PALTRIDGE, Sir Shane Dunne (1910–1966)
Senator for Western Australia, 1951–66 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Like many of his peers, Shane Paltridge brought to the Senate significant life and work experiences, including business and war service. Born in Leederville, Perth, on 11 January 1910, he was the younger of two children of Archer Dunn Paltridge, a bank clerk, and Florence Marjorie, née Thomas, both of whom came from South Australia. Shane’s early life was punctuated by relocations, as his father was posted to banks in Western Australia and Queensland and lastly to Sydney. His primary education was at state schools in Moora (WA), Ipswich (Qld) and Enmore in Sydney. A bright lad, he won a scholarship for three years to Fort Street Boys’ High School, leaving with an intermediate certificate just before his seventeenth birthday. Having passed the preliminary examination of the Bankers’ Institute, he joined the National Bank of Australasia (NBA) in Sydney in 1927, completing the institute’s qualifications within the year. [1]

By this time the family was in difficulties. Archer Paltridge had been demoted from bank manager to clerk, and after unspecified breaches lost his job in August 1928. The marriage disintegrated. Florence, Shane and his sister Peggy returned to Perth to live at the Broken Hill Hotel, Victoria Park, in which the family had an interest. Now the family breadwinner, Shane worked at various branches of the NBA in Perth until 1936. Florence later divorced Archer on the grounds of desertion. In 1931 Shane’s aunt inherited the Broken Hill Hotel on the sudden death of her husband, and Shane helped her to run it, eventually becoming full-time manager. He held the licence for fifteen years. The ‘Broken Hill’ was a large and busy working man’s pub. Here, Shane developed into a ‘man’s man’ who relished the convivial life and was always ready to ‘shout the bar’. Labor Party luminaries, including future Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, used the hotel for informal meetings, and Paltridge, an ALP sympathiser then, listened keenly to the political conversation in the back room.[2]

When war came in 1939 he was keen to join up. He chose the RAAF, believing a recruiting officer’s assertion that, despite the existing age barrier, ‘All you fellows will be flying within a year’. Unpropitiously, the RAAF appointed him stores clerk at headquarters. In September 1940 he was released for pilot training but although dogged in his attempts to qualify, his reactions were considered too slow, and back he went to stores.

Determined to serve overseas and gain a commission, he sought a discharge from the RAAF in 1941 by arguing that the air force had denied him reasonable opportunities; released, Paltridge joined the AIF, serving in the artillery for almost four years. After two years of training in Western Australia, including work in intelligence, he was sent to Queensland, where he joined the battle-toughened 2/7th Field Regiment, recently returned from the Middle East—hard men with an independent streak from whom he learned a great deal. In April 1945 the regiment sailed to the island of Tarakan, near Borneo, where they engaged in bitter jungle battle. In September he returned to Australia following the sudden death of Florence Paltridge. His experience with the 2/7th affected him deeply, and he wore its badge, or that of the RSL, for the rest of his life.[3]

Resuming the reins at the hotel, he moved quickly into the political arena. In 1946 he was a foundation member of the Victoria Park branch of the Western Australian division of the newly formed Liberal Party, and the following year was elected to its state executive. With the hotel prospering, over the next few years he contributed substantially to local causes and to party funds. In 1947 he married Mary Elizabeth (Molly) McEncroe at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Highgate, Perth. They were to have two children. In mid-1949 he was involved in the formation of the Liberal and Country League (LCL) of Western Australia, a merger between the state Liberal Party and a minority of members of the rural-based Country and Democratic League. Later that year Paltridge organised the LCL election campaign for the federal seat of Swan. In 1951 he ran for preselection for the Senate. Sixth on the LCL’s Senate ticket, he scraped into the Senate on countbacks. In 1953 he stood again and filled a casual vacancy caused by the death of Senator Piesse.[4]

