KEANE, Richard Valentine (1881–1946)
Senator for Victoria, 1938-46 (Australian Labor Party)

Richard Valentine Keane, railways clerk, union leader, Minister for Trade and Customs and Leader of the Government in the Senate, was born at Beechworth, Victoria, on 14 February 1881. He was the son of Timothy Keane, police constable, born in County Kerry, Ireland, and his wife Hanorah, née O’Sullivan, born in County Tipperary. An uncle had fought as a brevet major in the American Civil War. A Roman Catholic, Richard (or Dick, as he was known) was one of the first pupils to be educated at Christian Brothers College, St Kilda. He was the first president of the Old Boys’ Association and remained a prominent member, his last position being that of vice-president. On 1 November 1897, aged sixteen, he began work as a clerk in the Victorian Railways in Bendigo, and over the next twenty-eight years was employed in various clerical positions in the accountancy fie ld. He was soon active in the Australian Railways’ Union (ARU) and the Australian Labor Party. On 9 June 1909 he married Ruby Thorne, a milliner, at St James Roman Catholic Church, Elsternwick.

After holding all leading executive positions in the ARU he resigned his position with the Victorian Railways on 15 May 1925 to take the salaried position of secretary of the union’s Victorian branch, combining the position with that of federal secretary. A supporter of industrial unionism over the old-style craft unions, in 1928 he advocated the merger of the ARU and the Australian Workers’ Union. The Victorian branch of the ARU had earlier been one of the main supporters of One Big Union, a movement that faltered in the early 1920s. Keane was vice-president of the Commonwealth Council of Federated Unions until its absorption into the ACTU, when he became a member of the ACTU Federal Arbitration Committee.[1]

In 1925 he contested Melbourne South for the Legislative Council of the Victorian Parliament, and also in that year, a seat for the Senate. On both counts he was unsuccessful, but in 1929 won the seat of Bendigo for the House of Representatives. Keane, according to the Australian Worker, had proved himself an excellent election campaigner. At this time he was president of the Victorian branch of the ALP. He thus joined the Parliament with experience at the highest levels in both the industrial and political wings of the Labor Party.

But this experience went for little in the hard-pressed Scullin Government which was facing an economic challenge often beyond the understanding of those on the Labor left, such as Keane, to whom the Keynesian economic policies of Treasurer E. T. Theodore were anathema. On 25 June 1931 Keane was one of a splinter group of Labor men in the House who voted against the second reading of the Debt Conversion Agreement Bill, opposing J. B. Chifley’s support for adjustments to rates and allowances in the armed services. Keane, accustomed to frank speaking, said:

I intend to oppose any scheme that aims at the reduction of wages or pension or the expenditure on social services . . . At a time of national crisis should we allow outside experts, who have been called in to advise the Government, to say to the Parliament, ‘That is what you are to do; carry it out?’ That will not satisfy me. I prefer a practical man . . .

Keane, who spoke clearly and well on a range of subjects, but with a leaning towards matters of trade and finance, held Bendigo only until the general election of December 1931. In his presidential address at the Victorian ALP conference in April he had attacked Lyons and others who had left the ALP to form the UAP. He summed up the prevailing political situation by stating that the federal Labor Government was confronted with three ‘sections of thought’—one in New South Wales, another the labour movement and the third the new Lyons movement. He tried again for the seat of Bendigo at the 1934 federal election, but was unsuccessful.[2]

At the 1937 election, while serving a further term as president of the Victorian branch of the ALP (1937–38), he was elected as a senator for Victoria, his term beginning on 1 July 1938. In his first speech in the Senate he described himself as a former head of ‘one of the biggest industrial organizations in Australia—the Railways Union’. Referring to unemployment and current industrial disputes, he discussed also the arbitration system, to which he gave only qualified support. On 26 September he was named as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. He held this position until 20 November 1940 when James Cunningham took over. Keane regained the deputy leader’s position on 1 July 1941 (when Cunningham became President of the Senate) and held it until October. For a time in 1941 he was also a temporary chairman of committees. By the time he entered the Senate, Keane was a widower, Ruby having died leaving two daughters and a son. On 29 April 1940 he married, in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Millicent Dunn, who was employed as a typist.

In his reply to a ministerial statement after the beginning of World War II, Keane reinforced the claim made by the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Collings, that the Labor Party’s platform was to maintain Australia as an integral part of the British Commonwealth of Nations. He was critical of certain appointments made by the Menzies Government, particularly that of Sir Walter Massy-Greene, chairman of the Treasury Finance Committee. He asserted that Massy-Greene’s attendance in the Senate had fallen short. This judgment, though it had some truth, was in fact paltry, as Keane himself confessed.[3]

His concern with the arbitration system continued. Speaking as Minister for Trade and Customs in September 1942, he opposed a successful UAP motion to disallow a national security regulation that had established the Women’s Employment Board. In a compelling speech on this disputatious issue, Keane pointed out that the employment of women in industry as a result of war ‘raises a new question which has never been handled by our arbitration courts’. He said an award rate for women of only 54 per cent of the male rate was ‘one of the shocking weaknesses of the arbitration system’ and not in Australia’s best interest. By 1944 the board had been wound up and its work given by regulation to the Arbitration Court.

