LACEY, Robert Herbert (1900–1984)
Senator for Tasmania, 1965–71 (Australian Labor Party)

Robert Herbert (Bert) Lacey was born on 12 January 1900 at Maryborough, Victoria, one of six children of Herbert Edwin, a labourer, and Ellen Eliza, née Finch. In 1985 the Senate heard a remarkable panegyric from Brian Harradine, who said that Lacey’s childhood included ‘periods of deprivation, hunger and bullying’. Harradine described Bert as ‘virtually an orphan’, who, after his mother died in 1911, ‘was raised in extremely hard conditions and was provided with scarcely enough food to sustain him’. At the age of sixteen he weighed only six stone (38 kilograms). Lacey was educated in Ballarat, probably at Dana Street School and from 1912 at Wendouree State School. In 1914 Lacey began work as a farm labourer. On 28 October 1918 he enlisted in the AIF, though he did not see service overseas. He continued picking up jobs on farms before turning to mining in 1919 at Gaffney’s Creek, Matlock, and at Woods Point, where he was taught how to box to defend himself. In 1924 he moved to Tasmania, working at the Golden Gate mine at Mathinna, where, at the Catholic Church he married Mary Emmeline (Emme) Clark on 7 July 1926. Later that year the couple went to New Zealand, with spells at mines and logging camps. Returning to Tasmania, Emme and Bert suffered hardship during the Depression, but at length Bert found work in various mines around Tasmania. In July 1942 Lacey enlisted in Sprent, Tasmania, for service in the Australian Military Forces, though no official records of his service have come to light.[1]

Lacey had joined the Victoria–Riverina mining branch of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in 1918, and from 1938 to 1947 was a paid labour organiser for the union, based in Ulverstone, Tasmania. Though he was a state vice-president of the AWU in 1951, in April that year Lacey, along with the Tasmanian executive, was dismissed by the AWU federal executive as being unconstitutionally elected. In October, his attempt to be reinstated as a member of the union failed. He would be elected vice-president of the Federated Clerks’ Union in 1964 and in 1970.

Lacey served as the first full-time secretary of the Tasmanian ALP from 1947 to 1964, and in 1951 was a delegate to Labor’s Triennial Commonwealth Conference in Canberra. In 1950 and from 1954 to 1963, he was a Tasmanian delegate to interstate Labor conferences, notably the famous conference in Hobart in March 1955, at which the party’s upheavals bore heavily upon him. While himself Catholic and anti-communist, Lacey now joined in defeating the faction based on the Industrial Groups and B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement as it sought to win dominance. (He later told Labor historian Richard Davis how strong the pressure was on Tasmanian Catholics to join these forces.)[2]

In 1946 Lacey won ALP endorsement for Darwin for the state election. Very early in the campaign, he suffered severe injuries in a traffic accident, which left him unable to campaign and may have cost him the seat. In 1956 he stood again for the Tasmanian House of Assembly in Denison, and again was defeated. Lacey entered the House of Assembly in January 1959 following the resignation of a member. He did so under the system of filling casual vacancies by the redistribution of the ex-member’s ballot papers without a by-election. Representing Denison, Lacey’s tenure was brief as the general election on 2 May went against him. He also tried twice for the federal seat of Denison, first at the 1954 House of Representatives election and again in 1958, on both occasions missing out to the Liberals’ A. G. Townley. He stood for the Senate in December 1955, and lost. At length he had a victory, winning a Senate place in December 1964 and taking his seat in July 1965. By this time, he had also served as a Tasmanian delegate to the Federal Executive (1959–64).

In his first speech, Lacey began by praising the ‘friendly atmosphere’ in the Senate. He laid claim to having visited Canberra some fifty-four times, which was feasible, since he had worked in the parliamentary office of Senator McKenna. Lacey also detailed cases of anomalies in social security benefits, and expressed his concern over the inadequacies of funding for prisoners on their release from gaol, noting that for the last fifteen years he had been president of a gaol visitation committee. He spoke about the Vietnam War, which would remain a subject of great concern to him. The previous day, he had asked John Gorton, representing the Acting Minister for Defence in the Senate, whether Australia had declared war in Vietnam and why Parliament had not been consulted in the matter. Gorton failed to give a direct answer, instead citing his response to a similar question from Lionel Murphy. Lacey noted the ‘distinct reluctance’ of the Government to address the issue. He emphasised that his misgivings about the conflict had arisen despite his own anti-communism and admiration for the USA.[3]

