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Sir Frederick Charles (Fred) Chaney (1914–2001)

by John Farquharson

Few newly appointed ministers have been dealt the sort of hand that Sir Fred Chaney found himself having to play upon being named Minister for the Navy after the December 1963 Federal election.

What the fledgling minister from Western Australia, who died in Perth on December 18, walked into was the Navy’s greatest peacetime disaster, when the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, flagship of the Australian fleet, ploughed into the destroyer HMAS Voyager during an exercise off Jervis Bay on the night of February 10, 1964.

Chaney’s position was complicated, as he was still waiting for the passage of legislation to enlarge the ministry, so that he could be sworn in as the Minister. In the meantime, Dr Jim Forbes, newly appointed Army Minister, was also Navy Minister. Forbes was attending to formal matters, the signing of documents and the like, but Chaney was making the decisions about the handling of the disaster.

With 82 men having lost their lives, Voyager sunk and Melbourne badly damaged, Chaney had a major crisis on his hands. He had a difficult path to tread, but he was taking the hard decisions with the calm, impressive ability he had displayed as Chief Government Whip (1962-63) in maintaining division numbers when the Government had a working majority of only one. Used to handling pressure, he was coping well until the debate on the report of the first Voyager Royal Commission. As an ex-serviceman, he felt keenly, and perhaps took too personally, Labor’s concerted attack upon the Navy with its proud record of service to the nation. The result was that his somewhat emotionally charged response came in for criticism from political commentators and some elements of the Ministry and government parties. This was to cast something of a shadow over his political career, though his subsequent performance in the portfolio should have dispelled any doubts about his competency as a minister. He won high regard from the Navy for what he did, as a sorely tried new minister, in defending the service in its most trying period. His warm heartedness, integrity and direct manner carried the day for him, as it did in his career after politics. He fought for reform in the Navy and achieved some breakthroughs, though they didn’t go as far as he would have liked. One success was in getting more independent views on the Naval Board through changing the way business was processed. However, he wasn’t able to realise his dream of having a highly efficient Australian coast guard service, similar to the US Coast Guard.

One of the band of World War II ex-servicemen who enthusiastically embraced politics in the Liberal cause, Chaney was elected to the House of Representatives as Member for Perth in 1955, after three years as State President of the RSL, which he had joined upon discharge from the RAAF in 1945. As a backbencher and minister, he was one of those who sought to make a difference. But politics always has its casualties, and Chaney was one. To his great disappointment he was dropped from the second Holt ministry in 1966 and suffered electoral defeat in 1969 as a result of a redistribution of electoral boundaries. After he missed out on the ministry, colleagues persuaded him to nominate as Speaker of the House of Representatives, but he lost by one vote. However, he went on to become chairman of the Parliamentary Public Works Committee.

Upon Paul Hasluck becoming Governor-General, Chaney could have switched to his seat and saved his political skin. He chose not to do so, a decision he later regretted. He didn’t seek any political position after his electoral defeat, but went to work for a Perth stockbroking firm (Hartley Poyntons). However, it wasn’t long before Prime Minister Gorton approached him with an offer to go to Darwin as Administrator of the Northern Territory. He accepted and was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the 1970 New Year’s Honours before taking up his new post. He stayed three and a half years, until July 1973. With the advent of the Whitlam Government in December 1972, he found his position increasingly difficult. The close consultation and exchange of information, he had enjoyed with the Gorton Government ceased, and he felt it was time to go. He had taken the Administrator’s post as ‘a bit of a challenge’ and left it with some regret.

A wide spectrum of people felt he had done much for the Northern Territory. One area on which he made an impact was Aboriginal issues, working closely with the Director of Welfare, the late Harry Giese, who Chaney found to be ‘trusted by Aborigines all around the Territory’. Chaney had always been sympathetic to Aboriginal issues and thought they should have land rights. He had the distinction, along with Lady Chaney, of being made a blood brother of Groote Eylandt Aboriginal artist Yirawala. Both the Chaneys were also given some tribal lands. His Aboriginal sympathies showed up again during his two terms as Lord Mayor of Perth from 1978 to 1982. He was prepared to resign when there was strong opposition over an Anglican Church proposal to put a shelter for Aboriginal women in a city location. He felt the shelter should be sited where the need existed, not in some outer area. The shelter went ahead and was quite successful.