When Curtin formed a government on 7 October 1941, Keane entered the Cabinet as Vice-President of the Executive Council. During the five years of World War II, in two Curtin ministries and one Chifley ministry, Keane was Minister for Trade and Customs (1941–46) and a member of the Production Executive of Cabinet (1942–46). The responsibilities associated with trade and customs and the Production Executive were unrelenting, as Cabinet minutes reveal. The administration of rationing and price control was always politically sensitive and, as a member of the Production Executive, Keane was involved in the demanding tasks of industrial reorganisation and the allocation of supplies for military and civilian requirements. In his biography of John Curtin, Lloyd Ross points out that inexperienced Labor ministers (such as Keane) in Curtin’s wartime cabinets ‘rose in prestige’ as a result of the ‘increased responsibilities that they were called upon to carry’. Ross also records that Curtin did not stand on ceremony with the inexperienced, and that Keane was one who was criticised on policy issues in front of senior advisers such as the economist, Douglas Copland.

Through Keane’s speeches ran the theme that the Government’s first job was to prevent a Japanese invasion of Australia. The next task in winning the war was to channel manpower into food production areas in order to meet military and civilian requirements, and maintain essential exports to Britain and India. Differences between government agencies were not infrequent, and Keane is recorded on one occasion as agreeing to the settlement of one such difference ‘with bad grace’. His success as a wartime minister may be best measured by the fact that when the Chifley Ministry was formed in July 1945, Keane was included in the War Cabinet. For a time in 1945 he also acted as Minister for Health and Social Services.

From 23 September 1943 he was Leader of the Government in the Senate. Quick to grasp the essentials in debate, he was committed to correct parliamentary processes, as his political opponent, R. G. Menzies, conceded. For instance, in 1941 he had voted against the Loan Bill as a protest against the continuing practice of the House of Representatives to forward bills to the Senate without leaving sufficient time for perusal and analysis. ‘I do not intend’, he said, ‘to be . . . merely a recording angel for another place’. The Sydney Morning Herald later adjudged him ‘among the best Government leaders in the Senate produced by either side of politics for many years’. His relations with journalists had not been so amiable at the time of his appointment to the Senate leadership when he accused the press of anti-Labor reporting and proposed the creation of a government-owned newspaper.[4]

All along Keane had been a willing practitioner in plans for postwar reconstruction (he was a member of the Cabinet subcommittee on postwar powers), the new order that Chifley sought to establish well before the war ended. Displaying an intense commitment to social justice he had criticised the limits of the Invalid and Old-Age Pensions Bill and applauded the enactment of the Child Endowment Bill (introduced by the Menzies Government with Labor support in 1941): ‘Thousands of mothers will bless this Parliament for an epic act’. Introducing the Widows’ Pension Bill into the Senate on 27 May 1942 he expressed ‘considerable gratification’ that Australia had accepted some responsibility for widows. From July to November 1941 he was deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Social Security. He was a signatory to the committee’s first interim report, which contained in its conclusion Labor’s wartime maxim: ‘It has been said that the Allies won the Great War and lost the peace; this time we must win both’. In 1943 he became a member of the Cabinet subcommittee on postwar reconstruction.[5]

With the end of the war in sight Keane’s attention turned to the international economic agreements made necessary by a different world order. When it came to the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, Labor stalwarts such as Keane were at odds with the more intellectual and forward-looking Chifley, then Treasurer; on one occasion Keane wrote a memorandum that was openly hostile to government policy. Similarly, Keane thought a draft of the historic 1945 White Paper on full employment was ‘in some ways too provocative’. Perhaps he thought similar results could be achieved by administrative measures within existing governmental structures. He wanted import quotas revised after the war and, as chairman of the Export Committee of Cabinet, supported moves to revive export markets and create new ones. In the latter instance his own department would have a significant role to play. In June 1945, Keane’s attempt to establish a takeover of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture by Trade and Customs, though unsuccessful, led to a strengthening and extension of the trade commissioner service.[6]

During October and November 1944 Keane visited North America, principally to keep an eye on Australia’s interests in the discussions taking place between the British and the Americans on Lend-Lease. He negotiated a financial settlement between the governments of the United States, the Netherlands East Indies and Australia regarding refugee cargoes diverted to Australia to escape capture by Japan. In Canada, he discussed matters of common interest relating to the operation of the mutual aid scheme under which Canada assisted Australia in goods and services for the war against Japan.

