SHERRINGTON, Robert Duncan (1902–1966)
Senator for Queensland, 1962–66 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Robert Duncan Sherrington devoted most of his life to the sugar industry and to the Queensland Liberal Party. He was born in Maryborough, Queensland, on 21 January 1902, the son of James McGowan Sherrington, driller, and Mary Ellen, née Crane. He was the cousin of Douglas Sherrington, who represented the Queensland state electorate of Salisbury for the Labor Party between 1960 and 1974.

Growing up on his father’s cane farm on the Elliott River, Bob was educated at Bundaberg and then employed as a chemist in the laboratories of various sugar mills from 1921 to 1931. On 21 February 1927 Sherrington married Muriel Whittred, a bookkeeper, at Christ Church Anglican Church, Bundaberg. In 1932 he became a field cane inspector, and from 1940 was the chief cane inspector for Pioneer Sugar Mills Ltd. In 1943 he owned and worked a cane farm in the Burdekin region, pioneering various irrigation and fertilisation techniques. Sherrington was chairman of the Maidavale Progress Association for three years, and chairman of the Combined Progress Associations of the Ayr district for two.

Active in Liberal affairs, rather than in the Country Party, which was far more prominent in North Queensland, he became a member of the party’s state executive and Federal Council and, between 1954 and 1959, served as chairman of its North Queensland zone. Sherrington was chairman of the party’s state rural committee and acting chairman of the federal rural committee. Until 1961, he was also spokesman for the Liberals on the North Queensland Co-ordinating Committee, formed in 1956. In 1957 he sold his farm and moved to Brisbane where he became increasingly involved in the Liberal Party. At the federal poll of 9 December 1961, he was elected to Queensland’s fifth spot in the Senate, narrowly beating former Premier Vince Gair.[1]

Sherrington was sworn in the Senate on 7 August 1962. He quickly became a noted advocate for the development of the north, especially Queensland, although he once wryly observed that no one seemed to know the whereabouts of northern Australia, and recommended that senators learn where it was in the event of their debating ‘the subject on some occasion’. He spoke with ‘some feeling’ on education, recalling that when in the far north, with five children, there were no suitable education facilities closer than Brisbane. His first speech examined the budget’s provisions for increased spending in the north, praising the Menzies Government for its expenditure ‘on such projects as the Mount Isa railway, beef cattle roads in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, a standard-gauge railway in West Australia, coal-loading facilities at ports in New South Wales and Queensland, and the development of the brigalow land in Queensland’. Continuing to address these issues, he emphasised that development was impossible unless carried out scientifically, and supported a further CSIRO laboratory in Townsville, the Townsville Pasture Research Laboratory. Knowledgeable about the land and its plants, his prime concern was for the rural population. He was especially interested in investigating ways whereby sugar farmers could obtain permanent markets for their product.[2]

In May 1964 Sherrington became Liberal state president and in 1965 was re-elected unopposed. He had served as vice-president from 1958 to 1963. While the Country Party had hitherto been more influential than the Liberals in Queensland, during the final years of the Menzies rule the position had changed. Between 1962 and 1964 there was an increase of some 30 per cent in party membership due, in part, to the Prime Minister’s careful cultivation of the Queensland branch. Membership of the Young Liberals, a special interest of Sherrington’s, also had risen considerably.

At the Liberal Party state convention in May 1964, resolutions were passed ‘seeking the right for Members of Parliament to speak “regularly and frequently” on behalf of constituents, electorate or State; and restoration of the right to ask questions without notice’. When the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, the Country Party’s David Nicholson, objected, Sherrington responded with equal vehemence, accusing Nicholson of gross disrespect towards the Liberal Party. On 7 June, Brisbane’s Sunday Mail reported a party statement effectively declaring that the Liberals would continue to extend their power base, quoting Sherrington’s statement that the party had ‘a right’ to establish Liberal organisations wherever it deemed appropriate. This was an obvious move away from the earlier arrangement in which the two parties had agreed not to oppose each other in certain electorates, although Sherrington averred that there had never been a permanent arrangement.

