McAULIFFE, Ronald Edward (1918–1988)
Senator for Queensland, 1971–81 (Australian Labor Party)

Ronald Edward McAuliffe, rugby league administrator and politician, was born in Brisbane on 25 July 1918. He was adopted by Edward McAuliffe, a railway fettler, and Margaret Ann, née Fogarty. The McAuliffes were a large family, living in a small workman’s cottage in Rainbow Street that backed on to the Sandgate to Shorncliffe railway line. Ron was educated at Sandgate’s Sacred Heart convent school and St Joseph’s Christian Brothers College, Gregory Terrace, Brisbane, where he played for the first fifteen in rugby union and represented the school in athletics. He completed the Junior Public Examination in 1934. His first full-time job was in Fortitude Valley as an apprentice pharmacist with the entrepreneurial Eric Roush, ‘The Radio Chemist’. Higher pay attracted him to a post in the Queensland Railways audit office, which he joined in 1936. He also worked part-time as a runner for a ‘paddock’ bookmaker at Brisbane race meetings. Indeed, sport was McAuliffe’s lifelong vocation. A noted sprinter, he bet on himself to win in Sunday athletic meetings. His talent attracted coaching from the noted professional runner, Arthur Postle, who deemed McAuliffe ‘one of the fastest 75 yards’ sprinters Queensland has produced’. His first trip away from home was to Victoria in 1938, to compete in the Stawell Gift, though he failed to make the finals. He was successful as a winger in Sandgate rugby league teams. In 1939 he was an A grade winger for Brisbane Norths.[1]

McAuliffe enlisted in the AIF in May 1940, having been overwhelmed by the sight of troops of the 6th Division, with a brass band, marching along the Brisbane streets. He was soon on a train from South Brisbane to Sydney, where a troopship awaited. He served in the 2/2nd Casualty Clearing Station in the Middle East and New Guinea, transferring to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit in June 1943. On home leave, on 22 June 1942, McAuliffe married Doreen Lilian Campbell, the daughter of an Australian Workers’ Union organiser, in the Sandgate Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He was discharged from the army on 3 September 1945 with the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2. After the war, McAuliffe went back to the railways audit office, and in 1946 unsuccessfully contested Sandgate in the Brisbane City Council elections. Helped by his status as a ‘Rat of Tobruk’ and his reputation as an athlete, he significantly increased the vote attained by the ALP from that of the previous election. In May 1947 he contested Sandgate in the Queensland state elections, again reducing the conservative majority but failing to win the seat.[2]

In 1949 McAuliffe moved to Fortitude Valley, a Labor precinct close to the centre of Brisbane. Gregarious, square-shouldered and athletic, he quickly became a popular Valley identity. He ‘loved the punt’ and ‘drank at the Valley pub’ every night after work.

With politics still high in his hierarchy of interests, McAuliffe joined the Baroona branch of the ALP. He had been attracted by the patronage of the local member, Queensland Attorney-General Bill Power, who engineered McAuliffe’s appointment as campaign director for the federal Member for Brisbane, George Lawson. Serving as secretary of the Brisbane federal divisional executive from 1949 until 1956, McAuliffe was understood to have been set up as the ageing Lawson’s successor for the Brisbane seat. That this never eventuated was attributed to the 1957 ALP Split in Queensland, Bill Power opting to go with Premier Vince Gair and the breakaway Queensland Labor Party, and McAuliffe staying with the ALP.[3]

While his political aspirations foundered in the 1950s, McAuliffe established his reputation as an outstanding rugby league administrator. He joined the Valley Pastime Club, an organised band of supporters of the Valley Rugby League Club, which also fielded a team in the fiercely competitive shift workers’ league. In 1952 he was elected chairman of Brisbane Rugby League (BRL). In 1953 McAuliffe left Queensland Railways after his selection for the inaugural position of joint secretary to the BRL and the Queensland Rugby League (QRL). He also became secretary of the Lang Park Development Committee. The following year, he was appointed to the Australian Rugby League Board of Control and became treasurer. In the 1950s McAuliffe reformed rugby league administration in Queensland, amalgamating the shift workers’ league with the BRL, and welding the previously warring Brisbane and Queensland leagues into a cohesive unit. As his prospects for Labor endorsement in a safe inner Brisbane electorate dissipated, he decided to leave the city, and in September 1959 announced his resignation as joint secretary of the Brisbane and Queensland leagues, becoming proprietor of the popular Kirrabelle Hotel at Coolangatta.[4]

