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William McKell

Sir William McKell

William John McKell (26 September 1891 - 11 January 1985), twelfth Governor-General of Australia, was born in Pambula New South Wales, the son of a butcher. He was educated in Sydney and became a boilermaker, and was state secretary of the Boilermakers' Union from 1915. He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as a Labor member in 1917. While in Parliament he studied law, and became a barrister in 1925. In Jack Lang's Labor governments of 1925-27 and 1930-32 he was Minister for Justice, and was also Minister for Local Government in 1931-32. In 1920 he married Mary Pye.

During the 1930s McKell became a leader of the opposition within the Labor Party to Lang's dictatorial rule and his electoral failures. In 1939 he displaced Lang as leader, and in 1941 he won a convincing victory in the state elections, mainly by concentrating on country seats. During World War II he became a close collaborator of Labor Prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley, being a particularly close friend of the latter. In February 1947 Chifley appointed him Governor-General.

Chifley was determined that the Governor-General who succeeded the Duke of Gloucester should be an Australian, and he seems to have deliberately chosen a Labor man with a working-class background to make a political point. There was a predictable outcry from the Liberal opposition and the conservative press: Robert Menzies called the appointment "shocking and humiliating." There was some resistance in London but the days when the King could question an Australian Prime Minister on this matter had passed.

Once McKell took office, however, the continuing respect for the Crown and its representative meant that there was no further criticism. McKell carried out the usual round of vice-regal duties with dignity, and succeded in winning over all but the most inflexible Anglophiles. When Menzies succeeded Chifley as Prime Minister in December 1949, his relations with the Governor-General were cordial, if not exactly friendly.

The most controversial moment in McKell's career came in March 1951, when Menzies asked him for a double dissolution election. Labor had retained control of the Senate after the 1949 election, and the Senate had referred the government's banking bill to a committee. Menzies argued that this constituted "failure to pass" in terms of Section 57 of the Australian Constitution.

Many in the Labor party, though not Chifley, though that McKell should and would refuse Menzies a double dissolution, but he agreed with little hesitation. McKell took the view that it was for the voters, not the Governor-General, to determine whether the Senate or Menzies was right: he saw it as his duty to act on the advice of his Prime Minister.

McKell retired in May 1953 and lived in Sydney for another 30 years, becoming one of the grand old men of the New South Wales Labor Party. He died in Sydney in 1985.

Preceded by:
Duke of Gloucester
Governors-General of Australia Followed by:
Field Marshall Sir William Slim