Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gair, Vincent Clare (Vince) (1901–1980)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Vincent Clare Gair (1901-1980), by unknown photographer, c1950

Vincent Clare Gair (1901-1980), by unknown photographer, c1950

Brisbane City Council Library, BCC-B120-14565

Vincent Clare (Clair) Gair (1901-1980), railway clerk and premier, was born on 25 February 1901 at Rockhampton, Queensland, eighth child of John Alexander Gair, a prison warder from Scotland, and his wife Catherine Mary, née Maguire (d.1950), a nurse from Ireland. Catherine became prominent in local politics as a supporter of the fledgling Labor Party and young Vince often accompanied her to political meetings. Educated at Leichhardt State School and St Joseph's Christian Brothers' College, Rockhampton, in January 1916 he followed his brother Joseph into the Queensland Railways and was employed as a clerk on £48 per annum. The family moved to South Brisbane that year. Gair was allowed a transfer and was to remain in the railways for sixteen years. He joined the Australian Labor Party, held branch office, and served as a campaign director in State and local government elections. For recreation he played Rugby League football. On 14 July 1924 at St Mary's Catholic Church, South Brisbane, he married a 31-year-old clerk, Florence Glynn, whose death on 29 October 1929 left him deeply depressed. He returned to his parents' home with his young daughter Gloria; she suffered from epilepsy and was to die in 1941.

Increasingly dissatisfied with his post and resenting lack of promotion, Gair turned his ambitions to a political career. In 1931, after a robust pre-selection, he became Labor's candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of South Brisbane. Next year he defeated the attorney-general N. F. Macgroarty and entered parliament at the age of 31. Because he was outside the Australian Workers' Union coterie which dominated Queensland Labor politics in the 1930s, Gair did not benefit from the patronage of Premier William Forgan Smith and spent a decade on the back-bench. He was regarded as a good parliamentary performer, but made relatively few speeches, preferring to minister to his economically depressed electorate. Although he was elected caucus secretary in 1935 and was appointed chairman of committees in 1941, he was not prominent in the A.L.P. organization and did not become a member of the Queensland Central Executive until 1944. Impatient at being excluded from the ministry, Gair considered joining the Royal Australian Air Force in early 1942, but on 16 September was appointed secretary for mines in F. A. Cooper's government. When the former premier Forgan Smith congratulated him and declared that it had always been his intention to promote him to cabinet, Gair bluntly replied, 'Well you took long enough, you old bugger'. Gair was secretary for mines until 15 May 1947 and held the additional portfolio of labour and employment (labour and industry from 1947) from 27 April 1944 until 10 May 1950.

On 27 December 1944 at the Church of the Holy Spirit, New Farm, Gair had married Ellen (Nell) Mary Sexton; she had recently been in a religious Order before taking a job as a clerk. While some conservative Catholics were scandalized, Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig wrote to Gair in March 1945 denying he had ever declared that he would not marry them and wishing them both well. In 1953, when proposing the Gairs for a private audience with Pope Pius XII, Duhig described them as 'excellent Catholics'.

In January 1948 Gair had been proud to introduce a 40-hour week for the majority of workers in Queensland. Yet, during the meatworkers' (1946) and railwaymen's (1948) strikes, he urged a confrontationist strategy against the militant unions and in cabinet supported declarations of a state of emergency. In negotiations with employers and unions, Premier E. M. Hanlon overshadowed his labour minister who, unlike Hanlon, had never held senior office in a trade union. The unexpected defeat of E. J. Walsh at the general election in 1947 enabled Gair to contest the deputy-premiership. He won by one vote—a victory which was to change the course of Queensland politics. On 10 May 1950 Gair became treasurer. He acted as premier during the ailing Hanlon's absences, successfully representing the State at a premiers' conference and loan council meeting. When Hanlon died in office on 15 January 1952, the governor Sir John Lavarack asked Acting-Premier Gair whether he could form a new administration. After consulting his cabinet colleagues, but not caucus, he replied in the affirmative and was sworn in as premier on 17 January 1952.

