ general practice. Taught by his father how to find moisture in an environment ‘where to be without water was to perish’, Magnus received his formal education in Scotland, then at Tumby Bay State School, and later at St Peter’s College, Adelaide. He paid his parents for the debts they incurred in sending him to St Peter’s by working as a production manager with Holden in Adelaide from 1926 to 1931, after which he took up farming and grazing. Of farming, he said: ‘I had three dairy farms, and I lost money on every one of them, so I claim to know something about dairying’. By 1934, together with his brothers, John and William, he was a grazier at the property Koijak, Apsley, in the Wimmera district of Victoria. [1]

On 22 November 1935 Magnus married Mary Isabel (Mavis) Macmeikan, a divorcee, at the Melbourne Registrar’s Office. They had four children. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Cormack joined the Australian Military Forces. In August 1942 he enlisted in the AIF, giving his religion as Church of England. He served in New Guinea (1943–44), where he attained the rank of major and was mentioned in despatches. During his absence Mavis ran Koijak. Like many others, he attributed the development of his political interests to his experience of the ‘social struggles’ of the Depression, and to his army service, during which he found ‘intellectual stimulus’ at the Australian Staff College. In fact, he had been a member of the Young Nationalists from the age of twenty-one, and in any case politics was ‘in his blood’, his maternal grandfather, John MacDonald Cameron, having been a member of the House of Commons. A true ‘British Australian’, in 1948 Cormack described the British Empire as ‘the greatest force for the maintenance of Western civilisation in the world to-day’, while urging the renewal of ‘an Australian sentiment, an Australian nationalism’.

Cormack joined the Liberal Party in 1946. As the organiser of the campaign that saw the defeat of long-serving Victorian Labor MLA and minister, William Slater, at the 1947 state election, Cormack was recruited by the then Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, R. G. Menzies, and the future Minister for External Affairs, R. G. Casey, to the federal party’s policy committee, becoming its chief fund-raiser. President of the Victorian Liberal Party from 1948 to 1949, Cormack ‘stood in no awe of politicians’. He was said to have been ‘largely responsible’ for breaking the Country Party’s influence in Victorian politics, and for the preselection of ex-servicemen who entered the federal Parliament in 1949, including a personal friend, John Gorton. Having deliberately passed up the ready option of a safe seat, he contested the marginal electorate of Fawkner for the House of Representatives, at the federal election of 10 December 1949, losing by just twenty-seven votes.[2]

Cormack was elected to the Senate at the double dissolution election of 28 April 1951. Remarkably, this also happened to be the only time in his life that he voted against the Liberal Party in an election. The central issue of the poll was the Government’s Communist Party Dissolution Bill, which Cormack did not support. He told Menzies, ‘You can’t exterminate an idea by Draconian law’. In the Senate Cormack annoyed the Government as well as the Labor Opposition by warning that the expansion of the Commonwealth Public Service, engineered through the ‘greedy fingers’ of an unaccountable Public Service Board, would ‘destroy’ the country. He antagonised the Country Party, and was ‘openly critical’ of Menzies, now Prime Minister. In 1953 Speaker Archie Cameron made disparaging remarks about the ‘curse’ of free air travel, which, he said, encouraged parliamentarians to avoid their duties and rush away from Canberra. Cormack (who had been chosen as one of the representatives of the Senate at the impending coronation of Queen Elizabeth) took umbrage at criticism from ‘another place’, interpreting the Speaker’s comments as part of a continuing attempt to ‘menace the rights of the Senate’, and to demean its status with the House of Representatives.[3]

Defeated in 1953, he again failed narrowly in 1955. In 1953 he also sought preselection for the blue-ribbon seat of Wannon in the House of Representatives, losing the preselection to a youthful Malcolm Fraser. At this time, political journalist Don Whitington described Cormack as probably ‘the unluckiest man in post-war Australian politics’. Three years later, he was defeated in a preselection contest for a casual Senate vacancy by George Hannan. Returning to the Senate in 1962, Cormack embarked upon the most fruitful period of his political life. His continuing role as an effective behind-the-scenes operator was combined with a new public role as champion of the rights of Parliament against executive power, and as a pioneer of a revitalised committee system. In 1964 he was offended by the Government’s attempts to ‘streamline’ the consideration of appropriation measures by the Senate, and by so doing limit that house’s power of amendment, commenting: ‘we start to cut away the roots of parliamentary forms of government when the Crown decides the methods by which money should be voted for the service of the Crown or the Government’. His priorities were clear: ‘I am here not to succumb to the blandishment of office or of party. I am here to do my duty to see that the will of Parliament is respected and that its integrity is not sullied’.

