McKENNA, Nicholas Edward (1895–1974)
Senator for Tasmania, 1944–68 (Australian Labor Party)

Nicholas Edward McKenna was born at Carlton, Victoria, on 9 September 1895. His father, John McKenna, born in Ireland, was a prison warder who later became deputy governor of Pentridge gaol. His mother, Alice, née Darcy, came from Geelong. Nick, as he was known, was educated at St Joseph’s Christian Brothers College in North Melbourne. From 1912 to 1924 he worked as a public servant in the Commonwealth Audit Office, Melbourne. In 1919 he enrolled at the University of Melbourne, residing for a time at Newman College, and graduating in 1923 as an LLB. He moved to Townsville, where he worked as a public accountant, but by 1927 was back in Melbourne. A licensed companies’ auditor in Victoria and Tasmania, McKenna later became a Fellow of the Australian Society of Accountants.

In 1928 McKenna was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor in the Supreme Court of Victoria, and in the following year moved to Hobart. Admitted to the Supreme Court of Tasmania in 1931, he become a partner with Albert Ogilvie, MHA, and others in various law firms and won a reputation for his skill in conveyancing and forensic law. Ogilvie, who was Labor Premier of Tasmania from 1934 until his death in 1939, encouraged McKenna to stand for Parliament.[1]

With little background in traditional Labor politics, and despite some initial union opposition, he was placed third on the Tasmanian Labor ticket. McKenna was elected to the Senate in August 1943. His capacities in law and finance quickly became apparent. A wide-ranging speech on federal powers, in the wake of the unsuccessful 1944 referendum on the issue, advanced his political career. From 1944 he acted as an unofficial assistant to the Treasurer, Ben Chifley, who was also Prime Minister from July 1945. McKenna took particular responsibility for devising a formula for distribution of finance to the states in lieu of state income tax. Reg Wright later expressed his admiration for McKenna’s ‘intense interest’ in the operation of the Grants Commission, whose function was to adjust financial inequalities in revenue between the larger and smaller states. Chifley, of whom McKenna became one of the ‘ablest and closest’ of colleagues, appointed him Minister for Health and Social Services in June 1946. From this position he energetically promoted the constitutional changes proposed in the referendum of September 1946, by which the Commonwealth sought to greatly extend its responsibility for the provision of health and social services. With a rare ‘yes’ vote achieved, due in no small part to his own efforts, McKenna then faced the task of implementing the legislation, much of which he drafted. He introduced a series of far-reaching bills to consolidate and expand the scope of maternity and family allowances, widows’ aged and invalid pensions, unemployment and sickness benefits and child endowment, as well as pharmaceutical, hospital and dental benefits.[2]

McKenna carried a formidable workload, serving as Acting Attorney-General during Dr Evatt’s frequent overseas engagements as Minister for External Affairs. In August 1947, in a one-sentence statement, Chifley announced that the banks would be nationalised. If this fateful decision galvanised many Labor supporters, it also stirred vehement resistance and gave the Opposition an issue on which to mount a nationwide campaign. McKenna was one of the few ministers consulted by Chifley over the drafting of the bank nationalisation bill, which the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Ashley, introduced in the Senate in November 1947. McKenna followed with a characteristically cool, conciliatory and logical address. At the outset, while he acknowledged the ‘dramatic suddenness’ of the Government’s ‘drastic’ action, he suggested that much of the opposition to the legislation was based on fear of change, rather than being considered ‘in the light of calm, cold reasoning’. McKenna believed that ‘no private institution’ should have control of ‘the monetary and banking policy of this country’. In Evatt’s absence, McKenna had again drafted most of the legislation himself. The Banking Act 1947 was invalidated by the High Court in 1948, and was a central issue in the federal election campaign of 1949, in which Labor was defeated.[3]

Also as a result of the 1946 referendum, McKenna attempted to realise one of Labor’s more radical and controversial goals, a comprehensive national health scheme. Labor’s plans were viewed with suspicion and hostility by much of the medical profession. The bank nationalisation controversy had intensified public debate over the themes of socialism and anti-socialism, and did not make the successful implementation of a national health scheme any easier. Introducing the legislation, McKenna described the National Health Services Bill 1948 as merely ‘an enabling measure’, the details of which ‘will be implemented by regulations’. During protracted negotiations with the British (later Australian) Medical Association (BMA), he denied that the Government intended to interfere in the relationship between patient and doctor, but the BMA remained staunchly opposed and the Act was never implemented. McKenna did succeed in introducing legislation to eliminate tuberculosis, and in providing Commonwealth subsidies for the treatment of patients in mental institutions.[4]

