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Snedden, Sir Billy Mackie (1926–1987)

from Sun-Herald (Sydney)

Sir Billy Mackie Snedden, QC, was denied the Prime Ministership, but he came within five seats of ousting the Whitlam Labor Government in the May 1974 Federal election.

As Andrew Peacock was later to discover, loyalties die quickly in the Liberal Party, and he was dumped as Leader of the Opposition early the following year.

The move freed him to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, a role he filled with distinction for seven years, and one for which he will probably be best remembered.

While there, he campaigned unsuccessfully for adoption of the Westminster system where the Speaker is selected by both parties, and once elected is not opposed at general elections.

Sir Billy believed the reform would keep Speakers more impartial.

Although he could be somewhat pompous at times, Sir Billy was liked on both sides of politics for his easy, pleasant manner, and his readiness for a laugh with friends over a few drinks.

Ever the conciliator, he was credited with having healed serious rifts in the party which emerged during the McMahon era, and with handing over a more united party to Malcolm Fraser.

A handsome man with a keen sense of humour, women also found him attractive, and he cut a dashing figure in his Speaker's robes and wig, or wearing his Mackay tartan kilt on formal occasions.

Sir Billy's background was that of the battler's. He was born in Perth, Western Australia, in December 1926, the youngest of six children, to Scottish parents.

His father, a stonemason, deserted his mother during the Depression, and the young Billy took on a paper round to stretch the limited family budget before leaving school at 15 to work as a law clerk.

After war service in the RAAF, he entered the University of Western Australia to study law, later becoming president of the University Liberal Club and also the Western Australian Young Liberals.

Like other Liberals with working-class backgrounds, such as the late Sir Phillip Lynch, he was attracted to the party because of its ethic of reward for individual effort, as opposed to socialism.

He was also a keen sportsman and a good footballer, playing for Western Australia in interstate amateur matches as centre half-back.

After being admitted to the Bar, he became an immigration officer and went overseas, returning in 1955 to Melbourne where he gained Liberal endorsement for the seat of Bruce, which he won.

In Parliament he became a loyal supporter of Prime Minister Menzies, and was appointed Attorney-General in 1963, a position he held until 1966 when he took over the Immigration portfolio.

He was Minister for Labour and National Service from 1969 to 1971 during the Vietnam War, and Treasurer and deputy leader of the Liberal Party from 1971 to 1972.

He became leader after the December 1972 elections during which Sir William McMahon performed disastrously and was overrun by the Whitlam "It's time"campaign.

But he could not match the oratory or charisma of Mr Whitlam, and although the economy was looming as a major problem for the Government, he was unable to beat Labor in the 1974 campaign.

In March 1975, Mr Fraser, at his second attempt, defeated Sir Billy, who afterwards wept. Mr Fraser was to know the same feeling after losing the 1983 election to Mr Hawke.

When the Liberals were swept to power in 1975, Sir Billy moved into the Speaker's suite, again relishing the trappings of position.

Sir Billy resigned from the job and Parliament after the change of government in 1983 because he had always maintained that the Speaker should not be undermined by a predecessor lurking in the wings.

He returned to the Bar and became a director of a number of companies.

He was also chairman of the Melbourne Football Club, but resigned the position two years ago after a financial crisis within the club.

Married in 1950 and the father of three children, Sir Billy later separated from his wife, Joy.

Prime Minister Hawke yesterday paid a tribute to Sir Billy Snedden.

"I had the privilege of knowing Billy Snedden from my student days in Perth just after the war," he said.

"Our involvement was always on the opposite sides of politics, but I had a sincere respect for his commitment to Australians and his deep involvement in the affairs of his party which led to the leadership of the Opposition.

"He held senior ministerial positions in government and became Speaker of the House of Representatives, a position he carried out with dignity and impartiality."

Original publication

  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 28 June 1987, p 49

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Citation details

'Snedden, Sir Billy Mackie (1926–1987)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/snedden-sir-billy-mackie-15519/text26982, accessed 27 June 2017.

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