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Robert Reginald (Reg) Downing (1904–1994)

by David Clune

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Robert Reginald Downing (1904-1994), politician, was born on 6 November 1904 at Tumut, New South Wales, eldest of four children of New South Wales-born parents Robert Downing, cordial manufacturer, shearer, and rural labourer, and his wife Frances Jean, née Galvin. Reg did not commence at Tumut convent school until the age of seven, due to the effects of scarlet fever, which had carried off his sister. His mother, who had been a teacher, ensured he was prepared and he quickly showed aptitude at his studies, winning a high school bursary to St Patrick’s College, Goulburn. The family’s poverty meant that he was forced to leave school at fifteen. There was little employment in Tumut so he moved to Sydney and found work as a labourer in the notoriously harsh environment of Bond’s Industries Ltd’s Camperdown dye house, in the scouring room.

Downing’s parents were both stout supporters of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He was soon active in the party and in the Australian Textile Workers’ Union. Against strong opposition, he achieved some industrial successes for his fellow workers. This led to his becoming a full-time organiser and State president of the union in 1928. In 1934 he took office as State secretary, a position he held until May 1941. He was also Federal president of the union from 1934 to 1941.

On 11 April 1932 Downing had married Rose Moyeen Ashcroft (d. 1981), a typist, at Villa Maria Catholic Church, Hunters Hill. He described the day he met Rose as the best of his life. The following year he was badly injured when a car collided with a tram in which he was a passenger. He almost lost his leg and it remained a painful disability throughout his life. This and his new family responsibilities made him decide to study law. Security and prosperity beckoned at the Bar. Passing the University of Sydney matriculation exam in 1939, Downing graduated LLB in 1943; he was admitted to the Bar in March that year.

In the late 1930s, Downing had been heavily involved in the struggle against the New South Wales ALP leader, Jack Lang. On 5 September 1939 Lang was replaced as leader of the Opposition by the moderate (Sir) William McKell. Downing was a close ally of McKell, as he was of Ben Chifley in the Federal ALP. He was a major figure in the group of anti-communist and anti-Lang union officials who controlled the State party from 1940 until 1952. With McKell’s support, he was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council on 23 April 1940. When McKell became premier on 16 May 1941, Downing was appointed minister of justice and also vice-president of the Executive Council and leader of the government in the Legislative Council, where Labor lacked a majority until 1949.

Although a novice, Downing was respected by members of the council for his sincerity and reasonableness, and he was able to negotiate compromises to enable controversial bills to become law. Behind the scenes he was McKell’s liaison with the extra-parliamentary Labor Party, successfully ensuring harmonious relations. As minister of justice he was responsible for corrective services. With an emphasis on rehabilitation, he reformed the prison system, setting up the Parole Board and the Adult Probation Service, and appointing a consulting psychiatrist to the Prisons Department.

After McKell resigned as premier on 6 February 1947, James McGirr succeeded him. Downing had supported the education minister, Robert Heffron, an old friend from his Trades Hall days and McKell’s preferred successor, in the leadership struggle. Relations with the new premier were not helped by a major internal crisis arising from the 1949 triennial election for the Legislative Council, a chamber indirectly elected by the members of both Houses. The small number of votes needed to be successful made council elections subject to manipulation. Downing heard rumours that a number of ALP votes were likely to leak to an Independent, (Sir) Asher Joel. He put in place a system of vote-checking. Four Legislative Assembly members broke the ticket and were refused endorsement by the ALP executive for the forthcoming election. McGirr unwisely intervened on their behalf and, when rebuffed, threatened to resign as premier. He soon withdrew his threat, but this internal chaos contributed to Labor’s near defeat at the 17 June 1950 election. Increasingly beleaguered and alienated from his former allies, McGirr turned to Downing for support. Aside from his other attributes, Downing appealed to the suspicious McGirr because as an Upper House member he was not a leadership threat.

On 2 April 1952 Joe Cahill replaced McGirr as premier. Downing and the astute, pragmatic Cahill had a natural affinity and were soon working together closely. Cahill quickly restored the government administratively and politically. The conflict in the Labor Party over the role of the industrial groups (formed to counter communist influence in the unions) was threatening to split the New South Wales branch by the mid-1950s. Although a strong Catholic, Downing was a foe of the ‘groupers,’ who at the 1952 annual conference had deposed the executive of which he was a key supporter. He worked hard to find a compromise that would preserve Labor in New South Wales. With Cahill’s support, he negotiated with the ALP federal executive, the Sydney Catholic hierarchy, and the less extreme ‘groupers.’ He finally brokered a deal in 1956 that left moderates from both sides in control. When the Democratic Labor Party was formed, it had slight support in New South Wales. B. A. Santamaria, the head of the Catholic Social Studies Movement and a key force behind the groups, later said that there was no major split in New South Wales ‘largely because of the efforts’ of Downing (Santamaria 1997, 164).