In 1947 McKenna was one of a Cabinet subcommittee that formulated proposals for the enlargement of the Senate from thirty-six to sixty and for the adoption of proportional representation in Senate elections. The resulting legislation was passed in 1948. One electoral consequence of the new system was that Senate places were less responsive to swings of opinion, while candidates placed first and second on the party ticket were almost certain to be returned. This meant that Federal Executive pressure was required to ensure that McKenna headed the ticket for Tasmania, instead of being placed fifth as the Tasmanian state executive had intended. He was never again challenged directly. Between 1946 and 1949 McKenna represented in the Senate the Attorney-General, the Minister in Charge of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and ministers for external affairs, the navy, postwar reconstruction, and munitions.[5]

Chifley appeared to take McKenna into his confidence more frequently than he did his official deputy, Evatt. According to one commentator, McKenna’s ability was such that, had he been a member of the House of Representatives on Curtin’s death in 1945, he might have won the leadership before Chifley. After Labor’s defeat in 1949, a rumour was heard that McKenna, preferred by some Labor MPs to either Evatt or Arthur Calwell, might contest a House of Representatives seat and succeed Chifley. McKenna, supportive of the party leader throughout his parliamentary career, publicly refuted the suggestion. Two days before Chifley died in June 1951, McKenna was elected Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. He retained this position for fifteen years and worked as closely with Chifley’s successor, Evatt, as he had with Chifley. Calwell, the official deputy, complained that McKenna was closer to Evatt than he was himself.

The early Cold War years were stirring times. It fell to McKenna, on 17 October 1950, to announce to the Senate (as a consequence of the decision by the ALP’s Federal Executive) that the parliamentary party in the Senate, where Labor still had a majority, would not block Prime Minister Menzies’ Communist Party Dissolution Bill. Following the passage of the bill and the High Court decision that the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1951 was outside Commonwealth power, McKenna made a number of powerfully argued speeches in opposition to a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum at which the Government sought constitutional power to ban the Communist Party. McKenna believed this to be the most exciting period of his life: ‘I really threw myself into that debate, boots and all, with Doc Evatt’, he said, to prevent Australia becoming a police state. As a devout Catholic, more acceptable to the Church hierarchy than was Calwell, McKenna was relied upon by Evatt to negotiate with the Catholic bishops over the referendum proposals. However, when the Labor Split occurred in 1954–55, McKenna fully backed Evatt in moving against the Industrial Groups, supporting the Groupers’ anti-communism, but not their attempt to gain party dominance: ‘I was strongly opposed to what those fellows did staying in the Party and treacherously betraying it’. In 1958, when Archbishop Mannix accused the ALP of being friendly to communism, McKenna joined Evatt in declaring Mannix’s sponsorship of the Democratic Labor Party to be a questionable use of archiepiscopal authority.[6]

McKenna paid a price for his loyalty to the leader. Discontent with Evatt among members of the parliamentary party made McKenna a target for attacks from both the left and the right. In 1954 Senator Ashley, supported by leading left-winger Eddie Ward, nearly defeated McKenna in a contest for the Senate leadership. Next year, McKenna’s unflinching support of Evatt angered right-wingers who sought unsuccessfully to persuade a fellow Catholic, Senator Arnold, to stand against him. As a middle-class lawyer, McKenna faced class prejudice within the ALP. There was some party discontent with his move to Sydney, especially when he located himself in the well-to-do North Shore suburb of Pymble. Jack Lang’s Century derisively nicknamed him ‘Labor’s Man of Distinction’, though Gough Whitlam later prefixed the same term with the word ‘affectionately’. McKenna who ‘always wore a grave and dignified air’, was said to be ‘not particularly popular’ with his Labor colleagues, who were inclined to regard him ‘as a professional man, rather than a “worker” ’.