His early performance in the Senate chamber was robust, if predictably faithful to LCL interests. After a question about the export of crayfish tails—a vital Western Australian concern—his first speech raised the communist spectre and its supposed threat to Australia’s security. His second speech initiated a pattern of relentless sniping at the Opposition. Characterising the ALP with a broad brush, he invoked the image of an unstable party, in thrall to communist regimes, ruled by a minority and dominated by hardline unions. Pugnacious in debate and giving no quarter, although sensitive to personal attacks, Paltridge enjoyed stoushes in the chamber, especially against Senator O’Byrne, another returned serviceman.[5]

In the first three years Paltridge rarely spoke at length and usually on his favourite topics—banking, the budget, development, defence and foreign affairs, as well as on matters pertaining to Western Australia. Always fascinated by banking and finance, by late 1953 he had acquired a role in presenting statistics with clarity, for which both sides expressed gratitude. At times Paltridge’s enthusiasm could cloud his judgment. Leaping passionately into a debate over Yugoslavia’s request to deport two Perth men accused of active collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, he lauded the men as worthy citizens, devout anti-communists, and members of the RSL. Unwittingly, he had stumbled into murky territory. At the time ASIO was using the men to inform on Titoist sympathisers among the Perth émigré community, pragmatically ignoring evidence of their wartime collaboration. The matter died away and the men resumed their activities. Whether Paltridge was given a hint that things were best left alone is not clear.

Later, his deep admiration for Prime Minister, R. G. (Bob) Menzies prompted an indignant outburst when, in the face of Opposition references to exporting scrap iron to Japan, he resurrected the old epithet first applied to Menzies in 1938, in order to ‘place on record the true story of the export of scrap iron to Japan in the hope that the name “Pig Iron Bob” will be forgotten, and that the foolish charges which have been made by honorable senators opposite so often in the past will be dropped’.[6]

Occasional hotheadedness and naivety were tempered by a solid performance on the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and an open, genial personality which, with his unalloyed loyalty, commended him to Menzies. In 1955 Paltridge was made Minister for Shipping and Transport. His first task was to sell off the fleet of unprofitable government ships. Earlier attempts to sell the Australian National Line (ANL) for anything like book value had proved fruitless. Rashly, Paltridge announced to Cabinet that he would ‘have it sold within six months’. Negotiations continued to founder, though he was reportedly tougher than his predecessors. Finally he declared, ‘I can’t sell the line but I’ll take these bastards on and make it pay’. He instructed the ANL’s new director, John Williams, that

the fleet was to be run as a private enterprise show: that we would be expected to provide an adequate and efficient service … we need not look for any Government help or favour … as a final shot, he said that he wanted me to run the Line as if I had my own funds at risk and that if we paid a dividend of 6% on its capital and kept anything extra to build up the business it would be all right with him—‘But just give us the money, Mister’.

Williams was impressed by his minister—a ‘patently honest and straightforward’ man with an ‘unmatched gift of getting to the heart of a matter in plain words and few of them’—and returned triumphantly with a dividend cheque of £433 064 and the remark: ‘Sir, here is the money!’ Under Paltridge’s stewardship ANL maintained high profit rates and put the Princess of Tasmania into service, the first drive-on/drive-off passenger ship from the mainland to Tasmania, followed by Bass Trader, a cargo ship based on the same principles.[7]

By now Menzies had come to rely on Paltridge to pursue unpalatable tasks with vigour. The rough diamond West Australian may have seen, in the urbane and well read older man, a guiding fatherly spirit missing in his own life. Menzies, for his part, appreciated Paltridge’s shrewd political nous and the ability to tap into the thinking of the ‘common man’. Seemingly chalk and cheese, the two men shared the experience of being ‘scholarship boys’ from modest backgrounds. A journalist noted that on Paltridge’s elevation to the ministry, Menzies introduced him personally to the press gallery, an unprecedented and never-repeated act.[8]

