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Daly, Frederick Michael (Fred) (1913–1995)

by John Farquharson

You want to do unto others as they would do unto you — but do it earlier, more often and better. That was the recipe for success in politics, according to Frederick Michael Daly — Federal Parliament's longest-serving Member — who died yesterday aged 83.

When he retired, he had been a practitioner of the art of politics for 32 years — from 1943 until 1975 — and he was the Father of the House.

Though a realist in politics and devoted to his political faith, which he embraced at an early age, Fred Daly was that rare breed of politician — endowed with a natural wit and magnificent sense of fun. In his practice of politics, he also brought a perceptively clear sense of tolerance. That is why Fred Daly, with his ready smile and easy manner, had so many friends, not only in his own Labor Party but also among ranks of the Coalition.

Retiring to Canberra to take up residence in Braddon with his daughter, Margaret, after his record term as Member for the inner Sydney seat of Grayndler in the House of Representatives, Fred quickly carved out what came to be an institutional niche in Canberra's community life. With his anecdotes and insights into five decades of political life, together with his fine memory, he was in demand on every hand as a public speaker and after-dinner raconteur.

More often than not accompanied by his old English sheepdog, Sir John, his devoted companion for more than 11 years until his death in 1986, Fred became a familiar figure around the national capital and, like Sir John Gorton, a ready resource for journalists seeking comment on political developments of the day. Then, of course, there was his two years — 1981-82 — as "King of Canberra" or, perhaps more correctly, Canberra's festival monarch, and more latterly his Canberra Self-Drive Political Discovery Tour (based on a map which he created). He also found time to write four books, which all sold well, dealing with his parliamentary reminiscences.

But Fred Daly had greater claims to fame than his reign as "King of Canberra", as co-patron of the Canberra Raiders, as author, or his other "life-afterpolitics" activities. He was a minister in the Whitlam Government, holding firstly the Services and Property portfolio and secondly Administrative Services. In addition, throughout the Whitlam Administration, he was Leader of the House. And it was in this last quite important role as manager of government business, that he excelled. As Jim Killen (later Sir James), a political opponent but a friend of Daly's, once observed, "I never knew a shrewder, more practical holder of the office. He knew when to give, he also knew when to hammer, and he did both with consummate skill and finesse."

Fred came face to face with the tough reality of politics in his early 20s after joining the Waverley branch of the Labor Party in the depths of the Depression. After being active in state and federal electorate councils, Fred entered Federal Parliament in September 1943, having won preselection for the seat of Martin, covering Five Dock-Drummoyne and surrounding Sydney suburbs.

The preselection process proved to be an unduly long and drawn-out affair, involving much jockeying for preferment among some high-powered Labor personalities. But, with some timely coaching by the late Clarrie Martin (Attorney-General in the NSW Labor Government), Fred emerged as the endorsed Labor candidate through his dogged determination to stay in the race, despite pressures to opt out, and his decision to contact personally every eligible voter. At the subsequent election he went on to win the seat from a record field of 11 candidates with an absolute majority of 5676. After the redistribution of 1948, he transferred to the new division of Grayndler, holding this seat until his retirement after the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

With Labor losing office in 1949, it was not an easy political life for any-one back in the 1950s, when the ALP was rent by infighting and factionalism, leaving the Coalition, in Fred's words, "laughing all the way to the front benches". Despite the hatred and the bitter vendettas arising out of the 1955 Labor split that saw the emergence of the Democratic Labor Party, Fred managed to survive, having learnt well from his early campaigning days. And in the House he quickly mastered the rules of parliamentary combat, with what Jim Killen identified as his "essential naturalness as a parliamentarian and debater" proving one of his greatest strengths. He once said he had never made an enemy he couldn't be friends with.

His deepest political wound was the sacking of the Whitlam Government on November 11, 1975. This marked not only the end of Fred's political career but also that of many others. He once said that he could find in himself the capacity to forgive the former Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, but he would never forget.

