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Edward Michael (Ned) Hanlon (1887–1952)

by Douglas Blackmur

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edward Michael Hanlon (1887-1952), by unknown photographer, c1948

Edward Michael Hanlon (1887-1952), by unknown photographer, c1948

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/1772

Edward Michael (Ned) Hanlon (1887-1952), railway worker, grocer and premier, was born on 1 October 1887 at Paddington, Brisbane, fifth of seven children of London-born Michael Hanlon, drayman, and his wife Mary Anne, née Byrne, from Ireland. Educated at Petrie Terrace State School and Brisbane Technical College, Ned worked as a schoolboy in his father's milk-delivery business. In 1901 he was a message-boy for several barristers before being employed in a grocery shop. During his teens he belonged to the Toowong Workers' Political Organisation and became part of a Labor Party team which addressed political meetings throughout Brisbane. He joined the Queensland Railways Department as a porter in 1903 and was later a shunter. Involved in the development of unionism in the railways with men such as Frank Cooper, Mick Kirwan, Joe Sherry and Tom Brown, he helped to establish the Queensland Railway Union, and was a member and vice-president of its management-committee. The 1912 general strike in Brisbane was a traumatic experience for Hanlon, who held a seat on the strike committee. Although he was passionately committed to this struggle to preserve unionism, his experiences convinced him of the futility of direct industrial action. When the terms of the settlement of the strike required that he, Cooper, Kirwan and Sherry leave the railway service, Hanlon returned to the grocery business.

He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 August 1915, joined the 9th Battalion in Egypt in February 1916, served on the Western Front, rose to sergeant and was discharged on 26 August 1919 in Brisbane. In partnership with his brother Patrick, he set up a grocery business. On 17 April 1922 at St Brigid's Catholic Church, Red Hill, he married Elizabeth Carver (d.1946). Hanlon represented the Paddington district at the 1925 Labor conference which drafted the Australian Labor Party's municipal policy for the first Greater Brisbane Council elections. The intensity and labyrinthine nature of Labor politics in Brisbane's inner working-class suburbs helped to develop in Hanlon an ability to 'mix it'. Contemporaries regarded his 'Irish temper' as one of his chief political assets. In 1926 he won pre-selection from the sitting Labor member for the seat of Ithaca in the Legislative Assembly; he entered parliament on 8 May and held the seat for the rest of his life.

After Labor's landslide defeat in 1929, Hanlon came under notice as an effective, robust parliamentary debater, with a capacity to wound the conservative government of A. E. Moore. In Forgan Smith's government Hanlon was home secretary from 17 June 1932 until 5 December 1935 when he became secretary for health and home affairs. As the minister largely responsible for the development and implementation of the A.L.P.'s welfare policies, Hanlon held assumptions and attitudes that had important consequences for the character of Queensland society. Under his administration Aborigines continued to be subjected to 'enforced population transfers, confinement to particular areas under relatively arbitrary and quite authoritarian regimes, excessive moral scrutiny, interference in intimate human relationships, supervised breeding, imposed placement and calculatedly inferior educational training for their children, control over their labour conditions, wages and personal property, and even suppression of their ''injurious" or menacing ''customs" or practices'. In these ways, Aborigines who, in their 'natural' state—according to Hanlon—were 'about 1,000,000 years behind the white race', were 'protected' by the state.

In Labor folklore Hanlon was credited with having implemented a creative and effective public health policy. He was responsible for the reorganization of health administration and played a significant role in the development of a free public hospital service. The realization of this long-desired Labor party goal was frustrated by subsequent lack of government finance. A premium was placed on preventative health care. Hanlon had a special interest in the health of women and children (expressed largely through government provision of pre- and post-natal facilities) and was a staunch supporter of the work of Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Recent scholarship, however, has argued that he, in concert with Sir Raphael Cilento, director-general of health and medical services, vigorously pursued a policy of suppressing abortion clinics. In the area of prisoner rehabilitation, Hanlon initiated a system of prison-farms in Queensland.

On 27 April 1944 he became treasurer and deputy to Premier F. A. Cooper. On social issues, Hanlon was a strong supporter of the monarchy and the White Australia policy. In economic matters, he fervently embraced large-scale development projects, and subscribed to the values of small business capitalism, with an emphasis on the importance of primary production and decentralization of industry. His understanding of the concept of socialism amounted to little more than the argument that all people ought to share equitably in the results of their labours. It was in the area of industrial relations that he exhibited the nature of many of his fundamental beliefs.

