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Connor, Reginald Francis (Rex) (1907–1977)

by C. J. Lloyd

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

Reginald Francis Xavier Connor (1907-1977), by Alan Moir, 1970s

Reginald Francis Xavier Connor (1907-1977), by Alan Moir, 1970s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24092830

Reginald Francis Xavier (Rex) Connor (1907-1977), motor dealer and politician, was born on 26 January (Australia Day) 1907 at Wollongong, New South Wales, elder child of Peter Francis Connor, labourer, and his wife Ethel, née Deegan, both native-born. Winning a scholarship to Wollongong High School, Rex worked towards a career as an analytical chemist, but contracted pneumonia in his final year; largely through self-tuition, he matriculated well and was named honorary dux of the school. When his father died in 1925, Connor abandoned academic aspirations to support his mother and sister. In February 1926 he was articled to the solicitor Charles Morgan, and handled industrial and workers' compensation cases. Morgan dismissed him in 1931, possibly because of Connor's association with another firm. Although he excelled in his final examination, without Morgan's support he was twice rejected by the Solicitors' Admission Board.

This setback, and perhaps his inability to maintain payments on a land purchase, seem to have embittered Connor. In 1931 he was acquitted on a charge of fraud involving £80 worth of motorcar parts. On 14 August that year he married a 30-year-old nurse Grace Amelia Searl with Catholic rites at the bishop's house, Maitland. Despite the Depression, he developed a flourishing motor dealership, winning sales awards and employing a staff of ten. Although settled and successful, he frequently clashed with the police over traffic and licensing matters, and was twice convicted of assault: in 1935 he pulled a ladder from the feet of a council employee who was disconnecting his electricity; in 1938 he felled a customer who complained about the price of a car.

At 17 Connor had joined the Australian Labor Party, but was not active in politics until the late 1930s. Having stood unsuccessfully as an Independent for the Wollongong Municipal Council in 1937, he was elected in May next year with trade union endorsement. By February 1939 he was a member of the breakaway Industrial Labor Party led by Robert Heffron; Connor was elected to the central executive, became an enthusiastic socialist and moved closer to the Communist Party of Australia. Shifting to the left-wing State Labor Party of M. J. R. Hughes and W. P. Evans, in 1940 he gained pre-selection for the seat of Werriwa in the House of Representatives and ran third with 12.6 per cent of the vote. He considered himself a State Labor candidate when re-elected to the Wollongong council during World War II, but rejoined the A.L.P.'s Wollongong branch in 1944.

In the late 1940s Connor established a local ascendancy in the A.L.P. which lasted until his death. He narrowly won the State seat of Wollongong-Kembla in June 1950, following a torrid campaign in which he was accused of communist sympathies and dishonesty. His thirteen years in the Legislative Assembly were frustrating, although Labor held office throughout. A leader of the minority left-wing faction, he was excluded from the ministry by the dominant right. He tried to mitigate Wollongong's industrial pollution, dramatizing his case for new legislation by producing in parliament a 'pathetic specimen of a cabbage', 'the unrecognizable foliage of a cauliflower' and other withered flora from the district. His efforts ushered in the State's Clean Air Act (1961). In 1963 he successfully led a revolt in caucus against government proposals to increase housing-commission rents.

Disappointed in State politics, Connor switched to Federal parliament, winning the seat of Cunningham at the 1963 elections. He distanced himself from the left and became a close ally of deputy-leader E. G. Whitlam, whose gratitude he earned by undeviating support in several, bitter party battles. When Whitlam became the A.L.P.'s federal leader in February 1967, Connor was promoted to the parliamentary executive and appointed shadow minister for energy, resources and secondary industry. He lost his place on the executive in 1969, but was selected for cabinet when Labor came to power in December 1972. Whitlam appointed him to the new portfolio of minerals and energy.