Sherrington refused to accept that the Liberals would always remain the junior partner in the coalition: ‘As the Queensland division of the sole National party contesting against socialism in all States, is it surprising or improper’, he asked, ‘that the Liberal Party should be ambitious?’ Sherrington argued that the population shifts in Queensland, particularly those that had resulted in the ‘citification’ of the Sunshine and Gold Coast areas, had made vast changes in the electoral situation. He ‘rejected out of hand any notion that [Queensland] electors should be denied the basic right of a choice of candidates to oppose socialism’. Sherrington defended the then novel notion of three-cornered contests, saying that they enlarged, rather than reduced the government vote, and on 2 April 1965 announced his party’s decision to run such contests in the forthcoming state election of 28 May 1966. John Ahern, state president of the Country Party, warned that the Liberals were ‘prepared to wreck not only the coalition but the future of Queensland as well’. On 3 March 1966 Sherrington clashed with Russ Hinze, the Country Party candidate for the South Coast, when Hinze suggested that the Liberals should withdraw their candidate. Accusing Hinze of being ‘the rankest political amateur’, Sherrington affirmed, ‘Three-cornered contests are here to stay; they are good democracy’.[3]

Twelve days later, on 16 March, Sherrington died in office, mourned by his party as a ‘Great Loss’. His last major public appearance had been at the Young Liberals’ Convention in Rockhampton at the end of January, when his terminal illness had been apparent to those present. His funeral service was conducted at St Andrew’s Church of England, Indooroopilly. His wife survived him as did their five children. In the Senate the Leader of the Opposition, Senator McKenna, spoke movingly of his last conversations with Sherrington, while Liberal colleagues paid tribute to ‘a man with a great talent for sound commonsense, which enabled him to see through the tangled maze of side issues that so often make for confusion and perplexity in politics’. A close friend, Senator Branson—the two were dubbed in the Senate ‘the terrible twins’—remembered Sherrington as ‘one of the breed of tough, fighting and kindly Australians that is unfortunately dying out’.

In his four years in the Senate, Sherrington’s only parliamentary position was membership of the Printing Committee. Of much more importance to him was the fact that in January 1966, despite being well past the age limit for membership, he had been made a member of the Queensland Young Liberal movement, in part an acknowledgement of his championing their cause at a time when some Queensland Liberals saw the participation of youth in politics as a dangerous innovation. Proud of the honour bestowed upon him by his young friends, Sherrington took every remaining opportunity to say: ‘I am the oldest Young Liberal’. The Queensland Young Liberals continue to hold the R. D. Sherrington Dinner in his memory each year.[4]

Brian Stevenson

[1] Australian Sugar Journal (Brisb.), Mar. 1966, p. 1004; CourierMail (Brisb.), 17 Mar. 1966, p. 1; Queensland Liberal (Brisb.), Apr. 1966, p. 2; CPD, 17 Mar. 1966, pp. 90–2; Katharine West, Power in the Liberal Party: A Study in Australian Politics, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 110–12.

[2] CPD, 10 Sept. 1963, pp. 412–13, 22 Aug. 1962, pp. 381–4, 11 Oct. 1962, pp. 821–2, 7 Dec. 1962, pp. 1859–60.

[3] Liberal Party of Australia, Qld division, Report of Executive to Convention, 1963, MS 5000, box 357, NLA; Queensland Liberal (Brisb.), Oct. 1963, pp. 3–4; Sunday Mail (Brisb.), 7 June 1964, p. 11; CourierMail (Brisb.), 2 June 1964, p. 11, 1 June 1964, p. 3, 20 Jan. 1965, p. 7; Ross Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s: A History of Queensland, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1984, pp. 236–7; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 28 Sept. 1965, p. 3; Paul Reynolds, Lock, Stock & Barrel: A Political Biography of Mike Ahern, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 2002, p. 16; CourierMail (Brisb.), 4 Mar. 1966, p. 9.

[4] Queensland Liberal (Brisb.), Apr. 1966, p. 2; CourierMail (Brisb.), 19 Mar. 1966, p. 7, 17 Mar. 1966, pp. 1, 30; CPD, 17 Mar. 1966, pp. 89–92; CourierMail (Brisb.), 17 Mar. 1966, 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. 313-315.

Sherrington, Robert Duncan (1902–1966)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1962–66

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1962–65