In October 1956 Paltridge was given additional responsibility when appointed as Minister for Civil Aviation. His task was to save Menzies’ special child, the two-airline policy, and modernise and expand Qantas. Aviation occupied Paltridge’s energies for eight years of often bitter controversy. The goal of the two-airline policy was to remove the dominance of the government carrier Trans–Australia Airlines (TAA) over interstate routes, in favour of limited competition between it and a second approved carrier. Through strict regulation, the two similar fleets, operating with largely parallel routes, timetables and fares, could minimise the main risks inherent in a free market airline industry. While a bemused public might think the only difference between the two airlines was in such trivia as ‘the number of poppy seeds on the bread roll the hostess brings with your breakfast’, the plan was underpinned largely by pragmatic concern for efficiency and safety. When Paltridge took over, the two-airline policy was in disarray. Multiple small players were operating air services, and attempts to recruit a viable second airline from among them had stalled. Australian National Airways (ANA), the largest operator apart from TAA, had insufficient funds to expand and could not even repay the Commonwealth for existing loans. Paltridge and his Director-General Donald Anderson faced a choice between letting ANA collapse and leaving TAA in a virtual monopoly, or propping up the company, which would suggest undue government interference. Both options were anathema to Liberal thinking. The Government played for time, extending the loan period.

Meanwhile, Ansett Transport Industries (ATI) was making impressive returns as Reg Ansett multiplied his business interests to acquire sufficient capital and infrastructure to take over ANA, and offer a viable alternative. The Government could soon dismiss proposals to salvage ANA, leaving it vulnerable to an Ansett takeover. After eighteen turbulent months as minister, Paltridge sealed Ansett’s second airline status by the Civil Aviation Agreement Act 1957. From that point Paltridge was under frequent attack for perceived support of the empire-building businessman. In addition, the legislation proved too weak to regulate aircraft acquisition. Uncontrolled, Ansett’s increasing capacity to outstrip TAA’s aircraft in quantity and quality could threaten the delicate balance of the policy. Thus began a long and complex battle over the acquisition of new equipment. Reg Ansett was a constant thorn, pre-empting Government decisions with his own headline-grabbing announcements in an attempt to push policy his way.[9]

Equally problematic was Reg Ansett’s tendency to approach the minister directly, bypassing the Department of Civil Aviation. He was not Paltridge’s only bête noire. Airline owners were men with large egos and big ambitions, anxious to minimise government control. Despite Paltridge’s success in negotiating overseas landing rights and an international equipment-sharing program for the industry, they were always ready to fight him on matters closer to home. The minister revealed an increasingly short fuse as the problems mounted, but managed to steer a firm yet diplomatic path. The legislative gaps were closed with the Airlines Equipment Act 1958 and the Airlines Agreements Act 1961. Against the wishes of the individual airlines, Paltridge and his department selected Lockheed Electra airframes as the main type for major routes. Perhaps inevitably, Paltridge fielded further accusations of favouritism towards Ansett and the Lockheed Corporation among others. In 1960 he was party to a criminal libel case against John Somerville Smith, author of a range of crude and scurrilous attacks on politicians, who had alleged that Paltridge had accepted a sweetener of £50 000 in Ansett shares in return for favourable decisions on airframe acquisitions; Paltridge was called upon to give evidence against Somerville Smith (who conducted his own defence) in the ACT Supreme Court. Somerville Smith was convicted and sentenced to twelve months gaol.[10]

By the early 1960s, Paltridge was suffering from stress as a result of attacks in Parliament and the press, and an unhealthy lifestyle. One of the most conscientious of ministers, he had taken on a vast workload. The plane journey between Canberra and Perth was long and tortuous, and even when at home he toiled late into the night. He remarked that he worried ‘in the small hours’ about the adequacy of Australia’s defences. He was troubled by indigestion, pre-diabetic symptoms, and increasing weight as his physical activity fell by the wayside and he ate and drank more. After booking a much-needed family holiday on Hayman Island he discovered that Reg Ansett would also be holidaying there, and stayed away to avoid any hint of collusion.

As Deputy Leader and later Leader of the Government in the Senate, Paltridge was required to shepherd legislation from other portfolios through the Senate chamber. Menzies depended increasingly on his sturdy support and uncluttered view on issues, appointing him to the influential Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Cabinet in 1963. In April 1964 he became Minister for Defence.[11] Although effectively serving in this last role for less than eighteen months, Paltridge oversaw some of the crucial events in Australia’s twentieth-century history. The Government became alarmed by the Indonesian policy of ‘Konfrontasi’ (Confrontation) towards Malaysia. Advice that Indonesia was planning incursions into Malaysia and territorial expansion into western New Guinea provoked serious thoughts of a national service scheme which would draft young men into the forces for overseas service.

