Sir Billy Snedden
Snedden in 1967
|Leader of the Opposition|
20 December 1972 – 21 March 1975
|Prime Minister||Gough Whitlam|
|Preceded by||Gough Whitlam|
|Succeeded by||Malcolm Fraser|
|Speaker of the House of Representatives|
17 February 1976 – 4 February 1983
|Preceded by||Gordon Scholes|
|Succeeded by||Harry Jenkins Sr.|
Billy Mackie Snedden
31 December 1926
West Perth, Western Australia, Australia
|Died||27 June 1987 60) (aged|
Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales, Australia
Joy Forsyth (m. 1950)
|Education||Highgate State School|
Perth Boys' School
Perth Technical College
|Alma mater||University of Western Australia|
Snedden was born in Perth, Western Australia. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, and then studied law at the University of Western Australia. From 1951 to 1952, he was the inaugural federal chairman of the Young Liberal Movement. After a period working overseas for the Department of Immigration, Snedden returned to Australia in 1954 and settled in Melbourne. He was elected to the House of Representatives the following year, aged 28.
In 1964, Snedden was elevated to cabinet by Robert Menzies. He served as a government minister until the Liberal government's defeat at the 1972 election, under an additional four prime ministers. Snedden spent periods as Attorney-General (1964–1966), Minister for Immigration (1966–1969), Minister for Labour and National Service (1969–1971), and Treasurer (1971–1972). He was elected deputy leader of the Liberal Party in 1971, and replaced William McMahon as leader after the following year's election loss, thus becoming Leader of the Opposition.
Snedden led the Liberal Party to the 1974 federal election, which saw the Labor Party retain government with a narrow majority. Malcolm Fraser mounted two leadership challenges in early 1975, winning on the second attempt; by the end of the year he was prime minister. Snedden was elected to the speakership when the parliament next sat. He held the position for almost seven years, gaining a reputation for impartiality. In retirement, Snedden served as chairman of the Melbourne Football Club and on the board of the Victorian Football League. The unusual circumstances of his death in 1987 attracted much public interest.
Birth and family background
Snedden was born on 31 December 1926 at a private hospital in Newcastle Street, West Perth, Western Australia. He was the youngest of six children born to Catherine (née Mackie) and Alan Snedden. His mother was 43 years old when he was born, and his siblings – one sister and four brothers – were much older than him. Snedden's parents were born in Alva, Clackmannanshire, Scotland, and spoke "broad Scots". His grandparents were illiterate, and his parents had only limited schooling; they were both from coal-mining families. They immigrated to Australia in 1912 with their three oldest children, initially settling in the remote mining town of Meekatharra. The family moved to Perth in about 1921, after their house in Meekatharra burned down. Snedden's father worked mostly as a stonemason, but also spent periods as a miner and general labourer when better work was not available. He reputedly left Scotland to escape a paternity suit, and had earlier been in trouble with the law for poaching. The family name was originally "Snaddon" (or "Snadon"), but was changed upon arrival in Australia.
Snedden grew up in Perth's inner north near the suburb of Highgate, living initially on Robinson Avenue and later on Bulwer Street. His father left home when he was about three or four years old, and they had only limited contact thereafter. His oldest brother Bob became the family's main breadwinner, while his mother worked as a laundress and his other siblings also found jobs. He was close to his sister Jean, who often babysat him. Snedden worked part-time from about the age of eight, helping his brothers on construction sites and selling and delivering newspapers. He began his schooling at Highgate Primary School, and later attended the Perth Boys' School through to the ninth grade.
Snedden left school in April 1942 and began working as a junior law clerk for Thomas Hughes, who was a solicitor and independent state MP. He would not normally have been considered qualified for the job, but there was a shortage of applicants due to the war. Snedden was eventually able to receive his leaving certificate by attending night school at Perth Technical College. He fell out with Hughes late in 1943, and in January 1944 began working as a clerk at the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor's office. He was a talented sportsman as a youth, and played a few games for the West Perth Football Club during the 1944 WANFL season, at a time when the competition was age-restricted. He later represented Western Australia at the Australian Amateur Football Carnival in Melbourne in 1951.