Electorally popular, Gair won the 1953 and 1956 elections by handsome margins. The first three years of his premiership were placid: his standing in the party was high, industrial conflict had waned, economic conditions had stabilized and the Opposition was weak. In 1953 he and his wife travelled to England for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and Gair attended important sugar-industry negotiations. Despite his attachment to Ireland, he was such a staunch monarchist that he shipped home the chairs which he and Nell had been allocated for the coronation in Westminster Abbey.

Gair's last two years in office were traumatic, and culminated in his dramatic expulsion from the A.L.P. in 1957. As premier, he had been keen to break the longstanding hegemony of the Australian Workers' Union within the A.L.P. At the same time, he also attempted to restrict the influence of the A.W.U.'s traditional opponents—the left-wing Trades and Labor Council and its affiliated unions. To achieve his ends, Gair tried to use the right-wing A.L.P. industrial groups which had been established in Queensland in 1946 to fight communism in the union movement. The battle for control of the A.L.P. was waged both within and outside the party. Gair's relationship with the A.W.U., and especially its secretary R. J. J. Bukowski, degenerated to such an extent that the union eventually formed an unholy alliance with the T.L.C. to bring him down. The issue around which the anti-Gair forces coalesced was the decision of the 1956 Labor in Politics Convention to direct the government to legislate during the next session of parliament to extend three weeks annual leave to all workers under State awards. Gair resisted the demand, both on the grounds of economy and because it was constitutionally improper for the convention to determine the timetable of government legislation.

Following a year of intense conflict and complex political manoeuvrings, Gair was summoned to appear before the Q.C.E. on 24 April 1957 to show cause why he should not be expelled from the party for failing to give effect to a conference resolution. Despite a skilful and impressive self-defence, he was expelled; the vote was 35 to 30. He secured the unqualified support of all his ministers, save deputy-premier J. E. Duggan, then made an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a coalition with the Country Party leader (Sir) Francis Nicklin. Gair gathered his supporters into the Queensland Labor Party which, with twenty-five members, was the largest single parliamentary party, but his government was defeated over a supply bill on 12 June 1957. In the elections on 3 August a coalition of Country and Liberal parties ended more than a quarter-century of continuous Labor rule. Gair retained his South Brisbane seat, but lost it to the A.L.P. in May 1960. As a former public servant, he was entitled to seek reinstatement and in October was appointed a liaison officer in the Department of Labour and Industry, with a salary of £2500 per annum, plus expenses. He resigned in 1961 to stand for the Senate. Unsuccessful, he was again reinstated and again resigned to contest the Senate election in December 1964. Having won, he attained the leadership of the Democratic Labor Party (with which the Q.L.P. had merged in 1962) by outmanoeuvring the Victorian senator, F. P. V. McManus.

The Liberal-Country Party coalition's majority afforded him little opportunity in the Senate to press the D.L.P.'s family-oriented domestic policies or its stridently anti-communist foreign policy. Gair's early speeches concentrated on the alleged inequities of Federal funding for the States, particularly Queensland. In 1967 he combined with the rebel Liberal senator R. C. Wright to draft the 'No' case against a referendum proposal to break the nexus provision in the Australian Constitution (section 24) governing the size of the Senate and House of Representatives. Gair regarded the defeat of the referendum in May 1967 as a major achievement. He and McManus were joined by two new D.L.P. senators (J. A. Little from Victoria and C. B. Byrne from Queensland) in the elections that year and the party secured the balance of power in the upper chamber. This development, combined with the perceived importance to the coalition of D.L.P. second preferences in elections for the House of Representatives, greatly enhanced Gair's status. He clearly relished his influence, regularly harrying the government on such issues as increased postal charges and controversial 'V.I.P.' flights, and vilifying the A.L.P. for what he saw as its communist sympathies. In 1968 he thwarted Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton's attempt to call an early election and in 1969 forced the government to harden its stance on Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean.

Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War assisted Gair in advocating the D.L.P.'s hawkish policy on forward defence, which included the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The D.L.P. reached the zenith of its influence in 1970 when a fifth senator (Jack Kane from New South Wales) was elected. Thereafter the party went into decline. The visit to China in 1971 of President Richard M. Nixon of the United States of America, and the election of the Whitlam Labor government in December 1972 indicated a changing political climate, to which the D.L.P. failed to adapt. Despite his reputation as a skilful and pugnacious campaigner, Gair performed poorly at the 1972 elections. D.L.P. strategists severely misread the mood of the public and claimed that a Labor victory would open the floodgates of pornography and pollute Australian society. With his earthy humour and coarse language, Gair was not a credible advocate for such a campaign and was ridiculed in the media. Although the D.L.P. retained its position and numbers in the Senate, he became alienated from his colleagues who were embarrassed by his aggressiveness and heavy drinking. He compounded his problems by regularly criticizing the Liberals' leader (Sir) Billy Snedden who, he alleged, was incapable of leading a 'flock of homing pigeons'. In January 1973 Gair told the D.L.P. federal executive that he intended to stand down, but vacillated before succumbing to intense pressure from his colleagues. Citing ill health as the reason, he resigned as leader on 10 October 1973 and declared that he would retire when his Senate term expired in 1976.

To improve Labor's chances of winning an additional Queensland seat in the Senate, Prime Minister Whitlam recommended Gair for appointment as ambassador to the Republic of Eire. Gair delayed his formal resignation and (Sir) Joh Bjelke Petersen, the premier of Queensland, confounded Whitlam's scheme by advising the governor to issue writs for five rather than six Senate places. On 1 April 1974 an embittered Gair was appointed ambassador by his erstwhile political enemies, and was expelled from the D.L.P. The ensuing storm of protest provided a pretext for the coalition and the D.L.P. to try to block supply in the Senate. Whitlam countered by obtaining a double dissolution. At the polls on 18 May the government was returned and all four remaining D.L.P. senators were defeated.

During the political furore, Gair had left on 2 May to take up his appointment, which proved a disaster. The feisty ex-Senator was not suited to diplomacy. He refused his officials' advice, antagonized the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and his fellow heads of mission, and addressed the British ambassador as 'You old bugger'; his inappropriate behaviour also led to the resignation of some female members of staff. Moreover, he persisted in making public comments on Australian domestic politics. The coalition was finally provoked when he repeated his criticisms of Snedden; Andrew Peacock, minister for foreign affairs in the new Malcolm Fraser administration, recalled him on 21 January 1976. In an angry response, Gair rhetorically asked if this was the thanks he got for having kept the Liberals in power. He returned to Brisbane on 12 March and withdrew from public life. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 11 November 1980 in South Brisbane; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. Vince Gair was above all a controversial figure. Rotund, chubby faced, 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall and 'invincibly amiable', he was nicknamed 'Friar Tuck'. While never a great policy innovator, in his prime he was a consummate political tactician and negotiator who 'could be wilful, impatient and . . . arbitrary'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Mines, Gair (Canb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • B. J. Costar, 'Vince Gair' in D. J. Murphy et al (eds), The Premiers of Queensland (Brisb, 1990)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate, Commonwealth), 3 Apr, 8 Apr 1974
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 26 Jan 1952, 13, 14 Jan 1977, 16 Nov 1980
  • Nation (Sydney), 16 Apr 1966
  • Australian, 4 Apr 1974
  • National Times, 11 Oct 1981
  • Gair papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Trades and Labour Council of Queensland, minutes, 1950-57 (University of Queensland Library)
  • Queensland Parliamentary Labor Party, Caucus minutes, 1952-57 (Parliament House, Brisbane)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Gair, Vincent Clare (Vince) (1901–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gair-vincent-clare-vince-10267/text18159, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Vincent Clare Gair (1901-1980), by unknown photographer, c1950

Vincent Clare Gair (1901-1980), by unknown photographer, c1950

Brisbane City Council Library, BCC-B120-14565