McMULLIN, Sir Alister Maxwell (1900–1984)
Senator for New South Wales, 1951–71 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Alister Maxwell McMullin, who remains the longest serving President of the Senate, was born on 14 July 1900 at Bingeberry in the hamlet of Rouchel, near Scone, in the Hunter Valley, NSW. He was the seventh child of William George McMullin and Catherine, née McDonald, who had married in Rouchel in 1884, Catherine having lived in nearby Stewarts Brook. Educated at state schools, Alister, like his father, became a well-known pastoralist of the district. His property, St Aubins, where McMullin ran cattle and bred horses, was described as ‘one of the finest properties in the Hunter Valley’. From 1928 to 1931, and again from 1935 to 1940, he was a member of the Upper Hunter Pastures Protection Board, and also of the Upper Hunter Shire Council. From 1935 to 1940, and again in the 1960s, he served as chair of the Scott Memorial Hospital Board in Scone. In July 1940 McMullin enlisted as a gunner in the Australian Military Forces. Commissioned into the RAAF in January 1941, he was appointed flight lieutenant in October 1942. From 1 June until 20 July 1944 he heldtemporary command of the newly formed 42 Squadron, which, equipped with Catalina flying boats, patrolled the northern coast of Australia, around Darwin and Melville Bay. He was demobilised on 22 February 1946.[1]

Returning to civilian life, on 23 November 1946 McMullin married Thelma Louise Smith, daughter of the wealthy industrialist, William John (‘Gunboat’) Smith, at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, Sydney. In 1948, at the suggestion of a friend, John Carrick, McMullin founded the Scone branch of the expanding new Liberal Party, later serving as branch president and as president of the Paterson Electorate Conference. Politics was in the family, and McMullin’s cousin, S. L. Gardner, had served as the MHR for Robertson from 1922 to 1940.

On 28 April 1951 McMullin was elected to the Senate. As this election followed a simultaneous dissolution of both houses of the federal Parliament, McMullin’s term of office was deemed to have begun on 1 July 1950, under section 13 of the Constitution. His contributions to debate reflect his belief in free enterprise, his antipathy to trade unions and his idealisation of the Menzies Government. He saw food production as the ‘fourth branch of Defence’, and Russia as the main threat to world peace. He believed that the ‘current’ inflationary trend was caused by the shortage of consumer goods.[2]

McMullin was elected President of the Senate on 8 September 1953, defeating the incumbent President, Senator Mattner, in a party room nominative vote. He was the first President from New South Wales since Senator Gould completed his term in 1910. McMullin’s appointment had the support of the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, who faced an uncertain Senate majority (largely due to mavericks in government ranks) between May 1953 and December 1955, and who distrusted Mattner’s cosy relationship with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, South Australia’s Archie Cameron. Menzies was anxious to have an obedient party man as Senate President.[3]

McMullin was that man. The perfect party strategist, amiable and urbane, with a distinguished presence, and generating an aura of fair-mindedness, McMullin served as Senate President for nearly eighteen years, his finger always on the political pulse. In his rulings he made it clear that he did not wish debate to be stifled by rigid adherence to rules of procedure, stating that ‘Senators seeking to cast insults or engage in sharp criticism by way of interjection must be prepared to “take something” in return’. Known as ‘Big Al’, his management style was easy and flexible, and he was usually able to rely on his reputation for, as Senator Byrne put it, ‘liberality and understanding’. During one particularly fractious Question Time, McMullin peered out from the president’s chair, remarking, with excellent effect, that ‘it is a bit early in the day for that sort of nonsense’.

Prior to 1967 McMullin faced only one motion of dissent. This occurred on 23 May 1956, during some lively interchanges between the Liberals’ Senator Wright and the ALP’s Senator Hendrickson, on ‘immigration and communism’. These were subjects, Wright declared, that should not be delegated to ‘that insignificant gutter along the trend of which Senator Hendrickson’s mind travels’. In the midst of tumult, McMullin ruled that Wright’s words were not offensive. This caused Labor’s Senator Kennelly to move that the ruling be dissented from, but as the Government had the numbers in the Senate, McMullin’s ruling was upheld.

