FINLAY, Alexander (1887–1963)
Senator for South Australia, 1944–53 (Australian Labor Party)

Alexander Finlay, coach painter and union official, was born on 14 November 1887 in South Yarra, Victoria, to Alexander, a painter of Scottish descent, and his wife Florence. When Alexander was still young, the family moved to his mother’s home state of South Australia, to Adelaide. The city would remain his home. He attended Unley Public School until he was twelve (1894–99), took up his father’s trade of coach painting, and, at the age of twenty-two, married Mary Ellen Scroop in Adelaide’s Zion Chapel on 7 October 1910. He was thirty, with three children, when, in May 1918, he enlisted with the AIF. He served in Britain and France with the 10th Battalion before his discharge in September 1919 when he returned to his home in the Adelaide suburb of Bowden.

Finlay appears to have taken a railway job after the war. As well, he joined the Hindmarsh branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia and reinstated his pre-war membership with the Australian Natives’ Association (ANA). From the early 1920s until the mid-1930s he was an active ANA member. He was secretary of the sports subsection of the Hindmarsh branch in 1924, branch representative at board of directors meetings in 1927, and from 1934 held, at state level, the jobs of joint vice-president (1934) and chief president (1934–35).[1]

In the early 1920s Finlay joined the Australian Coachmakers Employees’ Federation, then an increasingly significant union due to the development after the war of the motor vehicle body-building industry in Adelaide. Taking on the branch tasks of minute secretary and treasurer in 1924, he became state organiser (1928–34), acting federal secretary (1929), federal council delegate (1927–33), and federal president (probably between 1929 and 1934). He was an experienced advocate when he was elected general secretary of the South Australian branch in 1934. Finlay, who would serve nine years in the position, replaced an incumbent of nearly thirty years, at a time when many of the union’s members were out of work with little chance of paying union dues. With a somewhat paternalistic style (not out of keeping with the union’s history), he and his executive maintained workers’ rights by entering into strike-free agreements—sweetheart deals—with General Motors-Holden’s (formed in 1931 as a result of the merger between Holden’s Motor Body Builders and General Motors Australia).[2]

The Coachmakers’ Federation, from 1938 the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation (VBEF), was closely aligned to the Labor Party and a traditional source for the party of ‘safe seat’ political candidates. Finlay stood unsuccessfully for Senate preselection for Labor in 1937 and 1939. In 1940 he gained a place on the Labor Senate ticket but was defeated at the election. At the 1943 election he shared the party’s ticket (in third place) with state ALP President Sid O’Flaherty and the secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council, T. M. Nicholls. All three were elected, Labor not only winning government but gaining its first majority in the Senate since 1914, following the success of John Curtin’s election strategy of running on the single issue of postwar reconstruction. Finlay resigned as VBEF secretary in March 1944, but continued to act for the union in an advisory capacity for some months, before taking up his Senate seat.[3]

Not long after his arrival in the Senate in July 1944 Finlay joined, at the invitation of the Liberal Party’s Senator Brand, an informal parliamentary committee of returned soldiers. In 1943 Brand had successfully proposed an amendment to the Australian Soldiers Repatriation Act to provide for employment preference for ex-servicemen who had served abroad. In November 1944 (with the gallery filled with returned soldiers, ‘many sick and disabled’), Brand used the adjournment debate to accuse the Curtin Government of reneging on election promises made to ex-servicemen on employment preference. Finlay responded: ‘I am astonished that this discussion has been introduced by Senator Brand, who welcomed me with open arms when I first arrived in the Senate because I was a returned soldier’. Accusing Brand of wrongly ‘drawing a comparison between trade unionists and returned soldiers’, Finlay also revealed his own position: that Australia’s other ‘vast army’, the workers ‘kept’ at home for defence work, should not be disadvantaged by their having remained in Australia in essential industries.[4]

Finlay frequently spoke on behalf of the motor vehicle industry and may have been disappointed that by the time the first Australian-made Holden rolled off the floor of General Motors-Holden’s Fishermen’s Bend plant in Victoria in November 1948, the South Australian industry was in decline. In 1949 he warned against the effects of assembly line production, referring to his 1946 visit to the United States where he had seen ‘each man . . . stand in his place for eight hours every day. If he wanted to leave his work for a few moments, he had to signal a spare man who was walking along the line to come and take his place’. Finlay had undertaken this trip as the Government’s representative to the International Labour Organization meetings on iron and steel and metal trades in Ohio. While in the United States he performed the sad duty of acting as pallbearer at the funeral service for Senator Keane, who had died unexpectedly while in Washington.[5]