Cahill died in office and was succeeded by Heffron on 23 October 1959. Although dynamic in his youth, Premier Heffron had mellowed into an ineffectual and conflict-averse figure. He depended heavily on Downing, who was now at the peak of his power but also under much pressure. He was the target of an increasingly restive rebel group in the parliamentary party. An unsuccessful attempt by the government to abolish the Legislative Council, in accordance with ALP policy, led to a group of members leaving the party in 1959. Downing was back to being the leader of a government in the minority in the Upper House. He was both minister of justice and attorney-general from 15 March 1956 to 31 May 1960, when he shed justice.

One of the attorney-general’s responsibilities that Downing took particularly seriously was appointing judges. In 1960 the position of chief justice of New South Wales became vacant. The Federal ALP was seeking to ease out its leader, H. V. Evatt, and pressure was put on Heffron to appoint him to the position. He agreed, but Downing refused, believing that Evatt had deteriorated mentally to such an extent that he was unsuitable for the role. Downing kept the cabinet evenly divided between pro- and anti-Evatt forces for a month in early 1960. Finally, one of his supporters defected and Evatt became chief justice. Downing’s forebodings proved justified.

Downing was next involved in a major internal power struggle over the proposed legalisation of off-course betting. Illegal bookmakers were lobbying hard to operate the system. He favoured a government-controlled totalisator board. Senior ministers and government members were rumoured to have been bribed by the illegal operators. Downing countered by arranging for the ALP executive to direct the government to establish a totalisator system. After much tortuous manoeuvring, he finally carried the day and the Totalisator Agency Board was established in 1964.

Labor lost office at the 1 May 1965 election. Downing became leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, and also built up a practice at the Bar, becoming a QC in 1973. He helped to arrange for the future New South Wales premier Neville Wran, whom he had mentored, to succeed him as Opposition leader in the Upper House. On 4 February 1972 he left parliament, retiring to a sheep property at Goulburn that he had purchased in 1946 from McKell. That year the University of Sydney conferred on him an honorary doctorate of laws; he had been a fellow of the senate of the university from 1949 to 1967. In 1979 he was appointed AC. The Downing Centre court complex in Sydney was named in his honour in 1991.

A short, nuggetty man with ‘a winning smile’ and ‘a preference for self-effacement’ (Clune 2006, 229, 243), Downing was one of the people who made it possible for Labor to govern in New South Wales for twenty-four consecutive years. Time and again he negotiated deals and compromises to avoid conflict and political damage. He used his behind–the-scenes influence to improve legislative outcomes. His tactics were astute and tough, but not unscrupulous. Wran described him as ‘an indefatigible [sic] man with a Robert Bruce-like devotion to any task he undertakes,’ and as ‘a man whose basic integrity has won him the esteem of not only his political supporters but his political opponents as well’ (NSW Parliament 1972, 4273). John Hannaford noted that his contributions to the law ‘included pioneering measures in consumer law, women's rights and uniform national companies legislation,’ as well as ‘play[ing] a major role in establishing the Suitors Fund and law reform committees,’ and ‘actively pursu[ing] the abolition of capital punishment in New South Wales’ (NSW Parliament 1994, 2874).

Downing was keenly interested in racing. When one of his horses was running, all business in the ministerial office came to a standstill. His brother Frank was the ALP State member for Ryde (1953–68); his cousins Thomas O’Mara, Billy Sheahan, and Terry Sheahan were also members of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Predeceased by a daughter and survived by two sons, he died on 9 September 1994 at Goulburn and was buried in St Patrick’s cemetery, Kenmore.

Select Bibliography

  • Clune, David. ‘Labor Master of Backroom Deals.’ Australian, 22 September 1994, 15

  • Clune, David. ‘The McKell Style of Government.’ In McKell: The Achievements of Sir William McKell, edited by Michael Easson, 119–54. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia, 1988

  • Clune, David. ‘Reg Downing: A Safe Pair of Hands.’ In The Worldly Art of Politics, edited by Ken Turner and Michael Hogan, 228–45. Leichhardt, NSW: The Federation Press, 2006

  • Clune, David, and Ken Turner, eds. The Premiers of New South Wales, 1856–2005. Vol. 2, 19012005. Leichhardt, NSW: The Federation Press, 2006

  • Downing, Robert Reginald. Interview by David Clune, 19 December 1986. New South Wales Parliamentary Library

  • Downing, Robert Reginald. Interview by David Clune and Ken Turner, 10 April 1987. New South Wales Parliamentary Library

  • Downing, Robert Reginald. Interview by R. Raxworthy, 5 October 1990. New South Wales Parliamentary Library

  • Hogan, Michael, and David Clune, eds. The People’s Choice:   Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales. Vol. 2, 1930 to 1965. Sydney: Parliament of New South Wales and University of Sydney, 2001

  • New South Wales. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 16 February 1972

  • New South Wales. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 13 September 1994

  • Santamaria, B. A. Santamaria: A Memoir. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997

  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 2310, Robert Reginald Downing—Papers, ca. 1941–1965

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Citation details

David Clune, 'Downing, Robert Reginald (Reg) (1904–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

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