Military service and university
Snedden and two friends attempted to join the merchant navy at the age of 15, but were unsuccessful. He also attempted to join the Royal Australian Navy when he was 17, but his mother refused her permission; three of his brothers were already on active service. Snedden eventually enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in January 1945, two days after his 18th birthday. He began an air crew training scheme, but as the war came to an end he was taken off the course and given more general duties; this included a period tending bar at an officers' mess. He was discharged in September 1945.
As part of his demobilisation, Snedden completed aptitude tests which showed he would be a suitable candidate for a university education. In combination with his earlier clerking experience, this allowed him to secure a place at the University of Western Australia's law school in 1946. Snedden failed two subjects in his first year, and was only able to continue when the law school dean Frank Beasley intervened on his behalf. He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1950, and completed his articles of clerkship with Harvey, Slattery, and Gibson. He was called to the bar in December 1951.
In 1951, Snedden briefly returned to the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor's office. He resigned from the public service due to a pay cut, and began working for Angus & Coote as a hearing aid salesman. In early 1952, he secured a position as a migration officer with the Department of Immigration. He and his family moved to Italy for sixteen months, initially living in Taormina, Sicily, and later in Rome. He learnt to speak Italian, and travelled around the country conducting interviews with prospective migrants. In November 1953, Snedden was transferred to England. He stayed there for a year, and was then supposed to be moved on to Germany. However, he decided to return to Australia, and in January 1955 moved to Melbourne to work in a legal advice bureau for ex-servicemen. He and his family settled in Ringwood.
Snedden was state president of the Young Liberals, and from 1951 to 1952 served as the inaugural federal chairman of the organisation. As president of the UWA Liberal Club, he became acquainted with future prime minister Bob Hawke, who was president of the Labor Club. As a student, he made three unsuccessful attempts to enter politics, standing for the Liberal Party at the 1948 Boulder state by-election and at the 1949 and 1951 federal elections (in Fremantle and Perth, respectively).
Member of Parliament
In 1954 Snedden moved to Melbourne, where he practised law until 1955, when he was elected to the House of Representatives for the outer suburban seat of Bruce. He defeated Keith Ewert, the former Labor member for nearby Flinders. Snedden defeated Ewert by a similar margin in 1958.
In 1961, Snedden faced Ewert again, and this time trailed in initial counting. However, he was elected on Democratic Labor Party preferences. Snedden's narrow win was critical in the outcome of what was the closest election in Australian history up till that time. Had Labor won it, it would have toppled the Coalition after 12 years of rule. However, with Snedden's win, the best Labor could hope for was a hung parliament, though the Coalition was not assured of another term in government until later in the night, with its narrow victory in Moreton.
He served in the ministries of Sir Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John McEwen, John Gorton and William McMahon. In March 1964 Menzies appointed him Attorney-General. In that capacity he played a significant role in the 1967 constitutional referendum affecting the status of Aboriginals. On 7 April 1965, the Menzies Cabinet decided that it would seek to repeal Section 127 of the Constitution, which excluded indigenous people from the population count, but made no firm plans or timetable for such action. In August 1965, Snedden proposed to Cabinet that abolition of Section 127 was inappropriate unless Section 51(xxvi) was simultaneously amended to remove the words "other than the aboriginal race in any state". He was rebuffed, but he gained agreement when he made a similar submission to the Holt Cabinet in 1966. The referendum went ahead on 27 May 1967, and was resoundingly approved.
He was Minister for Immigration 1966–69, and Minister for Labour and National Service 1969–71, a difficult job which put him in charge of the government's highly unpopular policy of conscription for the Vietnam War. In 1967, following the death of Harold Holt, he was a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but his candidacy was not taken very seriously.
