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McLeay, George (1892–1955)

by Eric Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

George McLeay (1892-1955), politician and businessman, was born on 6 August 1892 at Port Clinton, South Australia, son of George McLeay, farmer, and his wife Marguaretta, née Barton. The McLeays were a pioneering family, prominent in local politics. Raised on his parents' wheat-farm near Clinton Centre, young George was educated at Port Clinton Public School until 1906 when he and his three brothers were sent to Adelaide. He attended Unley Public School, took a commercial course at Muirden College and began work as a clerk. Rejected for the Australian Imperial Force in 1914, he undertook civilian war-work for the duration.

George and his younger brother Jack (Sir John) went into business as accountants and agents. In time McLeay Bros Ltd became wholesale and retail merchants (specializing in furnishings and hardware) and George left most of the management to his brother. He honed his public-speaking skills as a debater in the Australian Natives' Association, joined the Freemasons and worshipped at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Unley. At the age of 20 he had become a member of the Unley branch of the Liberal Union. He was chairman of the Liberals' organizing committee for eleven years and was to be a permanent executive-member of the Liberal and Country League. His first effort to enter Federal parliament—standing in 1922 for the seat of Adelaide in the House of Representatives—was unsuccessful. On 21 October 1924 at St Andrew's he married 27-year-old Marcia Doreen Weston.

In September 1934 McLeay was elected a senator for South Australia; he was re-elected in 1940, defeated in 1946, and re-elected in 1949 and 1951. A member (1935-38) and chairman (1937-38) of the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, he quickly rose to government whip in the Senate (1937) and led the government in that chamber from November 1938 to October 1941. Prime Minister J. A. Lyons appointed him vice-president of the Executive Council in November 1938; he held this office until March 1940 and again from October 1940 to October 1941.

As minister for commerce (April 1939 to March 1940) and minister for trade and customs (March to October 1940), McLeay was a member of the War Cabinet (September-November 1939) and the Economic Cabinet (from December 1939). He held the portfolios of postmaster-general and repatriation (October 1940 to June 1941) and supply and development (June to October 1941). In the early years of World War II he shouldered responsibility for matters that ranged from censorship to wheat exports. From 1941 to 1947 he was leader of the Opposition in the Senate. In this capacity, in 1945, he attended the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco, United States of America, as an assistant to the Australian delegation. McLeay was prepared to speak well of H. V. Evatt's leadership during the negotiations, and Evatt valued his help.

When the Liberal and Country parties came to office on 19 December 1949, McLeay was appointed deputy-leader of the government in the Senate and minister for shipping and fuel; transport was added to his portfolio in March 1950 and fuel was removed in May 1951. A vigorous minister, he entered into intensive bargaining with shipowners and trade-union leaders in the major Australian ports in an effort to reduce the turn-round time of shipping. He was widely regarded as an effective, genial and forthright politician. Despite (Sir) Robert Menzies' occasionally overbearing manner towards him in cabinet, he remained a faithful and somewhat undemanding supporter.

McLeay lived in the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg; he belonged to golf, lacrosse, tennis and cricket clubs, and was a keen racegoer. Suffering from diabetes mellitus and from the strain of excessive travelling, he died of ischaemic heart disease on 14 September 1955 at Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide. He was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

One of South Australia's best-known and most popular members of Federal parliament, McLeay was remembered for his sparkling wit and quick repartee. Menzies, who was shocked by his early death, said that he had 'never known a man of higher spirit, a man of more infinite good nature' who could 'take knocks, and give knocks, and always remain infinitely good tempered'. McLeay enjoyed the affection of political friends and foes alike. Evatt recalled that he was thought of as 'Mr Pickwick' because of his genial fellowship, simplicity, humanity, lovability and absence of guile. (Sir) John McEwen regarded him as a close friend who could be outspoken without provoking 'an atom of bitterness'.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Perkins, Menzies (Adel, 1968)
  • D. Gardner, The Minutes are Confirmed, 1878-1978 (Arthurton, SA, 1978)
  • D. Day, Contraband and Controversy (Canb, 1996)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives and Senate), 14 Sept 1955
  • Observer (Adelaide), 11 Sept 1909, 17 June 1916
  • News (Adelaide), 13, 14, 16 Sept 1955
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 15-17 Sept 1955.

Citation details

Eric Richards, 'McLeay, George (1892–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcleay-george-11012/text19585, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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