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Crean, Francis Daniel (Frank) (1916–2008)

from Australian

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Frank Crean, by Wolfgang Sievers, 1974

Frank Crean, by Wolfgang Sievers, 1974

National Library of Australia, 43318908

Federal treasurer and deputy prime minister, 1972-74. Born: Hamilton, Victoria, February 28, 1916. Died: December 2, aged 92.

When Frank Crean was asked how he wished to be remembered, he answered, "As the one who did what he could, when he could.'' If this reply reveals a politician of unusual modesty, it should be recalled that Crean possessed an ego sufficiently robust to counter the herculean confidence of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam. Furthermore, he judged himself to be "the best qualified'' Australian treasurer since Federation.

As treasurer in 1972-74, Crean saw himself as the sweet voice of reason in an inner cabinet comprising men of creative, if undisciplined, talent: he was the one who diligently read the technical material. He would not permit himself to be bored by the minutiae of incessant and interminable ministerial briefing. Like all psycho-political confliction, resolution could be fortuitous rather than reasoned, and certainly there were faults on both sides.

Crean's parents were Labor Party supporters. Their house in the western district town of Hamilton contained the novels of Charles Dickens and the educational magazine National Geographic. Frank was the third child in a family of five. Before her marriage, his mother, Alison (nee Lamont), had worked as a primary-school teacher. They were devout Presbyterians and for most of his life Crean remained a superintendent of Presbyterian Sunday schools.

His father, John, was, successively, a mine worker, labourer and bicycle builder. Crean Sr was mostly in work and the family did not suffer the dire poverty of those in the town who were unemployed. Frank's sympathy for the underdog was kindled when he witnessed the public humiliation of "sussos'' (those receiving a primitive form of unemployment benefit), required to accept their handouts in a public place.

Aged 13, Crean spent a year in bed with rheumatic fever. This gave him time to read voraciously from books supplied from a neighbour's library. This neighbour happened to be a member of the Australian Workers Union and secretary to the local branch of the Labor Party. Thus were sown the seeds of a left political consciousness in the unlikely soil of a small town dominated by pastoral interests. It is no small irony that the seat of Malcolm Fraser's clan lay a few kilometres out of town.

Crean was a scholarly boy who progressed as far as was possible at the local high school. He was then sent to Melbourne to attend the intellectually elite Boys High School, where he completed leaving honours. He then passed a qualifying examination before joining the taxation department. Early on — by dint of work experience and private study — he became an authority on the Income Tax Act. At night he studied accountancy at the YMCA. In 1935, aged 19, he qualified as a fellow of the Australian Society of Accountants, winning first place in Victoria and second in Australia. This prerequisite entitled him to a free place in the school of commerce at the University of Melbourne. Within 10 years he attained — through part-time study — a diploma in public administration, and received the degrees of bachelor of arts and bachelor of commerce. He continued to work as an assessor in the taxation department from 1933 until 1945, when he entered state parliament.

Crean joined the Australian Labor Party in 1942, partly influenced by friendship with Standish Michael Keon, then a state member (who subsequently, as the federal member for Yarra, deserted the ALP for the Democratic Labor Party).

Like many left-liberals of his time, Crean harboured an ambivalent relationship with communism. On the one hand, he was friendly with Communist Party member and writer Lloyd Churchwood; on the other, he defended himself and historian Manning Clark against the "slur'' of communism. He was not obviously of the Left, yet supported prime minister Ben Chifley's revolutionary plan to nationalise the banks, and this brought him into conflict with the right-wing Labor "groupers'' who later defected to the DLP.

In 1945, Crean was endorsed by the ALP for the electorate of Albert Park. He took the seat narrowly from the Opposition but lost it by a handful of votes in 1947. After two years working from home as a private tax consultant, he was elected MLA for Prahran in 1949, a seat he held for a further two years with Labor in Opposition. During these state parliamentary years he became president of the Young Labor Association, a trustee of the Victorian Public Library, president of the Victorian Fabian Society and president of the Council of Adult Education. In 1949 he was appointed electoral secretary to Victoria's safest ALP seat, Melbourne Ports. In 1946 he married Mary Findlay. Three sons were born, David, Simon and Stephen, the last dying in 1985. Frank and Mary (who never owned a car) lived in inner-southern Melbourne (as Simon Crean, the federal Trade Minister, does now) all their married life.