As Minister for Labour and National Service, Snedden commented on anti-war and anti-conscription activists' demonstrations. On the eve of the first Moratorium, he said in Parliament that the marchers were "political bikies pack-raping democracy". In 1971, Snedden was appointed Treasurer by William McMahon, and was elected Liberal Deputy Leader, making him the heir apparent to the leadership.
Leader of the Opposition
When McMahon was defeated by the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam in 1972, Snedden was elected as his replacement as Liberal leader, winning by a single vote over Nigel Bowen on the fifth ballot. Snedden promised a new and more "liberal" Liberal Party, but he suffered from his continuing image as a light-weight, and many Liberals believed he would never defeat Whitlam.
Snedden allowed himself to be persuaded to use the conservative majority in the Senate to block the Whitlam government's budget in 1974. Whitlam promptly called a double dissolution election for 18 May, at which he was returned to office, albeit with a reduced majority. Labor campaigned on the slogan "Oh no, not Snedden!". Snedden exposed himself to ridicule by refusing to concede defeat, insisting at a press conference that "while we didn't win, we didn't lose all"
After the election the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, led by Malcolm Fraser, challenged Snedden's leadership, but he was narrowly re-elected. When he failed to make any headway against Whitlam, Fraser mounted a second challenge, and Snedden was deposed in March 1975, becoming the first leader of the Liberal Party not to gain the prime ministership. He retired to the backbench until February 1976, when Fraser supported his election as Speaker of the House.
Speaker of the House
Snedden was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives on 17 February 1976, defeating the previous Speaker, Gordon Scholes, by a majority of 53 votes. He was re-elected on 21 February 1978, defeating Labor MP Dr Harry Jenkins by a majority of 44 votes, and on 25 November 1980, again defeating Dr Jenkins by a majority of 22 votes.
He was the last Speaker of the House of Representatives to wear the formal regalia of full-bottomed wig and gown inherited from the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, believing that it would restore the dignity of the office of Speaker.
As Speaker, Snedden sought to enhance the role and assert its independence. He preferred the Speaker to be recognised as an impartial umpire like the Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1979, he published a paper outlining his proposals for adopting some of the Westminster conventions, namely that the Speaker remain in office for five to seven years then resign and hold no further public office, that the Speaker be unopposed by the major political parties at general elections, and that the Speaker resign from his or her party upon becoming Speaker.
Snedden tried to strengthen the Parliament's ability to withstand pressures from the Executive. He believed that it was contrary to Parliament's independence for the Executive to control the funds allocated to Parliament, so he authorised parliamentary officers to write a paper in 1976 entitled The Parliamentary Budget. He later wrote, "You could not have a situation where the Executive decided the level at which Members could operate efficiently." This led to the introduction of the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill in 1982.
One of his most memorable actions as Speaker occurred in February 1982 when a Labor frontbencher, Bob Hawke, referred to then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as a "liar" during question time. Fraser was answering a question about two joint royal commissions being conducted in Victoria at the time. Fraser allegedly selectively quoted a statement by the Victorian Leader of the Opposition, John Cain, which provoked Hawke to call Fraser a liar. Snedden followed parliamentary procedure and asked Hawke to withdraw the remark. When Hawke refused, Snedden named him and a motion for his suspension was moved. Snedden later wrote that "It was his [Fraser's] instigation which was making the Parliament unworkable, not the Opposition's response, like the classroom situation where the smart little man hits the fellow next to him who retaliates and is seen by the teacher". Members of the Opposition had by that point taken up "liar" as a chant, which put Snedden in the position where he would have to name every Member, one by one. After realising that the House would be unworkable for that sitting day, he declined to put the motion for Hawke's suspension.
Fraser was furious and attempted to intimidate Snedden to punish Hawke for not withdrawing or take his "punishment". Snedden refused and was convinced that he would no longer be Speaker, but once Fraser realised that he had no support in the Liberal Party to remove him from office, he sent him a conciliatory message.
