McKELLAR, Gerald Colin (1903–1970)
Senator for New South Wales, 1958–70 (Australian Country Party)

Gerald Colin McKellar, known as Colin, was born on 29 May 1903 in Gulgong, New South Wales, to Gerald Murdoch McKellar and Margaret Jane, née Travis. Educated at Gilgandra Public School, Colin followed in the steps of his father and grandfather by becoming a wheat and sheep farmer. On 24 July 1926, he married a Sydney schoolteacher, Florence Emily Smith, at the Presbyterian Church, Dulwich Hill. By 1939, they were living at Briodale, near Gilgandra, and, a decade later, at Mirrawonga, near Dubbo. About the time of his marriage, McKellar joined the Gilgandra branch of the Country Party, becoming chairman in 1947, and chairman of the party’s Castlereagh and Lawson electorate councils for ten years. Between 1949 and 1970 he was a member of the central executive of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Country Party, serving as chair from 1957 to 1959. He was a member of the party’s Federal Council (1957–59, 1962–69) and Federal Executive (1957–59, 1968–69). In 1963 he chaired the federal party’s rural finance committee.

McKellar joined the Gilgandra troop of the 6th Light Horse in 1936, serving until October 1941 when he commenced full-time duty with the Australian Military Forces. On 1 September 1942 he was promoted to the rank of captain, and a few days later, to that of major. Later that month he enlisted in the second AIF as an officer in the 6th Australian Motor Regiment; he was demobilised in April 1946. Later, he proudly related that he participated in the Australian film, Forty Thousand Horsemen, taking part in the famous ‘charge’ scene. Active in the local parents’ and citizens’ associations, he was a keen sportsman, played cricket, tennis and polo in his youth, and, in later years, bowls and billiards. During the 1950s he was a member of the Gilgandra branch of the Graziers’ Association. Involved in the Pastoral and Agricultural Association, he helped to ensure good returns from the annual Gilgandra agricultural shows. He was a councillor of the New South Wales Sheepbreeders’ Association and, for a period until 1959, director of the Dubbo Pastures Protection Board. For some time in the mid-1950s he was also a director of Gilgandra Newspapers.[1]

Endorsed for the Senate by the Country Party’s central council, McKellar was elected in sixth place at the federal poll of November 1958, filling the casual vacancy (originally filled by Senator Ormonde) that had arisen in June as a result of the death of Labor’s Senator Bill Ashley. McKellar was sworn in the Senate on 17 February 1959. With three sons on the land, he had moved to the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag by 1960. In his first speech, he spoke on national development, defence and wool. McKellar’s main interests were finance and prices, especially in relation to primary industry, his utterances meticulously reported by the New South Wales Countryman from 1958. McKellar quickly became a member of several influential parliamentary committees. A 1961 inquiry of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts probably led to his membership of a committee of government senators, headed by Magnus Cormack and including also Ivy Wedgwood and Reg Wright, which was convened in response to dissatisfaction among government senators over the decision by the Menzies Government to amalgamate the two appropriation bills. Under section 53 of the Constitution, the main appropriation bill (relating to items of ‘ordinary annual services of the Government’) was amendable only by the House of Representatives; while the other, relating to separate measures, including capital works, was amendable by the Senate. The committee’s 1964 recommendations, for division rather than amalgamation, preserved the Senate’s legislative powers. Although not tabled until 1967, after reference to the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Treasurer, they were largely accepted and remain in use.[2]

In 1960 McKellar represented the Parliament at the first meeting of the Papua and New Guinea Legislative Council. The following year he was appointed to the parliamentary position of temporary chairman of committees. Re-elected to the Senate at the December federal election, in 1962 he attended the United Nations General Assembly. From August 1962 until December 1964 he served as Chairman of Committees in the Senate.