Frank Crean's diligence and fiscal competence, rare in the Labor Party, were rewarded by his endorsement in 1951 for Melbourne Ports, a seat he held for 26 years and through 11 elections. Thus began a 21-year apprenticeship for the pinnacle of his career, the Australian treasuryship. In the event, he held that office for just two years.

From the beginning he was Labor's spokesman for economic affairs, starting as an adviser to Chifley, who died a few months after Crean's arrival in Canberra. He then advised the new leader, H.V. Evatt. He was a member of the executive of the federal parliamentary Labor Party from 1955 until his retirement. His services included the House of Representatives standing committee, defence force retirement benefits and the ACT joint committee for public accounts. He was a delegate on various joint overseas missions, particularly those concerned with trade.

Crean was a founding member of the inter-party federal parliamentary Christian fellowship. While in Canberra he stayed at the Kurrajong Hotel. Sometimes he would not be served so much as an evening sandwich if the day's activities had precluded him from eating. Interestingly, his fellow guests included almost all the Country Party members, despite their partnership in the government of the day. The silver-tailed Liberals (heavily influenced by Robert Menzies) drank their martinis and dined on chicken Maryland and bombe Alaska at the Hotel Canberra.

Election followed election. The Coalition survived with one seat to spare in 1961. In later life, Crean stressed that at a caucus meeting held to discuss Labor's response to a bill authorising conscription for overseas service, he was the only Opposition member to oppose the government proposal.

Harold Holt succeeded Menzies as prime minister and scored a resounding victory in 1966. Opposition leader Arthur Calwell was persuaded to resign.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Whitlam replaced the hapless Calwell and Jim Cairns became deputy. Crean, with Calwell's support (one wonders how much that was worth), stood against Whitlam. In the 1969 election, he believed Labor might have won had he, as deputy rather than mere spokesman, been in a position to present his party as a credible economic manager.

After 23 years in exile, Labor gained office in 1972 and Crean became treasurer. From the very beginning, Crean was the odd man out. Whitlam patronised him: "I leave these things [the economy] in your very capable hands.'' Whitlam is on record as stating that the trouble with Crean was that he ran away from conflict, that he was unduly influenced by the dead hand of Treasury.

It would be more accurate to say that Crean internalised conflict.

The abolition of the Senate was on the Labor Party platform. In Crean's view, Lionel Murphy (as government leader in the Senate) was white-anting this stratagem by strengthening the house of review with the new committee system. Yet he remained silent. It was only after retirement that Crean proffered his view: "Murphy was responsible for turning the Senate into a monster.''

Whitlam had appointed a vast outer ministry. "I had 23 ministers who each reckoned he could spend as much as the total budget was,'' recalled Crean. Labor gained more Senate seats after a double dissolution held on May 18, 1974. It was not sufficient to save the government. After his second budget in November 1974, the PM sacked Crean in favour of a compliant Cairns. Crean took over international trade. In mid-1975, as a consolation prize, he was appointed deputy prime minister. Then followed the Khemlani loans scandal, which led to the blocking of supply and the dismissal of the Whitlam government by governor-general John Kerr. Crean believed it would never have happened had he remained treasurer. By early December 1975, it was all over.

Crean remained deputy leader of the parliamentary Labor Party until January 1976 and retired from the parliament in 1977.

Whitlam's published account of his three heady years in government gives scant reference to Crean. At least by implication Crean, in Whitlam's view, was a failure. In his final years he was all but ignored by the media. When he was rushed to hospital after an asthma attack in the mid-1990s, The Age accorded him a paragraph or two.

Crean was a reformer in his own dour way. He was a precursor to the 1960 Participants, a group of reformers that created a pragmatic Labor Party. What he lacked in charisma he made up for in quiet principle. His final years were spent in a smart Queens Road, Melbourne, high-rise apartment block. It seemed at odds with his modest temperament.

Frank Crean is survived by Mary and their sons David and Simon.

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Citation details

'Crean, Francis Daniel (Frank) (1916–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/crean-francis-daniel-frank-32948/text41050, accessed 29 November 2022.

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