In Opposition after the 1949 election, Finlay denounced the Menzies Government’s relegation of ex-servicemen’s issues to a Cabinet subcommittee and criticised the Government’s ‘political’ attitude on repatriation and war gratuities. He also gave notice that he would scrutinise any legislative proposals ‘through the eyes of a trade unionist’. During the debate on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, he asserted that history justified the role of more ‘militant leaders’ and ‘direct action’. Earlier, during the 1940s, he had joined Senators O’Flaherty and Nicholls in contributing to a column in the Workers’ Weekly Herald promoting Labor’s federal policy. In 1951 he became one of the party men who travelled throughout South Australia advocating a ‘no’ vote when the anti-communist issue went to referendum.[6]

Following ill health, Finlay tendered his resignation from the Senate by a letter, dated 11 June 1953, to be effective from 27 June. It was a move that the Clerk of the Senate, J. E. Edwards, found somewhat ‘puzzling’, since Finlay’s term was due to expire on 30 June. It appears that Finlay and some other senators mistakenly believed they were required to resign in order to qualify for a parliamentary pension. After receiving the Clerk’s advice, that the only effect of a resignation would be to deprive him ‘unnecessarily of three days Parliamentary allowance’, Finlay agreed that no further action should be taken and left the Senate at the expiration of his term. He and his wife had already moved to the suburban beachside suburb of Brighton where he could indulge his hobbies of fishing and gardening. He died on 2 March 1963 in Griffith Private Hospital, Brighton, survived by his wife and his children, Murial (Mrs R. Matthias), Joyce (Mrs R. Row) and Reginald. Following a chapel service he was cremated at Centennial Park.[7]

Anne Pyle

[1] Unley Primary School admission register, SRSA; Finlay, A.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; Information provided by John Marshall, RSL, Brighton sub-branch, SA; CPD, 19 Sept. 1944, p. 942; Records of the ANA, SRG 280, Mortlock Library, SLSA.

[2] Information provided by Di Rowe, SA state office, Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union; Advertiser (Adel.), 23 Aug. 1929, p. 12, 19 Apr. 1932, p. 17, 5 Mar. 1934, p. 6, 10 Dec. 1934, p. 12, 15 Dec. 1934, p. 7, 21 Jan. 1935, p. 10, 24 Dec. 1935, p. 16; John Wanna, ‘The History of Organisational Development in the South Australian Coachmakers (Vehicle Builders) Union’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no. 15, 1987, pp. 143–57.

[3] Workers’ Weekly Herald (Adel.), 12 Feb. 1937, p. 1, 11 Aug. 1939, p. 1, 20 Sept. 1940, p. 2, 23 July 1943, p. 1; Advertiser (Adel.), 27 July 1943, p. 3, 31 July 1943, p. 5, 12 Aug. 1943, p. 6; VBEF, SA Branch, Annual Report, 1943, NLA; Workers’ Weekly Herald (Adel.), 10 Mar. 1944, p. 1.

[4] CPD, 19 July 1944, pp. 160–3, 30 Nov. 1944, pp. 2403–5; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929–1949, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1963, p. 139.

[5] CPD, 7 Aug. 1946, pp. 3844–5; Photograph, Prime Minister Chifley at the launching of the first mass-produced Australian car, A1200, L84254, NAA; John Wanna, ‘The Motor Vehicle Industry in South Australia to 1945’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no. 13, 1985, pp. 139–44; CPD, 6 Oct. 1949, pp. 1004–5; Argus (Melb,.), 5 Apr. 1946, p. 3; SMH, 8 Apr. 1946, p. 5; CPD, 20 June 1946, p. 1641.

[6] CPD, 16 Mar. 1950, pp. 852–9, CPP, Joint Committee on War Gratuity, report on the War Gratuity Act, 1948; CPD, 11 July 1951, p. 1303, 6 Oct. 1949, p. 1007, 7 June 1950, pp. 3801–4; Workers’ Weekly Herald (Adel.), 7 Sept. 1945, p. 3 and subsequent issues; Jim Moss, Sound of Trumpets: History of the Labour Movement in South Australia, Wakefield Press, Netley, SA, 1985, p. 374; Herald (Adel.), 7 Sept. 1951, p. 4.

[7] Senate Registry File, A8161, S94, NAA; Advertiser (Adel.), 4 Mar. 1963, pp. 7, 28; Herald (Adel.), Mar. 1963, p. 7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 299-301.

FINLAY, Alexander (1887–1963)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1944–53

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on War Gratuity, 1945–48

Joint Standing Committee on Broadcasting, 1946–49

Select Committee on the Constitution Alteration (Avoidance of Double Dissolution Deadlocks) Bill, 1950