McKellar became Minister for Repatriation in December 1964. A conscientious and hard-working minister, he was a man of honest, though uncompromising, opinions. The escalation of the Vietnam War and the adoption of conscription in would test McKellar. In 1966 journalist Alan Ramsey reported him as stating that Australians had ‘moral obligations’ to fight alongside the United States and that the ‘American cause’ was Australia’s cause. Ramsey described these comments as among the most forthright on the subject by a federal minister. In the face of the growing anti-war movement in Australia, McKellar visited Australian forces in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, spending Christmas Day in Vietnam. In March 1967 he addressed the Limbless Soldiers’ Association in Canberra, referring to the large number of amputations resulting from mine warfare in Vietnam. A month later he spoke to the ‘new generation of war widows’ whose husbands had died in Vietnam. Visiting repatriation hospitals and speaking often to RSL groups around Australia, in June he addressed a state congress in Mackay, Queensland, on an insurance plan for Vietnam conscripts. At the end of the year, he spent his second Christmas in South Vietnam, this time at Nui Dat. On route for Malaysia, he spoke of Australian troops rejecting a new supply of uniforms for the tropics: ‘They told me the uniforms were so thin the mosquitoes bit right through them’. He optimistically declared the USA and its allies to be ‘winning’.[3]

Problems also dogged the repatriation portfolio. As well as growing public perception that repatriation was subject to rorts and inefficiencies, the RSL criticised the Government, and McKellar, for what it considered inadequate funding in successive budgets. In May 1967, probably for party political reasons, McKellar opposed the motion of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Lionel Murphy, for the establishment of a select committee on repatriation. In justifying this opposition, McKellar referred to the increase in the number of war pensions entitlement appeal tribunals.[4]

McKellar was also responsible for the representation in the Senate of portfolios of House of Representative ministers, including the Minister for Social Security, the Minister for the Army, and, significantly, as it turned out, the Minister for Air, Peter Howson. On 13 May 1966 the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, wrongly informed the House of Representatives that there were no records concerning names of passengers on board Squadron 34 of the RAAF, the VIP flight used by senior politicians. In October Senator Turnbull began raising questions about the subject in the Senate. A year later, on 27 September 1967, Murphy moved to have documents relevant to these flights tabled, an amended motion to that effect passing the Senate on 5 October, with McKellar declaring that the Government had nothing to hide. The Democratic Labor Party and independent senators, along with three Liberals, Lillico and Wright, and Wood, voted with the Opposition. With Murphy and Turnbull continuing to probe McKellar for information over the lack of any Government response, McKellar, on 20 October, told the Senate that it was not his place to justify the actions of the Minister for Air. He denied that the information was classified in order to prevent ‘the taxpayer’ obtaining it. On 24 October another heated debate on the subject during Question Time was brought to an abrupt and tragic conclusion when Senator Hannaford died in the chamber.

On 25 October, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Gorton, finally tabled papers giving much of the information required by the Senate. Gorton’s action succeeded, as he intended, in appeasing the Senate, but it also proved the growing strength of the Senate’s accountability role, an aspect emphasised by Murphy. On the 27 October, McKellar (a member of the ‘outer’ ministry, and apparently kept in the dark by the Cabinet) told the Senate:

The Government has been accused of misleading Parliament and the nation. If there has been any mistake, it has been an honest mistake … I have, at no time, attempted to hide any information or to keep information in my possession from the Senate … I did not tell the Senate lies and I do not believe that lies were told to me.

In the light of history, the last part of this statement seems questionable, but McKellar’s view of his own part in the affair was borne out by Murphy, speaking after McKellar’s death:

I think we all recall the debates which took place several years ago on the use of VIP aircraft. Senator McKellar was at the centre of that controversy. I think it should be said publicly, as it was said privately then, that all honourable senators were convinced of one thing, the complete integrity of Senator McKellar.[5]

By 1968 McKellar’s relationship with the RSL had worsened. The Victorian branch, spurred on by future federal president Bruce Ruxton, accused McKellar of placing pressure on the war pensions assessment appeal tribunals in order to prevent recommendations for increases in repatriation benefits. Ruxton’s allegation seemed to be based on an unsubstantiated statement made by a tribunal chairman, Kevin Mooney, regarding a conversation between himself and McKellar. With insufficient evidence on either side, the issue was dropped, though not without considerable publicity. In the Senate, on 14 August 1968 Murphy moved a vote of no confidence in McKellar as Minister for Repatriation, which was amended by the Government, and finally read, in part: ‘The Senate rejects the charge made against [McKellar] of interference in decisions of a Repatriation Tribunal. Presentation of so serious a charge unsupported by acceptable evidence is a misuse of the forms of the Senate.’ In the face of an Opposition point of order, the Acting Deputy President, Senator Wood, ruled that the amendment was in order. In November 1969 McKellar relinquished the repatriation portfolio on grounds of ill health.[6]