After the defeat of the Fraser Government in 1983 and the election of Dr Harry Jenkins Sr. as Speaker, Sir Billy Snedden resigned from Parliament on 21 April 1983. In doing so, he honoured a feature of his 1979 paper. He believed that if he stayed in Parliament, he might be called for advice on his successor's rulings and that could not happen as it would be undermining the Chair. He said, "I am very conscious that, under the Westminster convention, when the Speaker leaves the chair he leaves the House. I think this is right." He formally resigned from Parliament later that day.
When the Fraser government was defeated by Hawke in 1983, Snedden immediately resigned from Parliament. He separated from his wife, Lady Snedden, and was later to withdraw from public life as his health declined from atherosclerosis and heart disease. Snedden was Chairman of the Melbourne Football Club from 1981 to 1986, later a Director of the Victorian Football League and also Patron of the Professional Boxing Association of Australia.
On 27 June 1987, just hours after attending John Howard's election campaign launch, Snedden suffered a fatal heart attack at the Travelodge motel in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, while having sex with an ex-girlfriend of his son Drew, identified only as "Wendy". Melbourne newspaper The Truth headlined its report "Snedden died on the job", while the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Snedden was wearing a condom and that "it was loaded".
Snedden married Joy Forsyth, a dental nurse, on 10 March 1950. They had two sons and two daughters together. His daughter Fiona was elected to the Melbourne City Council in 2004 after an unsuccessful candidature for the Liberal Party in the seat of Melbourne Ports in the 1998 federal election. She stood for re-election to council in 2008 but lost her seat.
- His sister was 21 years older and his youngest brother was eight years older.
- Bernie Schedvin (1990). Billy Snedden: An Unlikely Liberal. Macmillan. p. 5.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 3.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 4.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 6.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 7.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 9.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 11.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 12.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 17.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 18.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 19.
- "State Amateur Players". The West Australian. 67 (20, 261). Western Australia. 27 June 1951. p. 11. Retrieved 13 July 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 20.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 23.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 24.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 33.
- Schedvin (1990), p. 34.
- Schedvin (1951), p. 21.
- "Sir Billy Mackie Snedden KCMG QC" (pdf). Australian Prime Ministers Centre – Prime Facts. Museum of Australian Democracy. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
- 1961 election results in Victoria from Adam Carr's election archive
- Juddery, Bruce (27 May 1997). "Unsung hero of blacks' progress". The Canberra Times.
- "Political bikies raping democracy". Sydney Morning Herald. 8 May 1970. p. 1.
- "Govt. bid to bait Opposition fails". The Age. 8 May 1970. p. 9.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 17 February 1976, p. 7.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 21 February 1978, p. 7.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 25 November 1980, p. 5.
- Philip McCarthy, "(Formal) order in the House", The Age (Melbourne), 17 February 1976, 3.
- Billy Mackie Snedden and M. Bernie Schedvin, Billy Snedden. An Unlikely Liberal, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1990, p.219.
- Michelle Grattan, "Make the Speaker impartial: Snedden", The Age (Melbourne), 12 October 1979, 12; Speaker of the House of Representatives, second edition: APH Archived 23 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- Speaker of the House of Representatives, second edition: APH Archived 23 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine
- Snedden and Schevdin, 1990, p. 219.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 17 August 1982, p. 75.
- Snedden and Schedvin, 1990, p. 222.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 18 February 1982, p. 321; Snedden and Schedvin, 1990, p. 222.
- Snedden and Schedvin, 1990, p. 224.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 21 April 1983, p. 4.
- Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 21 April 1983, p. 17.
- "Achievements: Billy's bedtime story". Sydney Morning Herald. 25 September 2006. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
- "Sir Billy and son 'shared mystery lover'". news.com.au. 23 September 2006. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
- "Time Capsule". The Australian. 30 June 2007. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
- Schedvin, Bernie. "Snedden, Sir Billy Mackie (1926–1987)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
- It's an Honour