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Sir Magnus Cameron Cormack (1906–1994)

Sir Magnus was a Senate man through and through, even though he twice aspired to enter the House of Representatives.

A member of the Liberal Party since its founding, he entered the Senate in 1951 only to lose his seat two years later. Re-elected in 1962, he remained a senator until his retirement in 1978.

It was providence that took Sir Magnus to the Senate — after having run for the House of Representatives in the seat of Fawkner in 1949 only to lose narrowly, and running against Malcolm Fraser for preselection for Wannon in 1954 — but for a man with a determinedly independent streak, it was really his natural political habitat.

In broad agreement with the late Lionel Murphy, Sir Magnus held a firm belief in the Senate as a genuine house of review, not a parallel chamber with the House of Representatives.

Nine years out of politics, Sir Magnus had time to talk, reflect and think, and his view of the Senate evolved with him coming to regard it as a buffer to strong, centralised government.

He said in an interview in 1971: "My nine years out of politics made me think what's wrong with the parliamentary system and what was wrong with the Senate.

"It kept trying to establish a constant parity with the [House of] Reps. That was never its role and never its function." he said.

Determined to correct this, he eventually became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange (he was too outspoken and too independent to become a minister) and in 1970 dramatically exposed many of the abuses that had preceded the collapse of the mining boom of the 1960s.

The following year he became president of the Senate.

Born in Scotland, Sir Magnus came with his family to Australia when he was a child, and attended St Peter's College, Adelaide.

As an adult, he worked for a time in an automobile factory, and later became a grazier near Portland in western Victoria.

With a passion for yachting and fine wines, he was often characterised as the epitome of the squattocracy, but he always shrugged off this tag with the quip, "I'm not wealthy, my wife is."

When the young Malcolm Fraser had his first go at preselection 40 years ago, it was Sir Magnus, the former senator, who was most favoured to win.

However, in their presentations to the preselectors, Sir Magnus's speech was judged a bit cerebral compared with Fraser's more from-the-heart address.

To try to trump the upstart, an influential supporter of Sir Magnus rose to try to sink Fraser by asking a question about what he thought the limits were to economic liberalism.

It was a bad punch as it turned out.

Unfortunately, Fraser had made just such a study of American anti-trust laws at Oxford, and was able to elaborate on the issue persuasively for five minutes. It was a telling blow in a close contest.

Many years later, Sir Magnus, while never close to Fraser, played a decisive role in replacing then Liberal Leader, Billy Sneddon, with Fraser.

It was Sir Magnus, by then a respected elder of the Liberal Party, who hosted a dinner party at his Melbourne home in March at which it was decided that Sneddon would be asked next day to hold a party meeting as soon as possible to resolve certain matters.

Five days later, Fraser was the new leader of the Liberal Party.

When Sir Magnus stepped down from the Senate in 1978, tributes were many on all sides with a former Labor minister, Reg Bishop, hailing him as "one of the greatest parliamentary theorists the Senate had known".

Sir Magnus, a widower, is survived by four children.

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Citation details

'Cormack, Sir Magnus Cameron (1906–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1906
Wick, Caithness, Scotland


26 November, 1994 (aged 88)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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