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Hills, Patrick Darcy (Pat) (1917–1992)

by Michael Hogan

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Patrick Hills, by Jack Hickson, 1968

Patrick Hills, by Jack Hickson, 1968

State Library of New South Wales, 119198

Patrick Darcy Hills (1917–1992), toolmaker and politician, was born on 31 December 1917 at Surry Hills, Sydney, the second of three surviving children of English-born John Shirley Hills, power station fireman (later foreman), and his wife Margaret Mary, née O’Sullivan, born in New South Wales. His father had been a friend and occasional sparring partner of the boxer Les Darcy (1895–1917), hence Patrick’s second name. John Hills was secretary (later president) of the local Belmore-City branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), while Margaret provided the other half of a strong Irish Catholic family tradition.

Educated at the local parish school and at Marist Brothers’ High School, Darlinghurst, Hills was apprenticed as a fitter and turner with Australian General Electric Ltd, Auburn, in 1934. That year he became a member of both the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the ALP (led by J. T. Lang in New South Wales). Specialising in toolmaking, he was prevented from serving during World War II as his skills were vital to heavy industry. On 20 December 1941 at St Michael’s Catholic Church, Daceyville, he married Stella Steele Smith, a cashier. They lived at Maroubra, where Hills soon became secretary of the local ALP branch. In 1942 he found work at the new General Motors Holden factory at Pagewood, building engines and body parts for trucks, armoured vehicles, and aircraft. After the war, he and two workmates formed a successful business partnership, GHM Engineering, in Surry Hills, supplying tools and jigs for the post-war development of the Holden car.

In 1948 Hills was elected an alderman of the Sydney City Council. The council was then controlled by a corrupt inner-city ALP political machine, but in 1952 the State executive installed Hills as lord mayor, the youngest ever, with the task of cleaning up the council. Among the key issues he had to address were chronic parking problems and controversy over street fruit vendors, who were accused of paying kickbacks to aldermen and council officers. Solutions included the building of designated public car parks in the city and removing street vendors to make way for parking meters. Hills also served as chairman (1952–54) of the Sydney County Council, which was responsible for Sydney’s electricity supply. In 1954 he welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to Sydney, controversially touching her arm as they walked down the Town Hall steps.

Hills had ambitions for higher electoral office. In 1949 he had unsuccessfully contested preselection for the Federal division of Watson, losing the ballot by one vote. In August 1954 he easily won a by-election for the inner-city State seat of Phillip. Supported by the State executive he continued as lord mayor until 1956, as his reform agenda had only just begun. He was to represent the seat of Phillip until it was abolished in 1981, after which he held the new seat of Elizabeth until 1988.

After the 1959 election, the premier, Joe Cahill, appointed Hills minister assisting the premier and treasurer. The surprise promotion of the ‘Golden Boy’ provoked some resentment among longer serving ministers. It was motivated by Hills’s link with the Sydney Catholic hierarchy, notably his friendship with the auxiliary bishop of Sydney, James Carroll, which helped maintain a high level of Catholic voter support during the mid-1950s ALP split. When Cahill died in office in 1959, the new premier, Bob Heffron, appointed Hills minister for local government and minister for highways (1959–65). For a year before the 1965 election, at which the ALP lost government, Hills also served as deputy premier under Jack Renshaw. In 1961 the Botany council honoured Hills by naming a new suburb Hillsdale.

After the second electoral victory of (Sir) Robert Askin’s Liberal-Country coalition in 1968, Hills replaced Renshaw as leader of the Opposition. His task was to renew the policies and personnel of a party that had run out of ideas after twenty-four years in government. He led the party in two elections, picking up seats in 1971, but losing momentum in 1973. Although Hills had supported the recruitment of Neville Wran to the Legislative Council in 1970, he must have noted the threat when Wran moved to the Legislative Assembly in 1973. Wran was a media-aware politician in the Whitlam mould, while not even Hills’s own supporters would claim that he was charismatic. When he was elected lord mayor, one journalist had commented: ‘Interviewing Ald. Hills is like trying to interview a charming, polite clam’ (McLeod 1952, 8). Yet when a leadership ballot was taken after the 1973 election, Wran won by only one vote. Disappointed, Hills retired to the backbench for the remainder of that term.

At the May 1976 election Hills put aside his resentment and campaigned strongly at Wran’s side to help regain government for his party. He returned to the frontbench as minister for mines (1976–78), minister for energy (1976–81), and, following a reshuffle in August, minister for industrial relations (1976–88). He later served terms as minister for technology (1978–80, 1981–84), roads (1984), and employment (1986–88). He lost the energy portfolio in 1981 due to public pressure following power blackouts. His achievements in industrial relations included tough negotiations to allow Saturday afternoon and extended night shopping, reforms to public sector superannuation, and a complete restructuring of workers’ compensation. A capable administrator, he was able to find and implement policy compromises acceptable to seemingly irreconcilable interest groups.

During the years of the Wran Government, Hills was a senior parliamentary faction leader. He convened the initial meeting of the dominant Centre Unity faction in caucus to confront the left’s Steering Committee. He was skilled at arranging compromises within and between groups, making effective government possible. He was also the main factional boss in the inner-city electorates and municipalities at a time when the Steering Committee was sweeping away a corrupt local branch structure. His leadership at the local level was, however, non-interventionist, and a more active involvement might have prevented some of the worst excesses of his supporters in the inner-city branches.

In his youth Hills had been a good athlete. He was an active member of the Sydney Cricket Ground and a frequent attender at sporting events. He became a trustee of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground (SCSG) in 1961 and, while still a minister, was chairman of the trust (1977–89). In 1957 he had moved his family home from Maroubra to Centennial Park, within walking distance of the SCG. He brought the same skills of effective administration to the job as he exercised in government. During a period of increasing commercialisation in sport, including the establishment of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, Hills moved energetically to meet the challenges: the old Sports Ground and No. 2 Oval were transformed into the Sydney Football Stadium, while the Cricket Ground was redeveloped with new stands, floodlights, and an electronic scoreboard. The Pat Hills Stand was opened in 1984. Naming it after a politician was very controversial and it was later renamed the Bill O’Reilly Stand.

Hills’s chairmanship of the SCSG Trust provides a glimpse of his political style. While he had an interest in sport, he also recognised that the trust was an important social (and political) institution that needed to respond to rapid social change. His last press secretary commented at the time of his death:

If Pat Hills had a fault, it was that he could never condone any escapism, neither film nor play, alcohol, tobacco nor dirty joke. There was a job to do out there, he would say, and it was real and it would never be finished (Blair 1992).

Appointed AO in 1988, Hills retired from the Legislative Assembly prior to the election in March that year. Survived by his wife, three daughters, and two sons, he died of heart failure on 22 April 1992 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated after a state funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Bailey, Paul. ‘Pat Hills. Labor’s Most Successful Also-Ran.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 1986, Good Weekend 24–26
  • Blair, John. Letter to Terry Sheahan, 24 April 1992. Sheahan Papers. Private collection
  • Gosman, Keith. ‘Hills–A Party Man to the End.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 26 April 1992, 27
  • Hogan, Michael, and David Clune, eds. The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales. 3 vols. Sydney: Parliament of New South Wales, University of Sydney, 2001
  • McLeod, Zelie. ‘Alderman Patrick Hill Realises an Ambition.’ Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 December 1952, 8
  • Stephens, Tony. ‘Friends and Foes Farewell Pat Hills, “A Prince Among Men”.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April 1992, 2.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Hogan, 'Hills, Patrick Darcy (Pat) (1917–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/hills-patrick-darcy-pat-15305/text26509, accessed 21 November 2017.

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