In almost three years of pugnacious and often controversial administration Connor transformed public policy on energy and resources. The export of all minerals was subjected to controls and Connor intervened in negotiations to insist on higher prices. Producers were encouraged to deal collectively with foreign cartels to obtain longer contracts and protection against inflation and currency revaluations. Markets for iron ore were opened with China, mining companies' taxes were increased and the quarrying of uranium was facilitated. The Commonwealth assumed jurisdiction over resources on the continental shelf. Connor established the Pipeline Authority to bring natural gas from South Australia's Cooper Basin to south-eastern Australia. Seeking 'to buy back for Australia what is part of Australia's birthright', he tried to ensure at least 51 per cent Australian investment in new minerals ventures. His creation of the Petroleum and Minerals Authority sparked a notable political and constitutional battle after the bill was blocked in the Senate. Having survived the election that followed the double dissolution in April 1974, the government had the legislation approved on 7 August by an unprecedented joint-sitting of both Houses, but the High Court of Australia subsequently pronounced the Act invalid.

In May Connor had been elevated to third position in cabinet and was later, briefly, acting prime minister. At its federal conference in February 1975, the party acclaimed his policies and his assertive Australian nationalism. Connor's rapid political downfall in the ensuing months stemmed from plans he had sponsored to borrow petrodollars for the exploitation of Australian resources during the world energy crisis of the mid-1970s. In December 1974 he obtained Executive Council authority to solicit a loan of $US4 billion (reduced in January 1975 to $US2 billion). News of the proposed borrowing was leaked to the Opposition and the scheme was abandoned in May. By then, the government had lost control of the 'Loans Affair' which flared into high political drama with allegations of impropriety, illegality and incompetence. Much of the controversy concerned Tirath Khemlani, an obscure commodities dealer who had been encouraged by Connor to sound out possible lenders. Whitlam recalled Parliament for a special sitting on 9 July to defend the attempted transaction. In a defiant speech Connor invoked a little-known Australian poem:

Give me men to match my mountains,
Give me men to match my plains,
Men with freedom in their vision,
And creation in their brains.

The tumult subsided, but the 'Loans Affair' simmered and erupted again in October 1975 with allegations that Connor had attempted to raise money after his authority had been revoked. He fought back, denying the charges until confronted with evidence that he had at least once sought to revive the negotiations. Whitlam demanded his resignation. Connor capitulated on 14 October only after caucus had sanctioned his departure. This incident provided the 'reprehensible circumstance' which the Opposition used to justify its blocking of supply in the Senate. Thus began the great constitutional crisis of October-November 1975 which culminated in the dismissal of the Whitlam government and its decisive defeat at the Federal elections in December. Connor remained in parliament, but did not attempt to return to the caucus executive. Predeceased by his wife (d.10 April 1977) and survived by their three sons, he died of a coronary occlusion on 22 August 1977 at Canberra Hospital and was buried in Lakeside Memorial Park cemetery, Dapto, New South Wales.

During Connor's long political career, his imposing bulk and quirkish personality earned him a range of allusive sobriquets: 'Bulger', 'Al Capone', 'the High Priest of Wollongong Politics', 'King Kong', 'the Abominable Snowman' and, most commonly, 'the Strangler'. He dressed characteristically in a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, braces and a wide-brimmed felt hat. A massive yet subtle and complex man, he could be chillingly abrupt and sometimes bellicose. Suspicious and strongly inclined to be secretive, he could also be courtly, patient, persuasive, and enthusiastic, especially when speculating about advanced technology or expatiating on a prized project. Connor was respected in Wollongong for the attention he gave his electorate and for his role in developing the local university. He epitomized his career in a rare aphorism: life, said Rex Connor, was 'an equation in hydrocarbons'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. J. Lloyd and A. Clark, Kerr's King Hit (Syd, 1976)
  • G. Freudenberg, A Certain Grandeur (Melb, 1977)
  • M. Sexton, Illusions of Power (Syd, 1979)
  • E. G. Whitlam, The Whitlam Government (Melb, 1985)
  • National Times, 8-13 Oct 1973, 29 Aug-3 Sept 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Aug 1982
  • Strangler or Strangled? (unpublished proceedings of the Connor Conference, 24 July 1982, Dept of Politics and History, University of Wollongong)
  • R. F. X. Connor, official papers (University of Wollongong Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Connor, Reginald Francis (Rex) (1907–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/connor-reginald-francis-rex-9813/text17349, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 6 December 2016.

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

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