A few days later, the Leader of the Opposition, Senator McKenna moved, albeit unsuccessfully, the first and only censure motion against a Senate President. McKenna’s principal grievance was McMullin’s failure to notify the Senate of his decision to recognise Senator Cole as the leader of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), of which Cole was then the sole representative in the Parliament. McKenna referred to the fact that, on 17 April, Menzies told the House of Representatives that Cole received allowances and benefits accruing to his party ‘leadership’, the Prime Minister suggesting that McMullin had acknowledged Cole as a party leader in the Senate. Opposition senators saw this as the Government currying favour with Cole (who at this time held the balance of power in the Senate), and were enraged.[4]

During Question Time on 26 September 1967, Senator McKellar, the Minister representing the Minister for Air in the Senate, was under scrutiny regarding the Holt Government’s use of VIP aircraft, when the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Denham Henty, proposed: ‘That further questions be put on the notice paper’. McMullin allowed the motion to go through on the voices, and proceeded to the next question. When the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Murphy, dissented, McMullin responded: ‘It must be understood that I am only following the established practice of the Senate. The Minister has the right to say when question time will end. No ruling has been made, so Senator Murphy cannot dissent from a ruling I have not given’. Murphy argued that a motion had been proposed, and had not been carried on the voices. The proper course was to proceed to a division. The Democratic Labor Party’s Senator McManus, supporting Murphy, said, ‘I believe that what the Senate does is a matter for decision by the majority of the Senate’. After what was later dubbed ‘an intriguing debate’, Labor’s Senator Willesee successfully moved, by twenty-nine votes to twenty-three: ‘That the ruling be dissented from’, the Liberals’ Senator Branson voting with the Opposition.[5]

In 1968 and 1969 McMullin faced potential challenges to his position and authority. In June 1968 an ALP proposal to join with the DLP in electing a Labor President was turned down by the DLP, and, in July, a report that some Liberals were lobbying for Senator Branson for President also came to nothing. In August a successful motion by Senator Murphy to suspend standing orders, in order that an item on the Notice Paper on the site of the new Parliament House should be brought forward, was ruled invalid by McMullin, on the basis that an absolute majority of all senators had not been obtained, as required by standing order 448. Murphy then took a step not previously made in the Parliament. His motion that the ruling be dissented from was made on the grounds that it was overridden by section 23 of the Australian Constitution: ‘Questions arising in the Senate shall be determined by a majority of votes’. Murphy’s motion was carried twenty-six votes to twenty-three, but not before Senator Greenwood quoted section 50 of the Constitution, which provides that each house of the Parliament should make rules and orders with respect to its powers and privileges, and the order and conduct of its business. Greenwood felt that once the Senate undertook a secondary High Court role there would be no end to the process. When an almost identical situation occurred again in May 1969, McMullin stated that he felt bound to take note of the Senate’s twice-expressed dissent over standing order 448. The Standing Orders Committee considered the matter, but the standing order has remained in force, and senators have since used contingent notices of motion to circumvent the requirement for an absolute majority.[6]

Rulings by McMullin that remain in use include the following: that visitors to the public galleries at Parliament House refrain from discourtesies that would interrupt Senate proceedings; that senators, although discouraged from reading speeches during debate, may read material referring to intricate or technical detail; that all statements or imputations that a minister or senator has lied are disorderly; that Senate procedures do not allow a motion that a senator be no longer heard; that a senator is not obliged to vote for his or her own motion; and that the conduct of members of either house shall not be reflected on in questions.

Of particular significance was McMullin’s ruling of 20 May 1969, when Murphy proposed a debate on the controversial issue of repealing contempt provisions of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. With the explosive issue of the goaling of union leader Clarrie O’Shea before the courts at this time, Wright suggested that the matter was sub judice. After a lengthy debate, McMullin ruled:

As a general rule the Chair will not allow references to matters which are awaiting or are under adjudication in the courts if such references may prejudice proceedings. But it does not necessarily follow that just because a matter is before a court every aspect of it must be sub judice and beyond the limits of permissible debate in Parliament. That would be too restrictive of the rights of Parliament. Within those limits, the debate may proceed.[7]

McMullin also travelled extensively in his official capacity, making goodwill visits to many nations, including the USA, Singapore, India, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Israel. In November 1963, he attended the funeral of John F. Kennedy. An enthusiastic advocate of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), he served as CPA chairman (1959–60), initiating a trust fund for smaller branches.[8]

On 12 May 1971 McMullin left the Senate to return to St Aubins, his retirement having been announced the year before. A great lover of books, as chairman of the Parliamentary Library Committee McMullin supported the development of specialised information services for the Parliamentary Library, and the Parliamentary Information and Reference Centre at the CPA’s headquarters in London, which he presented with books on the Australian Parliament. Between 1956 and 1960 he had contributed significantly to the development of the National Library of Australia (NLA) as a separate institution from the Parliamentary Library. He became chairman of the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographical Services in 1956. Appointed KCMG in 1957, he was elected a founding  member of the NLA council in March 1961, serving as deputy chairman from 1961 to 1971, and as chairman from 1971 to 1973. From 1966 to 1977 he was founding chancellor of the University of Newcastle, the university having awarded him an honorary degree of doctor of letters in 1966. A building at the university bears his name. In retirement, he was director of Muswellbrook Industries and of Forestwood Australia. An active Freemason, he was a member of the Scone Lodge for over sixty years.

