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Keeffe, James Bernard (Jim) (1919–1988)

by Paul D. Williams

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

James Bernard (Jim) Keeffe (1919-1988), trade union official and politician, was born on 20 August 1919 at Atherton, Queensland, son of James Keeffe, a New South Wales-born farmer, and his Queensland-born wife Augusta, née Holzappel. Educated at Mothar Mountain State School, near Gympie, Jim left at 13 to work as a farmhand but continued his studies by correspondence. He joined the Australian Labor Party in 1936. On 25 January 1941 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Gympie, he married Elizabeth Merle Garrett (d.1965), a domestic worker; they had a daughter and a son. He had enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces on 18 April 1939. Called up for full-time duty in December 1941 as an acting sergeant with the 9th Battalion, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 10 July 1942. He served at Milne Bay, Papua, later that year and on Bougainville from November 1944. While in action in January 1945 he suffered a gunshot wound to the right forearm, which left it permanently disfigured. Invalided home, he was discharged from the army on 27 October.

After a rehabilitation course in cooping, he was court advocate for, and for two years part-time secretary of, the coopers’ union. In 1951-56 he was employed as a clerk with the Plumbers & Gasfitters Employees’ Union, Queensland branch. He was an ardent champion of the working classes and in the 1940s had helped to establish the Young Labor Association. A member of the ALP’s `Left’ faction and a Queensland central executive organiser (1956-60), in 1960 he was elected State secretary following Jack Schmella’s death. It was a particularly turbulent period for the Queensland branch, in the aftermath of its 1957 split. Keeffe was federal president of the ALP in 1962-70. Winning a seat in the half-Senate election in December 1964, he entered Federal parliament on 1 July 1965. On 6 August 1966 at St Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church, Hyde Park, Townsville, he married Sheila Denise Nichols, a secretary. They lived at Townsville and had two daughters and a son before divorcing in 1981.

In parliament Keeffe soon earned the nickname the `knocker from the north’ for his record as a `formidable’ debater who, at times, fell into `fierce’ and `abrasive’ argument. Even his maiden speech saw a fiery break from convention when he lambasted the stark disparity in living standards between the city and the bush. After 1967 he clashed repeatedly with the new Opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, who was determined to reform the ALP into a modern and moderate party. Keeffe’s parliamentary performances, while always vigorous, proved especially effective during adjournment debates where he pursued issues close to his heart, including the development of northern Australia, Aboriginal land rights, and the establishment of an essential aircraft industry. Known as a `hard’ campaigner, he was suspended from the chamber several times.

Keeffe was parliamentary representative (1967-76) on the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. In 1971-80 he sat on various Senate committees. Deputy Opposition leader in the Senate and shadow minister for Northern Australia and Aboriginal affairs in 1976-77, he was as comfortable sitting cross-legged on the ground with Aborigines as he was in his Parliament House office. Outside the parliament he was known as a kind man committed to assisting the less fortunate. Indeed, his Townsville electorate office often resembled a de facto branch of the Department of Social Security. He also campaigned on peace and environmental issues, with a particular emphasis on conserving the Great Barrier Reef. Such interests saw him straddle the ideological divide between `old’ and `new’ Labor, a trait that became manifest in his support for federal intervention in 1980 into the moribund Queensland ALP. He had rejoined the national executive in 1976.

Retiring from politics in February 1983, later that year Keeffe was made a life member of the ALP. He enjoyed gardening and fishing, and even turned his hand to writing children’s fairy tales on environmentally based themes. He died of myocardial infarction on 15 May 1988, while returning to Townsville by train after attending the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra, and was buried in Woongarra cemetery. His five children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia (1982)
  • R. Fitzgerald and H. Thornton, Labor in Queensland (1989)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 17 May 1988, p 2287
  • Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 2, 1988, p 117
  • Australian, 16 May 1988, p 2
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 16 May 1988, p 4.

Citation details

Paul D. Williams, 'Keeffe, James Bernard (Jim) (1919–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keeffe-james-bernard-jim-12718/text22933, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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