Menzies reasoned that Australia would be unable to intervene in Malaysia and New Guinea without assistance from the United States. The US meanwhile sought support for its involvement in the South Vietnamese struggle against the communist north. Menzies favoured a small and inexpensive commitment to assist the US, to reap dividends should the Indonesian threat materialise. Paltridge and Jim Forbes (Minister for the Army) were tasked with developing scenarios for increasing military strength to supplement Australia’s small non-combatant group already in Vietnam. Paltridge desperately tried to avoid introducing conscription by promoting energetic army recruitment campaigns, but they failed. In November 1964 Paltridge recommended one last concerted effort to raise voluntary recruitment, but to his and Menzies’ disappointment, he was overruled by Cabinet, and conscription by ballot of twenty-year-old males for overseas service became government policy.

During the critical phase in which the decision was made to commit a battalion of Australian troops for active service in Vietnam, Paltridge, with Menzies and Paul Hasluck, was one of the ‘triumvirate’ that led the Cabinet to vote for the move on 17 December 1964. They expedited the commitment in the face of doubts from some senior bureaucrats and military officers about its value and timing.

In January 1965 Paltridge set out on a gruelling six week trip to South-East Asia and the USA. Without access to the US President, his tasks were limited to emphasising to overseas officials Australia’s willingness to assist in Vietnam, and preparing the minds of the Australian people for the announcement of a troop commitment. Then followed an agonising and unexpected wait until the Government could justify the decision by showing that official requests had come from both the US and South Vietnam. Just before the request arrived from the latter, the decision was leaked to the press and Menzies was rushed into making an announcement on 29 April 1965. Don Chipp later recounted how Paltridge, conscious of Menzies’ distress at the outcome, rounded up the startled young backbencher and steered him into Menzies’ office, saying, with typical directness: ‘He is very upset. He likes you. Comfort him!’

In the following months Paltridge was plunged into a perpetual round of discussions and briefings, as well as having to deal with mounting criticism and increased overseas travel, including visits to the first Australian troops based in Vietnam. As the crisis intensified Cabinet met more frequently, often at night after a full day’s business. Popular opposition to the commitment, and the draft in particular, gathered momentum through 1965, but Paltridge did not live to see its full fury. By September, he was in hospital, suffering from cancer.[12]

Rallying briefly in December, he re-entered hospital and underwent aggressive treatment. Menzies flew to Perth to see him. On 19 January 1966 Paltridge resigned from the Cabinet and as Leader of the Government in the Senate, and died two days later. He had been knighted in the New Year’s Honours list, and had been received into the Catholic Church a few weeks before his death. At his state funeral, Menzies was a pallbearer. Paltridge had been seen in some quarters as a potential treasurer and a future prime minister, but after one attempt to transfer to the lower house in pursuit of his dream of the Treasury, had put private ambition aside. At the end, he was described as Menzies’ loyal friend and ‘able lieutenant’, devoted to serving ‘his chief’.[13]

Margot Harker

[1] B. K. de Garis, ‘Paltridge, Sir Shane Dunne’, ADB, vol. 15; Bank of Australasia, Register of officers, A/60/1, p. 1268, ANZ Group Archive, Mt Waverley, Vic.; SMH, 20 Jan. 1927, p. 7, 25 May 1927, p. 20; National Bank of Australasia, Staff register, WA 1995/78, National Australia Bank Archives, Springvale, Vic.

[2] Bank of Australasia, Register of officers, A/60/1, p. 1268, ANZ Group Archive, Mt Waverley, Vic.; National Bank of Australasia, Staff register, WA 1995/78, National Australia Bank Archives, Springvale, Vic.; Divorce decree absolute, no. 9 of 1932, 13 Sept. 1932, Supreme Court of WA; WA (Perth), 21 Feb. 1931 pp. 1, 14; Paul Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1997, p. 100.

