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Keon, Standish Michael (Stan) (1913–1987)

by Geoff Browne

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

Standish Michael (Stan) Keon (1913-1987), trade union official and politician, was born on 3 July 1913 at Carlton, Melbourne, third surviving son of Australian-born parents Philip Tobyn Keon, lorry driver, and his wife Jane, née Scott. His Christian names were registered as Horace Stanley, Horace being the name of a brother who had died the previous year as a result of a domestic accident. Educated at Catholic schools in East Melbourne and Richmond, Stan won a scholarship to Xavier College but was unable to take it up. Reduced family circumstances compelled him to start work at the age of 12. He held various jobs, including those of office-boy at a city music store, wireless salesman, and employee of the Hospitals and Charities Board.

Sponsored by Arthur Calwell, in 1927 Keon joined the East Melbourne branch of the Australian Labor Party. In 1933 he had a short stint editing, for Calwell, the Irish Review. He was also a committed member of the Catholic Young Men’s Society of Victoria, which provided a form of higher education and a social network that he would later draw on in his political career. A member of the CYMS board of management (1937-39 and 1941-42), he was also a prominent debater and secretary of the society’s amateur athletic club. His principal duty as a member of the editorial committee of the Catholic Young Man (1937-38) was to `secure the development of Catholic Action’ within the society. Catholic Action, in the wake of the Depression, was understood by many socially aware Catholics to mean militant opposition to both capitalism and communism.

In 1939-49 Keon was general secretary of the Victorian Public Service Association. He initiated an aggressive campaign against the parsimony of (Sir) Albert Dunstan’s Country Party ministry, which retained office by virtue of Labor Party support. Under Keon’s leadership, the VPSA secured its first general salary increase for fifteen years, long-service leave, the five-day week and the principle of permanency for women. A central issue for him was the fulfilment of a twenty-year battle by the VPSA for the establishment of an independent Public Service Board, one of the three members of which was an elected representative of the VPSA. Continued dissatisfaction over interference by Dunstan with he board’s independence was one of the immediate causes of the defeat of the Dunstan-Hollway government in September 1945. In 1946 the Cain Labor ministry introduced a bill guaranteeing the full independence of the PSB. Keon strove behind the scenes to ensure its passage through the Legislative Council.

Through a brilliantly organised campaign, mobilising his connections in the VPSA and CYMS, Keon had won Labor preselection for the blue-ribbon Legislative Assembly seat of Richmond in 1945. He and his `crusaders’ were to dominate Richmond politics for the next decade. After he entered parliament at the general election in November, his contributions to debate were often belligerent and provocative. Suspended in November 1948, he marked his departure from the chamber by giving a Nazi salute, an action that brought about a further suspension. Earlier that year he had created a sensation by a savage attack on John Wren, accusing him of switching his support from the ALP to the Country Party in return for legislation favouring his horse-racing and trotting interests.

Imbued with a powerful sense of social justice, Keon despised what he saw as attempts by business and rural sectional interests to preserve or gain privileges at the expense of working-class members of the community. He was an extremely effective local member: Janet McCalman described him as `the first parliamentarian in Richmond’s history who had the nerve, the commitment and the skill to fight for Richmond people’s immediate and daily needs’.

Keon’s public life was marked by fierce anti-communism. In July 1946 he had debated with a communist union leader in front of a polarised audience of five thousand people at the Richmond Town Hall. His position was more considered than might have appeared from his relish for invective and confrontation. In his parliamentary speeches he recognised the attractions of communism to the young, and admitted that `mere suppression’ was no remedy. The only answer was a reaffirmation of `Christian values’, reinforced by education. To Keon, Christian values meant that: `Every human being is precious in his own right … His protection and full development are the purpose and measure of social institutions’. Having contested the deputy-leadership of the State branch of the ALP in 1947, he secured preselection for the Federal seat of Yarra next year, winning comfortably at the general elec­tion in December 1949.

His maiden speech in the House of Representatives considered ways of dealing with the internal and external threat of communism. Although remaining ambivalent about repressive legislation, he appeared to suggest that suppression should not be aimed just at trade unions, and he attacked journalists and academics, describing them as `parlour pinks’ and `pink professors’. In 1952 he claimed that the Commonwealth Literary Fund was being used to support communist sympathisers. Intemperate personal attacks were balanced by careful and original analysis. The latter was evident in a speech in August 1954, in which he pointed out the inevitability of British withdrawal from Asia, questioned the popular left-wing argument that `wars of liberation’ were necessarily the legacy of colonialism, doubted the value of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization, and argued that Australia should seek its own regional alliances.

At this time Keon was a dark-haired, trim, sharp-nosed figure. Intense, ambitious, pugnacious, widely read, formidably intelligent and articulate, he left a strong impression. His voice was described as having `an electric character’. Frank Hardy, in Power Without Glory (1950), caricatured the unmarried Keon in his malign portrait of the devious, sexually repressed Michael Kiely. Writing in 2004, Philip Jones, who knew Keon, characterised him as `a very closeted gay’. There were other sides to Keon’s character: he appreciated good food and wine, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends.

In October 1954 Dr Bert Evatt, the leader of the federal Labor Party, publicly accused `a small minority’ of members, mostly from Victoria, of disloyalty to the labour movement and of being under the control of B. A. Santamaria. Evatt’s statement brought to a head the deep sectarian and personal antagonisms between left and right. In April 1955 seven Federal parliamentarians, including Keon, were expelled from the party. Keon became deputy-leader of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist) (later Democratic Labor Party). At the general election in December he was narrowly defeated by the ALP’s Dr Jim Cairns after a vicious campaign by both sides.

Keon’s parliamentary career was over, although he stood for Yarra at the next four general elections. He decried the influence of Santamaria on the DLP and lamented the public perception of it as a `church party’. By 1960 he held no office in the DLP. Elected secretary of a revived Victorian branch of the party in 1977, he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Council seat of Ballarat at a by-election in 1978 and the Legislative Assembly seat of Kew at the general election in 1979.

Stan Keon became a successful wine merchant, and built up a significant collection of Australian art. He died on 22 January 1987 at Richmond and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. His estate was sworn for probate at $720,560. He was often described as a potential prime minister but, despite his great talents, it was never likely that he would attain that position. Throughout his political career he remained an irascible, volatile individualist.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • A. Curthoys and J. Merritt (eds), Australia’s First Cold War 1945-1953, vol 1 (1984)
  • J. McCalman, Struggletown (1984)
  • Copping It Sweet: Shared Memories of Richmond (1988)
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill (1991)
  • M. Keon, Glad Morning Again (1996)
  • P. Love and P. Strangio (eds), Arguing the Cold War (2001)
  • B. Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? (2001)
  • P. Jones, Art & Life (2004)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 27 July 1948, p 1867, 23 Nov 1948, p 3645, 11 May 1949, p 952
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 14 Mar 1950, p 687, 11 Aug 1954, p 186
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 17 Feb 1987, p 57
  • Labour History, no 87, 2004, p 167
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1987, p 16
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 27 Jan 1987, p 21
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 5 Feb 1987, p 5
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Keon, Standish Michael (Stan) (1913–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keon-standish-michael-stan-12734/text22969, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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