As hotelier, McAuliffe maintained his passion for politics and rugby league through his friendship with Jack Egerton, president of the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland (TLC) from 1957, rugby league enthusiast and Labor strongman. With Egerton as his ‘jockey’, he threw himself into reviving Labor branches on the Gold Coast in the 1960s. ‘Ron’, said Egerton, ‘was a great socialist, always good for beer and prawns’. Egerton might also have added that McAuliffe was, like himself, a skilful political schemer. In a masterly 1966 intrigue, McAuliffe, with Egerton’s backing, secretly organised the redirection of Labor preferences in the state seat of South Coast from the Liberal Party to the Country (later National) Party. This move, in a tight three-cornered contest, delivered the seat to Country Party incumbent, and unlikely McAuliffe crony, Russ Hinze, who, until the audacious backroom deal, appeared destined to lose his seat to the Liberals. Instead, he won on Labor preferences and went on to become a long-serving and powerful minister in the Bjelke-Petersen National Party Government.[5]

McAuliffe’s political prospects improved markedly as Egerton’s influence grew in the Queensland labour movement. In 1967 McAuliffe secured Labor nomination as a Senate candidate, albeit in what was considered the ‘unwinnable’ third position on the ticket, also becoming a delegate to the ALP’s central executive. In 1969 he won preselection over Senator Felix Dittmer to secure the second position for the Senate election of 21 November 1970 (Dittmer was pushed down to fourth spot on the ticket and lost his seat). Years later, he related with relish how he fought ‘tooth and nail’ to ‘knock off’ the sitting Labor senator. Successfully elected, McAuliffe began his first term as senator for Queensland on 1 July 1971, ending a quest for political office that had begun in 1946. In his first speech, on 26 August, he announced four priorities: poverty, trade unions, tourism and sport.[6]

Influenced by the University of Melbourne’s Ronald Henderson, McAuliffe expressed disgust that in such ‘a young and rich land’ as Australia some 7 to 8 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. He argued that welfare payments should and could be increased to eliminate domestic poverty and, when that was achieved the alleviation of overseas poverty should become a priority. Throughout his Senate career, he returned to the theme of poverty, paying particular attention to the plight of the elderly, unemployed youth and Aboriginals. McAuliffe’s approach often focused on practical detail. In 1973 he campaigned successfully for pensioners to receive free hearing aid batteries, and, three years later, condemned the Fraser Government’s decision to eliminate pensioners’ funeral benefits as ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’.[7]

McAuliffe, with his power base in Egerton’s TLC, also used his first speech to defend trade unions. He believed that they articulated the demands of Australian workers for improved standards of living and that the role of a Labor government was to implement such union policies. His affinity for trade union officials was matched by his distrust of academics (Henderson notwithstanding) who, he suspected, attached themselves to the ALP for personal preferment and would desert it if that were not forthcoming. One of McAuliffe’s few enduring criticisms of his friend, Gough Whitlam, was that the otherwise great man failed to understand the ALP and never mastered the intricacies of its decision-making. He linked this deficiency with Whitlam’s rapport with academics, often ‘scruffy looking blokes with long hair and beards’.[8]

McAuliffe’s interest in tourism grew out of his experience in the hospitality industry and his recognition of the industry’s economic potential for the Gold Coast, ‘the tourist capital of Australia’, and the nation as a whole. He called for the stimulation of the industry through a development fund, subsidies for local authority investment in infrastructure, tax incentives for the provision of accommodation, and lower airfares to and within Australia. He sought to have jumbo jets fly overseas tourists into Brisbane, from which point cruise ships would ferry them to North Queensland in winter.[9]

