MORRIS, Sir Kenneth James (1903–1978)
Senator for Queensland, 1963–68 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Kenneth James Morris, pastoralist, manufacturer, soldier and politician, was born in Brisbane on 22 October 1903, eighth child born to James Reuben Morris, a farmer born in Northhampton, England, and his wife Christina McKenzie, née Grant, born in Geelong, Victoria. Morris was educated at state schools at Ithaca Creek and Mapleton between 1912 and 1917, and at Brisbane Grammar School from 1918 to 1919. On 1 October 1931 he married Ettie Louise Dunlop, a typist, at the Ithaca Presbyterian Church, Red Hill. Prior to World War II, Morris had established himself as an indent agent and manufacturer. He was by nature an entrepreneur, and the instincts of the entrepreneur characterised his commercial and political life. Early in his career, he established his own retail business as well as holding directorships in several Morris family companies, among them a boot manufactory. In his fifties, he took up farming at his property, Rosebank, near Cooktown in North Queensland. During the 1960s, as chairman of directors of Hazelmere Tropical Pastures Pty Ltd, he pioneered the growth and export of tropical legume seeds.[1]

On 9 November 1939, Morris had enlisted with the AIF, serving in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, including at Tobruk (he was a ‘Tobruk Rat’), Syria, and El Alamein, and in New Guinea. He began the war as a lieutenant and ended it as a major after a transfer to the Reserve of Officers in June 1944. In the opinion of Morris’old friend, the Queensland MLA and Cabinet minister Charles Porter, ‘he came back from the war with a burning dedication, a deep sense of responsibility that he had to play a part in fashioning the world that many of his comrades did not live to see’.

After the war, Morris became the founder and inaugural president of the Queensland branch of the Rats of Tobruk Association and from 1947 served as federal president. The war had an adverse effect on his health and he was afflicted throughout his life with deafness and nervous strain.[2]

Morris had long had a strong interest in politics. In 1938 he had unsuccessfully contested the seat of Ithaca for the United Australia Party in the Queensland state elections. In October 1943 he became a founding member of the Queensland People’s Party, which became the Queensland division of the Liberal Party of Australia in July 1949. He served as a member of the Legislative Assembly in the Queensland Parliament between 1944 and 1963 (MLA for the seats of Enoggera, 1944–50, and Mount Coot-tha, 1950–63), resigning due to poor health in June 1963. Morris’ first speech in the Assembly, on 23 August 1944, was a plea for the introduction of preference for ex-servicemen in employment and promotion. Towards the end of his political career, Morris’ views on this issue had moderated and he argued that preference should only ‘restore those men … to a position where they will not be disadvantaged because of their war service’ and not ‘be an overall blanket that will last throughout their days’.[3]

Morris led the Parliamentary Liberal Party in Queensland between 1954 and 1962 and occupied the posts of Deputy Premier (1957–62) and Minister for Labour and Industry (1957–62) under the Country Party’s Premier, Frank Nicklin. Morris’ portfolio during this time included police, traffic engineering and tourism, as well as industry and industrial relations. According to Nicklin, Morris’ ideals were ‘to industrialise Queensland, and also to give emphasis to the tourist potential of Queensland’. In March 1958 Morris led a delegation of businessmen to the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Europe in order to promote development and investment opportunities in Queensland and to study the tourist industry. Morris focused on publicity as the area in which the Government could make its greatest contribution, and literature promoting Queensland’s attractions was produced and disseminated through a chain of tourist agencies abroad, in particular targeting countries around the Pacific Rim. At Morris’ instigation, the Tourist Ministers’ Council was formed in 1959.[4]

Morris recovered quickly from the serious illness that had caused his retirement from state politics, and within months of his resignation was, reputedly, persuaded by friends in the Liberal Party to stand for election to the Senate. At the House of Representatives election of 30 November 1963, Morris stood for the Senate seat made available by the death of Senator Poulter in 1962. Under existing electoral law, the seat had been filled until the election by Senator Whiteside. After a close contest, Morris won, despite having his name ‘submerged’ on the ballot paper with two independents and a Social Credit Party candidate in an ungrouped list. He would serve as a senator for Queensland from 30 November 1963 until the end of his term on 30 June 1968, following the Liberal Party’s failure to re-endorse him.[5]