As chairman of a government senators’ committee appointed to examine the appropriation bills, Cormack was the ‘original architect’ of the ‘1965 compact’, an agreement between the Government and the Senate ensuring that the Senate would retain the right to amend expenditure beyond ‘the ongoing annual services of government’. Cormack remained a persistent advocate of Parliament’s right to determine its own appropriations by means of a separate appropriation bill, a goal not achieved until 1982, four years after he left the Senate.

Cormack’s public reputation was made by his chairmanship, from 1970 to 1971, of the Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange. The committee’s determined probings into financial malpractices during the mining boom resulted in the publication of a ‘monumental’ report, described by the Age as ‘probably the most incisive, impressive and influential document the Senate has ever produced’, while the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that Cormack’s findings had given the Senate a ‘new dimension in public affairs’. The committee would owe much to the work of Cormack’s successor, Senator Peter Rae, but Cormack had set the machine in motion. Cormack chaired the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs from 1967 to 1969, and the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence from 1976 to 1978. From 1967 to 1968 he chaired a select committee investigation into container shipping. He was appointed KBE in 1970 for long political and public service.[4]

Cormack once said: ‘My nine years out of politics made me think what’s wrong with the parliamentary system and what was wrong with the Senate’. He concluded that the Senate had degenerated into a ‘parody’ of the lower house. Its true role was as a buffer against strong, centralised government, a place for parliamentarians as opposed to politicians. The Senate’s function was to ‘see, maintain, observe, overlook and supervise … to impose a delay when necessary’. Cormack’s suspicion of the ‘monster’ of executive power found vivid expression in 1971, when he described his own party’s plan to enlarge the ministry as ‘a step towards the prostitution of parliamentary rule’. When seeking the Senate presidency in August 1971, he sent letters not only to government senators, but also to senators from other parties. He wished to present himself ‘as a man of the Senate rather than a party man’.[5]

Cormack was proud of his role in rejuvenating the Senate through its committee system. His interest in the potentialities of a committee system went back to 1953, when he spent six weeks in Washington observing the operation of congressional committees. He believed that the work of the Select Committee on Securities and Exchange had given the Senate ‘a new awareness of its importance and the role it must perform’. His bipartisan approach involved him in ‘many interesting conversations on the question of Senate committees’ with another pioneer in the field, Labor senator Lionel Murphy. He was not an uncritical admirer of the American Senate, nor an unrestrained advocate of the power of the Australian Senate. He believed the former body was ‘not all that it is cracked up to be’ and had claimed executive powers that it should not have. As for the Australian Senate, it was not the house where electoral mandates were maintained and it should avoid ‘over-stepping the mark’ by precipitating an unwinnable ‘headlong clash’ with the House of Representatives. These views, expressed in 1971, were modified during the supply crisis of 1974, when Cormack argued that the Senate was constitutionally entitled to ‘bring under control’ a government that had exceeded its powers. In 1977 he told the Senate, in a somewhat ambivalent statement, that he ‘did not agree with the events that took place in 1974’. Nevertheless, he was very much a part of those events. In August 1974, Cormack, together with Country Party senator James Webster, unsuccessfully challenged the legality of the first joint sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament. The High Court, in a unanimous decision, declined to intervene in the legislative process.[6]

Cormack’s selection as government nominee for the presidency of the Senate in August 1971 was unexpected. His victory over the favoured candidate, Reg Withers, was described as a ‘backlash’ against the sacking of Cormack’s ally, former prime minister John Gorton, from the McMahon Cabinet. Cormack was duly elected President, defeating the Opposition candidate, Justin O’Byrne, by five votes. As President, Cormack envisaged the Senate shedding procedures that were ‘basically a copy of the House of Representatives’, and instead functioning ‘largely as a committee chamber’. He said that the work of committees ‘took the Senate into the undiscerned area of where executive power should end and Parliament come in’. The degree of his commitment to the Senate committee system left him open to criticism. He responded to calls for the protection of witnesses appearing before Senate committees by deploring ‘any reflections on the conduct of Senate committees which may tend to obstruct them in the performance of their functions, the high objective of which is to serve the public interest’. This statement was labelled ‘mere verbiage’ by the Sydney Morning Herald.[7]

