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McCaw, Sir Malcolm Kenneth (Kenneth) (1907–1989)

by Chris Puplick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Malcolm Kenneth McCaw (1907-1989), solicitor, barrister and politician, was born on 8 October 1907 at Chatswood, Sydney, eldest of six children of Malcolm Mark McCaw, station manager, and his wife Jessie Alice, née Hempton, both born in New South Wales.  After he left Pallamallawa Public School aged 12, he worked as a farm hand and a sawmiller.  His father died when he was 15 and the family moved to Sydney.  Fiercely determined to overcome the disadvantages of his early life, Kenneth attended Metropolitan Business College at night, obtaining his matriculation aged 20.  He then worked in a law office and was admitted as a solicitor on 10 March 1933.  On 16 December that year he married Thea Elizabeth Easterbrook, a teacher, at Chatswood South Methodist Church; they were to divorce in 1968.  In 1935 he established the firm of McCaw, Moray & Co. and later the firms of McCaw, Moray & Johnson; McCaw, Johnson & Co.; and McCaw, Johnson & Spicer.  He served as a councillor (1945-48) of the Incorporated Law Institute of New South Wales.

A member of the Lane Cove Branch of the newly formed Liberal Party of Australia, McCaw served for many years on the State executive.  In 1947 he was elected to represent Lane Cove in the Legislative Assembly.  His maiden speech focused on local government reorganisation, the effectiveness of money spent on the Murray River irrigation scheme and the problems of housing.  He soon indicated his commitment to law reform and to a humanitarian approach to issues in the justice system.  In 1952 in a debate on the prisons bill he spoke about the need to approach prison management and punishment from 'the reformative point of view' with an emphasis on balancing community protection with the goals of rehabilitation and deterrence.

As a result of his own failing eyesight (caused by retinitis pigmentosa), McCaw was keen to promote the rights of, and opportunities for, the blind.  He questioned the Labor government about support for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association of New South Wales and changes in electoral law for Legislative Council elections to allow blind electors to be assisted in the casting of their ballots.  He also advocated the reduction of the general voting age from 21 to 20 years as a recognition of the increasing legal rights and responsibilities of young people.

McCaw played an active part in the State Liberal parliamentary party, which throughout the 1950s was beset by internal division and numerous changes of leadership.  In 1955 he moved the motion that effectively called for the removal of the leader Ewan Murray Robson; it was carried by fifteen votes to five.  When the Liberal Party and the Country Party coalition defeated the Australia Labor Party in May 1965, McCaw became attorney-general (1965-75) in (Sir Robert) Askin’s government.  Admitted as a barrister on 20 May 1965, McCaw was appointed QC in 1972.

In McCaw’s first major parliamentary speech as attorney-general he deprecated the 'great delay and an apparent waste of time' involved in the courts and indicated that the government was seeking 'a way of getting justice for all less expensively and much more quickly, thus removing a tarnish from the image of justice in this State'.  One of the most capable members of cabinet, he worked closely with the minister of justice, John Maddison, and proved to be a notable reformer.  He brought in Australia’s first permanent Law Reform Commission (1966, enacted 1967), a Corporate Affairs Commission (1970), the Supreme Court Act, 1970, and the District Court Act, 1973.  In addition he effected major changes in the laws of evidence, insurance and personal liability.

On 13 July 1968 at Wesley Chapel, Sydney, McCaw married Valma Marjorie Cherlin, née Stackpool, a 47-year-old divorcee; she assisted him greatly.  He was knighted in 1975, the year of his retirement from parliament.  In his book People versus Power (1978) he returned to his concerns for the control of arbitrary power and the protection of individual freedom by the rule of law and the effective working of parliament.  A governor (1972-80) of the New South Wales College of Law, he also continued his long association with numerous charities, especially those associated with the blind.

McCaw was noted for his personal integrity, skill as an orator and parliamentarian, and sense of humour, especially in dealing with the difficulties of his failing eyesight.  Survived by his wife, and the daughter and younger son of his first marriage, Sir Kenneth died on 13 September 1989 at St Leonards, Sydney, and was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • PD (NSW), 18 March 1952, p 5377
  • PD (NSW), 25 August 1965, p 121
  • PD (NSW), 19 September 1983, p 10103
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 64, nos 1-2, 1990, p 99
  • Liberal Opinion, March 1950, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 1974, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1989, p 10

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Citation details

Chris Puplick, 'McCaw, Sir Malcolm Kenneth (Kenneth) (1907–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccaw-sir-malcolm-kenneth-kenneth-14201/text25213, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 February 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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