In the Senate, Morris was a robust champion of Queensland’s beef, poultry and prawning industries, as well as the state’s air services and irrigation schemes. The subject nearest his heart, to which he returned again and again, was the development of northern Australia, where he lived (near Cooktown, Queensland) and where he had extensive pastoral interests. As he stated in his first speech, in characteristically crisp style:

I have heard much about the need for the development of northern Australia and I have read voluminous statements on the subject; but I have been disappointed that few have delineated the areas they consider comprise northern Australia. Concrete proposals for the advancement of northern Australia are even more rare. One seldom hears a plan for any catalyst which will trigger off any development in the north. It is hardly helpful merely to generalize about a problem without trying to analyse it.

Describing himself as a ‘North Queenslander’, Morris told the Senate in October 1965 that much remained to be done in developing the north, that the task was the joint responsibility of the Commonwealth, Queensland and Western Australian governments and that greater advances could be made in the north by establishing a development commission comprising representatives of these three governments. Two years later, he was still expressing reservations about the way in which the federal Government’s northern development policy was being implemented. Morris pursued an increasingly independent line on the subject.[6]

Tourism and industrial relations, old themes from his time in the Queensland Parliament, were also revisited. In the debate on the Australian Tourism Commission Bill 1967, he criticised the splitting of federal responsibility for tourism among several ministers. On the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill 1964, he referred to his role in introducing the controversial Queensland Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1961. This Act overhauled the state’s industrial law system. Union objections to its provisions, which increased penalties on unions for defying court orders and prohibited the Industrial Commission from granting bonus payments in awards, had resulted in the Mount Isa strike of September to November 1961. In 1965 Morris maintained ‘I have always tried to do everything in my power to bring harmony into the industrial life of Australia’. He added: ‘I hate industrial strife. But I go further. I hate injustice, too. I think that anybody is entitled to fight if he believes he is suffering a great injustice’.[7]

Between 1965 and 1968, Morris was a member of the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory. In October 1967 the Minister for the Interior, J. D. Anthony, asked the committee to inquire into and report upon the subdivision and use of freehold land in the ACT. The committee considered that the terms of reference provided by the minister were too narrow. Requests by the committee to extend the terms of reference were refused. On 17 October 1967, Morris supported Senator Branson when the latter informed the Senate of his intention to resign from the committee on the grounds that it could no longer fulfil any useful purpose. Both senators argued that parliamentary committees should have the power to decide what matters should be investigated. This opinion, though not supported by the Government, became resolution 49 of the Joint Committee’s 1968 report on the Australian Capital Territory Freehold Lands Inquiry.[8]

While Morris could be relied upon by the Leader of the Government in the Senate to produce, at short notice, ‘a stirring speech … on any matter’, he was not averse to crossing the floor on a matter of principle. When Senator Wright sought to suspend the standing orders to enable him to move an amendment to the Constitution Alteration (Parliament) Bill in 1965, Morris, while disagreeing with the substance of the amendment, leapt to Wright’s defence with a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words: ‘I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.[9]

Morris, who measured 5 feet 7 inches (170 centimetres) in height, was a highly active and dynamic man who possessed ‘a fighting spirit in inverse proportion to his size’. Mercurial in temperament, he committed all his resources to the task at hand. According to his colleague, Sir Thomas Hiley, Queensland Treasurer and Minister for Housing, Morris worked ‘like a meteor, very very fast worker, a bit too passionate, both in the House and in his administration. Ken Morris either liked you 200 per cent or detested you 200 per cent’. This great investment of his energies took its toll on his health. In 1974 he remarked: ‘If I’d stayed in politics, I don’t think I could have stood the stresses. The tensions and strains in politics are very great’.