[3] Paltridge, Shane Dunne—Defence Service Records, A9301, 7248 and B883, WX18489, NAA; David Goodhart, The History of the 2/7 Australian Field Regiment, Rigby, Adelaide, 1952, pp. 288–354; David Horner, The Gunners: A History of Australian Artillery, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1995, pp. 411–15; Australian (Syd.), 22 Jan. 1966, p. 6.

[4] Liberal News (Perth), Oct. 1947, p. 5; Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, p. 100; WA (Perth), 4 May 1949, p. 2, 24 May 1951, p. 2.

[5] CPD, 20 June 1951, pp. 71–2, 106–8, 12 July 1951, pp. 1484–6; Australian (Syd.), 22 Jan. 1966, p. 6.

[6] CPD, 17 Mar. 1953, pp. 1107–12, 21 Oct. 1953, pp. 707–10, 14 Nov. 1951, pp. 1982–3, 23 Nov. 1951, pp. 2548–51; Mark Aarons, War Criminals Welcome: Australia, a Sanctuary for Fugitive War Criminals Since 1945, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2001, pp. 230–43; CPD, 11 Nov. 1953, p. 68.

[7] Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 92; Australian (Syd.), 22 Jan. 1966, p. 6; Sir John Williams, So Ends This Day: An Autobiography, Globe Press, Fitzroy, Vic., 1981, pp. 195–6, 198, 200.

[8] George Howard Branson, Transcript of oral history interview with Clarence Hermes, 1984, POHP, TRC 4900/16, NLA, pp. 3:17, 4:2, 4:27, 8:8; Australian (Syd.), 22 Jan. 1966, p. 6.

[9] LCL Viewpoint (Perth), Jan. 1961, p. 6; Stanley Brogden, Australia’s Two-Airline Policy, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1968, pp. 115–16, 120–2, 128–35; CPD, 13 Nov. 1957, pp. 1209–13; Robert N. Smith, ‘Electra! Reg Ansett’s Involvement’, viewed 16 Mar. 2009, <>.

[10] Sir Denham Henty, Transcript of oral history interview with Suzanne Lunney, 1974, TRC 309, NLA, p. 1:1/32; CPD, 1 Oct. 1958, pp. 754–8, 28 Sept. 1961, pp. 720–5; R v. John Somerville Smith, ACT Supreme Court transcripts, SCC 33/1960; SMH, 10 Sept. 1960, p. 5.

[11] Henty, Transcript, p. 1:1/28; CPD, 25 Oct. 1957, p. 882; Australian (Syd.), 22 Jan. 1966, p. 6.

[12] Peter Edwards, Crises and Commitments: The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1965, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, North Sydney, 1992, pp. 254–5, 282, 304–5, 315, 327–9, 344; Garry Woodard, Asian Alternatives: Australia’s Vietnam Decision and Lessons on Going to War, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 195–7, 202, 206, 227–30; David Horner, Strategic Command: General Sir John Wilton and Australia’s Asian Wars, OUP, South Melbourne, 2005, pp. 222–3, 226–7, 230–1; Shane Dunne Paltridge, Appointment diaries, 1964–65, Paltridge Papers, M2624, box 16, item 7, NAA; Trish Payne, War and Words: The Australian Press and the Vietnam War, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2007, pp. 78–81; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 7 Jan. 1996, p. 126.

[13] Australian (Syd.), 22 Jan. 1966, p. 6; CPD, 8 Mar. 1966, p. 7; WA (Perth), 25 Jan. 1966, p. 2; Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, pp. 102–3; Age (Melb.), 26 Jan. 1966 p. 5.

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. 484-490.

PALTRIDGE, Sir Shane Dunne (1910–1966)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1951–66

Minister for Shipping and Transport, 1955–60

Minister for Civil Aviation, 1956–64

Minister for Defence, 1964–66

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1964–66

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1952–55

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1953–55

Standing Orders Committee, 1964–66