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Keenan, Sir Norbert Michael (1864–1954)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir Norbert Michael Keenan (1864-1954), lawyer and politician, was born on 30 January 1864 in Dublin, son of (Sir) Patrick Joseph Keenan, then chief of instruction of the Board of National Education, and his wife Elizabeth Agnes, née Quin. Educated at Downside School, Somerset, England, and Trinity College, Dublin, he read law at King's Inn, Dublin, and the Middle Temple, London, becoming a barrister in both Ireland and England.

Migrating to Western Australia in 1895, Keenan practised at Kalgoorlie where he became prominent as attorney for many British investors, vice-president of the chamber of mines and mayor in 1901-05. Having unsuccessfully contested the Kalgoorlie seat in the Legislative Assembly as an Independent in 1904, he accepted Liberal endorsement in October 1905 and defeated the sitting Labor member W. D. Johnson. As attorney-general in the Newton Moore ministry from May 1906, he pursued electoral reform and in 1907 put through bills for preferential voting and improvements in the compilation of electoral rolls. One of the few Liberals to defend Federation during the secession agitation of 1906-07, he represented the State at the 1907 Premiers' Conference. Disagreeing with Moore's financial policy, he resigned office in May 1909, and later criticized the government's redistribution plan of 1910-11. He did not contest the election of October 1911.

Like most goldfields members Keenan lived and practised in Perth; he took silk in 1908. An advocate of the foundation of the University of Western Australia, he served on its senate in 1912-18. A keen yachtsman, he was long president of the Perth Flying Squadron. After preparing and presenting the Western Australian case to the Commonwealth Disabilities Commission in 1925, he supported secession.

In April 1930 Keenan returned to the assembly as Nationalist member for the new suburban seat of Nedlands, and chief secretary and minister for education in Sir James Mitchell's second administration. He is remembered mainly for his decision to close the State's only teacher training college for three years as a Depression economy. Incensed at Mitchell's failure to consult his cabinet before selling the State Savings Bank to the Commonwealth Bank, he resigned office again in September 1931. When the whole Nationalist ministry was swept out of parliament in April 1933, Keenan, as the only surviving Nationalist with ministerial experience, became party leader, yielding the leadership of the Opposition to the larger Country Party. The coalition remained out of office for fourteen years. Keenan resigned as leader in April 1938 but retained his seat until March 1950. Although he achieved the distinction of becoming Western Australia's oldest parliamentarian and was knighted in 1948, he failed to make a timely retirement and was defeated after losing pre-selection. He died at Subiaco on 24 April 1954 and was buried in the Roman Catholic portion of Karrakatta cemetery.

Throughout his life Keenan bore the characteristics of his 'Dublin Castle Catholic' background. A lucid administrator and able speaker, courteous but quick-tempered in debate, he had a high sense of honour which sometimes verged on the cantankerous and hampered his effectiveness in parliament. On 17 February 1900 at a Perth registry office he had married Rose Elizabeth, daughter of (Sir) Stephen Henry Parker; she survived him with one of their sons. Keenan's estate was sworn for probate at £80,176.

Select Bibliography

  • Western Argus, 26 Sept 1905
  • Catholic Press, 30 Nov 1905, 31 May 1906
  • West Australian, 14 Apr 1930, 26 Apr 1954.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Keenan, Sir Norbert Michael (1864–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keenan-sir-norbert-michael-6908/text11961, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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