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Burke, Thomas Patrick (Tom) (1910–1973)

by G. C. Bolton

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas Patrick (Tom) Burke (1910-1973), politician, was born on 28 August 1910 at Berkshire Valley, near Moora, Western Australia, and registered as Frederick Thomas, third son of Peter Francis Burke, farmer, and his wife Catherine Mary, née Kelly, both native-born. Tom was to change his given names by licence to Thomas Patrick in 1963. Educated by correspondence and at Miling State School, from 1929 he lived with his parents in Perth where he worked for his father as a cartage contractor, delivering fruit and vegetables to the metropolitan markets. He found time to study accountancy at City Commercial College, achieving excellent results, and to follow a family tradition of labour politics. In 1937 he contested the Federal seat of Perth and later became a prominent Australian Labor Party organizer. On 4 January 1941, as Patrick Thomas, he married a dressmaker Madeline Muirson Orr at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Subiaco.

Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 16 January 1943, Burke served with the ground staff at Kalgoorlie. On 11 October he transferred to the Reserve, after winning Perth in the August elections for the House of Representatives. Regarded as a rising young man, he dreamed of serving as Federal treasurer in a government led by his State colleague Kim Beazley, but had not attained cabinet rank when Labor went into opposition in 1949. Despite his almost filial regard for Ben Chifley, Burke persuaded the Western Australian executive to support the 1950 Communist Party dissolution bill. To Chifley's chagrin, the resultant majority in the federal executive instructed caucus to let the bill through.

Burke's strong anti-communism also led him to oppose Bert Evatt as party leader. In August 1954 he stood against Evatt. Defeated by 68 votes to 20, in October Burke tried unsuccessfully to initiate another ballot. At the federal conference in Hobart in March 1955 he was one of the Western Australian delegates who defied the State executive's instructions to take a pro-Evatt stand; Francis Chamberlain, State secretary and federal president of the A.L.P., remembered Burke's personal abuse and 'venomous hatred'. With Beazley and others, Burke was banned for three years from representing his State at federal conferences. Contrary to expectations, he did not join the breakaway Anti-Communist (Democratic) Labor Party. At the 1955 election he lost his seat to a Liberal, (Sir) Frederick Chaney.

For continuing to criticize Evatt, in 1957 Burke was expelled from the A.L.P. Despite Chamberlain's opposition, he regained his membership in 1964 and unavailingly sought pre-selection for his former seat in 1965 and 1968. In Burke's later years his energies went into promoting his sons' careers in State politics. Terry, the eldest, was to be member for Perth (1968-87); the second son Brian won Balcatta at a by-election in 1973 and was premier in 1983-88.

Although a vehement controversialist, Tom had considerable charm and was devoted to his family. He was a staunch Catholic whose political career foundered on his attempt to reconcile his religious beliefs with his Labor loyalties. A heavy smoker, he died of myocardial infarction on 17 January 1973 in Perth and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His wife, three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • K. Tennant, Evatt (Syd, 1970)
  • J. Hamilton, Burkie (Perth, 1988)
  • B. Peachey, The Burkes of Western Australia (Perth, 1992)
  • West Australian, 23 Oct 1957, 18 Jan 1973.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Burke, Thomas Patrick (Tom) (1910–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-thomas-patrick-tom-9631/text16987, accessed 23 November 2017.

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