The final section of McAuliffe’s first speech was devoted to sport, ‘a subject on which I am possibly better equipped to speak than I am on anything else’. He alluded to his rugby league background and his presidency of the QRL, assumed in 1970. He called for a national sports policy and the establishment of a Commonwealth ministry for physical culture, sport and recreation. Underpinning all this was his belief that sport was becoming big business and that an era of increased leisure was imminent through automation and ‘the natural reduction in working hours’. A life member of the Queensland Sports Medicine Association, McAuliffe emphasised the health benefits of physical activity and sports participation for all age groups. He was particularly pleased that the Whitlam Government established a Ministry of Tourism and Recreation. Other issues he pursued vigorously in the Senate included expanding television coverage of sport, particularly rugby league, and upgrading the Commonwealth Council for National Fitness, on which he served as a government representative from 1972 to 1975.[10]

Sport featured so frequently in McAuliffe’s speeches that Liberal senator, John Carrick, observed that he had genetically mutated into the ‘very embodiment of sport’. McAuliffe riposted with a list of what seemed to him the less wholesome subjects that repeatedly surfaced in Carrick’s speeches: ‘abortion, homosexuality, marihuana and pornography’. His irritation with Carrick’s criticism was trivial compared to his outrage when the Fraser Government subsequently abolished the Ministry of Tourism and Recreation and slashed spending on sport and recreation.[11]

McAuliffe believed that the party room was more important than the Senate chamber in achieving reform. He habitually advised new senators to direct their eloquence and persuasive skills to party colleagues rather than exhaust them in the chamber ‘where they are bound by party disciplines’. Elected to the Caucus Standing Orders and Rules Revision Committee in 1977, McAuliffe served as chairman of the federal ALP Caucus from 1978 until he left the Senate. He is almost entirely absent from the political memoirs and histories of the 1980s. One of his rare literary appearances was in John Stubbs’ Hayden, as a member of the White Wine Club, a group of right-wing parliamentarians committed to ensuring support for Gough Whitlam’s leadership. McAuliffe supplied the club members with fresh Queensland barramundi for their exclusive table in the parliamentary dining room.[12]

His greatest hope had been for the Senate presidency. Though McAuliffe never realised this ambition, he applied himself to Senate committees and contributed significantly to the development of the committee system in the 1970s. He regarded a vigorous committee system as a prerequisite for a well-informed Senate and electorate. His committee service included the Joint Committee of Public Accounts, where he demonstrated notable financial expertise, and of which he was chairman from 1973 to 1975. During the same period, McAuliffe also chaired the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, and Senate estimates committees. From 1974 to 1978 he held the position of temporary chairman of committees. Senator Fred Chaney judged him ‘one of the best informed senators’ in ‘the more arcane areas of Senate responsibility … [concerning] the way in which legislation is presented’.[13]

In the late 1970s Ron McAuliffe’s Queensland power base began to crumble. Egerton’s TLC clique, the ‘Old Guard’, faltered. Egerton himself, astonishingly, defied ALP policy and tradition by accepting a knighthood in June 1976 and, though defended by McAuliffe, was forced to resign his presidency of the TLC. The following year, the ALP Reform Group was established, soon calling for the reorganisation of the Queensland branch. To that end it secured National Executive intervention, initially in the person of Whitlam. Loyal to his trade union allies, McAuliffe reacted to federal intervention by resigning from his ALP branch in favour of one based at Trades Hall. By early 1980, with his term due to expire in mid-1981, he had decided not to re-nominate for the Senate. He kept his decision secret to facilitate succession to his seat by ‘Old Guard’ colleague, and state ALP secretary, Gerry Jones.[14]

