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Byrnes, Sir Thomas Percy Francis (1893–1973)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir Thomas Percy Francis Byrnes (1893-1973), farmer and politician, was born on 28 January 1893 at Eidsvold, Queensland, son of Victorian-born parents, Thomas Byrnes, miner, and his wife, Annie Louisa, née James. Thomas had brought cattle to Queensland and remained to prospect for gold. The family returned to Victoria in 1897 and farmed at Gippsland and then at Nyah West. Educated at Murrabit and Koondrook state schools, in 1907 Percy (who had reversed the order of his first and second given names, and dropped Francis) won a scholarship to Wesley College, Melbourne. He captained the school shooting-team and in 1912 entered Queen's College, University of Melbourne, on a further scholarship; he began an agricultural science course, but left at the end of the year to work in the State Rivers and Water Supply Department. Having declined a teaching post at Wesley in 1915, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 24 January 1916 and served on the Western Front with the 3rd Pioneer Battalion.

Suffering from tuberculosis, Byrnes returned home and was discharged on 26 December 1917. He was advised that a rural climate would assist his recuperation and moved to the family farm at Nyah where, on 5 June 1918, he married Dorothy Elizabeth Gretchen Judd with Presbyterian forms. After selling the property in 1920, he ran a general store for twelve months before taking up a 35-acre (14 ha) block at Woorinen. He concentrated on producing dried fruit and was soon a recognized expert, writing for the Bulletin under the pseudonym, 'Grapevine'. Made a director of the Woorinen Cooperative Packing Co. in 1922, he later served on the advisory board of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research farm at Merbein.

Concern for the welfare of soldier settlers drew Byrnes into politics. He was elected to the Swan Hill Shire Council in 1935 (president 1939-40). At the 1937 and 1940 State elections he contested Swan Hill as an endorsed Country Party candidate, but the seat was easily retained by Frank Old. On the death of Henry Pye, Byrnes was chosen in 1942 as Country Party candidate for the Legislative Council province of North Western which he won uncontested and held until his retirement in 1969.

Appointed minister without portfolio in the Hollway-McDonald coalition government on 20 November 1947, Byrnes introduced legislation providing for reconstruction of land in the Mallee. He became leader of the Country Party in the Legislative Council in 1949, held the public works and lands portfolios in the McDonald governments of 1950-52 and was government leader in the Upper House. As minister, Byrnes was committed to Victoria's economic development and regularly criticized the financial policies of the Menzies-Fadden Federal coalition for retarding the State's growth.

With the election of a majority Liberal government in 1955, Byrnes retained leadership of the Country Party in the council where his party held the balance of power until 1970. Astute in his dealings with Labor and Liberal leaders, he advanced Country Party interests, while winning the respect and affection of his parliamentary colleagues by his good humour and hard work. In 1964 the Country and Labor parties combined to threaten (Sir) Henry Bolte's budget bills in the council: Byrnes was involved in the often tense negotiations with the government which led the premier to make major concessions to the Country Party. When the budget came before the council in October, Byrnes announced—to Labor's chagrin—that his party had decided to grant it free passage.

Knighted in 1964, Sir Percy resigned from parliament in September 1969. He died at Swan Hill on 5 March 1973; accorded a state funeral, he was buried with Presbyterian and Masonic forms in the local cemetery; his wife survived him, as did their son and two of their three daughters. Streets at Swan Hill and Woorinen are named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Victoria), 30 June 1942, p 13, 20 Nov 1951, p 28, 6 Mar 1973, p 3701
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 24 Sept 1937, 1 Mar 1940, 24 Apr 1942, 28 Feb 1963
  • Sunraysia Daily, 2 Jan 1964
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Sept 1969, 6 Mar 1973
  • Swan Hill Guardian, 5, 8 Mar 1973
  • private information.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Byrnes, Sir Thomas Percy Francis (1893–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/byrnes-sir-thomas-percy-francis-9656/text17035, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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