Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McLeay, Sir John (1893–1982)

by L. M. Barlin

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

Sir John McLeay (1893-1982), politician and businessman, was born on 23 November 1893 at Port Clinton, South Australia, second of six children of Australian-born parents George McLeay, farmer, and his wife Marguaretta, née Barton. Educated at Port Clinton and Unley public schools, Jack left at 14; he worked as an errand boy, attended Muirden  College and became a commercial traveller.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 13 May 1915, McLeay served in medical units on Lemnos, in Egypt and on the Western Front. As a stretcher-bearer with the 13th Field Ambulance, he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery near Villers-Bretonneux, France, on 24 April 1918. Discharged from the AIF on 17 October 1919, he opened, with his brother George, McLeay Bros, an Adelaide accountants and general agents firm (later a wholesale and retail furnishing business). On 8 June 1921 at St Augustine’s Church of England, Unley, he married Eileen Henderson Elden (d.1971).

McLeay joined Unley council in 1924 and became mayor (1935-37). Elected to the State House of Assembly in March 1938 as the Independent member for Unley, he was defeated in 1941. He was lord mayor of Adelaide in 1946-50. In December 1949 he entered the House of Representatives as the Liberal and Country League member for Boothby, a seat he was to hold until his voluntary retirement on 31 October 1966. His son John Elden McLeay succeeded him.

Serving on many House and joint committees, McLeay chaired (1954-56) the privileges committee. He was elected Speaker in August 1956. Presiding over parliamentary proceedings with impartiality, good humour and common sense, he sometimes applied his own interpretation of the standing orders by judging the mood of the House and acting accordingly. He supported a major review (1960-63) of the standing orders that resulted in significant changes to the procedural rules. As Speaker, he had neither censure nor want of confidence motions moved against him and there were only three dissent motions against his rulings. Re-elected Speaker unopposed in 1959, 1962 and 1964, he served a record ten and a half years. From 1958 to 1965, he had represented the Australian government on visits to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Denmark and Britain. He was appointed KCMG in 1962.

Respected and well liked, McLeay defused difficult situations. In 1964 Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies thanked him for ‘the uniform good temper with which you have presided over us’. The leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, stated that, ‘had we won one more seat in 1961, we would have kept you as Speaker’. He added: ‘you know my opposition to the wearing of wigs; I would have waived that objection to keep you in office’. Gough Whitlam, the prime minister from 1972 to 1975, wrote: ‘In my experience and observation the House has not had a better Speaker. By deportment and temperament he was ideal for the post’. The journalist Alan Reid described him as ‘Australian as an inland bullocky’. Prominent in Adelaide civic affairs and active in community organisations, he had effectively managed McLeay Bros until 1955.

Tall and well built, McLeay played football, cricket, tennis and lacrosse in his younger days. In sport, as in life, he played by the rules and gave his opponents a fair go. A humble person, he was a devoted family man and a proud South Australian. Survived by his two sons and his daughter, Sir John died on 22 June 1982 at Ashford. He was buried in Centennial Park cemetery after a state funeral. A portrait by Jack Carington Smith hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Cockburn, The Patriarchs (1983)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 12 Nov 1964, p 2865, 17 Aug 1982, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1982, p 11
  • private information.

Citation details

L. M. Barlin, 'McLeay, Sir John (1893–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcleay-sir-john-15037/text26234, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 June 2017.

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

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