McAuliffe’s departure from the Senate was made easier by his becoming the inaugural executive chairman of a revamped QRL (he had been president since 1970) at, he said, a higher salary than he had earned as a senator. During his five years in this role, until resignation in 1985, McAuliffe etched his name more deeply into Queensland’s sporting history. In July 1980 he launched the first State of Origin rugby league contest between Queensland and New South Wales. Fittingly, it was held at Lang Park, a sporting venue substantially developed under his supervision. Queensland’s victory over New South Wales in the first encounter signalled substantial progress towards an objective that was particularly close to his heart, the resumption of Queensland’s pre-war rugby league supremacy over New South Wales. It is a measure of McAuliffe’s persuasive skills that he secured for the QRL and the State of Origin series the crucial patronage of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, despite having previously denounced him in the Senate as a ‘political thug’. In 1984 McAuliffe was appointed chair of the Rothmans National Sport Foundation.[15]

After a brief illness, McAuliffe died on 16 August 1988 at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital, Brisbane. Lilian and their son survived him. Three days before his death, he completed reading the manuscript of the first official history of rugby league in Queensland. Two days before that, apparently in good health, he had approached the QRL club manager to discuss arrangements for his wake. Harking back to his enlistment in the army nearly half a century earlier, he requested a band and ‘plenty of booze’. McAuliffe was buried privately in the Nudgee Catholic Cemetery on 19 August after Requiem Mass in St Patrick’s Church in Fortitude Valley. He was mourned by more than 300 people from the sporting, political and military worlds, including Deputy Prime Minister Lionel Bowen and Queensland Chief Justice Dormer Andrews. Among the wreaths at the front of the church was one from Bjelke-Petersen. An Australian rugby league jersey draped his coffin. The biggest wake in Queensland rugby league history followed, in the QRL’s State of Origin bar at Lang Park.[16]

In his final speech to the Senate, McAuliffe expressed his hope that he had ‘made a small scratch on the mirror of time’. His political career was marked by competence and goodwill, if not exceptionality. Indeed, as one journalist wrote, politics was ‘another game to him, and not something to cost him any friendships’. His substantial contribution to sport was recognised with the award of an OBE in 1982. McAuliffe’s place in the history of rugby league is secure. He was appointed deputy chairman of the Australian Rugby League in 1980 and subsequently was made its third life member. The State of Origin player of the series earns the Ron McAuliffe Medal. It is fitting that his name appears in the dedications of two important histories of rugby league, Max and Reet Howell’s The Greatest Game under the Sun, and Jack Gallaway’s Origin: Rugby League’s Greatest Contest, 1980–2002. After his death, the Australian rightly concluded that ‘Ron McAuliffe will be most fondly remembered as Mr Rugby League in Queensland’.[17]

Rodney Sullivan

[1] The author acknowledges the assistance of Grace Beecher, Researcher, Sandgate Historical Society, and Brother Gaegan, Archivist, St Joseph’s College, Brisbane; Sacred Heart Primary School, Sandgate: Centenary 1893–1993, Sacred Heart Primary School, Sandgate, Qld, 1993, p. 42; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 21 Sept. 1985, p. 25; Author interview with Franow Thomson-Jones, 2003; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 25 Apr. 1946, p. 3; Sunday Mail (Brisb.), 21 Aug. 1988, p. 59, 8 May 1983, p. 60.

[2] McAuliffe, Ronald Edward—Defence Service Record, B883, QX5326, NAA; Ronald Edward McAuliffe, Transcript of oral history interview with Pat Shaw, 1984, POHP, TRC 4900/9, NLA, p. 4:18; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 21 Sept. 1985, p. 25; Brisbane Statistics, vol. 26, 1970–71 and 1971–72, pp. 28–30; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 25 Apr. 1946, p. 3.

[3] McAuliffe, Transcript, pp. 1:7, 1:9–11, 1:17; Jack Gallaway, Origin: Rugby League’s Greatest Contest 1980–2002, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 2003, p. 3; ALP Qld branch, Federal Divisional Executive Brisbane minute book, 1949–56, OMEQ/14/3/3, SLQ; The author acknowledges the assistance of Manfred Cross.

