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Chalk, Gordon William (Chalkie) (1913–1991)

by Rae Wear

This article was published online in 2014

Sir Gordon William Wesley Chalk (1913-1991), politician, was born on 16 May 1913 at Rosewood, Queensland, only child of Queensland-born parents Samuel Chalk, butcher, and his wife Sarah Elizabeth, née Wesley. He was baptised in the Church of Christ but as an adult gave his religion as Methodist. Educated at Rosewood State, Marburg Rural, and Lockyer State High schools, at age fourteen Gordon commenced work as a general assistant, printer, and reporter for the Rosewood Register and Marburg Mail. Meanwhile, he studied accountancy at Ipswich Technical College. Introduced to the sport of horse racing in Rosewood, where he pencilled for an illegal bookmaker operating from behind the town’s barbershop, he remained a racing enthusiast all his life.

Chalk’s first direct connection with politics came in 1929 when he assisted a Country and Progressive National Party candidate, Edmund Bede Maher, in his successful campaign for the State seat of Rosewood. In 1932 he was elected to a part-time position as secretary of the local agricultural and horticultural association; he acquired a similar position at Marburg in 1934. He also found employment as an assistant to a local tax agent. Moving farther afield, in 1935 he commenced work in the sales department of the Toowoomba Foundry, the city’s largest employer. On 22 May 1937 at the Central Methodist Church, Ipswich, he married Ellen Clare Grant.

In 1938 Chalk was promoted to manage the Toowoomba Foundry’s Townsville branch. Declared unfit for army service due to high blood sugar levels, he remained in Townsville during World War II. He contributed to the business and civic life of the town, and was secretary of the local Rotary Club. Returning to Toowoomba after the war, he was appointed sales manager at the foundry’s headquarters. For a time he was affiliated with the Queensland Country Party before accepting a nomination by the Queensland People’s Party (QPP) for the seat of East Toowoomba, which he won at the 1947 State election. In his inaugural speech on 20 August he acknowledged that it was ‘a momentous occasion for any young man to enter this Legislative Assembly’ and went on to address housing, transport, education facilities, and the continuation of wartime price controls (Qld Parliament 1947, 106).

Although Chalk proved adept at debating, it was difficult for an Opposition member to make an impact in circumstances which seemed to require, as the Country Party leader (Sir) Frank Nicklin described it, an ‘electoral earthquake’ to unseat the firmly entrenched Hanlon Labor government (Murphy et al. 1990, 478). In July 1949 the QPP became a division of the Liberal Party of Australia and Chalk was elevated to the shadow ministry. The following year, after an electoral redistribution, he was elected to the seat of Lockyer. By the middle of the decade he was beginning to contemplate a career outside politics, but when the Labor Party’s Queensland split of 1957 propelled the Country-Liberal coalition into office, Chalk became the transport minister in the Nicklin government.

Transport proved a difficult portfolio due to unprofitable rail services and intense competition between the railways and the road haulage companies—which engaged in ‘border hopping’ to avoid paying licence fees. Yet despite years of litigation from road hauliers and calls for a royal commission on the transport industry and the operation of the Transport Department, Chalk’s reputation and influence grew. In 1965 he was elevated to the deputy leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party. Later that year, following the retirement of (Sir) Thomas Hiley, he was elected party leader, and became deputy premier and treasurer. Some of Chalk’s colleagues were dismayed by his closeness to the Country Party and his refusal to support the formation of Liberal branches in rural areas. In January 1968 he opposed a plan by dissident Liberals to nominate a candidate for the by-election in the seat of Landsborough following Nicklin’s retirement. Significant support for the Country Party in his own seat of Lockyer might explain his opposition to three-cornered contests.

When Nicklin’s successor, Jack Pizzey, suffered a fatal heart attack on 31 July 1968, Chalk assumed the premiership, but not without resistance from the Country Party deputy, (Sir) Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who argued that, as the new leader of the majority coalition partner, he should have been appointed instead. Chalk had reservations about Bjelke-Petersen’s suitability for the position, and hoped to retain the premiership until the next election. Bjelke-Petersen prevailed and Chalk was premier only for the period 1-8 August. Their relationship was tense as each jockeyed to dominate the other. In 1973 Bjelke-Petersen refused Chalk’s proposal that Treasury investigate the licensing of a privately owned casino. Unlike Bjelke-Petersen, Chalk was prepared to cooperate with the Whitlam government in the introduction of the Medibank scheme in 1974. Chalk had success with proposals for the Cultural Centre complex at Brisbane’s South Bank and changes to the mechanism for determining mining royalties, which significantly increased state revenue.

The State election held in 1974 was as much a contest between the coalition partners as it was a fight against Labor. Chalk had hopes that he would become premier. Although the Liberals won thirty seats with a primary vote of 31.09 per cent, the Nationals claimed thirty-nine seats with 27.88 per cent of first-preference votes. From this point, Chalk’s enthusiasm waned. Relations with Bjelke-Petersen deteriorated, especially over the premier’s breach of convention in 1975, when he filled a Labor Senate vacancy with his own appointment rather than the Labor Party’s nominee. Chalk’s decision to vote against Bjelke-Petersen’s strategy in the parliament separated him from many of his party colleagues and eroded his authority. In 1976 Bjelke-Petersen announced the abolition of death duties, against Chalk’s opposition. Chalk retired on 12 August and was succeeded as Liberal leader by (Sir) William Knox. He accepted directorships with Clyde Industries Ltd, Concrete Constructions (Queensland) Pty Ltd, and Birch, Carroll & Coyle Ltd, and was also involved in educational and charitable causes.

‘Chalkie’ had a reputation as a capable and hardworking if somewhat blunt minister, with a cheerful demeanour. He had a stocky build, and wore heavy black-rimmed glasses. Appointed KBE in 1971, he was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Queensland in 1974. Survived by his wife and daughter, Sir Gordon died on 26 April 1991 in Melbourne and was cremated after a state funeral at the Albert Street Uniting Church, Brisbane, on 1 May. A son predeceased him (1980). The Queensland Liberal National Party subsequently named its networking arm ‘The Gordon Chalk Society’ in his memory.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, Ross. A History of Queensland from 1915 to the 1980s. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1985
  • Hazlehurst, Cameron. Gordon Chalk: A Political Life. Toowoomba, Qld: Darling Downs Institute Press, 1987
  • Hughes, Colin A. The Government of Queensland. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1980
  • Murphy, Denis, Roger Joyce, and Margaret Cribb, eds. The Premiers of Queensland. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1990
  • Queensland. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, vol. 190, 20 August 1947, 106-10
  • Wanna, John, and Tracey Arklay. The Ayes Have It: The History of the Queensland Parliament 1957-89. Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010
  • Waterson, D. B., and John Arnold. Biographical Register of the Queensland Parliament 1930-1980. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1982.

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Citation details

Rae Wear, 'Chalk, Gordon William (Chalkie) (1913–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chalk-gordon-william-chalkie-15168/text26356, published online 2014, accessed online 24 June 2017.

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