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Vince Gair

Vincent Clair Gair (25 February, 1902 – 11 November, 1980) was an Australian politician. He served as Premier of Queensland from 1952 until 1957 when his stormy relations with the trade union movement saw him expelled from the Australian Labor Party. He subsequently won office in the Australian Senate and led the Democratic Labor Party from 1964 to 1973. In 1975 he was appointed Australian Ambassador to Ireland by the Whitlam government in controversial circumstances.

Table of contents

Early life

Gair was born in 1901 in Rockhampton, of mixed Scottish and Irish parentage. He began work with the Department of Railways upon the family's move to Brisbane in 1916, he joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP), whose membership included a great many Irish Catholics such as Gair. He married Florence Glynn in 1924. She died in an accident five years later.

Parliamentary career

The state electorate of South Brisbane was held during the 1920's by Neil Macgroarty, Attorney-General in the Moore government. The anti-Catholic Macgroarty, who was influential in creating the Mungana Royal Commission to destroy the political career of E. G. Theodore, had incurred the displeasure of the influential James Duhig, Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, and it was rumoured to be the personal intervention of Duhig, wishing to find a Catholic candidate to unseat Macgroarty that saw Gair win ALP preselection for the seat. The Moore government lost office in the elections of 1932 in which Gair unseated Macgroarty.

Gair worked at consolidating his hold on the marginal electorate, at which he was largely succesful except in the elections of 1938, when a newly-formed Protestant Labor Party targeted his seat. He fended off the challenge and retained a low-profile in Parliament. In 1941 Vince and Florence Gair's only daughter died, an event which affected him deeply. He remarried to Ellen Sexton in 1944 and the two had two sons.

Gair was a backbencher for ten years during the Forgan Smith government before being appointed as Secretary for Mines under the elderly Frank Cooper in 1942. The same year he became Minister for Labour and Employment (later Labour and Industry), and in 1947 he was elected by his colleagues as Deputy Premier. In 1950 he also became Treasurer.

Unusually for a Labor minister, Gair had not previously held office in a trade union. Many Labor parliamentarians in Queensland in particular were closely aligned with the Australian Workers Union (AWU). Premier Ned Hanlon was the first in a succession of Queensland premiers not to be linked with the AWU, a fact that had seen a reduction in its influence. Gair also was not associated with the AWU, and in fact had a strong personal dislike of the AWU's Queensland president, Joe Bukowski, dating back to their childhoods in Rockhampton when Bukowski bullied Gair. Gair was determined not to be beholden to AWU power, an important determining factor in many of his actions as Premier.

In 1948, the Industrial Groups associated with the Catholic Movement of B. A. Santamaria were introduced into Queensland to combat an upsurge of communists in prominent unions. The Industrial Groups (whose members were known as Groupers) were supported by Gair, who hoped to use them to cement his personal power base within the organisational wing, as well as by Bukowski and the AWU. When conflict with the Groupers precipitated a national split in the ALP leading to the formation of the breakaway Democratic Labor Party (DLP), the national organisation of the AWU swung its support behind ALP leader H.V. Evatt and disbanded the Groups. This would later deprive Gair of a potential source of support within the party organisation.

Hanlon succumbed to illness on 15 January 1952 and Gair, having been Acting Premier since the previous August, was appointed by Governor Sir John Lavarack to succeed him on 17 January.

Premiership

Gair came into conflict with Bukowski when the AWU in 1955 began making allegations that there was corruption in the process of granting and extending pastoral leases in the state. In July the AWU executive met with Gair, who according to them promised an inquiry, which Gair denied. Bukowski publicly expressed a desire to appear before the Bar of Parliament to detail his allegations, in which he was supported by Frank Nicklin, leader of the Opposition, but Gair defeated his motion in parliament. In February 1956, Ian Wood, a Liberal Party Senator for Queensland, alleged that the government had demanded payments from pastoralists in order to ensure the extension of pastoral leases and that these payments had been diverted to Labor Party funds. Gair immediately set up a royal commission which resulted in the laying of criminal charges against Lands Minister Tom Foley. Foley was acquitted of the charges but was found by the Royal Commission's report to be responsible for the improper solicitation of party donations, for which he was sacked as a Minister and expelled from the Labor Party.

