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Harrison, Sir Eric John (1892–1974)

by Stuart Macintyre

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

Eric John Harrison (1892-1974), by Noel Rubie

Eric John Harrison (1892-1974), by Noel Rubie

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23379952

Sir Eric John Harrison (1892-1974), politician, was born on 7 September 1892 at Surry Hills, Sydney, third child of Arthur Hoffman Harrison, a painter and decorator from England, and his Irish-born wife Elizabeth Jane, née Anderson. Eric left Crown Street Superior Public School at the age of 13 to work in the textile industry and was soon managing one of (Sir) James Murdoch's factories. Large framed and athletic, Harrison boxed, played football and achieved success as a rower. On 8 October 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served on the Western Front with the 5th Field Artillery Brigade from December 1917 and in May 1918 was promoted sergeant. A member of one of the A.I.F. crews that rowed at the Henley Peace Regatta in London in 1919, he was discharged from the army on 10 November in Australia.

At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 1 May 1920 Harrison married Mary Cook McCall (d.1941), a typiste. He resumed his employment with Murdoch's Ltd. With no prior political interests, he became active in the All for Australia League and achieved celebrity by forming a branch, with police protection, in Jack Lang's bailiwick of Auburn. By 1931 Harrison was a State councillor and chairman of the league's division based on the Federal electorate of Wentworth. In the December general elections he contested the House of Representatives seat of Wentworth for the United Australia Party and decisively defeated Walter Marks who had also been endorsed by the party.

Following his re-election in 1934, Harrison was appointed minister for the interior on 12 October, but surrendered the post on 9 November when the U.A.P. ministry was reconstructed to accommodate its Country Party coalitionists. During his four weeks in office he issued the order to prohibit the entry into Australia of the Czech anti-war publicist Egon Kisch. An assistant-minister from November 1938, Harrison received the portfolios of postmaster-general and repatriation in April 1939 after (Sir) Robert Menzies became prime minister and the Country Party quit the coalition. With the negotiation of another coalition in March 1940, Harrison again stood down.

As postmaster-general, he had angered the Sydney newspaper owners, particularly (Sir) Warwick Fairfax, by approving plans for the Australian Broadcasting Commission to publish a weekly journal. At the elections in September 1940 Harrison had to withstand a strong challenge from the prominent solicitor (Sir) Norman Cowper, whom the proprietors backed. Brian Penton portrayed Harrison in the Daily Telegraph as an energetic local member with the 'handgrip of a grizzly bear' and an imagination to match. The Sydney Morning Herald observed that he had only two speeches, one on defence and the other on the communist threat. Harrison responded by impugning Cowper's war record. Having defeated Cowper, he was appointed minister for trade and customs, and imposed additional newsprint rationing while endorsing the launch of Ezra Norton's Daily Mirror.

Harrison was a constant, admiring and vigorous ally of Menzies. As his leader's support ebbed, he stood by him. Arriving late at the cabinet meeting on 28 August 1941 at which Menzies indicated that he would resign, he burst in and demanded, 'Boss, what are they doing to you?' At the 1943 elections Harrison narrowly defeated Jessie Street. He gained the deputy-leadership of the U.A.P. in April 1944 and retained the post when the Liberal Party of Australia was formed later that year.

In 1940 Harrison had been commissioned in the Militia. Promoted captain, he performed full-time service in 1942-43 as liaison officer with the United States military forces in Australia. When he wore his uniform in Canberra, Labor's E. J. Ward denounced him as a fake soldier and alleged he had been a member of the New Guard. Harrison subsequently raised accusations of ministerial malpractice against Ward. He proved a bruising critic of the Curtin and Chifley governments—well informed, persistent, somewhat stilted in delivery, but uninhibited in personal accusation. 'The rapier, laddie, the rapier, not the bludgeon', Menzies, tongue in cheek, once suggested. On 18 October 1944 at St Stephen's, Sydney, Harrison had married Linda Ruth Yardley, née Fullerton, a widow and a businesswoman. She became his political confidant and softened his abrasiveness.

Following the coalition's victory in December 1949, Harrison was given the portfolios of postwar reconstruction (which he relinquished on 17 March 1950) and defence. From April 1950 until March 1951 he was resident Australian minister in London; while there, he handed over defence on 24 October 1950 in exchange for interior, but retained the deputy-leadership of the party to thwart any threat to Menzies' control. Back in Australia, on 11 May 1951 Harrison was appointed minister for defence production, vice-president of the Executive Council and leader of the House. He was an undistinguished administrator of the munitions and aircraft factories. A controversial manager of the legislature, he used the guillotine so brutally that he caused unrest among government back-benchers, though his relations with his Labor counterpart Arthur Calwell were surprisingly amicable. Harrison had been appointed to the privy council (1952). For a few months in 1955-56 he was minister for the army and for the navy.

In 1954 he had served as minister-in-charge of the royal visit and Queen Elizabeth II invested him K.C.V.O. at its close. Resigning from parliament in 1956, he succeeded Sir Thomas White as Australian high commissioner in London. Harrison was an active promoter of Commonwealth ties and even more outspoken in advocacy of the 'White' Commonwealth than Menzies; he provided the prime minister with palatable accounts of British affairs and was an attentive host during Menzies' regular visits to London. In 1961 Harrison was appointed K.C.M.G.

He and his wife returned to Australia in September 1964 and settled at Castle Cove, Sydney. Sir Eric's last years were overshadowed by Parkinson's disease. Survived by his wife and the three daughters of his first marriage, he died on 26 September 1974 at Chatswood and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at $207,461. A self-made man, Harrison had achieved high office. Beyond his own electorate, which he worked assiduously, he had limited influence in the party organization. With his rugged good looks and powerful personality, he was essentially a politician of parliament, the party room and the public platform, an infighter rather than a strategist, whose qualities complemented those of his leader. He was a man of strong views warmly expressed, shrewd—except on any matter that might be construed as communist subversion—a formidable opponent and a loyal friend, his tendency to pompousness offset by masculine humour.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Harrison, Me Too (Melb, 1954?)
  • K. Perkins, Menzies (Adel, 1968)
  • P. Spender, Politics and a Man (Syd, 1972)
  • E. Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (Adel, 1972)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • G. Souter, Acts of Parliament (Melb, 1988)
  • A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol 1 (Melb, 1993)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6, 13 Sept 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Sept 1940, 27 Sept 1974
  • Sun (Sydney), 21 Feb 1950
  • Canberra Times, 27 Sept 1974
  • Eric Harrison papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Harrison, Sir Eric John (1892–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harrison-sir-eric-john-10441/text18515, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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