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Patrick John (Pat) Kennelly (1900–1981)

by Peter Love

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Patrick John (Pat) Kennelly (1900-1981), Australian Labor Party official and politician, was born on 3 June 1900 at Northcote, Melbourne, fifth child of Irish-born parents John Kennelly, warder, and his wife Mary, née O’Dea. Educated at St Joseph’s School, Northcote, and St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne, Pat set his life’s course from an early age: at 15 he joined the Australian Labor Party. When he commenced work he joined the Federated Clerks’ Union of Australia and by 19 he was secretary of the Northcote branch of the ALP, where he began a lifelong association with John Cain. While working at the Yallourn open-cut mine in 1925 he coached the local football team, foreshadowing an enduring association with Australian Rules football, which included the Port Melbourne and Richmond clubs.

In 1926 Kennelly began full-time political work as a clerk in the ALP office, becoming organising secretary in 1930. On 1 November that year at St Patrick’s Cathedral he married Jessie Milne, a finisher; they were to have four children. His skills as a `machine’ man were honed in the office as Labor squabbled and split during the Depression. He was elected to the State executive in 1932 and held the position until 1950. In May 1938 he began a long parliamentary career by winning a by-election for the Legislative Council province of Melbourne West, but he retained his party position, rising to assistant-secretary in 1940. He was a minister without portfolio in the five-day Cain ministry of September 1943.

A `stocky, hook-nosed Irishman with a bull neck’, Kennelly was, by the end of World War II, well entrenched in the Victorian party machine. In the second Cain ministry (November 1945-November 1947) he was commissioner of public works, minister-in-charge of electrical undertakings and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works. He was elected federal secretary (1946-54) of the ALP and general secretary (1947-49) of the Victorian branch. In 1947 the Richmond Football Club, of which he had been vice-president and chairman of selectors, made him a life member. At this stage his legendary role as a `numbers man’ and political `fixer’—resting on an interconnected network of Labor, Catholic and football associates—was clearly established. He was an influential strategist in the Cain government; an informal adviser to Ben Chifley on tactical matters; an adept fund-raiser who some critics said was too close to John Wren; and a highly numerate factional operator in party and preselection ballots where his preferred `horses for courses’ usually won, although the process was sometimes questioned. Known as the `kingmaker’, he was reported to have said, with his charac­teristic stutter, `I d-d-don’t care who’s got the n-n-numbers brother, so long as I get to c-c-count the v-v-votes’.

Recognising his role in the party, in 1949 the State caucus elected Kennelly leader of the ALP in the Legislative Council. However, in 1952, as the Catholic Social Studies Movement became more assertive, a bitter faction fight saw Kennelly, Cain and several others challenged in preselection ballots. While he was in the midst of defending his Melbourne West position, his 13-year-old son, Neil, was killed in a motor accident. Grief sharpened his bitterness towards the Industrial Groups when he was defeated.

In 1953 Kennelly won Federal preselection and was elected to the Senate. Despite his new role, he concentrated much of his energy on defeating the `groupers’ within the ALP. He blocked their moves at meetings of the federal executive and federal conference in 1953, openly denounced them at the June 1954 State conference and worked behind the scenes to establish the 1954 ALP inquiry into the Victorian branch, to which he gave critical evidence. He played a decisive role in excluding the `grouper’ delegation from the 1955 Hobart federal conference that formalised the Labor split, and was given the task of re-establishing the Victorian ALP office afterwards.

Although in Opposition during his Senate career, Kennelly was an active committee and party member. He was deputy-leader of the Opposition in the Senate (1956-67), a member of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review (1956-59), a trustee of the Parliamentary Retiring Allowances Trust (1967-71) and, perhaps ironically, a member of the Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications (1953-66). He was an adept parliamentary tactician and an effective speaker, despite his speech impediment, which he occasionally used to vulgar comic effect, especially when referring to the Country Party.

After retiring from the Senate in 1971, Kennelly continued a very active life, serving as chairman (from 1964) of the Industrial Printing & Publicity Co. (owner of radio 3KZ), as a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and as the resolute and active chairman (1947-81) of the Albert Park Committee of Management. Under his leadership, Albert Park was transformed from a tip to one of Melbourne’s best-equipped sporting reserves. He also maintained his association with the Richmond Football Club. As a party `fixer’, he helped to reform the Victorian branch of the ALP in the early 1970s to clear the way for the election of the Whitlam government. In 1978 he was appointed AO. Survived by his wife, one of their three sons and their daughter, he died on 12 October 1981 at Richmond. A practising Catholic whose devotion to the Church was sorely tested in the 1950s, he was accorded a state funeral and a requiem Mass at the Church of St Peter and St Paul, South Melbourne, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • K. White, John Cain & Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (1982)
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill (1991)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 13 Oct 1981, p 1842
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 13 Oct 1981, p 1079
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 13 Oct 1981, pp 1280, 1317
  • Bulletin, 10 Mar 1962, p 11
  • Fact (Carlton), 2 Nov 1964, p 5
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 May 1971, `Saturday Review’, p 8, 13 Oct 1981, p 11, 16 Oct 1981, p 3.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Kennelly, Patrick John (Pat) (1900–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


3 June, 1900
Northcote, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 October, 1981 (aged 81)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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