This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Francis Michael (Frank) Forde (1890-1983), prime minister and diplomat, was born on 18 July 1890 at Mitchell, Queensland, second of six children of Irish-born parents John Forde, railway ganger, and his wife Ellen, née Quirk. Educated initially at the local state school, Frank was sent to the Christian Brothers’ College, Toowoomba, where he later worked as a junior teacher until he was 20. His bent was more practical, however, and he was more ambitious. As a clerk in the Queensland Railway Department at Toowoomba he studied telegraphy; as a telegraphist in the Commonwealth Postmaster-General’s Department in Brisbane he studied to become an electrical engineer. In 1914 he was transferred to Rockhampton, where, with his good looks and friendly manner, he developed the social skills of debating, public speaking and dancing. With James Larcombe as his mentor, he threw himself into public life, becoming a leading figure in numerous organisations, especially the Australian Natives’ Association, the Australian Workers’ Union and the Rockhampton Workers’ Political Organisation.
The conscription plebiscite of 1916 and the ensuing split in the Australian Labor Party provided Forde with an opportunity to enter parliament. When the prominent conscriptionist John Adamson, member for the State seat of Rockhampton, was forced to resign from both Tom Ryan's ministry and the Labor Party itself, Forde nominated for the vacancy, won the preselection ballot, from a field of six, and the by-election in May 1917 with a comfortable majority. The youngest and possibly the most vigorous member in the Legislative Assembly, he espoused many causes, most notably the New State movement. After increasing his majority at the 1918 and 1920 elections, he took the opportunity afforded by William Higgs’s expulsion from the ALP in 1920 to gain the party’s preselection for the Federal seat of Capricornia.
Winning that seat easily in December 1922, Forde steadily earned a reputation as a champion of sugar and cotton interests and a strong advocate of protective tariffs for all industries. As the only Labor member of the House of Representatives from Queensland in 1925-28, it fell to him not only to protect the State’s economic interests, but also to defend its Ryan and Theodore [q.v.12] Labor governments against attacks by the conservative Federal government. Unfailingly attentive to his constituents, Forde was ubiquitous, leading the Queensland Worker to declare in 1928 that `Frank is blessed with a wholesome superabundance of energy that makes his presence felt in any and every cause and question he takes up’. He served on the royal commission on the moving picture industry (1927-28) and on the Joint Committee of Public Accounts (1929). When Labor won the Federal election in October 1929, his energy, experience and representation of Queensland earned him a junior ministry in the Scullin government.
Promotion was swift. As assistant-minister for trade and customs (1929-31), acting-minister for markets and transport (1930-31), and minister for trade and customs (1931-32), Forde was the principal architect of federal Labor’s high-tariff policy, designed to mitigate the effects of the Depression on Australia’s secondary industries. He was one of only fourteen of the forty-six Labor members who survived the Scullin government’s defeat in December 1931. Early next year he was elected deputy-leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, a position he was to hold until 1946. But he had hopes of becoming prime minister. When Scullin resigned as party leader in 1935, Forde stood for the position. He lost to John Curtin by ten votes to eleven; this was the first of three occasions when a single vote determined the course of his political career.
When Labor took office in October 1941, Forde became not only deputy prime minister but also—after Curtin and General Douglas MacArthur—possibly the third most powerful public figure in Australia. During World War II he served on the Advisory War Council (from 1940) and in the War Cabinet (from 1941), for which contribution he was made a privy councillor in 1944. His principal roles, however, were as minister for the army between 1941 and 1946 and as acting prime minister for periods in 1944-45. The former was a difficult and thankless task, which he pursued with characteristic diligence and tact, envied by some for his remarkable ability to stay out of serious political trouble. He was also to serve as minister for defence in August-November 1946. But 1945-46 were for him difficult and disappointing years. He had led the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco, United States of America, in April-June 1945, but was completely overshadowed by the foreign affairs minister Dr Bert Evatt. Following Curtin’s death in July 1945, Forde was prime minister from 6 to 13 July, but caucus soundly rejected him as a permanent leader in favour of the more charismatic Ben Chifley.
Worse was to come. At the Federal election in September 1946 Forde lost Capricornia, the seat he had held for twenty-four years. Demobilisation, for which he had been ultimately responsible, was too slow for many local troops and their families; his Country Party opponent, Colonel (Sir) Charles Davidson, was well respected in the region; and the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin had been particularly hostile towards him. Chifley’s government rewarded his long and loyal service to the party by appointing him Australian high commissioner to Canada. He fulfilled his diplomatic duties with distinction; (Sir) Robert Menzies extended his term. Forde later commented that his six years in Canada (1946-53) were the happiest of his life. Back in Australia, with the support of the powerful Queensland branch of the AWU, he became the Labor Party’s State organiser.
A born politician who yearned to get back into parliament, Forde won preselection for the Federal seat of Wide Bay, centred on Bundaberg, but was defeated at the general election in May 1954. Although almost 65, he retained the faith and support of the Queensland branch of the party, which endorsed him for Flinders, a State seat that included the outback towns of Charters Towers, Hughenden and Julia Creek. Winning Flinders at a by-election in March 1955, he held the seat at the general election in May 1956 but lost it in August 1957—by one vote. Had he been returned he might—as several reports suggested—have become the leader of the State party, now suffering a dearth of experienced members. He successfully appealed against the result on technical grounds but lost the by-election in May 1958 by a convincing margin.
In 1959 Forde once more sought Labor preselection for Flinders, but the Queensland central executive decided against him by twenty-six to twenty-seven—the last time he was defeated by the narrowest of margins. Again he appealed and again he won the first stage of his political comeback. Although he lost the election in May 1960, he sought Labor preselection for a Senate seat in 1962, but he was now in his seventies and largely a spent force. In 1964 Menzies, who had become a friend, asked him to represent Australia at MacArthur’s funeral in Washington, a commission he was proud to accept. An inveterate `joiner’, in later life Forde was not one to decline invitations to the many functions he was asked to attend. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Laval, Montreal and Ottawa, Canada, and of Queensland.
Forde is typically remembered as the man who was prime minister for a week or, even more patronisingly, as `always the bridesmaid, never the bride’. Such expressions obscure the fact that his parliamentary career was characterised much more by success than failure. Although not associated with any particular achievement—he was an administrator rather than a legislator or decision-maker—he not only won most of the electoral contests he fought but also spent most of his adult working life in State or Federal parliament. Moreover, while he was neither prime minister nor party leader for long, whether in government or Opposition he was a principal in the counsels of the Labor Party. In truth, he perhaps suffered less disappointment than most of his fellow parliamentarians, many of whom were far more ambitious. Most importantly, he was as loyal to his leader as he was to the party.
A short, stocky man, Forde was always concerned about his physical appearance and health; he was teetotal and a non-smoker. In his early years he liked shooting; in later life he enjoyed tennis and bowls. On 24 February 1925 at St Michael’s Cathedral, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, he had married Veronica Catherine O’Reilly (d.1967); they had three daughters and a son. Survived by his daughters, he died on 28 January 1983 in Brisbane; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Toowong cemetery. A portrait (1946) of Forde by Joshua Smith is held by Parliament House, Canberra. His daughter-in-law Leneen Forde was governor of Queensland in 1992-97.
Neil Lloyd and Malcolm Saunders, 'Forde, Francis Michael (Frank) (1890–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forde-francis-michael-frank-12504/text22477, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 3 December 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007