KENNELLY, Patrick John (1900–1981)
Senator for Victoria, 1953–71 (Australian Labor Party)

Patrick John (Pat) Kennelly’s best-known maxim, repeated with variations over the years, typified his political life. He said that if he had to make a choice in politics between logic and numbers, he would come down on the side of the numbers. Known as the kingmaker, Kennelly, a machine man par excellence, became a legendary figure in the ALP, one whose influence extended well beyond his native state of Victoria.

Pat Kennelly was born in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote on 3 June 1900. He was the fifth child of Irish Catholic immigrants, John Kennelly, a prison warder, and Mary, née O’Dea. Pat was educated at St Joseph’s School in Northcote from 1912 to 1915, St Patrick’s College in East Melbourne and, in 1919, at Xavier College.

Sponsored by his mentor and friend, the senior John Cain, later Victorian premier, he joined the ALP at the age of fifteen, one of his first jobs being to summon passers-by to street corner political meetings, by ringing a bell. In 1919 Kennelly was secretary of the Northcote branch of the ALP. In 1925 he worked briefly at the Yallourn open-cut mine, where he reputedly organised a strike protesting against poor working conditions, and, as a result, was blackballed by the State Electricity Commission (SEC). In the same year, he was preselected for the seat of Walhalla in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. He withdrew on advice that the party would fare better with a farmer as its candidate. After an electoral redistribution in 1926, fresh nominations were called for the 1927 state election. This time Kennelly unsuccessfully contested preselection for Upper Yarra.[1]

Kennelly joined the state Labor Party office as a clerk in 1926 and rose quickly. By 1930 he was a candidate for the state executive and, although defeated, polled well enough to be chosen to fill a casual vacancy on the executive for two months from February 1931. Kennelly was again a member from 1932 by virtue of his post as organising secretary of the Victorian ALP, to which he had been elected earlier that year. He gained 114 votes, almost double that of the nearest contender. This marked the beginning of his career as a professional politician. He remained organising secretary until December 1946, when he became Victorian general secretary (until 1950), also serving as federal ALP secretary (1946–54), in which position he was a trusted adviser and close friend to Ben Chifley. During these years he acquired his reputation as ‘A master of backstairs intrigue, the well-placed rumour and press “leak” ’.[2]

On 1 November 1930, at St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, Kennelly married Jessie Milne. From 1936 the Kennellys lived at Nelson Road, South Melbourne. In 1979 the journalist, John Larkin, described the parlour of their home as ‘arranged with seats all around the walls, ashtrays at every arm’s length, the signs of the smoke-filled nights that must have dragged on. His [Kennelly’s] chair, a rocking type, is next to the small leadlight window at the front, the chairman’s position. A telephone waits on a small table beside him, with a long list of names and numbers readily accessible’.

In May 1938 Kennelly entered the Victorian Legislative Council, having been elected unopposed at a by-election for Melbourne West. In his first speech, on 2 August 1938, he declared: ‘In certain circles Victoria has the reputation of being a progressive State, but I do not concur … It spends less money per head of population on the care of the sick and needy poor, on children’s welfare, and on all other sections of our social services, than any other State in the Commonwealth’. He challenged the undemocratic composition of the Council as ‘the stumbling block of all legislation designed to help the people about whom I am most concerned’.

By 1943 Kennelly was a member of the four-day first ministry of John Cain, where he served as Minister without Portfolio. In Cain’s second ministry (1945–47), Kennelly was Commissioner of Public Works and Minister in Charge of Electrical Undertakings, the latter appointment being somewhat ironic, given his earlier brush with the SEC. From August 1947, he was also vice-president of the Board of Land and Works. Cain relied heavily on Kennelly’s skills as parliamentary strategist and party fund-raiser.[3]

In March 1952 Kennelly faced preselection in the increasingly divided party that preceded the Labor Split of 1955. According to the historian, Robert Murray, the powerful anti-communist Industrial Groups had become agitated about Kennelly, regarding him as ‘a “fixer” who would compromise with the communists or anybody else to get his way’. They had already secured his resignation as general secretary of the Victorian party, and replaced him with one of their own, Dinny Lovegrove, in 1949. Always concerned for party unity, Kennelly regarded the Groupers as extremist and divisive. As the Groupers were in the ascendancy, they ensured his preselection defeat. For Kennelly, the difficulties of this period were compounded by the bitterness expressed to him by pro-Grouper former friends, who would cross the road to avoid him. A staunch Catholic all his life, Kennelly was hurt and bewildered by the hostility expressed towards him by fellow churchgoers. At this time he also had to cope with the death of his young son, Neil, who had fallen from a truck.