In 1964 Morris was appointed CMG. He was knighted in January 1968. Returning to North Queensland after leaving the Senate, he was as ‘happy as a sandboy’ on his farm, and, always having an eye for a business opportunity, ran a milk delivery service in Cooktown. Morris never really retired, but after turning seventy he did spend more of his time fishing and playing lawn bowls. He died in the Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane on 1 June 1978. His funeral service was held at the Ithaca Presbyterian Church. Ettie and four of their five children survived him.[10]

Derek Drinkwater

[1] Brian F. Stevenson, ‘Morris, Sir Kenneth James’, ADB, vol. 15; Ithaca Creek State School, Admissions register, 1912, mfm Z4246, Mapleton State School, Admissions register, 1912, mfm Z7215, QSA; The editor is indebted to Pam Barnett, Brisbane Grammar School; QPD, 1 Aug. 1978, p. 1455; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 2 Jan. 1968, p. 6.

[2] Morris, Kenneth James—Defence Service Record, B883, QX6046, NAA; QPD, 1 Aug. 1978, p. 1458; Tobruk Truth (Brisb.), June 1978, p. 11; QPP News (Brisb.), Mar. 1947, p. 2; CPD, 1 Nov. 1967, p. 2003; Sir Thomas Hiley, Transcript of oral history interview with Suzanne Lunney, 1974, TRC 253, NLA, p. 2:2/3.

[3] Raphael Cilento (ed.), Triumph in the Tropics: An Historical Sketch of Queensland, Smith & Paterson, Brisbane, 1959, p. 417; QPD, 23 Aug. 1944, pp. 176–80; CPD, 15 Sept. 1964, p. 431.

[4] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 24 Aug. 1962, p. 1; Achievement: The First Term of CountryLiberal Party Government, State Public Relations Bureau, Brisbane, [1960], p. 12; Sir Francis Nicklin, Transcript of oral history interview with Suzanne Lunney, 1974, TRC 254, NLA, pp. 1:2/9–10; Queensland Public Relations Bureau, News Bulletin, 4 July 1958, pp. 4–5, 17 Feb. 1961, pp. 4–5, 14 Nov. 1958, pp. 4–5; CPD, 9 May 1967, p. 1240.

[5] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 24 Aug. 1962, p. 1, 18 Dec. 1963, p. 3; Queensland Liberal (Brisb.), Feb. 1964, p. 5; Truth (Brisb.), 30 July 1967, p. 7.

[6] CPD, 15 Apr. 1964, pp. 677–82, 19 May 1965, pp. 926–9, 30 Aug. 1967, pp. 357–61, 25 May 1965, pp. 1197–1200, 30 May 1968, pp. 1301–3, 25 Feb. 1964, p. 20, 5 Oct. 1965, pp. 805–7, 19 Oct. 1967, pp. 1424–5.

[7] CPD, 9 May 1967, p. 1239, 10 Nov. 1964, p. 1581; QPD, 2 Mar. 1961, pp. 2400–15; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 3 Mar. 1961, p. 1; D. J. Murphy (ed.), The Big Strikes: Queensland 1889–1965, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1983, pp. 276–81; Ross Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s: A History of Queensland, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1984, pp. 223–4; CPD, 13 May 1965, pp. 842–3.

[8] CT, 14 Oct. 1967, p. 1; CPP, 2/1968, pp. 1–2, 14; CPD, 17 Oct. 1967, pp. 1331–2; CT, 18 Oct. 1967, p. 1.

[9] CPD, 13 June 1968, p. 1802, 2 Dec. 1965, p. 2020.

[10] Clem Lack (ed.), Three Decades of Queensland Political History 1929–1960, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1962, pp. 642–3; CPD, 13 June 1968, p. 1806; Hiley, Transcript, pp. 2:2/1, 2:2/3; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 3 June 1978, pp. 3, 63, 1 Jan. 1968, p. 3.

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. 319-322.

MORRIS, Sir Kenneth James (1903–1978)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1963–68

Queensland Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Enoggera, 1944–50; Mount Coot-tha, 1950–63

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1965–68

Committee of Privileges, 1967–68