The next year Lacey was a member of the Australian delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference at Ottawa. Duly reporting to the Senate, he enthused about ‘the great logging undertakings, the paper mills, the huge smelters and steel works’ with which Canada abounded. For men like Lacey, such things promised nirvana. He told the Senate how he had striven to explain proportional representation and the esteem in which this was held in Tasmania. ‘This’, he said, ‘created some excitement … particularly from some of the coloured people who claimed that proportional representation had ruined democracy in their own states’.[4]

Occasionally Lacey raised questions on Tasmanian issues, such as the fate of fruit caught in the Suez Canal in the 1967 Israel–Egypt conflict, and the impact of this on Tasmanian growers. He reiterated his concern for prisoners by calling for the Commonwealth to make good a commitment to criminological research. In 1969 he moved that the Senate take note of a ministerial statement by Reg Wright on the establishment of an Australian institute of criminology (eventually established in 1973).

Throughout his time in the Senate, Lacey maintained his impassioned critique of the Vietnam situation. He accepted that North Vietnam had provoked the conflict with South Vietnam, but asked in 1968, ‘Can any honourable senator opposite show me where we have been threatened by the people of North Vietnam, either directly or implicitly? I have never heard of such a threat’. He said that he had found Americans overwhelmingly against the war, and commented that ‘we are serving a very useless purpose in Vietnam’. One of Lacey’s last questions to the Senate queried the constitutional validity of conscription in the absence of a formal declaration of war.[5]

At the Senate election of November 1970 Lacey lost his seat. In retirement he continued with politicking and philanthropic works. He died on 2 November 1984 at Sunnyside Nursing Home, Dynnyrne, Tasmania. A few months earlier, he had provided an oral history interview from his bed in Royal Hobart Hospital. Emme survived him, as did three of their children. A daughter predeceased him. After a service at St Theresa’s Church, Moonah, he was buried at the Ulverstone–Penguin Cemetery. In further tributes paid to him in the Senate, Bert Lacey was described as ‘a forthright man of strong views’ who could express himself ‘very vigorously’, and was respected for his generosity and capacity to remain ‘calm and unruffled’ regardless of personal or political stresses.[6]

Michael Roe

[1] CPD, 21 Feb. 1985, pp. 28–30; Robert Herbert Lacey, Transcript of oral history interview with Peter MacFie, 1984, POHP, TRC 4900/106, NLA, pp. 1:1–2; Wendouree State School register, no. 1813, Australiana Research Room, Ballarat Library; Lacey, Robert Herbert—Defence Service Records, B2455 and B884, T155813, NAA.

[2] Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), Victoria–Riverina Mining branch, Membership rolls, 1918–19, N117/1034, Tas. branch membership rolls, 1939–40, N117/981, 1946–47, N117/988, AWU investigations into Tasmanian branch, 1951, M44/35, NBAC, ANU; McQueeney v. Australian Workers’ Union, Judgment 5/52, Supreme Court of Tasmania Library; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Jason Benjamin, UMA; Richard Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, pp. 125–8; ALP, Report of the 19th Commonwealth Triennial Conference, 1951, pp. 3, 8; CPD, 11 Nov. 1965, p. 1501; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 227, 294; Richard Davis, ‘Tasmanian Labor and the Trade Union Movement, 1920–1960’, Papers and Proceedings, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, June 1981, p. 97.

[3] Lacey, Transcript, p. 1:2; Mercury (Hob.), 28 Jan. 1959, p. 9; CPD, 11 Nov. 1965, pp. 1498–1501, 10 Nov. 1965, p. 1387, 15 Sep. 1965, p. 419.

[4] CPP, 37/1967; CPD, 4 Apr. 1967, pp. 510–11.

[5] CPD, 17 Oct. 1967, pp. 1301–3; Gil Duthie, I Had 50,000 Bosses: Memories of a Labor Backbencher 1946–1975, A & R, Sydney, 1984, p. 236; CPD, 23 Aug. 1967, pp. 162–3, 14 May 1969, p. 1192, 29 May 1969, pp. 1745–6, 2 Sept. 1970, p. 395, 20 Mar. 1968, pp. 229–33, 24 Sept. 1970, p. 860, 2 Nov. 1970, p. 1836, 4 Nov. 1970, pp. 2037–8.

[6] Mercury (Hob.), 8 Dec. 1970, pp. 1, 2; The editor is indebted to Fr Ted McCormack, Moonah, and to Kerry Gillard, Central Coast Council, Tas.; CPD, 21 Feb. 1985, pp. 27–30.

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. 164-166.

LACEY, Robert Herbert (1900–1984)

Parliament of Tasmania

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1965–71

Tasmanian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Denison, 1959

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1967–71

Select Committee on Air Pollution, 1968–69