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Fairhall, Sir Allen (1909–2006)

by John Farquharson

Sir Allen Fairhall, who has died in Newcastle, aged 96, was a rare bird in Australian politics; he didn’t have a burning ambition to become Prime Minister, nor for all the trappings that went with the office.

Yet the political wisdom of the day had it that he, not John Gorton, would have been Prime Minister had he chosen to stand for the Liberal Party leadership after Harold Holt’s death in December 1967.

Fairhall, who had undergone major abdominal surgery about a year earlier, opted out of the race, declaring that his health would not stand the additional burdens that the top job would entail. So he soldiered on as Defence Minister, though not very happily under Gorton. Differences emerged, which saw Fairhall battling with Gorton over policy issues relating to defence and the three services.

After nearly two years, with little prospect of getting his ideas adopted - especially on forward defence – Fairhall caused a stir on the eve of the 1969 Federal election by deciding to quit politics. Officially, he again cited his health as the reason, saying ‘it would not stand the wear and tear of another parliamentary term’. He denied that his departure had anything to do with frustration over Gorton’s style as Prime Minister.

There is no doubt that he found Gorton difficult. On some defence issues, such as the purchase of F-111 military aircraft, he had to challenge the PM and assert his independence. But the overriding determinant in Fairhall’s decision to go was his assessment of the Coalition Government’s future under Gorton and what that would mean for him. He once said that he wanted to leave Parliament at a time when the Government was going to win, so he could not be accused of ‘leaving a sinking ship’. His judgment indicated the Government would most likely win the 1969 poll but, ‘with the deterioration of the Government’s prestige under Gorton’, he couldn’t see it winning in 1972. Hence the timing of his decision to leave Parliament.

Government members uneasy over the Prime Minister’s style viewed his departure with some dismay. They saw the removal of the restraining influence of ‘sense and solidity’, for which Fairhall had stood in the Gorton Cabinet. Earlier, in July 1968, that same steadying quality had led a group calling themselves ‘Businessmen for Democratic Government’ to place a newspaper advertisement seeking support for the nomination of Fairhall as Prime Minister. Sir Allen dissociated himself from the advertisement and the businessmen behind it.

So the man who used to say he was ‘not a political animal and never would be’, put politics behind him to devote himself to business interests, family life in Newcastle, amateur radio broadcasting and deep-sea fishing from his holiday home at Shoal Bay. But for a man who started with virtually nothing, he could look back with some satisfaction over what he had achieved during his 20 years in politics as well as in business and industry.

Born on November 24, 1909 at Morpeth, NSW, where his father worked in the building trade as a plasterer, Fairhall trained as an electrical fitter at Newcastle’s Walsh Island dockyard after being educated at Tenambit and East Maitland Primary and Boys’ High Schools. On completing his apprenticeship, his services were terminated just as the Depression began to bite. Recalling that time, he once said, ‘I had the backside out of my pants … it was a case of get out or go under. So I went into radio’.

It wasn’t quite as simple as that. He had been interested in radio as a schoolboy and taken out an amateur transmitter’s licence when he was 17. The Postmaster-General’s Department refused his application for a commercial broadcasting licence until he could produce evidence of support and a need for a second such station in the Newcastle area. All that took a year, and another six months elapsed before he could raise the money to start in August 1931. He built his own studio and transmitter. With one associate, Harold Pickover, he became engineer, announcer, disc jockey, copywriter, salesman and everything else.

The result was the Newcastle Broadcasting Company Pty Ltd, of which he became managing director. The company operated station 2KO, initially from Fairhall’s family home in New Lambton until he moved it into the Newcastle business district. It became the biggest commercial station in the district before Fairhall sold out all his interests in the company in 1947.

After the outbreak of war, he tried to enlist in the RAAF only to be rejected on medical grounds. Another field of service opened in 1941, when the Ministry of Munitions co-opted him to become supervising engineer of the Radio and Signals Supply Section in NSW. He was responsible for the production of wireless, signals and radar equipment for the armed services. In 1942 he became president of the Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations. From 1941 to 1944 he served as an alderman of Newcastle City Council.

With an eye to taking a hand in national politics, Sir Allen joined the Liberal Party in 1945 and unsuccessfully contested Newcastle at the 1946 Federal elections. Meanwhile, having relinquished his radio interests, he bought a dairy farm at East Gresford. The farm, which he ran with a manager in charge for 10 or 12 years, was located in the new Upper Hunter River Valley seat of Paterson. As the Liberal candidate in the 1949 election, he won the seat that he held until his retirement.

His rise was fairly rapid after entering Parliament. In 1956 he became Minister for the Interior and Works, but he suffered a set back in 1958 when Prime Minister Menzies dropped him from the Ministry. This was not because of dissatisfaction over his performance, though he did have to be prodded to ensure Canberra’s newly created planning and design body, the National Capital Development Commission, was given adequate independence. He was let go to make way for Sir Garfield Barwick, whom Menzies wanted as Attorney-General. To keep the right balance of State representation in the Ministry, a NSW member had to go. Gordon Freeth, from Western Australia, was brought in as Fairhall’s replacement.

Two years later he was back in the Ministry with the Supply portfolio. He moved to Defence in 1966 under Prime Minister Holt.

Though he became an effective Defence Minister, his early performance on taking over the portfolio could only be described as ‘patchy’. He was on a learning curve as he grappled with comprehensive defence concepts and the political sensitivities involved with the portfolio. But when backed by Sir Henry Bland as departmental Secretary, he became a good minister – convincing and confident in handling the issues. Apart from pushing the concept of ‘forward defence’, he did much to promote Australia in the US as a source for defence material. His greatest success, and the one on which his reputation was built, was as Minister for Supply. This was a portfolio to which he was able to apply his knowledge of technology, along with the skills that enabled him to succeed as a businessman.

His general approach in politics was to take the rough with the smooth. He did not complain when Menzies dropped him from the Ministry in 1958, continuing to perform and support the Prime Minister from the backbench. However, he was far from being a compliant or unquestioning minister. He could be combative and tough when necessary. Always vehement in denouncing the ‘evils of socialism’, particularly bank nationalisation, he came from the Liberal Party’s more conservative side. A strong advocate of private enterprise, he believed it provided the best opportunities for people to succeed on their own merits. A non-seeker of preferment, his strength was in bringing the practicality of the businessman to the Cabinet table.

Mixing with the ‘big boys’ of industry was always gratifying for Sir Allen. In retirement he took up a range of directorships with companies such as Newbold General Refractories, Thiess Holdings, Clyde Industries, Ampol Petroleum and others. Created a Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1970, Sir Allen was also the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Science degree, from Newcastle University, the James N. Kirby Medal, from the Institute of Production Engineers, and was made a life member of the Wireless Institute of Australia.

Passionate about radio, electronics and the promotion of Australian industry, it was nevertheless, as Sir Paul Hasluck, suggested a ‘higher sense of duty that took him into politics’. And this was echoed by Sir Allen when he said, ‘I never asked anything out of politics but the opportunity to render some kind of service to the people I represent’.

His wife, Monica, whom he married in 1936, and a son Allen, survive him.

Sir Allen Fairhall, born November 24, 1909; died 3 November 2006.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 25 November 2006, p B9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 2006, p 16

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Fairhall, Sir Allen (1909–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fairhall-sir-allen-366/text367, accessed 15 December 2018.

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