McMullin enjoyed the flourishes of office. When he left the Senate he retained, with the Queen’s assent, the title of ‘Honourable’. One of his few regrets was that it had not been possible to expedite further the work of the Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, of which he had been chairman. As he left the Senate, McMullen remarked, with a little poignancy, that it had been ‘good fun’. His words suggest the Senate as it was during the greater part of his presidency: a clubbable, easygoing place without the tensions which arose after its revitalisation in the late 1960s, through the expansion of the committee system, a change that McMullin himself enthusiastically endorsed.[9]

McMullin died in the Scone District Nursing Home on 7 August 1984, and was interred at the Uniting Cemetery, after a private service at St Phillip’s Uniting Church, Rouchel. Thelma survived him, as did one of their two children. Perhaps the best tribute to him was paid by Senator Murphy on the occasion of McMullin’s retirement from the Senate. Murphy said, ‘I think that behind your fairly serious demeanour reposes a deep sense of humour and a keen appreciation of human frailty … You have been fair but firm in your handling of proceedings’.[10]

Sylvia Marshall

[1] The editor acknowledges the assistance of Diane Lewis, Scott Memorial Hospital, Scone, NSW; CPD, 21 Aug. 1984 (R), p. 22; McMullin, Alister Maxwell—Defence Service Records, B883, NX52635 and A9300, NAA; RAAF Unit History Sheets (Form A50) Number 42 Squadron, 1944–45, A9186, 87, NAA; Units of the Royal Australian Air Force: A Concise History, vol. 4, comp. RAAF Historical Section, AGPS, Canberra, 1995, pp. 77, 79.

[2] Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 84; Liberal Opinion (Syd.), Apr.–May 1951, p. 11; CPD, 20 June 1951, p. 92, 11 Sept. 1952, pp. 1288–91, 13 July 1951, p. 1678, 24 Oct. 1951, p. 1052.

[3] CPD, 8 Sept. 1953, pp. 4–6; SMH, 9 Sept. 1953, p. 3; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 28 May 1970, p. 4; Whitington, Ring the Bells, p. 84; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 427.

[4] Senate Registry File, A8161, S176, NAA; CPD, 12 May 1971, p. 1716, 21 Aug. 1984, p. 22, 23 May 1956, pp. 941–8; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 43–4; CPD, 29 May 1956, pp. 1015–62, 17 Apr. 1956 (R), p. 1357.

[5] J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, pp. 214–15; 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, p. 38; CPD, 26 Sept. 1967, pp. 879–97; Senate Registry File, A8161, S176, NAA.

[6] SMH, 16 July 1968, p. 7; Senate Registry File, A8161, s176, NAA; Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, pp. 276–7; CPD, 22 Aug. 1968, pp. 243–75, 27 Aug. 1968, pp. 301–2, 20 May 1969, pp. 1382–91, 21 May 1969, p. 1401; CT, 28 Aug. 1968, p. 13; Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 10th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2001, p. 193.

[7] Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 12th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2008, pp. 79, 183, 186, 194, 199, 206–9, 214, 222, 266, 498–9, 501; Rulings of the President of the Senate (The Hon. Sir Alister McMullin, KCMG) from 1953 to 1971, vol. 11, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1978; CPD, 20 May 1969, pp. 1360–2, 1368.

[8] Ian Grey, The Parliamentarians: The History of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association 1911–1985, Gower, Aldershot, Hampshire, England, 1986, pp. 99–104, 113–14, 138–9, 142–3, 161, 186, 188; Senate Registry File, A8161, S176, NAA.

[9] Statement by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator the Honourable Ken Anderson, 27 May 1970; Press release, Appointment of Sir Alister McMullin, K.C.M.G., as Chairman, NLA, Nov. 1971; SMH, 13 May 1971, p. 12, 16 July 1966, p. 10; AFR (Syd.), 4 Dec. 1970, p. 6; The editor is indebted to Laurie Ring, Secretary, Masonic Lodge, Hunter Valley area, NSW; Senate Registry File, A8161, s176, NAA; CPD, 12 May 1971, pp. 1719–20; CPP, 32/1970.

[10] CT, 9 Aug. 1984, p. 3; SMH, 8 Aug. 1984, p. 13; CPD, 12 May 1971, p. 1710.

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. 394-398.

McMULLIN, Sir Alister Maxwell (1900–1984)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1951–71

President of the Senate, 1953–71

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1953–71

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1953–71

Library Committee, 1953–71

Standing Orders Committee, 1953–71

Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1965–71