Cormack presided over an evenly balanced Senate in much the same way as he had presided over committees—‘firmly, despite an appearance of casualness’. Labor’s Senator Wheeldon acknowledged his ‘conspicuous’ courtesy and ‘completely non-partisan’ manner. Cormack was disturbed by the increasing number of wordy ‘Dorothy Dix’ questions to ministers, observing that Question Time was ‘degenerating into a propaganda forum’. He declared it to be his intention ‘to see that Question Time in future functions on the basis on which it was devised’. There was a long-standing issue on ministers’ right to terminate Question Time. When Cormack ruled in 1973 that ministers did not have to move a motion to terminate questions, he faced strong and public disagreement from members of his own party, although they were careful not to move a formal motion of dissent. Cormack refused to recognise ‘Assistant Ministers’ and would not allow questions to be directed to them: ‘You would direct your question to someone who does not exist’.[8]

He was ‘appalled’ by the way the Opposition ‘hounded’ Attorney-General Murphy in Question Time. Cormack sought to prevent the use of what he described as ‘racist terms’ in debate, deprecating one senator’s reference to ‘black people and white people’. His rulings faced only one formal challenge. Senator Murphy dissented unsuccessfully from a ruling that allowed ministers to curtail debate by moving that the bill be considered an urgent bill. In keeping with his long-held views on parliamentary autonomy, in 1971 Cormack initiated an enquiry into ways in which parliamentary appropriations could be authorised without going through Treasury and Cabinet. In 1968 he had stated, in relation to appropriations, that Parliament was a ‘unique institution … not like any ordinary Government department’.[9]

Cormack was at the centre of events during the ‘Gair affair’, a brief flurry of political intrigue, which commenced with the announcement by the Whitlam Government in April 1974 that the Democratic Labor Party’s Senator V. C. Gair had accepted an appointment as Australian Ambassador to Ireland, and ended nine days later with the simultaneous dissolution of the two houses. Gair’s controversial ambassadorship would have created a sixth Queensland Senate vacancy, and a likely gain for the Government at the forthcoming federal election in May. Whitlam’s scheme was thwarted when the Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, caused the writs for the election of only five senators for Queensland to be issued on 2 April, the same day as Gair’s appointment but before he had submitted his resignation to Cormack. When Gair’s letter to Cormack arrived on 3 April, Cormack informed the Senate that he did not consider it to be one of ‘resignation’, but ‘appointment’, and ruled that the question of the date of Gair’s resignation was a matter to be determined by the Senate. The debate, and tabling of documents that followed, became increasingly legalistic and pedantic, and the affair came to an end with the dissolution of both houses. On 11 April Cormack closed what has been described as ‘the most turbulent Senate sitting since Federation’, with the words, ‘Farewell, and I shall see you on the fields of Philippi’.[10]

He was not to enjoy the privileges of office for much longer. These had included an unusual one of his own making: at the end of long sitting days, an attendant would approach the President’s chair with what appeared to be a tumbler of water, but was known to be a strong gin and tonic. With the opening of Parliament after the 18 May election following the simultaneous dissolution, it was assumed that he would narrowly defeat Labor’s perennial challenger, Justin O’Byrne. In fact, Cormack lost to O’Byrne by two votes. One coalition senator (believed to be a disappointed presidential aspirant) had voted for O’Byrne. Cormack, although described as ‘bruised and bewildered’, claimed not to be surprised, ‘I could feel the evil … I knew it would happen’. The defeated President claimed that he had ‘tried to protect Parliament against the brutality of numbers, the growing strength of the executive’.[11]

He continued to play the role of Liberal kingmaker. Fred Daly gave him the nickname the ‘Godfather’ after Cormack’s well-publicised if ambiguous role in the Liberal leadership battle of 1975. Billy Snedden’s removal as leader of the party was planned at a private meeting in Cormack’s Toorak flat over ‘steaks, chicken and Cormack’s claret’. Cormack was a mentor of Andrew Peacock, and even after his retirement from Parliament he was involved in an abortive attempt to install Peacock as party leader in place of Malcolm Fraser. Urbane, eloquent—if sometimes orotund—and a devotee of historical biography (Lincoln fascinated him), Cormack was a solidly built, silver-haired man with craggy ‘Mount Rushmore’ features. He was described by journalist Alan Reid as ‘unobtrusively well groomed and with the faintly casual manner of a man of distinction. A manipulator of some eminence, Cormack … operated in a quiet, gentlemanly fashion. But he was as ruthless as any of his coarser mannered colleagues’.[12]

Not everyone was impressed by Cormack’s patrician style. One writer disparaged him as a ‘pompous and condescending’ bore, while Labor senator James McClelland once responded to abuse from Cormack with the taunt: ‘All you are, Sir Bogus Comeback, is a jumped-up jackeroo’. Journalist Patrick Tennison noted that Cormack had a reputation as ‘a sort of Champagne Charlie of politics’ because of his ‘natural cavalier’ approach to life. However, Tennison was sympathetic: ‘Whether it is wining and dining, raising Liberal Party funds or … probing share dealings, he does everything not only well but with bravura thoroughness. “Bring the best white wine you have in the place”, he will tell a waiter. As in a restaurant, so in the Senate’.