Gair discovered that the AWU had gained its information about the scandal via a senior public official, Vivian Creighton. Gair pressed for Creighton's resignation on the grounds of official misconduct (Gair was also infuriated by allegations that Creighton had called him a mick). The parliamentary dismissal of Creighton raised claims that the government was acting out of vindictiveness, and was criticised by the AWU. Nevertheless, Gair easily won the elections of May 1956.

When the AWU uncharacteristically endorsed strike action by shearers, Gair raised the union movement's ire by negotiating with the federal government in order to secure the export of wool shorn by non-union labour. Gair was ultimately successful in a negotiated end to the strike, but the effect was to cement an unlikely alliance between the militants of the Trades and Labour Council (TLC) (represented by Boilermaker's Union secretary Jack Egerton) and the AWU.

Out of the several issues over which Gair and the union movement came into conflict, the most severe was to prove to be that over the introduction of three week's paid leave to workers under state industrial awards. This had been part of the party's election platform since 1953. Gair announced in 1955 that although the state's finances did not permit the extension of annual leave, the government would extend entitlements to long service leave. This compromise was regarded as insufficient by both the TLC and the AWU, who in November moved in the Queensland Branch's Central Executive that legislation introducing the leave be introduced by the parliamentary party. Cabinet refused to accept direction from the Central Executive, and in February 1956, Bukowski and Egerton organised the numbers at the next Labor Party convention to vote in favour of a leave increase. After private discussions it was revealed that Gair would introduce the leave sometime over the course of the year. After the election, however, Treasurer Ted Walsh revealed that the state's budget was in deficit and Gair claimed that extending leave would be financially irresponsible.

The parliamentary party found itself in deadlock with the organisational wing and the trade unions, with the TLC and the Central Executive maintaining pressure on Gair throughout early 1957. The Central Executive finally expelled Gair on 24 April. He took a total of twenty-five defectors from the ALP with him, to form the Queensland Labor Party. (QLP) Gair tried but failed to gain Country Party support for his continuation as Premier, and lost a vote of no confidence when his enemies in the official ALP combined with the Opposition to vote out the government.

An election was called for August 3, in which both the QLP and the official ALP lost ground. Nicklin became Premier and for the first time in 25 years, a Labor Government was out of office in Queensland. The ALP would not return to power in Queensland until 1989.

DLP leadership and the "Gair Affair"

Gair lost the seat of South Brisbane in 1960. His QLP merged with the Democratic Labor Party, which had previously been largely inactive in Queensland, and Gair contested the Senate elections of 1961 for the DLP unsucccesfully. In 1964 he was elected to the Senate, where he became the DLP's leader, a post he held until 1973.

Gair subsequently became disillusioned with the DLP and in 1974, when the Labor government of Gough Whitlam was desperately attempting to gain a majority in the Senate, Whitlam tried to create an extra vacancy in Queensland for the upcoming Senate elections so as to gain the ALP an increased chance of winning an extra Senate seat. Whitlam approached Gair with the offer of the position of Ambassador to Ireland, which Gair accepted. Subsequently, when knowledge of the appointment had become public, there was an outcry from the conservatives and Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen attempted to thwart Whitlam by causing the issue of writs early for three, rather than four, Senate vacancies. Gair, by oversight or design, failed to resign his Senate position in time for the writs for the extra position and as a result the ALP remained without control of the Senate. Whitlam was later dismissed when the Senate refused to pass supply bills (see Australian constitutional crisis of 1975). The election marked the electoral demise of the DLP, which lost all of its remaining seats largely as a backlash against Gair's actions.

Gair was removed from the position of ambassador on the request of diplomatic officials in 1976 and died on 11 November 1980 in Brisbane.

Further reading

  • Costar, Brian. "Vincent Clair Gair: Labor's Loser". In Murphy D, Joyce R, Cribb M, and Wear, R (Ed.), The Premiers of Queensland pp. 268–285. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0–7022–3173–8.


Preceded by:
Edward Hanlon
Premier of Queensland
1952–1957
Succeeded by:
Frank Nicklin



Premiers of Queensland
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