Kennelly’s decision to seek preselection for the Senate was a response to the Groupers, whom he believed were determined to destroy his influence as federal ALP secretary by removing his source of income as an MLC. The federal secretary’s position was poorly paid and without his parliamentary salary he would have to find a job elsewhere. This time, in the aftermath of Kennelly’s personal grief and the party turmoil caused by the loss of his Council seat, the Groupers did not organise so strongly against him, and Kennelly secured preselection.[4]

Elected at the Senate election of May 1953, Kennelly was sworn on 8 September 1953. He would remain, in many respects, a 1930s Labor man, socialistic and nationalistic, believing it wrong to seek higher productivity from workers when company profits were already high, and advocating protectionism and subsidies for local industries. He supported the White Australia policy, despite the realisation that this hardly helped Australia’s growing friendship with South-East Asia.

Kennelly remained opposed to militant anti-communism, though he was far from being pro-communist and often expressed irritation at the efforts of some of Labor’s opponents to tar the ALP with the ‘red’ brush. He was also against Australian military involvement in Malaya, nuclear tests at Monte Bello, and, in particular, the war in Vietnam. In March 1966, during debate on a motion by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Henty, that the Senate take note of the ministerial statement on the policy of the new Holt Government, Kennelly moved that the Senate record its ‘emphatic opposition’ to conscription for Vietnam, without of course any success. His speeches, often rhetorical, went to the heart of the personal issues involved. Referring to the Government’s denial that Australia was at war with the North Vietnamese, he suggested that ‘the Prime Minister … and those who sit behind him go and ask the relatives of the 34 servicemen who have been killed in action whether we are at war’.[5]

In 1970 he differed with his long-time friend, the Liberal Party’s Magnus Cormack, when Cormack justified the war on the grounds of the rise of communism ‘to our north’. Kennelly pointed out that communism ‘thrives only where oppression of the people is greatest’, and aimed a few lines of doggerel at two ‘war-thirsty’ senators, one of whom appears to have been Cormack:

Why is your face so white, senator
Why do you choke for breath?
Oh, I have dreamt in the night, my boy
That I have doomed a man to death.

In many ways, he was a conservative, hence his friendship with Cormack. He was uncomfortable with the cultural shifts of the 1960s, describing himself as a ‘square’. In keeping with ALP policy, in 1965 he supported equal pay for women, but in 1968 felt that the large proportion of married women in the workforce contributed to delinquency. In 1955 he declared: ‘A married woman’s place is in her home. If she is not prepared to stay in it, she ought not to get married’.[6]

Despite his reputation as a numbers man, Kennelly had a strong commitment to the ideal of an informed electorate. In 1964, as an Australian delegate to an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference at Copenhagen, he spoke on the theme of illiteracy, arguing that ‘the peace of the world depends on an educated democracy which knows what it wants and knows how to get it’. He considered that the original role for the Senate as the states’ house had been usurped by party politics. He supported the establishment of a new system of parliamentary committees, then being put forward by a future Clerk of the Senate, Jim Odgers, that would scrutinise decisions of the executive government, especially in relation to expenditure. In 1960 Kennelly stressed the value of all-party parliamentary committees and urged the Government to appoint a committee ‘to deal with some of the big questions that face the nation’, such as the development of northern Australia, the administration of Papua and New Guinea and the concentration of media ownership. He proposed, unsuccessfully, the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the method of simplifying voting for the Senate. From 1968 to 1971 he held the parliamentary position of temporary chairman of committees.[7]

From 1956 to 1967 he served as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, his hostility toward the Groups and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) only abating in the mid-1960s when, concerned that Labor could not return to power federally because of the rise of the socialist left faction within the Victorian branch, he advocated reconciliation with the DLP, though he was censured by the ALP Federal Executive for his view. In mid-1965 Kennelly initiated discussions with B. A. Santamaria with the aim of reuniting the ALP and DLP. Detailed plans were made, but were vetoed by Arthur Calwell. Three years later, Kennelly tried again, this time negotiating directly with DLP officers, but Gough Whitlam was wary, and there were no further attempts at reunification. Kennelly became a leading proponent of federal intervention into the Victorian branch. Frustrated by Labor’s years out of power, in 1969 he publicly stated: ‘Years ago … I could hold my head up high. I was a member of the Labor Party and proud of it. Now I hang my head in shame … I belong to a party that is in perpetual opposition’.