[4] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 21 Sept. 1985, p. 25; Gallaway, Origin, pp. 3–4; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 3 Sept. 1959, p. 17; McAuliffe, Transcript, p. 2:4.

[5] McAuliffe, Transcript, pp. 2:4, 2:6–7, 4:13–17; Author interview with Manfred Cross, 2004; Sunday Mail (Brisb.), 21 Aug. 1988, p. 21.

[6] McAuliffe, Transcript, pp. 2:6–9; ALP 1968 Queensland Convention Decisions, ALP, Qld branch, 1968, pp. 23, 41; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 1 Sept. 1969, p. 5; CPD, 26 Aug. 1971, p. 407.

[7] CPD, 26 Aug. 1971, pp. 407–8, 25 Sept. 1973, pp. 829–30, 27 Apr. 1976, p. 1262.

[8] CPD, 26 Aug. 1971, pp. 408–9; McAuliffe, Transcript, pp. 2:1–2, 2:16–17, 3:1, 4:1.

[9] CPD, 26 Aug. 1971, pp. 409–10.

[10] CPD, 26 Aug. 1971, pp. 410–12; Wray Vamplew, Katharine Moore, John O’Hara, Richard Cashman and Ian F. Jobling (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Sport, OUP, Melbourne, 1992, p. 234; CPD, 20 Mar. 1979, pp. 746–7, 2 Dec. 1971, pp. 2304–7, 16 Nov. 1978, pp. 2156–8, 8 Mar. 1973, p. 289; Commonwealth Council for National Fitness, National Fitness in Australia, 1972–73, 1974–75.

[11] CPD, 6 Mar. 1973, p. 172, 7 Mar. 1973, p. 233, 20 Mar. 1979, p. 747.

[12] CPD, 20 Sept. 1978, p. 779, 1 Mar. 1978, p. 253; ALP, Federal Parliamentary Labor Party minutes, 22 Feb. 1977 and 30 May 1977, MS 6852, box 17, NLA; John Stubbs, Hayden, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, 1989, p. 169.

[13] McAuliffe, Transcript, pp. 2:10–11; CPD, 30 Aug. 1973, p. 340, 23 Aug. 1988, p. 52.

[14] Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, 1991, pp. 388–91; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 June 1976, p. 3; National Times (Syd.), 17 Mar. 1979, p. 12; McAuliffe, Transcript, p. 4:1; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 22 Dec. 1979, p. 1.

[15] McAuliffe, Transcript, pp. 2:13, 2:15; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 15 Apr. 1985, p. 1; Gallaway, Origin, pp. 5–17, 22; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 30 Apr.–1 May 2005, p. 61; CPD, 10 July 1974, p. 61.

[16] Max and Reet Howell, The Greatest Game Under the Sun: The History of Rugby League in Queensland, ed. Leon Bedington, Leon Bedington for the Queensland Rugby Football League Limited, Brisbane, 1989, p. iv; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 20 Aug. 1988, p. 72, 18 Aug. 1988, p. 26; Adrian McGregor, Wally Lewis: Forever the King, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 2004, p. 220.

[17] CPD, 12 June 1981, p. 3262; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 Aug. 1988, p. 60, 31 Dec. 1981, p. 7; Chronicle (Toowoomba), 17 Aug. 1988, p. 48; Howell, The Greatest Game Under the Sun, p. iii; Gallaway, Origin, p. ii; Australian (Syd.), 18 Aug. 1988, p. 4.

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. 365-370.

McAULIFFE, Ronald Edward (1918–1988)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1971–81

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee B, 1971–73

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1972–75

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1973–74, 1977–81

Estimates Committee E, 1973–74, 1980–81

Estimates Committee C, 1973–75

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1973–75

Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System, 1974–76

Standing Committee on National Resources, 1976–78

Standing Orders Committee, 1976–80

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1978

Estimates Committee F, 1979–80

Estimates Committee H, 1981