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Killen, Sir Denis James (1925–2007)

by John Farquharson

Sir James Killen, by Loui Seselja, 1998

Sir James Killen, by Loui Seselja, 1998

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14067090-77

Parliamentary wit, practical joker, accomplished debater, successful barrister, racehorse owner and Liberal rebel are just a few of epithets that have been applied to one of Australia’s most colourful politicians, Sir James Killen, who has died in Brisbane aged 81.

Sir James, a former Defence Minister, who retired from Federal politics after a turbulent 28-year career, had a reputation for toughness and ‘Irish independence’, with a capacity to make and keep friends across the political divide.

The self-made Queensland politician-cum-barrister, though noted for his ultra-conservatism and anti-communist rhetoric, could never be categorised under any of the accepted political labels. From the time he arrived on the parliamentary scene in 1955 as the 29-year-old Member for Moreton, it was apparent that he lacked neither ability, courage, nor confidence. The institution of Parliament was his great love, and it was in mixing it in the cut and thrust of the House floor that he really shone. With speeches often redolent of the great Irish-born British statesman, Edmund Burke, and his bush background, he was prepared to take on all comers in the political arena. And, on issues about which he felt strongly, he did not hesitate to cross the floor and vote with the Labor Opposition.

He took on Menzies over Britain’s entry into the European Common Market and the fluoridation of Canberra’s water supply, arguing that it was enforced medication. Nor was he overawed by Labor firebrand Eddie Ward who, noting the shock of hair falling over Killen’s forehead and the small moustache, scathingly observed, ‘When I first saw the Member for “Mortein”, I didn’t know whether he was a junior Adolf (Hitler) or a filleted prawn’. Quite unruffled, Killen fired back, ‘They tell me you’re tough. But in the outer Barcoo, you wouldn’t be respectable crow bait’. Though Ward and Killen slugged it out in Parliament, they respected each other and were friends outside the House. This surprised and no doubt irritated some of Killen’s colleagues. Dick Casey (later Lord Casey), once took Killen aside and said, ‘I don’t understand it, Killen. Ward talks to you. He’s never spoken to me in 33 years’.

However, political advancement didn’t come easy to the brash boy from the bush. Passed over by Sir Robert Menzies, Killen had to wait for John Gorton to reward his talents and loyalty as Minister for the Navy (1969-71). The advent of McMahon as Prime Minister, saw him dumped from the Ministry. But his star rose again under Malcolm Fraser, who made him Minister for Defence. Killen regarded his six and a half years there (1975-82), presiding over the development of joint operational doctrine, as his most significant achievement. There were those who were sceptical about his ability to run the technically complex department, but looking back he doesn’t seem to have made any big mistakes.

He gave his last speech on defence in April, 1982 and in the reshuffle of the Fraser Ministry in May, became Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the House. Made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in that same year, Sir Denis took on his new role enthusiastically. He had plans to revive the standards of debate, courtesy and performance in Parliament. But by March 1983, the Fraser Coalition Government was out of office. Andrew Peacock, who succeeded Fraser as Liberal Party Leader, did not have a place for Killen in his Shadow Ministry. After five months Killen became bored with life in Opposition and resigned. This was not the first time he had been bored. He got bored with Brisbane Grammar School at 13 and ran away to go jackerooing. He came to look on those years in the bush in central western Queensland as the most formative of his life. And it was in those years that he swam naked across the Barcoo and Warrego Rivers, and, for good measure, ‘bare-arsed across the Condamine with Aborigines’.

Born on 23 November 1925 at Dalby, Killen never knew his dentist father, who died when he was only two. In 1943, at 18, he joined the RAAF and became a flight-sergeant air gunner, but did not see action. After the war he completed a diploma course in sheep and wool and became a wool-classer. But his vision of life on the land through the soldier settlement land scheme faded and he took a job in the city. Three years after joining the Liberal Party in 1946, he became foundation president of the Queensland Young Liberals. It was at that time he met and married his first wife, Joy. After entering Parliament, he spent seven years in part-time study of law to qualify as a barrister.

He hit the headlines in the ‘credit-squeeze’ election of 1961. In his closest electoral battle for Moreton, he survived by only 130 votes after the distribution of Communist Party preferences. His tight win saved the Menzies Government, giving it a floor-majority of one in the House of Representatives. It also gave rise to the famous, undenied story of the Menzies telegram: ‘Killen, you are magnificent’. But as Killen revealed in his memoirs, all Menzies ever said to him in a brief telephone call was, ‘Well laddie, this is good news. I’m glad it’s over’. Sir James invented the telegram wording to give a break to a journalist friend looking for a good news story.

But the authenticity of other Killen stories was never in question. They have become legendary and long since passed into Federal Parliamentary lore. A newly elected MP once asked Killen, then deputy whip, how he could join the list of speakers in a debate. Killen explained that any time the Member wanted to speak he should slip a $2 note, in an unmarked envelope, under the deputy whip’s door. Killen was able to shout the Members’ bar, before the backbencher realised he was the victim of a practical joke. On the eve of Prime Minister Fraser announcing a ministerial reshuffle, Killen joined with his great friend from ‘the other side’, the late Fred Daly, in sending eight aspiring backbenchers rushing to the PM’s office in response to hoax phone calls that the PM wanted to see them. When Jim Cope was elected Speaker of the House in 1973 he read prayers with apparent difficulty and a note arrived signed Gil Duthie, a Labor colleague and former Methodist minister, seeking a meeting. A similar message reached Duthie’s office asking for help in a prayer reading and signed Jim Cope. A strange conversation ensued and broke up only when both realised they had joined the growing list of victims of a Killen practical joke.

Throughout his life Killen placed a high value on good humour, laughter, friendship, courtesy and good manners. Some of these characteristics undoubtedly came from his father, described as a man who ‘loved a drink, loved people and loved to have a bet’. He exulted in racecourses and was never happier than at Eagle Farm, laying a bet and watching his horses, which he usually owned in partnership, run. He used to say, ‘the racing fraternity is a microcosm of society. It is a great sounding board for a political practitioner. What I’m told on the racecourse has often put me six months ahead of my Cabinet colleagues’.

Killen’s happy life and marriage, was also touched with tragedy. Just when he was fighting some of his toughest political battles, the second of his three daughters, Rosemary, died from cancer in 1981 only about 12 months after giving birth to a daughter, Dana. It was a heavy blow. So when the time came for him to leave Defence, a portfolio he had then held longer than any other minister, he was regretful, but relieved.

According to Fred Daly what stood out in Killen’s career, apart from his good humour, was his ‘capacity to give and take hard knocks without complaint, to be gracious in victory and to accept reverses with courage and determination.’ And among parliamentarians few could match his ‘withering scorn, triumphant gestures and colourful orations’. Even if the appellation ‘magnificent’ wasn’t actually bestowed, in the eyes of people of all shades of political opinion, it was nevertheless a career tinged with a ‘certain magnificence’.

Sir James is survived by his second wife, Bernise (Atherton), whom he married 18 months after his first wife, Joy, died of a stroke in March 2000, his daughters, Diana and Heather, and granddaughter, Dana.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 2007
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 January 2007

Additional Resources

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Killen, Sir Denis James (1925–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/killen-sir-denis-james-562/text563, accessed 31 August 2014.

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