On Evatt’s resignation in 1960, McKenna favoured Calwell as leader and strongly supported Whitlam against Eddie Ward as deputy leader. When Whitlam surprisingly defeated Ward by a narrow margin, the latter was incensed with McKenna and with Labor power broker Senator Kennelly. According to Calwell, Ward considered that McKenna and Kennelly had introduced sectarianism by highlighting the fact that if Ward were elected the four Labor leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives (themselves, Calwell and Ward) would all be Catholics.[7]

Although residing in Sydney, McKenna continued to operate with finesse in Tasmania. He exercised considerable influence at annual Tasmanian Labor conferences, and was described as ‘a giant in debate’ by the MHR for Wilmot, Gil Duthie. In 1952 McKenna backed an initiative by Labor Premier Robert Cosgrove to subsidise private schools. In 1955 he opposed Cosgrove in unequivocally endorsing a strong motion against Grouper dissidents. At the 1961 state ALP conference he acted as an intermediary, assisting the Labor Premier, Eric Reece, to reach agreement with determined union critics. McKenna was usually a strong supporter of Tasmanian Labor politicians in their perennial contests with union leaders. At the 1964 Tasmanian party conference, he secured the passage of a motion tempering the socialist objective of the movement to the realities of section 92 of the Constitution and the practice of judicial interpretation—though on an earlier occasion, he had dismissed the Constitution as a product of the horse and buggy era and an impediment to Labor.

McKenna maintained business interests in Tasmania. An Australian Rules football player in his youth, in later life he played tennis and golf and followed horse racing. Though a loyal party man, McKenna was prepared to express forceful and occasionally startling opinions. During World War II, he asserted the importance of the domestic role of women, seeing ‘the mother as the handmaid of the Lord’. Adulterous wives of soldiers killed in the war, he believed, should not be allowed to benefit from their husbands’ wills. On academic education, at a time when the Commonwealth was restricting itself to supplementary grants to the states for universities, McKenna approved of laws that prevented the Australian Government ‘from interfering in the internal management and academic freedom of those institutions’. ‘It is essential’, he declared, ‘that the universities shall be allowed to develop according to their principles and traditions. Learning cannot flourish nor can progress be made in an atmosphere of coercion’.[8]

By 1964 McKenna’s long tenure as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate had aroused significant opposition, although he was again re-elected convincingly by the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. By 1966, however, his position had deteriorated so far that, to avoid a general spill of party positions, he renounced his Senate leadership, and did not contest the Senate election of November 1967. He retired in 1968 to a home unit in Wollstonecraft. McKenna died on 22 April 1974 in Sydney and was accorded a state funeral. On 9 January 1930, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, East Melbourne, he had married Kathleen Mary Coghlan, a telephonist. There were two children of the marriage. Kathleen predeceased him, as did his son. His daughter survived him. In the Parliament, tributes from both sides of the political spectrum seemed heartfelt. McKenna, who had endured his share of family tragedies, was sensitive to the suffering of others. Reg Wright recalled how McKenna had constantly visited his former political opponent, William Spooner, during Spooner’s last illness. Wright viewed McKenna as one ‘who ennobled this place’.[9]

While not a flamboyant figure, Nick McKenna was one of the leading politicians of his period. He was included with Chifley, Evatt and J. J. Dedman as one of the ‘Big Four’ federal Labor leaders in the late 1940s. The Sydney Morning Herald, which described him as ‘a shrewd career politician, who sticks to the middle of the road and never speaks without an air of careful and dispassionate reasoning’, saw McKenna as typical of a new class of politician, superseding the old Labor identities who had lived in a world of ‘socialist aspirations, general strikes, depressions, and the battle between capital and the worker’. In the Senate McKenna was remarkable for his even temper. It was McKenna’s own boast that he had political opponents but no political enemies. His knowledge of procedure was vast and he invariably entered the chamber carrying the red-bound standing orders under his arm. He possessed an enormous capacity for work and the ability to handle a number of jobs simultaneously, while acting as main adviser to his party’s leader in the House of Representatives. In Senate debates, he stated succinctly the case for his opponents, before methodically dissecting its weaknesses.

Farewelling him as Senate leader, Country Party senator G. C. McKellar referred to McKenna as ‘one of the best debaters that I have heard’, adding: ‘He has a keen, analytical brain. He is always courteous … it was very seldom indeed that he interjected; he always had control of his feelings’. Perhaps these very virtues stood in the way of his attaining the ultimate achievement of federal leadership, if indeed he had ever wanted it.[10]

Judy Poulos

[1] The editor acknowledges the valuable assistance of Richard Davis in the compilation of this entry; Peter Baume, ‘McKenna, Nicholas Edward’, ADB, vol. 15; Ronald Stewart, The Spirit of North 1903–2000, St Joseph’s College, Melbourne, 2000, p. 1; Mercury (Hob.), 24 Apr. 1974, p. 18; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Anna Yip, National Office, CPA Australia, and Gerard P. Glennen, Law Institute of Victoria, Melbourne; CPD, 24 Aug. 1966, p. 70, 13 June 1968, p. 1807.

