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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bourke, William Meskill (Bill) (1913–1981)

by Scott Bennett

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

William Meskill (Bill) Bourke (1913-1981), lawyer and politician, was born on 2 June 1913 at North Carlton, Melbourne, son of William Bourke, boot clicker, and his wife Eileen Norah, née Meskill, both Melbourne born. Bill attended the Christian Brothers’ school at Middle Park and St Kevin’s College, East Melbourne. While studying at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1934; MA, LL B, 1936), where he had a Newman College scholarship, he joined the National Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. of Australasia Ltd as a clerk. He was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1938.

On 11 March 1942 Bourke enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He underwent artillery training before being posted to First Army headquarters, Toowoomba, Queensland, in May 1943. Promoted to corporal in January 1944, he was discharged on compassionate grounds on 1 March. At Newman College chapel on 14 July 1945 he married with Catholic rites Nancy Honor Maria Hanrahan, a schoolteacher. He worked as a solicitor in South Melbourne, the city and finally Prahran, while assisting his family’s dry-cleaning firm, Bancrofts Pty Ltd. With his educated, well-to-do background, he was an atypical Labor candidate when he stood unsuccessfully for three State and Federal elections in 1946-48. On 10 December 1949 he won the House of Representatives seat of Fawkner. He was one of a new group of right-wing Victorians that included Stan Keon and J. M. Mullens.

Bourke was an active member of parliament. A `tall, reserved man’, he shone as one of the few Labor intellectuals, speaking in his `characteristic pained monotone’ and showing so little emotion that he `might have been reading a railway timetable’. He concentrated on economic and international issues. Although not a `grouper’ or a member of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, in his anti-communism Bourke displayed a rigidity of thought that helped to push the Australian Labor Party into its wilderness years. His running `dead’ in the 1951 referendum to proscribe communism was later used against him by the Labor left, as was his apparently having originally sought Country Party preselection.

Gradually Bourke became disillusioned with the Labor leader Dr Bert Evatt. He publicly opposed Evatt’s pledge to remove the means test from pensions; he was disturbed by his erratic leadership; and he shared colleagues’ concerns over the leader’s `softness’ on communism. Bourke, Keon and Mullens were soon Evatt’s main right-wing caucus critics. Years later it was revealed that Bourke was a key source for media stories about Labor’s internal troubles.

On 22 September 1954 Bourke stunned caucus when he described Evatt as the communists’ `greatest asset’. In retaliation, on 5 October Evatt attacked `the Movement’, as well as the disloyalty of `a small minority group of Labor members, located particularly in Victoria’. He subsequently named Keon, Mullens and Bourke as members who were grossly disloyal. Expelled from the party in April 1955, Bourke and six Victorian colleagues formed the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), (Democratic Labor Party from 1957). For the remainder of his term he attacked `the pathetic state’ of the ALP, `corroded and corrupted and split by Evattism’.

In the 1955 election Bourke led his ALP opponent and received most of his preferences, but lost to Peter Howson, the Liberal Party candidate, by 1757 votes. Bourke was defeated by much more in 1958 and slipped away from the political stage, though in 1959 and 1960 he publicly attacked B. A. Santamaria for attempting to control the DLP. In 1968 he ceased to practise law. He purchased a farm at Jamieson, which he ran with a son. His recreations included horse-riding in the bush, growing Australian plants and collecting Australian paintings for his substantial Toorak home. Survived by his wife, and their three daughters and two sons, he died of cancer on 22 May 1981 at Fitzroy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Truman, Catholic Action and Politics (1960)
  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • D. Connell, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913-1990 (1990)
  • R. Manne, The Shadow of 1917 (1994)
  • H. Myers, The Whispering Gallery (1999)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 20 Apr 1955, p 37, 18 May 1955, p 861
  • series B883, item VX73912 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Bourke, William Meskill (Bill) (1913–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 17

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