Kennelly’s reconciliation with the DLP was apparent in the Senate, when Senators Gair and McManus supported his attempts to invalidate electoral changes in November 1965. Kennelly used a minor electoral bill, introduced to rectify a drafting error, to chastise the Government for its undue haste in rushing through an electoral bill earlier in the year. This, he said, had denied him the opportunity to move, as he now did, unsuccessfully, to have the minimum age of voters reduced from twenty-one to eighteen years, and to have the principle of one vote one value strengthened. His principal point in the debate was that that if ‘boys of 20’ were old enough to be army conscripts in Vietnam, they were old enough to vote. In 1973 the Whitlam Government lowered the voting age for federal elections to eighteen years.[8]

Kennelly did not contest the Senate election of November 1970, reminding the Senate, shortly before the end of his term in 1971, that he had never really wanted to become a senator, and stating that he had always thought that in politics there was only one place to be, and that was on the right of the chair. At this time he also said that serving in a Labor federal government was for him ‘an unfulfilled ambition’.

After leaving the federal Parliament, he maintained his passion for community activities in Melbourne, notably the Albert Park Committee of Management, to which he had been appointed in October 1943, becoming its chairman in 1947, and holding that position for the remainder of his life. He oversaw the development of ovals and the construction of stadiums and, controversially, supported the use of the park for motor races. In 1961 a state government inquiry, headed by O. J. Gillard, QC, was held into the management of the park, as a result of public concern about the park’s commercial development. Gillard, who heard evidence that Kennelly’s son-in-law, Richard Burke, had been appointed as secretary of the park’s management committee, found that though the position should have been advertised, there was no suggestion of corruption. He praised the work of the management committee, noting ‘the amount of time and effort’ put in by its members, especially Kennelly. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Senator for Albert Park’, Kennelly, who on occasion watered the ovals on Sundays, remained devoted to Albert Park as a community resource.[9]

Another continuing passion was Australian Rules football. From the 1940s to 1956 Kennelly was vice-president of the Richmond Football Club, and from 1944 to 1952 chairman of selectors. In 1947 he was made a life member. He was also a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and chairman of the Industrial Printing and Publicity Company, which ran Melbourne radio station 3KZ. He maintained his engagement with Labor politics, in 1979 declaring himself to be ‘a strong supporter’ of Bob Hawke. Once a year he would return to Canberra and sit in the Senate chamber, ‘watching and listening. Nobody stops him from going in and sitting at the back’.[10]

Appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1978, Pat Kennelly died at Richmond on 12 October 1981. He had been a member of the Australian Labor Party for fifty-six years, and had worked with Labor leaders James Scullin, John Curtin, Ben Chifley, H. V. Evatt, Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam. A state funeral was held on 15 October, with a Requiem Mass celebrated at the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in South Melbourne. Kennelly was survived by Jessie and two of their four children.

A solidly built man of pugnacious appearance, Kennelly was described, as a ‘tough, solid, no-nonsense person’, who was kind as well. References to him appear often in labour history and political literature. Former MHR Fred Daly wrote of how he used a cheeky sense of humour to cope with a noticeable stammer. The character of Paddy Kelleher, in Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, is based on Kennelly, due to the fact that in the late 1920s and 1930s Kennelly became a link between the federal and Victorian branches of the ALP and financier John Wren. Kennelly once quipped that Hardy’s characterisation meant he no longer had to write any memoirs. In 1940 Kennelly borrowed money from Wren for election expenses, offering his home as security. He later remarked of Wren that he ‘never asked me to do anything I wouldn’t have done’. Despite his earlier troubles with the pro-Groupers, in the end he won the respect of political friend and foe. Liberal senator, J. L. Carrick, commented that there were ‘few more professional in this profession of politics than Pat Kennelly’. After his retirement Kennelly explained his passion for Labor politics. ‘I believed in it; I loved it. It was a religion to me and it still is … And, no doubt, the pursuit of a little bit of power was important too’. When asked if he enjoyed the machinery of party politics, Kennelly responded, ‘The machine, the machine; that’s where you can make things happen’.[11]

Despina Babbage

[1] VPD, 6 May 1948, p. 895; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, p. 103; The editor is indebted to Michael Head, Archivist, Archives of the Society of Jesus in Australia, and Doug Kennedy, Archivist, Xavier College, Melbourne; P. J. Kennelly, Labor and the Mass Media, Melbourne University ALP Club, Melbourne, 1963, p. 3; VPD, 13 Oct. 1981, p. 1318; Age (Melb.), 22 May 1971, p. 8; DLP, Victorian branch, Victorian Central Executive minutes, 1 May 1925, 3 July 1925, 14 May 1926, 21 Feb. 1927, MS 10389, SLV; Argus (Melb.), 4 May 1953, p. 5.