Cormack did not mellow during his final years in the Senate. In 1976 he suggested that governments had failed to take sufficient notice of the work of estimates committees. ‘Unless Parliament controls money’, he said, ‘Parliament is nothing’. Next year he was one of eleven Liberal senators who crossed the floor to vote against a Government motion to speed up the passage of four referendum proposals, which included provision for simultaneous elections for both houses of Parliament and for the filling of casual vacancies by members of the same party. He described the motion as ‘the opening attack … on the Senate by the government’. Cormack served as chairman of the ‘No’ vote campaign against the referendum proposals. He focused his anger on the proposal for simultaneous elections, describing it as a ‘fraud and a deceit’ that would emasculate the Senate and lead to its abolition. The simultaneous elections initiative was defeated. When Cormack retired from the Senate in June 1978, Labor’s Senator Wheeldon commented, ‘I do not think there has been a greater exponent of the rights of the Parliament’.[13]

Cormack was a passionate sailor. He often wrote lyrically of days spent at sea in his yacht, the Tainui. Towards the end of his life he wrote sadly:

About this time of the year, my mind turns to my loved ship, to ride the turbulent waves; to anchor in the lee of the white beaches; to catch some fish; to sleep to the cry of the curlews, the growl of the anchor chain; to see the blazing stars through the hatch above my bunk—but preferably alone. But … I can never go to sea again alone. Thus, does old age have its revenge.[14]

After years of serious illness Cormack died in Melbourne on 26 November 1994, survived by his children. In a letter to the Clerk of the Senate, written in 1969, he had requested that at his death ‘no market place post-mortem panegyrics’ be made in the Senate. His wishes were observed, although appropriately a memorial service was held in Old Parliament House. In 1988 the Cormack Foundation was established by several prominent Victorian Liberals to fund organisations committed to free enterprise. Cormack would probably not be remembered as one of the outstanding parliamentarians of his time had he succeeded in entering the House of Representatives. His best qualities—his stubborn individualism, the sense of history that made him acutely sensitive to executive encroachment on the rights of Parliament, and his determination to revive the constructive role of the legislature through the committee system—could, at that time, only find full expression in the Senate.[15]

Geoffrey Browne

[1] Australian (Syd.), 20 May 1971, p. 9; Senate Registry File, A8161, S58, NAA; Review (Syd.), 27 Aug. 1971, p. 1295.

[2] Cormack, Magnus Cameron—Defence Service Record, B883, VX108016, NAA; Ian Hancock, National and Permanent? The Federal Organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia, 1944–1965, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 102, 106, 235–6; Australian (Syd.), 20 May 1971, p. 9; Peter Aimer, Politics, Power and Persuasion: The Liberals in Victoria, James Bennett, East Hawthorn, Vic., 1974, p. 166; Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 43; Review (Syd.), 27 Aug. 1971, p. 1295; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 17 Aug. 1971, p. 17.

[3] Sir Magnus Cormack, Transcript of oral history interview with Tony Hannan, 1987, POHP, TRC 4900/39, NLA, pp. 3:2–3; CPD, 1 Oct. 1952, pp. 2419–20; Whitington, Ring the Bells, p. 43; CT, 12 Mar. 1953, p. 1; CPD, 12 Mar. 1953, p. 944, 7 Mar. 1967, p. 296.

[4] Philip Ayres, Malcolm Fraser: A Biography, William Heinemann Australia, Richmond, Vic., 1987, pp. 54–7; Whitington, Ring the Bells, p. 43; CPD, 5 May 1964, p. 1068; Australian (Syd.), 17 Aug. 1973, p. 8; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 4th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1972, p. 331; Age (Melb.), 19 July 1974, p. 9; SMH, 1 Dec. 1994, p. 10.

[5] Australian (Syd.), 20 May 1971, p. 9; CPD, 19 Oct. 1967, p. 1417, 7 Mar. 1967, pp. 298–9; SMH, 1 Dec. 1994, p. 10; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 17 Aug. 1971, p. 17.