A life of ‘pleasant semi-retirement’ was beckoning when he was approached to stand for Mayor of Perth as successor to Sir Ernest Lee-Steere. He saw it as another challenge and, after a family conclave, decided to nominate. The theme of his campaign, organised by his son-in-law Martin Beech, was ‘people were more important than development’. He came out the winner against three opponents, just 25 years after he first stood for Parliament and 10 years after his last parliamentary election campaign. Immediately upon assuming office he severed all connections with the Liberal Party because he felt it would be a ‘backward step for party politics to impinge upon local government’.  He played a significant part in Perth’s 150th anniversary celebrations of 1979 and, while occupying the mayoral office, was knighted in 1981.

A factor in leading Chaney into politics was his experience of the Depression, which left a lasting impression. In later years he told an interviewer, ‘To see the absolute despair on peoples’ faces was just something I’ll never forget. It’s engraved on my memory’. Born in Fremantle on October 12, 1914, Chaney and his mother, who was widowed during his school years, had personal experience of the bite of the Depression. This meant, among other things, that economic necessity dictated his career path. With job opportunities severely limited, when an opening occurred in the WA Education Department he had to accept it rather than pursue his bent for engineering, And after primary education at State and Catholic schools, his secondary schooling was dependent upon a scholarship he was awarded to attend the Christian Brothers’ Aquinas College, largely for his athletic prowess as a runner.

The teaching career that he pursued before and immediately after the war, began at the bottom of the scale as a ‘monitor’, under the prevailing WA teacher-training system at Maylens State school. There, he found he was expected to be able to teach, recalling some years ago that, ‘It wasn’t unusual to be given a class of 30 kids and, with absolutely no training be told, ‘there you are, teach them’. It was against the rules, but it was done, and it happened to me’. Later he went on to teachers’ college, but only for four and a half months before the Education Department pronounced him a qualified teacher and sent him off to a one-teacher school, in a relieving position, at Jarrahwood. He had 17 pupils from infants to junior and intermediate. However, his ‘guess and by God’ approach apparently paid off, as he later found ‘they all turned out pretty well’. When the Jarrahwood teacher returned he was shifted to Malyalling, near Narrogin, where he stayed until the outbreak of war. It was there that the future Administrator of the Northern Territory crossed paths with Les Johnson, a future Administrator of Papua New Guinea, who was in charge of a neighbouring one-teacher school. Both future administrators enlisted from there, Chaney in the RAAF and Johnson in the Army.

In January 1938, Chaney married Mavis Bond, a speech and drama teacher from Perth, who he took back to Malyalling. As there were no married quarters, the young couple rented an abandoned farmhouse, living rough while effecting renovations. In the RAAF Chaney trained as a pilot and qualified as a flying instructor before serving in Papua New Guinea and Borneo. He flew Auster aircraft with 16 Air Observation Flight, directing artillery fire on to targets and rescuing wounded and others caught in ‘tight corners’ in combat zones or behind enemy lines. ‘The courage skill and resourcefulness’ he had displayed in several daring and hazardous rescue operations in Borneo won him the Air Force Cross.

Back to teaching after the war, he went to five schools - four of them in four years - rising to deputy headmaster, then got out before really settling into it as a career. His last appointment was at Victoria Park school where he was acting headmaster for six months. In these years, his heavy involvement with the RSL led to him becoming the first World War II veteran to become a State president before he resigned to enter politics.

To his role in public life he brought heart and feeling, consideration for people and a willingness to break the constraints of policy and ideology wherever he could see a better way forward. In the late 1950s he came under criticism from some Liberal colleagues for advocating State aid for non-government schools. He was ahead of his time, but was vindicated by subsequent events. Sir Fred was always concerned about racism in Australia and its detrimental effect on national life. He thought it would take a long time to get rid of the white Anglo-Saxon, Protestant concept from which it stemmed. He wanted Australian society ‘to judge a person on what he is doing and how he’s doing it rather than what he is’. Added to this, his view was, ‘If we’re prepared to accept people for what they are and what they can contribute to society, we can solve a lot of these problems’. Another of his firm beliefs was, ‘You can never get into trouble telling the truth. There’s no way out of it, especially in politics’.

He is survived by his wife, Mavis, three daughters and four sons, of whom the best known is probably Fred (Jnr), also a former Federal Liberal Party politician and minister.

Sir Frederick Charles Chaney, born Fremantle October 12 1914; died Perth, December 18, 2001.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Chaney, Sir Frederick Charles (Fred) (1914–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Sir Frederick Chaney, 1962

Sir Frederick Chaney, 1962

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L41579

Life Summary [details]


12 October, 1914
Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia


18 December, 2001 (aged 87)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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