Early in 1970, McKellar suffered a short, though serious, illness. He was looking forward to returning to the Senate—though he may well have known that a number of colleagues had conspired to have him dropped from the ministry—when on 13 April, he collapsed and died while attending the annual dinner of the NSW Graziers’ Association at the Australia Hotel, Castlereagh Street, Sydney. A state funeral was held at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney, followed by a cremation at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium. Florence and their three children survived him. McKellar, an elder in the Presbyterian Church for at least twenty years, was made a life member of the Australian Country Party in 1967. A kindly, sensible and unassuming man, he was also described by his colleague, Senator Anderson, as ‘an aggressive fighter for the principles he held to be true’.[7]

Sylvia Marshall

[1] Russell Schneider, ‘McKellar, Gerald Colin’, ADB, vol. 15; New South Wales Countryman (Syd.), May 1947, p. 7, May 1948, p. 7, Sept. 1949, p. 2; National Party of Australia Records, MS 7507, boxes 9 and 15, NLA; Don Aitkin Papers, MS 7990, boxes 1–3, NLA; New South Wales Countryman (Syd.), July 1957, p. 6, June 1959, p. 2; John McEwen Papers, MS 4654, boxes 71–3, NLA; New South Wales Countryman (Syd.), Sept. 1963, p. 1; McKellar, Gerald Colin—Defence Service Record, B883, NX136363, NAA; Gilgandra Weekly, 29 Oct. 1958, p. 6, 9 May 1956, p. 4; New South Wales Countryman (Syd.), July 1959, p. 2; The editor acknowledges the assistance of the office of Gilgandra News, NSW.

[2] New South Wales Countryman (Syd.), Dec. 1961, p. 4; CPD, 17 Feb. 1959, pp. 6, 21–4, 10 Apr. 1962, pp. 871–4; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 207–9; CPP, 55/1967.

[3] Australian (Syd.), 20 Aug. 1966, p. 3; SMH, 17 Dec. 1966, p. 4; Age (Melb.), 8 Mar. 1967, p. 17, 10 Apr. 1967, p. 9; CT, 7 June 1967, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 18 Dec. 1967, p. 9; Australian (Syd.), 27 Dec. 1967, p. 2; CT, 27 Dec. 1967, p. 9.

[4] Clem Lloyd and Jacqui Rees, The Last Shilling: A History of Repatriation in Australia, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1994, p. 326; Age (Melb.), 25 Oct. 1966, p. 11; CPD, 11 May 1967, pp. 1421–37.

[5] CPD, 20 Oct. 1966, pp. 1296–6, 5 Oct. 1967, pp. 1199–1201, 1266, 20 Oct. 1967, pp. 1503–4; SMH, 21 Oct. 1967, p. 7; CPD, 24 Oct. 1967, pp. 1615–16, 27 Oct. 1967, pp. 1840–1, 14 Apr. 1970, p. 742; Ian Hancock, The V.I.P. Affair 1966–67: The Causes, Course and Consequences of a Ministerial and Public Service Cover-up, Australasian Study of Parliament Group, Canberra, 2004, pp. 97–103; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 474–7.

[6] Age (Melb.), 25 July 1968, p. 1, 30 July 1968, p. 3; CT, 30 July 1968, p. 3; CPD, 14 Aug. 1968, pp. 54–65, 72–7; Senate, Journals, 14 Aug. 1968, p. 158.

[7] Peter Howson, The Howson Diaries: The Life of Politics, ed. Don Aitkin, Viking Press, Ringwood, Vic., 1984, p. 526; SMH, 17 Apr. 1970, p. 7; New South Wales Countryman (Syd.), July 1967, p. 6; CPD, 14 Apr. 1970, p. 741.

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. 408-412.

McKELLAR, Gerald Colin (1903–1970)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1958–70

Minister for Repatriation, 1964–69

Chairman of Committees, 1962–64

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1959–62

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1961–62

Standing Orders Committee, 1962–64

Committee of Privileges, 1969–70

Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1970