His decision not to contest the federal election of December 1975, was probably also influenced by the death of his wife, Teresa, in October of that year. This was a hard blow, as they had agreed that they would settle down in Canberra once Fred left Parliament He did make the move to Canberra from his Marrickville home in the heart of the Grayndler electorate, but was unable to share his retirement with Teresa, who had stood by him throughout those tough and demanding parliamentary years.

Fred was Irish Catholic out of Currabubula, NSW (near Tamworth), where his parents owned a grazing property of about 3250 hectares. He was the ninth child in a family of 11 and was only 10 when his father died. The family was left in straightened financial circumstances when the Daly property had to be sold off to pay the banks. The family moved to Sydney, but as the Depression worsened so did their living conditions. To help out, Fred left Waverley College to become a messenger boy with a bicycle firm. Then he saw his mother's health fail until finally she died.

His own experience and the suffering he saw as a result of the Depression were the crucible of his discontent and, because he wanted to "improve the system", led him into the Labor Party. With an eye to the future, he joined the Mary Immaculate Debating Society, and it was there that he met the girl who was to become his wife, Teresa Armstrong, a public servant with the Taxation Department. They were married when Fred was earning £4 a week and she slightly more.

On going to Canberra, Fred had two years under John Curtin as Prime Minister before Curtin's untimely death. He admired Curtin greatly, and regarded the first Curtin Government as his richest years, when Parliament contained seven future prime ministers, four former prime ministers "and another half a dozen who could have been. Of all my years this was the most talented Parliament."

But the strongest influence on the young Daly was Ben Chifley, who liked to encourage younger men. As much as anyone else, it was Chifley who trained Daly and a genuine affection sprang up between them. And it was Chifley who once warned him, "Don't you double-cross anybody — you've got to live with these fellows."

For many years, Fred was known as "Dilly Dally Daly". This arose from him being sent in 1947 to an International Labour Organisation conference in Geneva, from where he made his way back to Australia the "long way round". Before leaving, he had told Chifley he intended to make the most of the trip and have a good look around post-war Europe. This took him to Italy, France, Holland, Belgium and Britain. In London, he met Arthur Calwell who, as Minister for Immigration, delegated Daly to visit the United States and Canada to study immigration. As air travel was difficult, he travelled by ship, and in the US and Canada by rail, finally getting back to Australia by ship after a five-week passage. In all he had been away for nearly six months.

But after surviving a gruelling 23 years in Opposition, Fred reached the pinnacle of his political career when in 1972 he gained inclusion in Whitlam's Cabinet and was also chosen as Leader of the House. Just the same Daly thought he should have been on the front bench in 1949. As he told an interviewer, "Had I played my cards right then, when I didn't have to compete with so much mental talent, I would have been second to Calwell." And in the view of that wily old Labor numbers man former Senator Pat Kennelly, "If he'd taken notice of me he could have been Deputy Prime Minister early; I had Whitlam all ready to take him, but somebody else got in and told him he could win the leadership and he got killed in the big race. He could have been deputy when Barnard got it; Lance was a nice boy, but Freddy was not only nice — he knew what numbers meant."

Politics, of course, abounds with "might have beens" and timing, knowing when to move and when to let the ball go through to the keeper, is often pivotal to a game in which so much egoism and raw ambition comes into play. Though, in Kennelly's phrase, Fred "knew what numbers meant" he probably did not possess that ultimate ruthlessness that is so often a deciding factor.

But whatever Fred Daly did — to Parliament or to the Canberra community — he certainly put life into it and he did it all with his inimitable smile, a joke and a good laugh.

He is survived by his daughter, Margaret and son, Lawrence.

Frederick Michael Daly, born June 13, 1913, died August 2, 1995.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 3 August 1995

Additional Resources

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Daly, Frederick Michael (Fred) (1913–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/daly-frederick-michael-fred-1551/text1613, accessed 31 October 2014.

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