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Byrne, Condon Bryan (1910–1993)

by Brian F. Stevenson

This article was published online in 2017

Condon Bryan Byrne (1910–1993), public servant, barrister, and politician, was born on 25 May 1910 at Yea, Victoria, third child of Edward James Byrne, an Irish-born regular soldier, and his Tasmanian-born wife Mary Honorine, née Condon. Young Condon attended Catholic primary and secondary schools in Victoria and Queensland, finishing at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, Brisbane, where he qualified for matriculation. Aged seventeen, he presaged his later reputation for courtesy by writing a letter to the editor of the Brisbane Courier deploring hostile barracking against the visiting New South Wales rugby league team; the crowd, he argued, showed ‘a complete ignorance of all the laws of hospitality and good manners’ (Byrne 1927, 7). 

In 1928 Byrne joined the Queensland Public Service and began studying part time at the University of Queensland (BA, 1932). Rising through the ranks, he was appointed private secretary to Vincent Gair in 1942 and would remain in that role until 1951. He had included law subjects in his degree, exempting him from all but the final examinations of the Barristers’ Board; on 28 June 1949 he was admitted to the Bar. In April 1951 he resigned from the public service to stand as a Senate candidate for the Australian Labor Party (ALP); he was elected next month.

Byrne soon became highly regarded in the Senate as a ‘logical and convincing speaker,’ whose experience under Gair had ‘given him a thorough grounding in statesmanship’ (Healy 1953, 6). He was ‘a polished debater who relied only on a handful of written notes’ (Aust. Senate 1993, 4015). Campaigning before his victory in the 1953 Senate election, he asserted that Queensland primary producers were, in some instances, being taxed more than they earned, because the policy of five-year taxation averaging had been abolished. After the ALP’s defeat in the 1954 Federal election, Byrne, citing aspects of defence and industrial policy, claimed that throughout Australian history, major national policy had either been effected by Labor governments or appropriated without acknowledgement by the anti-Labor parties when they were in power.

Gair, premier of Queensland since 1952, was expelled from the ALP in April 1957. A struggle for power between the party’s industrial and parliamentary wings—exacerbated by ideological, sectarian, and personal differences—had culminated in his refusal to legislate in accordance with a directive from the Queensland central executive. He and his supporters formed the breakaway Queensland Labor Party (QLP). On 23 May Byrne announced his support for Gair, alleging that the premier had not received natural justice, and affirming his belief that the executive had no right to direct members of parliament, who had been elected by the people.

Byrne resigned from the ALP and, in a gratuitous but gentlemanly gesture, handed back all party papers and correspondence in his possession to the secretary of the federal ALP. He and the two Democratic Labor Party (DLP) senators combined in 1958 with the ALP to reject legislation by the Menzies government designed to reconstruct the Commonwealth Bank of Australia by establishing a separate central bank. Defeated in the election later that year, he returned to the Bar even before his term expired in June 1959. He retained his interest in politics and the QLP, speaking out at a party conference against a possible merger with the DLP because it would endanger hopes of eventual reunification between the QLP and ALP; the QLP and DLP nonetheless amalgamated in 1962.

In 1967 Byrne was again elected to the Senate, this time as a member of the DLP, led by Gair. With four senators (later increased to five), the DLP held the balance of power in the Upper House. Byrne served as a temporary chairman of committees from 1969 and as DLP Whip (1968–74) and deputy-leader (1974). Like other members of his party, he firmly opposed communism, both in Australia and abroad, and urged economic justice for families, and equality in funding for government and non-government schools. Working to promote consensus between the ALP and DLP, he formulated resolutions that could be supported by both sides. He expressed concern about the level of foreign investment in Australian companies, warned that China and South-East Asia posed threats to Australia, and voiced strong support for the United Nations. The resignation of his mentor and friend Gair from the Senate in April 1974, with its potential to damage the DLP, reportedly devastated him (Cross, pers. comm.).

All DLP Senators were defeated in the May 1974 double-dissolution election, and Byrne resumed his law practice in Brisbane. His attempt to regain a seat in 1975 was unsuccessful. He never married. Lawn bowls and horse racing were abiding interests. An ardent admirer of the public service and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), he was prominent in establishing the Thomas More Society in Brisbane in 1979. He died on 25 November 1993 in Brisbane and was buried in South Brisbane cemetery. An obituary described him as being, like More, ‘a man of power, but yet of humility’ (Catholic Leader 1993, 17). He had been well liked, even by those politically opposed to him. Senator Brian Harradine characterised him as a claimant to a Labor tradition that once coexisted ‘with a philosophy of social action based on religious beliefs’ (Aust. Senate 1993, 4015).

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates.  Vol. S161, December 1993, 4012–16

  •  Byrne, Condon. `Rugby League. Barracking on Saturday. To the Editor.’ Brisbane Courier, 3 August 1927, 7

  •  Byrne, Condon. `What’s What in Politics: Q’land Labor.’ Sunday Truth (Brisbane), 28 July 1957, 12

  •  Catholic Leader (Brisbane). ‘“A Man for All Seasons”.’ 12 December 1993, 17

  •  Cross, Manfred. Personal communication

  •  Healy, George. `A Labor View: 36 in Adelaide Building Policy.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 22 January 1953, 6

  •  Queensland State Archives. Item ID 934979, Personal File – Condon Byrne

  •  Sunday Mail. `They Refuse to Link Up with D.L.P.’ 15 November 1959, 3

  •  Walter, James. `Byrne, Condon Bryan (1910–1993).’ In The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate 19621983. Vol. 3, edited by Anne Millar and Geoffrey Browne, 305–8. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2010

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Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'Byrne, Condon Bryan (1910–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byrne-condon-bryan-18174/text29741, published online 2017, accessed online 22 August 2018.

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