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Mair, Alexander (1889–1969)

by Peter Ewer and Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Alexander Mair (1889-1969), by unknown photographer

Alexander Mair (1889-1969), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 22572

Alexander Mair (1889-1969), farmer, businessman and politician, was born on 25 August 1889 at North Carlton, Melbourne, eldest child of Victorian-born parents Alexander Mair, ironmonger, and his wife Florence, née Hunter. Educated at Wesley College, he became a keen amateur boxer and wrestler on leaving school and was apprenticed to a blacksmith at Thoona, near Wangaratta. After completing his indentures he returned to Melbourne to study commerce at Bradshaw's Business College and to work in the family firm, Alexander Mair & Co., timber, iron and steel merchants. A devout Presbyterian and active member of Scots Church, Melbourne, Mair married Grace Shoolbread Lennox there on 29 October 1913.

On his father's death that year Mair took over the family firm, which moved into hardware. He several times visited overseas suppliers, but a bout of influenza in the 1919 epidemic and subsequent asthma led him gradually to withdraw from business. In 1922 he sold the steelyard to Eliza Tinsley Pty Ltd and in 1925 the company's other assets to James McEwan & Co. Pty Ltd, serving as a director of the latter until 1927. Next year he bought Rockwood near Albury, New South Wales, a mixed grazing property that included a Corriedale stud. A solidly built, clean-shaven man, Mair began to go bald in his mid-twenties; by 1930 he looked an experienced and mature businessman.

In 1932 Mair won the State seat of Albury for the United Australia Party in a nasty campaign, during which New Guard members burnt the word 'Red', with lead nitrate, on to the forehead of one J. T. Lang sympathizer. Calling for the people to deliver themselves from 'ruin and disaster' and opposing protection, Mair defeated the sitting Labor member with United Country Party preferences.

His particular brand of Presbyterian idealism emerged when he proposed that wealthier people should help the State in its financial crisis by paying their income tax in advance. Unlike most politicians Mair put his rhetoric into practice: in June he decided to distribute his parliamentary salary, less expenses, to the suffering in his electorate, a gesture he continued until 1938. A capable back-bencher, he promoted local issues, spending most of his time in his electorate, but retained his business links through membership of Tattersalls Club, Sydney, and the Athenaeum Club in Melbourne.

In 1937 Mair and his wife visited Britain for the coronation of King George VI. He also attempted an extraordinary expedition to the Soviet Union, signing on as a seaman in a Norwegian trader only to be stopped at a northern Russian port.

In April 1938 Mair joined (Sir) Bertram Stevens's reconstructed cabinet as an assistant minister. Ten weeks later he became minister for labour and industry and had to cope with several industrial disputes. He admired (Sir) Michael Bruxner and was seen as a 'Country Party man' by U.A.P. malcontents such as J. R. Lee. In October Stevens, whose hold on the coalition was slipping, transferred the treasury to his protégé Mair. Confronted with a growing deficit in 1939, Mair proposed drastic cuts in public works expenditure while E. S. Spooner, who controlled unemployment relief through his portfolios of public works and local government, urged increased government spending. In July cabinet approved Mair's proposal to channel unemployment expenditure through a subcommittee of four. Spooner on 1 August carried a motion in the assembly calling for a new financial policy. Stevens resigned. When Bruxner refused to continue the coalition with Spooner, the leadership of the U.A.P. devolved on Mair, who was sworn in as premier on 5 August.

On the declaration of war Mair backed the 'Mother Country'; both his sons enlisted in the second Australian Imperial Force. In December his cabinet refused to register German refugee doctors and in June 1940 he attacked the Menzies government for its failure to intern aliens. He committed his own resources to Britain's defence—in May 1940 he lent the Commonwealth £4000 interest free for the duration of the war and secretly paid the life insurance of sundry servicemen—but could not galvanize his government.

When attacked by the new Labor leader (Sir) William McKell, Mair could neither point to the elimination of unemployment nor a concerted war effort. In the May 1941 elections he made the war effort the first plank of government policy, only to be stymied by his old rival, Spooner, now a Federal parliamentarian and chairman of the Commonwealth Manpower Committee, who declared that State governments were hindering the war effort. McKell won a landslide victory. Mair remained leader of the U.A.P. until February 1944; in May he held Albury as a Democratic candidate. In November 1945 he accepted leadership of the new Liberal Party although he had only played a minor part in its formation, and joined the anti-Communist crusade. He resigned in August 1946 to contest unsuccessfully the Federal Senate election.

Mair returned to Rockwood, but sold the property in 1948 and departed for Melbourne, where he accepted a number of directorships, was elected to the boards of various charitable institutions, and became involved in horse-racing and the management of Scots Church. One of the least colourful of all New South Wales premiers, Mair was no power broker. Ingenuous and generous, he was more businessman than politician. Survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, he died on 3 August 1969 at his St Kilda home and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at $439,423.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • United Australian Review, July 1932, Sept 1938, Mar 1941
  • Albury Banner, 20-27 May, 3, 24 June 1932, 11 Aug, 15 Sept, 3 Nov 1939, 24 May 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 1932, 14 Apr 1938, 26 July, 13 Sept, 7, 8 Dec 1939, 27 Mar, 4 Apr, 24 July, 17 Aug, 3 Oct, 11 Nov 1940, 5 Feb, 23 Apr 1942, 3 Sept, 5-6 Dec 1945, 4 Aug 1969
  • private information.

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Citation details

Peter Ewer and Peter Spearritt, 'Mair, Alexander (1889–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mair-alexander-7466/text13005, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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