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Heenan, Eric Michael (1900–1998)

by Sally Cawley

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Eric Michael Heenan (1900–1998), lawyer and parliamentarian, and Joan Mary Heenan (1910–2002), lawyer, were husband and wife. He was born on 29 April 1900 at Kanowna, near Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, fourth of seven surviving children of Queensland-born parents Michael Joseph Heenan, hotel-keeper and farmer, and his wife Josephine Frances, née McCarthy. Michael had been a cattle farmer at Laidley, Queensland, and was attracted to the Kalgoorlie region in 1895 by the promise of gold; his wife and three children later joined him. The area’s alluvial gold was running out by the late 1890s, but by 1900 he had purchased a hotel at Esperance and land at Grass Patch, some seventy-nine kilometres north of the town. Josephine managed the hotel, while her husband worked on the farm. Eric completed primary school at Esperance and then boarded at Christian Brothers’ College, Adelaide (1913–15).

Because of deteriorating family finances, Heenan left school after gaining his junior certificate, became a temporary assistant at Esperance State School, and was subsequently a trainee monitor (1917–18) at Subiaco State School in metropolitan Perth Overstating his age, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 29 June 1918 and embarked on the Boonah at Fremantle in October. The ship reached Durban, South Africa, but, because the Armistice had ended World War I, returned to Australia. He was among 337 passengers infected with pneumonic influenza (Spanish flu) who were placed in quarantine at Woodmans (Woodman) Point, south of Fremantle.

Heenan resumed teaching at East Victoria Park primary school (1920–23). Four years later he became an articled clerk to his older brother, Neville, at Northam, and after passing the necessary examinations, was admitted to the Bar in 1929. Returning to Esperance and having joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1928, in 1930 he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Council seat of South Province. The next year he moved to Kalgoorlie and established a legal practice. He was inexperienced in the law, but fortunate that his family was well known in the region. His interest in local issues, including rail transport and safety standards in the mining industry, and his representation of miners in the Mining Warden’s Court, added to his standing in the community. The Australian Workers’ Union, which represented many rural workers including miners, referred its local legal work to him for many years; he became a member in 1935, and also joined the Amalgamated Prospectors’ Association (president 1938). Narrowly defeated for the Legislative Council seat of North-East Province in 1934, he was successful in 1936. He married Joan Mary McKenna, whose family had also held land at Grass Patch, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth, on 14 January 1937.

McKenna was born on 23 October 1910 at Fremantle, only child of Western Australian-born Ezekiel Benoni McKenna, clerk, and his wife Jessie Grace, née Townsend, a nurse born in Victoria. In 1915 her mother volunteered for the 8th Australian General Hospital at Fremantle for repatriated soldiers, and Joan was cared for largely by her paternal grandparents. An exemplary student, she was educated at Sacred Heart School (1916–26), Highgate, before proceeding to the University of Western Australia (BA, 1930). She taught at Mount Hawthorn primary school for a year before studying law (LLB, 1933).

As one of the State’s first female law graduates, McKenna had difficulty securing a clerkship until being accepted by O’Dea and O’Dea, concentrating on property conveyancing and commercial law rather than court appearances which she disliked. Much of her work involved mining lease and property purchases by the influential investor Claude de Bernales. She was admitted to the Bar in 1936. After marriage she moved to Kalgoorlie and formed a partnership with her husband which in 1942 became Heenan & Heenan. The couple became an effective legal team, but Joan was often on her own because of her husband’s political commitments and the absence of the other partner, Tom Hartrey, in court. She became the point of first contact for a diverse population of ‘miners and nursery gardeners, Italians, Slavs’ (Joan Heenan 1989, 23). Later recalling that ‘with my convent upbringing … I got a lot of rude awakenings about things in Kalgoorlie’ (1989, 24), she became skilled at putting clients at ease. She was also her husband’s electoral campaign manager, diligent in encouraging constituents to register on the electoral roll.

In World War II Eric served part time (1942–44) in the 8th Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps. Their son having reached school age, the Heenans moved to Perth in 1950. The next year they established E. M. Heenan & Co. in city premises Joan had located. Although parliamentary sitting hours allowed Eric some time for legal work, she was initially the firm’s only full-time lawyer, and also continued agency work in Kalgoorlie.

Eric held North-East Province for the ALP until an unfavourable redistribution in 1965 led to his appointment to the new province of Lower North; he narrowly lost the seat at the 1968 election. Although the press had tipped him to become attorney-general in the government of Albert Hawke in 1953, he regretted that he had never gained a ministry and lamented the meagre prospects for promotion that membership of the Legislative Council offered. He suspected that his Catholicism further reduced his political prospects, although he had declined in the 1950s to switch allegiance to the breakaway Democratic Labor Party. Nonetheless, he gained satisfaction from representing his constituents, and from membership of select and standing committees, notably the Joint House Committee (1953–63). In 1958 he became ‘Father of the Legislative Council’ as its longest-serving member.

Although increasingly afflicted by glaucoma and deafness, Eric continued legal practice until 1980 when his eyesight failed. The firm E. M. Heenan & Co. had by then grown to six partners, including the couple’s son and daughter-in-law. It merged with Northmore, Hale, Davy & Leake in 1983. Joan continued to work, which she considered as ‘natural as breathing’ (Heenan 1989, 62), until 1991. A racing enthusiast, Eric enjoyed attending the Melbourne Cup until his disability impeded travel. He died at Mount Lawley, Perth, on 26 June 1998 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Joan died on 16 January 2002, also at Mount Lawley, and was buried next to her husband. They were survived by their son, also Eric, later a justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia (2002–15).

Select Bibliography

  • Black, David, and Geoffrey Bolton, eds. Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia. Vol. 1. Perth: Parliament of Western Australia, 2010
  • Darroch, Ian. The Boonah Tragedy. Bassendean, WA: Access Press, 2004
  • Heenan, Eric jnr. ‘Joan Mary Heenan.’ Australian Women Lawyers as Active Citizens. Australian Women’s Archive Project, 2016. https://www.womenaustralia.info/lawyers/biogs/AWE4799b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Heenan, Eric Michael. Interview by Ronda Jamieson, 1986. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Heenan, Joan Mary. Interview by Jan Godhard, 1989. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • McIlwraith, John. ‘True to the Law from West’s Wild Days.’ Australian, 15 July 1998, 14
  • National Archives of Australia. B2455, 62817
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, W72667
  • Supreme Court of Western Australia. ‘Farewell to the Honourable Justice Heenan.’ Transcript of Proceedings at Perth on Tuesday, 23 June 2015. https://www.supremecourt.wa.gov.au.files.Farewell. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sally Cawley, 'Heenan, Eric Michael (1900–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/heenan-eric-michael-31397/text38849, accessed 26 May 2022.

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