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Kiernan, Esmond Laurence (1881–1967)

by Geoff Browne

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

Esmond Laurence Kiernan (1881-1967), furniture dealer and politician, was born on 26 December 1881 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, eighth child of Irish-born John Joseph Kiernan and his wife Margaret, née MacDonald, of Hobart, both schoolteachers. He was educated at state schools in the Avoca district and at Gordon and began work in a Collingwood furniture store. He soon transferred to a nearby store, became a partner and by 1917 sole proprietor. The firm, Kiernan & Co., eventually had several Melbourne and country branches. He also established a money-lending business, the K-Cash Order Co.

A founding member of the Clerks' Union, Kiernan joined the Labor Party in 1909, campaigned strongly against conscription in 1916-17 and was a member of the Collingwood City Council in 1916-19. At this time he was known as an associate of John Wren but they fell out later. In June 1919 he was elected as Labor member for Melbourne North Province in the Legislative Council.

That year he carried a rating reform bill, enabling municipal councils to introduce rating on unimproved values. He made regular attempts to have the school leaving age raised to 15 and pioneered moves to abolish capital punishment in Victoria, introducing the first of six unsuccessful bills in 1922.

In December 1929 Kiernan became an honorary minister in the Hogan ministry. From June 1930 to February 1931 he had an onerous task as the State's first minister of sustenance. He defied his party by his outspoken support of the Premiers' Plan, arguing that Hogan was a 'greater and more sincere Laborite than most of the pack that were continually barking at his heels'. After Labor's downfall at the 1932 elections he was expelled by the State executive on 1 July.

The experience of serving in a Depression government shocked Kiernan, destroying his faith in conventional political solutions. His health had broken down early in 1931 and he spent eight months in Europe. He returned as an admirer of Mussolini, and came to believe that, as the parliamentary system had failed, the only way to overcome 'vile and vulnerable' capitalism was the establishment of a corporate state in which employer and employee would combine to bring about a 'planned economy'. His beliefs eventually led him to become the president of a short-lived Melbourne branch of the Australia First Movement. Surprisingly, he was not opposed at the 1934 council elections and, in 1939, initiated moves which led to a royal commission into bribery allegations against four Labor politicians; in June 1940 he lost his seat.

Kiernan's public career was relatively unsuccessful, yet his intellectual bent and independent spirit were qualities rarely seen in inter-war Victorian politics. Gentle and soft-spoken, he greatly admired Dante, organized lectures on European culture and entertained visiting Italian opera singers. He was a trustee of the Henry George Foundation, a founding director of radio station 3AR and an active Catholic, being president of the Catholic Young Men's Society in 1914.

Kiernan died on 19 April 1967 at St Vincent's Hospital and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery of which he had been a trustee. He was survived by his wife Eileen Mary, née Harrison, a music teacher, whom he had married at St John's Catholic Church, Heidelberg, on 31 January 1917, and by two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression (Canb, 1968)
  • Labor Call, 7 Jan 1926
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Apr 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Kiernan, Esmond Laurence (1881–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kiernan-esmond-laurence-6952/text12073, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 July 2014.

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

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