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Sir Reginald William Colin (Curly) Swartz (1911–2006)

by John Farquharson

The only time that Sir Reginald (Curly) Swartz occupied the political spotlight during a long Federal parliamentary career spanning some 23 years, was when in 1971 he stood unsuccessfully against the then Treasurer, Sir Billy Snedden, for the Liberal Party post of deputy leader in succession to Sir John Gorton.

Sir Reginald, who has died aged 94, brought not a trace of theatrical flair in the way he practised politics. Neither did controversy, nor any hint of scandal, ever swirl about him, even though he was in charge of five different portfolios over nearly 11 years.

One of the ‘forty-niners’ of the original post-war Menzies’ Government, he was noted for his quiet, efficient handling of the ministries he controlled. An unflappable, ‘steady as she goes’ servant of his party, he always did it his way whether answering a question in the House of Representatives or making a speech. Where questions were concerned, his determination to press on with an often-detailed answer against vocal Opposition interjections almost became his hallmark. His speeches, carefully researched and prepared, were always packed with facts and background information. Devoid of any semblance of rhetoric, he delivered them much in the style of a university lecturer.

Newspaper files contain hardly any personal details, merely a paper chain of official announcements stretching over decades. His strength was his ‘safe-hands’ reputation, which the five Prime Ministers he served under – Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton and McMahon – all recognised. They knew that any task they entrusted to him would be completed competently with a minimum of fuss. However, this quiet, short, rotund man with the shiny bald head, had buried horrors beneath the political front he presented to the world. He had been through the Malayan campaign with the ill-fated 8th Division, AIF, as a company commander, with the rank of captain, with Queensland’s 2/26th Infantry Battalion. He survived three and a half years as a POW of the Japanese, including a stint on the notorious Burma-Thailand railway, before being sent back to Singapore. His POW years earned him an MBE for having ‘saved his men from excessive work and brutal treatment when in charge of camps on Singapore island and during the Burma-Thailand railway construction’.

Discussing the Malayan campaign with an interviewer after the war, Swartz said the AIF in Malaya had undertaken a strenuous jungle warfare-training program after arriving in Malaya and were up to a high standard when hostilities broke out. They were really good soldiers. It was just unfortunate that there was no better resistance that could be put up against the Japanese at that time. Sir Reginald had shown an interest in military matters from early age, having joined his school cadet corps and then joined the CMF in 1928. Within 12 months he was promoted to sergeant, commissioned as a lieutenant in 1934 and promoted to captain before joining the AIF in 1940.

After the end of World War ll, Sir Reginald returned to Brisbane in October 1945 and was discharged from the Army in April 1946. He rejoined the CMF in 1948 with the rank of Major and retired in 1961 as a Lieutenant-Colonel.

Born in Brisbane on 14 April 1911, he was just a year old when his father, a Post Office worker, was transferred to Toowoomba. There he attended East State Primary School before going to Toowoomba Grammar School for his secondary education, which he completed at Brisbane Grammar School after his family moved back to Brisbane. Upon leaving school in 1926, aged 16, he went to work for the British Imperial Oil Company, which became Shell Oil, as an office boy. Apart from war service, he stayed with Shell Oil for 23 years in all before entering politics. Back at Shell after the war he became a marketing representative for the company in the Toowoomba area. He held an executive position with the company when he resigned upon being elected to Parliament.

On going to Toowoomba after the war he joined the Queensland Peoples’ Party, which became the Liberal Party. In the Federal elections of 1949, which saw the Coalition parties swept to power after mounting a strong campaign against Labor’s bank nationalisation legislation, a commitment to end petrol rationing and to deal with the communist threat, Swartz was selected as the Liberal candidate for Darling Downs. Both Menzies, as Liberal Leader, and Artie Fadden, the Country Party (later National Party) Leader, appeared as supporting speakers at Sir Reginald’s campaign launch. He held Darling Downs, for which he was unopposed in the 1951 and 1955 elections, until his retirement in 1972.

During his political career he served under five prime ministers – Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton and McMahon – and held five portfolios – Repatriation, Social Services, Health, Civil Aviation and National Development. He was deputy government whip in the House of Representatives before being appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Commerce and Agriculture (later Trade). After nine years in that post, he was brought into the Ministry in 1961, being promoted to Cabinet in 1966 as Minister for Civil Aviation in the Gorton Government. His last Cabinet appointment was as Minister for National Development from November 1969 until December 1972.

Sir Reginald, who was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday honours of 1972 for his years of service as a minister and for his contribution to the community, gave no reason for his retirement before the 1972 election, although he had flagged his intentions some months earlier. This was left to Prime Minister McMahon, who referred to ‘understandable personal reasons’, for his retirement, but did not spell out what they were. Sir Reginald left Parliament with many tributes ringing in his ears from colleagues and Opposition Members. The most striking came from the then Treasurer, Billy Snedden, who said, ‘I have never known another man who could stand up in this House and bring a turbulent situation into calm and reason as Reg Swartz’.

After his retirement he took up a number of company directorships, as well as being active in the Queensland POW Association, the RSL and the Royal Commonwealth Society. He also served as chairman of the AIF Malayan Nursing Scholarship Board, life patron of the Australian Army Aviation Association, and was Honorary Colonel of the Army Aviation Corps from 1968 to 1974. The Queensland Liberal Party made him a life member in 1972. He moved to Victoria in the 1980s, but returned to Queensland where he took up residence in Budrim.

Sir Reginald’s wife, Hilda (Robinson), whom he married in 1936, died in 1995. In 1998 he married Muriel Elizabeth McKinstry, who survives him along with two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

Sir Reginald Swartz, born 14 April 1911; died 2 February 2006.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Swartz, Sir Reginald William Colin (Curly) (1911–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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