Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Billy Snedden

Sir Billy Snedden

Sir Billy Mackie Snedden (31 December 1926 - 27 June 1987), Australian Liberal politician, was born in Perth, Western Australia, the son of a stonemason. He was educated at state schools and joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1945. After the war he was discharged and attended the University of Western Australia, where he graduated in law, being admitted to the bar in 1951. During this time he stood once for the Western Australian state Parliament and twice for the Australian House of Representatives, for unwinnable seats. In 1950 he married Joy Forsyth, with whom he had four children.

in 1954 Snedden moved to Melbourne, where he practised law until he was elected to the House of Reptresentatives for the outer suburban seat of Bruce. In 1965 Prime Minister Robert Menzies appointed him Attorney-General. 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.

In 1971, however, Snedden was appointed Treasurer (finance minister) by William McMahon, and was elected Liberal Deputy Leader, making him the heir apparent to the leadership. When McMahon was defeated by the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam in 1972, Snedden was duly elected Liberal leader. 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, and was returned to office with a reduced majority. Snedden exposed himself to ridicule by refusing to formally concede defeat, insisting that "while we didn't win, we didn't lose either."

After the election the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, led by Malcolm Fraser, challenged Snedden's leadership, but he was narrowly re-elected. But when he failed to make any headway against Whitlam, Fraser mounted a second challenge, and Snedden was deposed in March 1975. He retired to the backbench until February 1976, when Fraser agreed that he be elected Speaker of the House, with the title Sir Billy Snedden.

Snedden filled the role of Speaker with dignity, although some members found what they saw as his pomposity rather tiresome. He was the last Australian Speaker to wear the full regalia of full-bottomed wig and robes inherited from the British House of Commons. In 1982 he had revenge of sorts on Fraser when he refused to insist that a Labor frontbencher, Bob Hawke, retract an allegation that Fraser was a liar. Fraser was furious but could not be seen to be attacking the Speaker.

When the Fraser government was defeated by Hawke in 1983, Snedden immediately resigned from Parliament. He was divorced from his wife and withdrew from public life. He died suddenly in Sydney of a heart attack during the 1987 election campaign, shortly after attending John Howard's campaign launch.

Preceded by:
William McMahon
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia
Followed by:
Malcolm Fraser