From 7 March 1946 until his death in office in 1952, Hanlon was premier of Queensland. In two major industrial confrontations—the meat industry strike (1946) and the railway strike (1948)—he brought the force of the state to bear in resisting, and attempting to break, these strikes which he believed were fomented and conducted by the Communist Party of Australia. From his viewpoint, members of the C.P.A. were agents of a foreign power hell-bent on destroying democracy, the conciliation and arbitration system, the A.L.P. and the trade unions. Hanlon was a member of the executive-committee of the Queensland Central Executive of the A.L.P. which established the industrial groups in July 1946 and which consolidated and extended their operation in July 1948. He encouraged the 'groupers' in their anti-communist crusade in the trade unions and publicly supported their efforts. A committed believer in States rights, Hanlon identified a number of centralizing tendencies in Australian industrial relations as threatening his government's ability to maintain industrial peace: the extension of the influence of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, the growth of federal unions, and the efforts to expand the Federal government's industrial relations powers.

Hanlon feared that the growth of powerful federal unions would mean an ever increasing possibility that Queensland unionists could become involved in industrial disputes which were not local in origin. The coal industry provided a classic example of his attitudes. He was determined to shield the industry from disputes which might arise as a result of what he regarded as an undesirable concentration of power in the central council of the Miners' Federation of Australia. Steps taken by Prime Minister J. B. Chifley between 1947 and 1949 to establish a national authority to regulate industrial relations throughout the coal industry were quickly rejected by the Hanlon government. Proposals during the late 1940s that the national parliament assume more responsibility for the regulation of industrial matters (through devices which included constitutional changes, reference of State powers and concurrent legislation) were received with scorn. Even milder approaches failed to elicit a positive response. Hanlon refused point-blank to have anything to do with Chifley's efforts to develop closer co-operation and consultation between governments in the area of industrial relations.

In common with other governments in Queensland, the Hanlon administration was the target of allegations of corruption, relating—among other things—to political appointments to the public service and to electoral malpractices. The election result in the seat of Bulimba in 1950 was declared void by Justice (Sir) Alan Mansfield on the ground that fraudulent practices had occurred. Hanlon was a consummate politician in terms of 'getting the numbers'. He had successfully contested the A.L.P. pre-selection ballot for Ithaca in 1926, only to see the Q.C.E. order a fresh ballot after widespread protests alleging irregularities. The second ballot, won by Hanlon, was equally controversial. Newspaper reports suggested that he and his supporters had managed to prevent the inclusion of certain unfavourable postal votes in the count. In 1938 the Protestant Labour Party mounted a campaign against Hanlon. When he again won the seat of Ithaca, the result was challenged by one of his opponents who alleged malpractice. Sitting as Elections Tribunal judge, E. A. Douglas found irregularities sufficient to set aside Hanlon's return, but the decision was reversed on appeal.

In the late 1940s the A.L.P. in Queensland was gravely concerned at falling trends in its voter support. Despite his constant rhetoric about the importance of defending democracy, Hanlon placed a far higher premium on his party's electoral survival. His Electoral Districts Act (1949) created an electoral malapportionment of major dimensions. The State was divided into four zones, with a different number of voters per electorate in each zone. The zones with relatively low voter numbers contained traditional rural Labor strongholds. Expressed in terms of a geographical decentralization of political power, Hanlon's justification was used repeatedly against the A.L.P. in subsequent decades of non-Labor government in Queensland.

Survived by his three daughters and one of his two sons, Hanlon died of hypertensive cardiorenal disease on 15 January 1952 at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Toowong cemetery. Hanlon's legacies are difficult to measure. His savage counter-attack against the unions in 1946, and particularly in 1948, both created and exacerbated personal hatreds, and led to a loss of respect in the trade union movement for Labor politicians. These pressures and tensions played a significant role in producing the 1957 A.L.P. 'split'. The praise bestowed on many of Hanlon's initiatives in health policy and administration has not been extended to his anti-strike activities which involved an assault on civil liberties. One of Queensland's more innovative premiers as far as working conditions were concerned, Hanlon introduced major reforms in important areas, including annual-, sick- and long-service leave. Considering his attitudes towards Aborigines, the monarchy, White Australia, communists, strikes, electoral democracy, 'developmentalism' and States rights, the governments led by Hanlon in 1946-52 had more in common with their non-Labor successors than is popularly imagined.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (compiler), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • M. B. Cribb and P. J. Boyce (eds), Politics in Queensland (Brisb, 1980)
  • R. Fitzgerald, A History of Queensland from 1915 to the Early 1980s (Brisb, 1984)
  • D. Blackmur, Strikes (Syd, 1993)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 16 Jan 1952
  • D. Blackmur, Industrial Relations Under an Australian State Labor Government. The Hanlon Government in Queensland 1946-1952 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1986)
  • W. Selby, Motherhood in Labor's Queensland 1915-1957 (Ph.D. thesis, Griffith University, 1992).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Douglas Blackmur, 'Hanlon, Edward Michael (Ned) (1887–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Edward Michael Hanlon (1887-1952), by unknown photographer, c1948

Edward Michael Hanlon (1887-1952), by unknown photographer, c1948

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/1772

Life Summary [details]


1 October, 1887
Paddington, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


15 January, 1952 (aged 64)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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