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Daly, Frederick Michael (Fred) (1912–1995)

by Rodney Smith

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Frederick Michael Daly (1912–1995), politician, was born on 13 June 1912 at Currabubula, New South Wales, ninth of eleven children of Irish-born Michael Daly, farmer and grazier, and his second wife Margaret Jane, née Howard, who was born in New South Wales. Fred’s father died in 1923, resulting in the sale of the family home and eight-thousand-acre (c. 3,200 ha) property. He moved with his mother and younger siblings from ‘security’ to ‘poverty’ at North Bondi, Sydney (Daly 1983). Educated at Currabubula and then Christian Brothers’ College, Waverley, he hated school and failed most of his examinations. He left at about age thirteen to become a messenger and later a clerk with the bicycle manufacturer Bennett & Wood Ltd. In World War II the manpower authorities directed him to clerical duties for the Department of the Navy. An observant Catholic, he became involved in the Mary Immaculate (Waverley) Literary, Debating, and Social Society. At a local dance he met Teresa Armstrong (d. 1975), a stenographer at the Commonwealth Department of the Treasury. They would marry on 4 October 1937 at Holy Cross Church, Woollahra.

Although his father had been a political conservative, Daly was drawn to Labor politics. He joined the Waverley branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the early 1930s, becoming active at branch, State electorate council, and Federal electorate council levels, and served on the management committee of the New South Wales branch of the Federated Clerks’ Union of Australia. In 1943 he gained preselection for Martin, a Federal electorate in Sydney’s west held by the United Australia Party. He won the marginal seat and retained it three years later by focusing on local community needs. To this end, he was one of the first to establish an office in his electorate to meet constituents. Following an electoral redistribution, he moved in 1949 to the new seat of Grayndler, centred on the suburbs of Newtown and Marrickville, and held it until his retirement.

In parliament, Daly was a keen student of veterans such as James Scullin, Ben Chifley, and Billy Hughes. His youth and the depth of talent in Labor’s ranks meant he had no opportunity to serve as a minister in his early years. He was a member of the joint committee on social security (1943–46) and the Rationing Commission (1946–50). He also represented the government at the 1947 International Labour Organisation’s inland transport and coal mines committee meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, earning the nickname ‘Dilly Dally Daly’ for the extended time it took for his return. He was a willing advocate for controversial Labor causes, campaigning for the 1947 Banking Act, and putting the Chifley government’s case against the 1949 coal strike.

Following Labor’s election loss in 1949, Daly became Opposition whip, was elected to the State executive, and was identified by some as a future leader. Chifley’s death in 1951 was a setback, since Daly lost his closest mentor. He also had to deal with a ‘Machiavellian’ leader in H. V. Evatt (Daly 1983). Tensions between them came to a head in caucus on 20 October 1954, when Daly voted for a spill motion against Evatt’s leadership. His vote, together with his role in the State executive’s resistance to Federal intervention against the Victorian Labor branch, saw him labelled as part of the ‘grouper’ faction. He lost friends and was left in a precarious political position. Unable to work with Evatt, he did not renominate as whip in 1956.

Daly only ‘began to enjoy politics again’ after 1963 (1977, 163), when he joined Labor’s shadow ministry, shifting between the social services and immigration portfolios. Although he harboured thoughts that he might lead the ALP, he also sensed that his opportunity had passed. He ran unsuccessfully for the leadership in 1967. His conservative views on social issues were now increasingly out of step with the new generation in the party. In 1971 Gough Whitlam, the Opposition leader, removed him from shadowing the immigration portfolio after Daly publicly criticised Whitlam over his stance on Asian immigration. When Labor won the 1972 election, Daly was one of just four in his party who had sat on the government benches in the 1940s.

Appointed minister for services and property and leader of the House, Daly reformed electoral laws and parliamentary practices. He introduced the Commonwealth electoral bill 1973 which entitled eighteen-year-olds to vote. The Opposition’s resistance to Labor’s further electoral bills would contribute to the double dissolution elections in 1974 and 1975. As leader of the House, he led the arrangements for the historic joint sitting of parliament in August 1974, and he improved facilities for members, including ending all-night sittings. He was ruthless in his use of the gag and other measures to keep the government’s ambitious legislative program moving through the House of Representatives.

As a key Labor strategist, Daly attended the meeting early on 11 November 1975 with coalition leaders that failed to resolve the deadlock over the supply bills, hours before the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Whitlam government. Informed of the dismissal, he helped to prepare Labor’s response. Like the other party leaders present, he focused on the House of Representatives and overlooked the Senate, failing to inform its ALP leader, Ken Wriedt, of the situation. Daly controlled the numbers in the House that afternoon, defeating the coalition in five divisions; however, this proved to be irrelevant, since the Senate had passed the supply bills.

Owing to his wife’s illness and death, Daly had been contemplating retirement. He did not contest the 1975 election. Moving to Canberra, he quickly became a local celebrity. He devised a political discovery tour of the city, and published three successful books on aspects of his career: From Curtin to Kerr (1977), A to Z of Politics (1978), and The Politician Who Laughed (1982). In 1981 he helped to lead the successful Canberra Raiders bid to enter the New South Wales Rugby League competition and became club co-patron. Appointed AO in 1978, he was crowned ‘King of Canberra’ in 1981 and 1982, and was made patron of the Canberra Labor Club in 1989. He continued to campaign for the ALP and in 1995 was made a life member of the party.

Despite his public image as a convivial larrikin who lacked formal education, Daly was recognised by his colleagues as a tough adversary who used quick-witted oratory, extensive political knowledge, and tactical shrewdness to devastating effect. He maintained friendships across party lines, notably with the Liberal politician Sir James Killen. Survived by his daughter and son, Daly died at Bondi Junction, Sydney, on 2 August 1995 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery, following a state funeral at St Brigid’s Church, Marrickville.

Select Bibliography

  • Brown, Wallace. ‘In the Upper House.’ Courier Mail (Brisbane), 3 August 1995, 10
  • Daly, Fred. From Curtin to Kerr. South Melbourne, Vic.: Sun, 1977
  • Daly, Frederick. Interviews by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, 2 August–19 September 1983. Transcript. Parliament’s oral history project. National Library of Australia
  • Faulkner, John, and Stuart Macintyre, eds. True Believers: The Story of the Parliamentary Labor Party. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2001
  • MacCallum, Mungo. ‘The Politician Who Could Not Hate.’ Australian, 3 August 1995, 13
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9300, Papers of Fred Daly, 1938–1995
  • Reid, Alan. The Whitlam Venture. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1976

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rodney Smith, 'Daly, Frederick Michael (Fred) (1912–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/daly-frederick-michael-fred-1551/text35172, accessed 23 February 2020.

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