[6] CPD, 15 Mar. 1971, pp. 504–5; SMH, 17 Aug. 1971, p. 10; Peter Rae, ‘The “Revolutionary Proposals” of 1970’, Papers on Parliament, no. 12, Sept. 1991, pp. 10–20; CPD, 7 Mar. 1967, p. 297; CT, 23 Apr. 1974, p. 12; CPD, 24 Feb. 1977, p. 394; Cormack v. Cope (1974) 131 CLR 432.

[7] G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australias Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 43; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 Aug. 1971, p. 1; CT, 16 Oct. 1971, p. 11; CPD, 28 Oct. 1971, p. 1543; SMH, 29 Oct. 1971, p. 6.

[8] Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 17 Aug. 1971, p. 17; CPD, 1 June 1978, p. 2229, 9 Sept. 1971, p. 583; CT, 11 Sept. 1971, p. 2; CPD, 27 Mar. 1973, pp. 567–9, 29 Mar. 1973, pp. 712–15, 735–6, 13 Dec. 1973, p. 2778; Age (Melb.), 7 Oct. 1971, p. 12; CPD, 8 Sept. 1971, p. 517, 6 Oct. 1971, p. 1158; Age (Melb.), 9 Sept. 1971, p. 13.

[9] CPD, 10 Apr. 1973, p. 939; Paul Kelly, November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia’s Greatest Political Crisis, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1995, p. 46; CPD, 21 Nov. 1973, p. 2020; CT, 24 Nov. 1973, p. 2; CPD, 14 Sept. 1972, pp. 835–8; Reid and Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, pp. 365, 404; Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 4th edn, p. 331.

[10] J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, pp. 43–5; Alan Reid, The Whitlam Venture, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1976, pp. 104–7; Peter Blazey and Andrew Campbell, The Political Dice Men, Outback Press, Fitzroy, Vic., 1974, pp. 78–81; CPD, 3 Apr. 1974, pp. 634–40, 4 Apr. 1974, pp. 660–1; Kelly, November 1975, p. 60; CPD, 11 Apr. 1974, p. 934.

[11] Australian (Syd.), 7 Dec. 1994, p. 15; SMH, 10 July 1947, pp. 1, 3; Age (Melb.), 10 July 1974, pp. 1, 3.

[12] Australian (Syd.), 11 Apr. 1975, p. 4; Ayres, Malcolm Fraser, p. 246; Paul Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1976, p. 137; Russell Schneider, The Colt from Kooyong, Andrew Peacock: A Political Biography, A & R, Sydney, 1981, pp. 23–7, 66–7; Jim Carey and Toni McCrae, Peacock M.P., Rigby, Adelaide, 1982, pp. 50–3; Nation Review (Melb.), 8 Feb. 1979, p. 308; Alan Reid Papers, MS 7796, box 1, NLA; Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1971, pp. 354, 358–9.

[13] Nation Review (Melb.), 25–31 Oct. 1974, p. 37; Clyde Cameron, The Cameron Diaries, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1990, p. 673; Australian (Syd.), 20 May 1971, p. 9; CPD, 3 Nov. 1976, p. 1567; Age (Melb.), 4 Nov. 1976, p. 3, 23 Feb. 1977, pp. 1, 3; CPD, 22 Feb. 1977, p. 245; Mercury (Hob.), 11 May 1977, p. 11; CT, 2 June 1978, p. 8; Australian (Syd.), 2 June 1978, p. 2; CPD, 1 June 1978, pp. 2228–9.

[14] Reg Withers, Memorial service for Cormack, Senate chamber, Old Parliament House, 9 Dec. 1994, Senate Registry File, A8161, S58, NAA.

[15] Senate Registry File, A8161, S58, NAA; Herald Sun (Melb.), 30 Nov. 1994, p. 10; Sunday Age (Melb.), 18 Feb. 1996, ‘Election 96’, p. 4; CPD, 10 June 1978, pp. 2781–7.

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. 33-40.

CORMACK, Sir Magnus Cameron (1906–1994)

Parliamentary Library

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Victoria, 1951–53, 1962–78

President of the Senate, 1971–74

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1962–65

Standing Orders Committee, 1962–78

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1965–71

Committee of Privileges, 1967–68

Select Committee on the Container Method of Handling Cargoes, 1967–68

Estimates Committee A, 1970–71

Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, 1970–71

Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, 1971

House Committee, 1971–74

Library Committee, 1971–74

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1971–74, 1976–77

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1974–75

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1974–75

Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System, 1974–76

Standing Committee on National Development and Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1975

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1976–78