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Bruxner, Sir Michael Frederick (1882–1970)

by Don Aitkin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Michael Frederick Bruxner (1882-1970), by unknown photographer, 1951

Michael Frederick Bruxner (1882-1970), by unknown photographer, 1951

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 01160

Sir Michael Frederick Bruxner (1882-1970), politician, was born on 25 March 1882 at Sandilands, Tabulam, New South Wales, second son of English-born Charles Augustus Bruxner, a pioneering grazier on the Clarence River, and his wife Sarah, daughter of Henry Barnes of Dyraaba. As a child Bruxner was delicate, and nearly died of pleurisy and pneumonia. His education was a mixture of private tuition and boarding-schools; he was captain of The Armidale School in 1900. A good scholar, he lived in St Paul's College while studying arts and law at the University of Sydney in 1901-03, but was sent down for missing law lectures. After a few years on the family property he moved to Tenterfield to help a family friend in his stock and station agency. Liking the life, he bought out his friend, and opened his own business in 1907 as Bruxner & Cotton.

He prospered and soon became a leading citizen: he was a vice-president of the local agricultural society and of the cricket and Rugby clubs. A dashing horseman and successful amateur jockey, Bruxner owned racehorses and in 1909-11 was president of the Tenterfield Jockey Club. On 17 June 1908 at Christ Church, Kiama, he married Winifred Catherine Hay (Midge) Caird, daughter of a medical practitioner. Commissioned as second lieutenant on 11 September 1911 in the 6th Australian (New England) Light Horse, redesignated the 5th the following year, he took command of the local half-squadron. In 1914 Bruxner volunteered and went with the 6th L.H.R., Australian Imperial Force, to Gallipoli and was wounded. Later, in 1916, he commanded the 6th during part of the Romani campaign in Sinai, for which he was mentioned in dispatches and in 1917 awarded the Légion d'honneur. That year he joined the staff and rose to be assistant adjutant and quarter master general of the Anzac Mounted Division. He was promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

On his return to Tenterfield in July 1919 Bruxner sold his stock and station agency and also Emu Park in Queensland which he had bought before the war; and he consolidated Roseneath, near the border, where he bred Hereford cattle. Instead of settling down as a grazier he soon became involved in the emerging Country Party, partly through conviction and partly through friends and family, and agreed to stand as a Progressive in the State elections of 1920, held under proportional representation. Elected as one of three members for Northern Tableland, he was never afterwards troubled to hold his seat (Tenterfield from 1927). In parliament he was not conspicuous until the Progressive Party split in December 1921 over whether to join with Sir George Fuller in an anti-Labor coalition. The coalitionists, led by Walter Wearne and (Sir) Thomas Bavin succeeded, but the ministry lasted only seven hours, and the Progressives were permanently divided. The self-styled 'True Blues' who had opposed the coalition maintained their separate identity, elected Bruxner leader for the 1922 elections, and renamed themselves the Country Party in 1925.

An adroit minor-party leader, Bruxner maximized every opportunity to bring his party's name and claims before the public. He became closely involved with the Northern New State Movement, and succeeded in gaining a royal commission into their proposals in 1925. He also helped to establish the Main Roads Board that year. He resigned the leadership at the end of 1925, mainly for family reasons, and handed to his successor E. A. Buttenshaw a united and confident party.

When Jack Lang was defeated in 1927 Bruxner was included in the Bavin-Buttenshaw coalition as minister for local government. Against strenuous criticism from the non-Labor back-benchers and extra-parliamentary organizations, he found himself defending Bavin's retention of the adult franchise provisions of the Local Government (Amendment) Act, with which he privately disagreed. His chief preoccupation was transport: he expanded the functions of the Main Roads Board, decentralized its control, and brought about a classification of the roads system which became the basis for the funding of road-building. His view that transport should be a public utility, not a source of private profit, was given force in the Transport Act of 1930, which regulated private bus services in order to prevent the collapse of government-owned tramways and railways. His determined opposition to private enterprise in this matter earned him the sobriquet 'Red Mick', but added to his stature as a politician.

