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Beale, Sir Oliver Howard (1898–1983)

by David Lowe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Oliver Howard Beale (18981983), barrister, politician, diplomat and company director, was born on 10 December 1898 at Tamworth, New South Wales, youngest of four surviving sons of Joseph Beale (d.1910), Wesleyan minister, and his wife Clara Elizabeth, née Vickery, both born in New South Wales. Ebenezer Vickery was his great-uncle. Educated at Sydney High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1921; LL B, 1925), Howard was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 14 May 1925. His early career was interrupted by a life-threatening bout of rheumatic fever, which saw him bedridden for six months. Having recovered, he thrived on the drama, competitive camaraderie and what he called the `polite brutality’ of the barrister’s profession. On 19 December 1927 he married Margery Ellen Wood, a history teacher and the daughter of a Presbyterian home missionary, in the manse at Bingara. They were to have two children; their daughter died in infancy.

Introduced to politics through his friendship with William Holman, Beale joined a Sydney branch of the United Australia Party prior to the outbreak of World War II. However, he was impressed by few of his colleagues, other than (Sir) Robert Menzies, and welcomed the dissolution of the UAP. In 1944 he stood unsuccessfully as a Democratic Party candidate for Hornsby in the State election. Having joined the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was appointed area skipper (sub-lieutenant) in the Naval Auxiliary Patrol on 7 August 1944. He led a patrol in his own motor cruiser around the entrance to Broken Bay.

A member of the first State executive of the Liberal Party from July 1945, Beale won the House of Representatives seat of Parramatta at the Federal election on 28 September 1946, succeeding Sir Frederick Stewart. In Opposition he was an active parliamentary speaker, especially on issues relating to the Chifley government’s postwar controls over such activities as land sales, rationing, taxation and industrial relations. Reflecting later, he commented on his relishing the chance to be part of `a sort of striking force’, with (Sir) Percy Spender, (Sir) Thomas White, (Sir) Eric Harrison and others, that helped to turn public opinion away from Labor. He was a member (1947-49) of the parliamentary standing committee on public works. In 1948 he visited Europe, including Berlin at the time of the Soviet blockade, an experience that confirmed for him the dangers of communism.

On 19 December 1949 Beale was given two portfolios in the new Menzies government, information and transport, which he restructured, at Menzies’ request, to the extent of making them redundant. From 17 March 1950 he was minister for supply, a huge portfolio covering defence-related industries and including new ventures in aluminium production and uranium mining, atomic energy and weapons testing. He was also minister for defence production from 24 October 1956. His enthusiasm for atomic energy was shared by most of his colleagues, but historians have since criticised his dismissal of concerns about radiation fallout from the July 1956 Anglo-Australian atomic bomb tests in the Monte Bello Islands, and his recommendations that Australians produce weapons-grade enriched plutonium and work towards the production of their own atomic bomb. In 1950 he had been appointed KC.

Beale’s relations with Menzies were uneasy, especially in the early years of his political career. He spoke often in cabinet, probably too often for Menzies’ liking, and even dared to find better forms of words for his leader’s policies and pronouncements. (Sir) Paul Hasluck’s judgment was that he scored debating points too readily, to the irritation of others, but that he was one of the most valuable ministers in the Menzies governments of the 1950s, `both for the contributions he made to Cabinet discussion and for the competence with which he administered his own departments’.

Although Beale might have waited for likely elevation to a more senior cabinet rank, he accepted the government’s offer of the ambassadorship to the United States of America in July 1957 and resigned from parliament on 10 February 1958. He adjusted easily to the diplomatic whirl and multiple demands of Washington. Among the most prominent of Australian foreign policy issues during this time were the Indonesian claim to West New Guinea and then Confrontation, increasing levels of American involvement in preserving the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the possible invocation of the Australia-New Zealand-United States treaty in relation to all of these.

Beale learned quickly the limits of ANZUS. In 1961 the new American administration of John F. Kennedy did not support the Dutch (and Australian) stand against prospective Indonesian control of West New Guinea, facilitating the passing of the territory to Indonesia in 1963. Beale pressed the Australian government to offer military assistance in support of the rapidly increasing numbers of American `advisers’ in Vietnam and, after some delay, the offer of a small Australian team of army `observers’ was accepted in 1962. The following year, however, he and the government struggled unsuccessfully to win an American assurance, under ANZUS, of assistance to Australian forces in Borneo if they were attacked during President Sukarno’s Confrontation with Malaysia.

Beale’s legal training and religious upbringing were influential in shaping his outlook and manner. He had a strong moral framework, a principled approach to policy-making, and a readiness to discredit hostile witnesses. His love of yachting was also a constant, and one of the highlights of his ambassadorship in the United States was the dinner he organised before the 1962 America’s Cup challenge by the Australian yacht Gretel. President Kennedy and his wife were among the guests.

In 1961 Beale had been appointed KBE. On his return to Australia in 1964, he established himself as a businessman-consultant, serving on the boards of numerous companies, including the Occidental Minerals Corporation of Australia (as vice-president) and Clausen Trading & Investment Co. Pty Ltd (as chairman). He was president (1965-68) of the Australian Arts Council. Several American universities awarded him honorary doctorates. In 1977 he published his memoirs, This Inch of Time. He also enjoyed writing book reviews and opinion pieces for Australian newspapers on matters such as the role of the monarchy in Australia, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, and the legacy of Menzies, for whom he retained great admiration in spite of their strained relationship. Survived by his wife and their son, Sir Howard died on 17 October 1983 in his home at Darling Point, Sydney, and was cremated. His son, Julian, was a member of the House of Representatives in 1984-96.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Pemberton, All the Way (1987)
  • A. Cawte, Atomic Australia 1944-1990 (1992)
  • P. Hasluck, The Chance of Politics (1997)
  • W. Reynolds, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb (2000)
  • Australian, 18 Oct 1983, p 7
  • Canberra Times, 19 Oct 1983, p 7
  • NA1980/35 (National Archives of Australia)
  • M. Pratt, interview with Oliver Beale (typescript, 1976, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

David Lowe, 'Beale, Sir Oliver Howard (1898–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beale-sir-oliver-howard-12187/text21847, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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