[2] Labor Call (Melb.), 9 Apr. 1931, p. 2, 11 Feb. 1932, p. 8; Kate White, John Cain & Victorian Labor 1917–1957, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982, pp. 127–8; Labor Call (Melb.), 25 Apr. 1946, p. 1, 5 Dec. 1946, p. 8, 13 Apr. 1950, p. 14; Patrick Weller and Beverley Lloyd (eds), Federal Executive Minutes 1915–1955, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1978, pp. 9, 309, 334, 579; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, p. 28.

[3] Age (Melb.), 20 Aug. 1979, p. 9; Argus (Melb.), 25 Apr. 1938, p. 9, 12 May 1938, p. 10; VPD, 2 Aug. 1938, p. 522; White, John Cain & Victorian Labor 1917–1957, p. 146.

[4] Murray, The Split, pp. 31, 38–9; Age (Melb.), 22 May 1971, p. 8.

[5] CPD, 23 Sept. 1953, pp. 217–22, 16 Feb. 1956, pp. 37–40, 16 Mar. 1966, pp. 63–4.

[6] CPD, 10 Mar. 1970, pp. 181–2, 28 Apr. 1971, p. 1105, 24 Mar. 1965, p. 85, 26 Mar. 1968, p. 320, 8 Sept. 1955, p. 75.

[7] CPP, 152/1964, p. 30; CPD, 25 Oct. 1957, p. 821, 18 Oct. 1960, pp. 1117–18, 9 Aug. 1962, pp. 89–93, 16 Aug. 1962, pp. 291–2.

[8] CT, 13 Feb. 1965, p. 1, 26 May 1965, p. 1; Brian Costar, Peter Love and Paul Strangio (eds), The Great Labor Schism: A Retrospective, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Vic., 2005, pp. 316–17; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 17 Aug. 1970, pp. 1–2; Herald (Melb.), 28 June 1969, p. 2; CPD, 16 Nov. 1965, pp. 1538–9, 17 Nov. 1965, p. 1574.

[9] CPD, 12 May 1971, pp. 1721–2; Age (Melb.), 22 May 1971, p. 8; Jill Barnard and Jenny Keating, People’s Playground: A History of the Albert Park, Chandos Publishing, Burwood, Vic., 1996, pp. 120–1, 157; Bulletin (Syd.), 10 Mar. 1962, pp. 13–14; Herald (Melb.), 16 Aug. 1961, p. 3, 30 Oct. 1961, p. 1; Oliver James Gillard, ‘A Board of Inquiry, on the Area Reserved and Known as Albert Park: Report and Recommendations’, 25 Oct. 1961, pp. 73–6, Parliamentary Library, Melbourne.

[10] The editor is indebted to Ron Reiffel, Curator, Richmond Football Club; Brian Hansen, Tigerland: The History of the Richmond Football Club From 1885, Richmond Former Players and Officials Association, Burwood, Vic., 1989, p. 266; VPD, 13 Oct. 1981, pp. 1317, 1320; R. R. Walker, Dial 1179: The 3KZ Story, Currey O’Neil, South Yarra, Vic., 1984, p. 109; Age (Melb.), 20 Aug. 1979, p. 9.

[11] Advocate (Melb.), 22 Oct. 1981, p. 2; Fred Daly, From Curtin to Kerr, Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1977, pp. 6, 143–4; Paul Adams and Christopher Lee (eds), Frank Hardy & the Literature of Commitment, Vulgar Press, Carlton, Vic., 2003, p. 259; Murray, The Split, p. 28; Age (Melb.), 13 Oct. 1981, p. 11; James Griffin, John Wren: A Life Reconsidered, Scribe Publications, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 131, 417; CPD, 13 Oct. 1981, p. 1081; Age (Melb.), 22 May 1971, p. 8.

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. 40-46.

KENNELLY, Patrick John (1900–1981)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Victoria, 1953–71

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, Melbourne West, 1938–52


Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1953–67, 1970–71

Joint Committee on Constitutional Review, 1956–59

House Committee, 1962–64