BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
O'MALLEY MHR, by Larry Noye
, May 29, 2010
by Larry Noye
(Melbourne: Sid Harta Publishers)
Paperback: 458 pages.
Rec. price: $34.95
Reviewed by Dallas Clarnette
Retired journalist Larry Noye has produced a gripping account of King O'Malley (1858-1953), a story every Australian should read.
"I trust that good and patriotic Australians will swear by the altar of their gods, the tombs of their ancestors and the cradles of their children, that they will never vote for parliamentary candidates whose secret mission is to destroy the Commonwealth Bank ... and whose brains, if extracted, dried and placed in the quill of a cocksparrow and blown into the eye of a bee, would not even make him blink."
O'Malley was larger than life. His impact on early Australian federal politics cannot be underestimated. His driving passion was the creation of a publicly-owned bank of "deposit, issue, exchange and reserve" to serve also as a reserve bank. That passion finally saw fulfilment in the founding of the Commonwealth Bank, though not as he had wanted it to be.
In time even his less-than-ideal bank was scuttled and later privatised. Ironically, two other banks have since recaptured some of O'Malley's ideals. New Zealand's Kiwibank, and Victoria's Bendigo Bank are closer to his ideal than any of the big four.
Although American by birth, O'Malley was totally committed to advancing "Australia fair" and he saw the creation of a non-commercial bank as basic to Australia's future.
No politician was a greater larrikin than the extravagant, swashbuckling King O'Malley, though Sir John Gorton and Bob Hawke compare pretty well. He seized the political limelight at the turn of the 20th century and carved for himself a trajectory few could ignore.
Controversial, humorous, outrageous in public statements, and yet shrewd and forceful, he kept the Australian press reporting him continually. The Argus resented O'Malley, but the Bulletin said: "This paper expects useful federal legislation from King O'Malley. True he is an awful skite, but his big heart and active brain easily outweigh his other qualities" (page 96). The Bulletin wasn't disappointed. O'Malley did promote some good legislation.
O'Malley entered politics, first at the state level, but after Federation was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament. There he served for 16 years as a member of the Labor Party. For four years he served as Minister for Home Affairs.
O'Malley was the last survivor of the first ALP Caucus in the first Commonwealth Parliament (1901), outliving his arch-enemy, Billy Hughes. When he finally retired from politics at the age of 61 in 1919, he left behind the legacy of a man who could not be ignored but who had always promoted the interests of his adopted country.
However, 20 years later he re-entered politics to join the campaign to save the Commonwealth Bank from being privatised. One newspaper said in 1938: "The proposal sponsored by the Federal Treasurer, Mr Casey, to dispose of part of the assets of the Commonwealth Bank is meeting with the strenuous opposition it deserves."
He fought in vain. The Commonwealth Bank, as originally founded, disappeared from the Australian scene. Today it has no resemblance to the original design. The economy is dominated by the big machines of the commercial banking world. It is reported that the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) wants to see a new bank established on the same principles as the original Commonwealth Bank.
O'Malley proposed other good measures. He worked hard to achieve the vote for women, to see the colonies federate, and to introduce a pension scheme. He also proposed that a rail line be built from the east coast to Perth, and opposed conscription in the 1914-18 war.
On whether O'Malley was the real originator of the bank, opinions are divided. Yet when this issue was under public discussion in 1947, no less a figure than the former Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, then 92, said in answer to a reporter from the Melbourne Herald, in May 1947, "To King O'Malley we owe the Commonwealth Bank."
O'Malley was a man of strong convictions. He hated "stagger juice" and supported the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. He strongly opposed private land speculation during the selection of land adjacent to where the national capitol was finally placed. He also opposed with great force the little Welshman, Billy Hughes.
Noye says that his political life was strongly influenced by Christian convictions. "In his political life, O'Malley lived in an age when the church was strong in community life ... the leading men were actively Christian". He saw Deakin, Fisher, Reid and many others as defenders of Christianity. No doubt this encouraged his 1901 proposal for parliamentary proceedings to be opened with prayer, offered by a chaplain, as in the USA. He won the first suggestion but not the second.
Yet, despite his profession of Christianity, Dr Janet Cooper, a physician who knew him for many years, said, "I don't think he was religious and I don't remember him ever going to church."
However, his profession of Christianity brought him into contact with many church leaders. For some he had little respect. He referred to Dr Daniel Mannix as "that ecclesiastical rooster". But though a Protestant (if anything) he had unstinting praise for the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Thomas Joseph Carr. Perhaps the archbishop's interest in O'Malley's banking ideas had much to do with that. They certainly discussed these at length. In fact, years later in 1951, in an ABC broadcast and also in the Melbourne Catholic Advocate, O'Malley attributed to Dr Carr's influence a surge in support for the bank from O'Malley's party colleagues.
King O'Malley had many detractors, even within his own party. But some "greats" also supported him. They included Sir Isaac Isaacs, Robert G. Menzies and later Earl Page. Page accepted O'Malley's warning about forming a coalition with Hughes. The resulting coalition formed between Page's Country Party and Stanley Melbourne Bruce's Nationalist Party was epochal. It kept non-Labor coalitions in power for most of the next 80 years.
O'Malley was a man of boundless energy, extravagant language, fantastic comedy at times, and a determination to promote his convictions. He rubbed shoulders with many prime ministers from Barton onward.
O'Malley was born in 1858, and passed away in 1953 at his Bridport Street home in South Melbourne. It seems that a heat wave in December that year hastened his demise. His second wife Amy survived him a little more than two years.
The then prime minister R.G. Menzies gave O'Malley a state funeral held in St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne. The Labor leader of the time, Dr H.V. Evatt, said in his tribute: "King O'Malley devoted himself to projects ... which have since become recognised as bulwarks of Australian nationhood." However, it is quite probable that O'Malley would have thought that the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank was the destruction of one of the nation's greatest assets.
The Revd Dr Dallas Clarnette is a retired Presbyterian minister and chairman of the Victorian branch of the Christian Democratic Party.
King O'Malley in his own words
- King O'Malley in 1939, when he was over 80 years of age, writing on the "Save the Commonwealth Bank" campaign.