[2] CPD, 20 Sept. 1944, pp. 1032–8; SMH, 18 June 1946, p. 3; L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley: A Biography, Longmans, Green & Co., Croydon, Vic., [1961], pp. 238, 317–18; CPD, 27 Nov. 1947, pp. 2788–90, 10 July 1974, p. 31; SMH, 4 Mar. 1946, p. 3; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 19291949, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1963, p. 195.

[3] Crisp, Ben Chifley, pp. 238, 326–8; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, 1991, pp. 246–7; CPD, 19 Nov. 1947, pp. 2235–44, 24 Nov. 1947, pp. 2524–33.

[4] Crisp, Ben Chifley, pp. 317–18; Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 19291949, pp. 191, 198–9, 216; CPD, 24 Nov. 1948, p. 3372; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, pp. 87–8; SMH, 13 Sept. 1947, p. 4, 29 Oct. 1948, p. 1.

[5] Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 395–6; Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901–1949, vol. 3, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, pp. 438–9, 442; CPD, 30 Apr. 1948, pp. 1306–11; SMH, 4 Oct. 1949, p. 3; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 27 Mar. 1949, p. 16.

[6] Mercury (Hob.), 24 Apr. 1974, p. 18; Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 83; SMH, 19 Oct. 1950, p. 4; Senate, Journals, 13 June 1951, p. 12; ALP, Federal Parliamentary Labor Party minutes, 11 June 1951, MS 6852, box 3, NLA; A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, Lloyd O’Neil, Hawthorn, Vic., 1972, p. 192; CPD, 17 Oct. 1950, pp. 810–16, 30 May 1950, pp. 3312–13; SMH, 17 Oct. 1950, p. 1, 18 Oct. 1950, pp. 1, 4, 28 June 1968, p. 6; Clyde R. Cameron, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 19131990, as told to Daniel Connell, ABC Enterprises, Crows Nest, NSW, 1990, p. 80; SMH, 21 Nov. 1958, p. 1.

[7] Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, p. 160; Whitington, Ring the Bells, pp. 6, 83; Jack Kane, Exploding the Myths: The Political Memoirs of Jack Kane, A & R, North Ryde, NSW, 1989, p. 64; McMullin, The Light on the Hill, pp. 290–1; Elwyn Spratt, Eddie Ward: Firebrand of East Sydney, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965, p. 248; SMH, 15 Mar. 1960, p. 2; Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, pp. 220–1, 225; Faulkner and Macintyre, True Believers, p. 99.

[8] CPD, 9 July 1974 (R), p. 26; SMH, 22 Feb. 1952, p. 4; Richard Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, pp. 49, 52; Sunday Herald (Syd.), 4 Oct. 1953, p. 4; SMH, 28 June 1968, p. 6; CPD, 20 Sept. 1944, pp. 1039–40, 29 Nov. 1951, p. 2993.

[9] SMH, 25 Feb. 1964, p. 1; ALP, Federal Parliamentary Labor Party minutes, 24 Feb. 1964, MS 6852, folio 1, NLA; SMH, 19 Feb. 1966, p. 1; CT, 19 Feb. 1966, p. 3, 23 July 1966, p. 3; SMH, 24 Apr. 1974, p. 16; Mercury (Hob.), 24 Apr. 1974, pp. 18, 29.

[10] SMH, 24 Apr. 1974, p. 16, 1 June 1954, p. 2, 28 June 1968, p. 6; CPD, 9 July 1974 (R), p. 24; AFR (Syd.), 22 July 1966, p. 3; CPD, 10 July 1974, pp. 29–32, 13 June 1968, p. 1805.

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. 111-116.

McKENNA, Nicholas Edward (1895–1974)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania., 1944–68

Minister for Health, 1946–49

Minister for Social Services, 1946–49

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1951–66

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Constitution Alteration (Avoidance of Double Dissolution Deadlocks) Bill, 1950

Select Committee on National Service in the Defence Force, 1950–51

Standing Orders Committee, 1951–54

Joint Committee on Constitutional Review, 1956–59