When the ministry fell, Bruxner devoted himself to the reviving New State movements, concerned that they should not destroy or weaken the party that was his great love. He helped to amalgamate them in the United Country Movement, which was then joined to the renamed United Country Party. As the political climate in New South Wales grew more uncertain, he took the lead in arguing that the Country Party should remain quite separate from the United Australia Party, and not succumb to the cry that total unity of the non-Labor forces was an absolute necessity. His view prevailed, and in April 1932 the parliamentary party asked him to seek the leadership again. On 13 May Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed the Lang government and called upon (Sir) Bertram Stevens to form a caretaker government whose sole function would be to hold an election; Bruxner and the Country Party joined the coalition and the partnership with Stevens lasted for seven years; Bruxner was minister for transport and deputy premier in 1932-41.

The Stevens-Bruxner government was aided by the weakness and internal strife of the Labor Party, but embarrassed by a huge parliamentary majority. From the beginning Stevens had trouble with his back-bench, and increasingly depended upon Bruxner; this dependence in turn gave rise to the claim that the Country Party dominated the ministry. However, Bruxner greatly respected Stevens's financial ability, and had no ambitions to be premier himself; in any case, his party did not have the numbers. In policy terms the charge of domination was unfounded; as deputy premier Bruxner saw himself as a loyal lieutenant, and the initiatives which flowed from his position were few: another royal commission on the question of new States in 1935, the establishment of New England University College in 1938, and an unsuccessful attempt to aid the Australian film industry through quotas.

Bruxner's choice of portfolio reflected his belief that cheap and efficient transport was the key to many of the problems of country people. An Act in 1932 provided for commissioners of main roads, for railways and for road transport and tramways, a system which long remained. He continued his attempts to regulate metropolitan transport by establishing government bus services, to the horror of many government supporters but with the approval of the Opposition; he was described in the Labor Daily as 'a real Socialist'. The explanation for his stand was straightforward: as trustee for the people the government could not afford to allow private interests to treat metropolitan transport as simply a business like any other. In railways and roads his successes were less spectacular, but no less important. The railway finances improved from the largest deficit then known to a profit, and the Department of Main Roads built a reputation for productivity and efficiency that had no equal in the State bureaucracy.

Bruxner was not involved in the plot which resulted in the resignation of Stevens in August 1939, and he was able to form a coalition with the new premier, Alexander Mair. But the public disunity which had been displayed, coupled with the decline of factionalism within the Labor Party and the replacement of Lang by the moderate (Sir) W. J. McKell, made it certain that the coalition would be defeated in the next elections. Bruxner was preoccupied with the coming war, which he had felt to be unavoidable after a trip to Europe for the coronation in 1937. He equipped the railway workshops with modern machine tools, established National Emergency Services in order to deal with air raids, and built strategic roads which became part of the main roads system.

In 1941, when the government fell, Bruxner was only half way through his parliamentary career, but he was not to enjoy ministerial office again. Labor's dominance in New South Wales lasted until 1965. From 1941 to 1958 Bruxner led the Country Party in five more election campaigns. He sold Roseneath in 1950 and next year bought the homestead section of Old Auburn Vale station; he lived at Bellevue Hill, Sydney. He resigned as leader in May 1958; after a final term he retired from the assembly in 1962 and was appointed K.B.E. He was a member of the Union, the Australian Jockey and Sydney Turf clubs; from the 1950s he was chief steward of the horse section and from 1960 deputy president of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales.

Predeceased by his wife, Bruxner died on 28 March 1970 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by a daughter and two sons: the elder became a District Court judge and the younger represented Tenterfield in the Legislative Assembly from 1962. His estate was valued for probate at $62,758.

Bruxner was a natural politician and a natural leader, who combined a cheerful smile and an approachable manner with a personal dignity which he never lost: for most of his political life he was referred to as 'the Colonel', a style he greatly enjoyed. His political skill and his integrity gave the Country Party in New South Wales a status it did not enjoy in other States, while as a minister he was innovative and highly competent. His portrait by W. Chandler is in the Country Party offices, Sydney, and a sketch by George Lambert is in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • H. S. Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine (Syd, 1923)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • Bruxner papers (University of New England Library)
  • E. C. G. Page papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Don Aitkin, 'Bruxner, Sir Michael Frederick (1882–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 March 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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