In April 1946 he was in North America again. Accompanied by Millicent, Keane returned to Washington to negotiate the winding up of Lend-Lease arrangements, and to discuss postwar trade policy. His mission was nearly complete, a fact he had conveyed in a wireless conversation with Ben Chifley, when he died on 26 April 1946 (27 April, Australian date) at an emergency hospital in New York Avenue, Washington. A Requiem Mass was celebrated for Keane on 30 April at St Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, by the Most Reverend John McNamara, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, attended by members of the Australian community and American officials. Keane’s body was returned to Australia on the SS Mariposa. A state funeral with a Solemn Requiem Mass, at which Archbishop Daniel Mannix presided, was held at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on 31 May, and Keane was buried in Brighton Cemetery. Millicent, the two daughters, Nance and Pat, and son, Rex, of his first marriage, and a daughter, Virginia, of the second, survived him. Even in death he was haunted by customs, when, in what became known as the ‘Keane Trunks Case’, goods valued at over £1000 and despatched from Washington to Millicent were seized by customs.

Powerfully built, Keane was a robust parliamentary fighter. He once referred to a digression during debate as an opportunity ‘to dig up a few political corpses’. But he was also a genial and humorous man with a breezy personality, who considered beer a necessity for Australian troops, and whose common greeting was ‘Halloo, brother’. Chifley, who flew from London to Washington in May 1946 to complete Keane’s unfinished work, said with characteristic simplicity: ‘We were close friends during the war’, while Menzies spoke of Keane’s ‘extraordinary burden’ as a wartime minister.[7]

Patricia Clarke


[1] Don Rawson, ‘Keane, Richard Valentine’, ADB, vol. 14; Age (Melb.), 29 Apr. 1946, p. 3; Letter, Michael Meilak, Co-ordinator, Records Management, Public Transport Corporation, Melbourne, to author, 26 Apr. 1995; SMH, 11 Feb. 1928, p. 18; Eddie Butler-Bowden, In the Service? A History of Victorian Railway Workers and their Union, ed. Jenny Lee, Hyland House, South Yarra, Vic., 1991, pp. 40–1.

[2] Australian Worker (Syd.), 1 Jan. 1930, p. 7; Colin Cleary, Bendigo Labor: The Maintenance of Traditions in a Regional City, Epsom, Vic., 1999; Argus (Melb.), 27 Apr. 1930, p. 9; CPD, 25 June 1931, p. 3067; L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley: A Biography, Longmans, Green & Co., Croydon, Vic., 1961, p. 60; SMH, 4 Apr. 1931, p. 12.

[3] CPD, 27 Sept. 1938, pp. 204–8, 2 July 1941, p. 653, 29 Nov. 1939, pp. 1665–71.

[4] CPD, 23 Sept. 1942, pp. 769–71; Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, AWM, Canberra, 1970, pp. 266–9; Production Executive, Indexes and History, A2928, NAA; Lloyd Ross, John Curtin: A Biography, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 1996, p. 225; CPD, 29 Sept. 1943, pp. 119–20; S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942–1945, AWM, Canberra, 1977, p. 183; CPD, 13 Dec. 1940, p. 1136, 3 Apr. 1941, pp. 604, 642–3; SMH, 29 Apr. 1946, p. 4, 17 Aug. 1943, p. 7, 18 Aug. 1943, p. 6.

[5] Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, p. 529; CPD, 13 Dec. 1940, pp. 1149–50, 3 Apr. 1941, pp. 611–12, 27 May 1942, p. 1505; CPP, Joint Committee on Social Security, first interim report, 1941.

[6] International Conference–Proposed International Monetary Fund, A2700, item 669, A9816/5, items 1945/630–45, Ministry of Postwar Reconstruction Full Employment—White Paper, A9816, items 1945/630–45, NAA; Crisp, Ben Chifley, pp. 193–4, 203; Butlin and Schedvin, War Economy 1942–1945, pp. 603, 749–52.

[7] Butlin and Schedvin, War Economy 1942–1945, pp. 468–9, 608–10; CPD, 1 Mar. 1945, pp. 210–21; Report by Senator Keane, CP13, item 10, NAA; SMH, 13 Jan. 1945, p. 5, 29 Apr. 1946, p. 2, 2 May 1946, p. 3, 1 June 1946, p. 4; Argus (Melb.), 29 Apr. 1946, p. 3, 30 Apr. 1946, p. 3, 9 Nov. 1946, p. 3; Bulletin (Syd.), 3 Mar. 1948, p. 8, 7 Apr. 1948, p. 9; Ross, John Curtin, p. 267; Age (Melb.), 29 Apr. 1946, p. 1; CPD, 19 Apr. 1940, p. 190, 18 June 1946, pp. 1495–500.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 138-143.

KEANE, Richard Valentine (1881–1946)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1938–46

Member of the House of Representatives for Bendigo, Vic., 1929–31

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1941–43

Minister for Trade and Customs, 1941–46

Acting Minister for Health and Social Services, 1945

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1943–46

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1938–40

Standing Orders Committee, 1940–46

Joint Committee on Social Security, 1941

Joint Committee on the Advisability of Basing the Liability for Income Tax on Current Income, 1944