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McManus, Francis Patrick (Frank) (1905–1983)

by Geoff Browne

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

Francis Patrick McManus (1905-1983), schoolteacher, party official and politician, was born on 27 February 1905 at North Melbourne, second of three sons of Patrick McManus, a carrier from Roscommon, Ireland, and his Melbourne-born wife Gertrude Mary Beale (known as Dorothy Alice Marsden at least from the time of her marriage). A gifted student, Frank was educated at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ School, West Melbourne; St Colman’s Central School, Fitzroy; St Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ College, North Melbourne; and St Kevin’s College, East Melbourne. Gaining a Donovan bursary to Newman College, University of Melbourne (BA, 1926; Dip.Ed., 1927), he majored in Latin and English. He then taught at Essendon (1927-36) and Bairnsdale (1937-39) High schools and Essendon Technical School (1940-46). Inspectors described him as earnest, conscientious and meticulous in preparation, but possessing a somewhat monotonous manner. On 9 January 1937 at St Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church, North Brunswick, he married Clare Mulvany.

As a member and president (1929) of the Victorian branch of the Catholic Young Men’s Society, McManus had received a thorough grounding in public speaking and in conducting meetings. A founding member of the Debaters Association of Victoria and the Debaters’ House of Representatives, he won State and national debating competitions. Harold Holt, Stan Keon and Arthur Calwell were fellow debaters.

Influenced by Calwell, in 1925 McManus had joined the Australian Labor Party’s Flemington branch; he became branch president and a campaign committee member for William Maloney. When he attended his first Victorian ALP conference in 1932, he was given two beers and instructed to go and vote for the candidates on a list handed to him. This was his first lesson in political organisation. After moving to Bairnsdale, he declined an invitation to contest a State seat in Gippsland; with a wife and child, he felt that he could not risk losing a secure job.

McManus’s return to Melbourne in 1940 coincided with the start of conflict in the Victorian labour movement between those regarded as sympathetic to the Communist Party of Australia, and groups organised to oppose them. In 1941 he met B. A. Santamaria and H. M. (Bert) Cremean and became involved in Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement, formed to encourage Catholic laity to work against communist influence in unions and the ALP. In the same year he was a delegate to the State ALP conference representing the Teachers’ Union. Over the following years he spoke to Catholic men’s groups on the theme of the ‘menace’ of communism, a subject he had first addressed publicly in 1933. When ‘the Movement’ became a national organisation in 1945, he worked in propaganda and assisted in the training of members. The threat of communism, both at home and abroad, and the need for unceasing vigilance in opposing it were the dominant themes of McManus’s public life.

In 1946 McManus resigned from the Victorian Education Department to help establish a Catholic adult education body, the Institute of Christian Studies (subsequently the Newman Institute). He served as a director and lectured on industrial relations. In 1947 he was appointed State government representative on the board of the newly formed Council of Adult Education, a post he retained until 1973.

At the urging of Premier John Cain and the Labor ‘numbers man’ Pat Kennelly, McManus became vice-president of the Victorian ALP in 1947; he succeeded Denis (Dinny) Lovegrove as assistant secretary (1950-56). His organised mind and administrative skills helped Victorian Labor’s electoral success in 1952. He supported the anti-communist industrial groups, originating in New South Wales and established in Victoria in 1948, with the aim of combating communism in the trade unions. By the early 1950s the ‘groupers’, some of whom were members of ‘the Movement’, were in the majority on the Victorian executive. McManus gave regular radio commentaries on radio 3KZ, and wrote the ‘Labor Speaks’ column for the Melbourne Herald.

In the Labor split of 1955, McManus was among those who refused to accept the dismissal of the Victorian executive and its replacement by a body purged of the ‘groupers’. With several members of the old executive he tried in vain to enter the ALP’s 1955 Federal conference in Hobart. Expelled from the party on 7 April, he became secretary of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist); two months later he unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Council seat of Melbourne.

Elected to the Senate at the Federal election in December 1955, McManus became deputy-leader of the Australian Democratic Labor Party in 1957. That year he vacated his office in the Melbourne Trades Hall, having endured a virtual state of siege for two years. He left shortly before a team of builders’ labourers ‘bashed down the solid brick wall of the office’ with sledgehammers. In his maiden speech in September 1956, he had spoken of his regret at the cuts to southern European immigration; in 1961 he described the White Australia policy as ‘needlessly offensive to Asian and African people’. Defeated narrowly in 1961, he became federal secretary of the DLP (1962-65); he stood unsuccessfully for the Federal seat of Maribyrnong in 1963 and was re-elected to the Senate in December 1964.

To decide the parliamentary party leadership in 1965, McManus and V. C. Gair drew from a hat: Gair won and McManus became his deputy. McManus’s speeches, well-prepared and forceful, made him the DLP’s most accomplished parliamentarian. The principal articulator of the party’s concern with foreign affairs and defence, he saw the maintenance of the Australian New Zealand United States Security Treaty as the ‘keynote of our defence policies’. He warned against recognition of communist China, comparing it to being ‘asked to marry the drunkard to reform him’; and he was an unbending supporter of the Vietnam War. On domestic issues he sought more generous social security measures, particularly pensions and child endowment. He made thoughtful and well-informed contributions to debates on tertiary education and he led his party in seeking government aid for non-government schools. In 1961 he proposed that all parents should receive an educational endowment to be paid to the school of their choice.

A social conservative, McManus deplored the ‘permissive’ values of the 1960s and 1970s and condemned the Whitlam government for its ‘humanist sponsored anti-social and anti-family legislation’. He described himself as ‘old-fashioned enough to accept the Ten Commandments as the most desirable and rewarding code of conduct’. Contemptuous of the ‘clever young men’ from the public service, and ‘university intellectuals’ in the parliamentary ALP, he looked back to the Labor Party of Chifley, Curtin and Scullin whose representatives ‘had this merit—that once in their life they’d been hungry’. He complained frequently of media bias against the DLP, and was a tireless writer of letters to newspapers.

In October 1973 McManus became leader of the party, which now had five senators. In April 1974 the Whitlam Labor government appointed Gair ambassador to Ireland in the hope of securing an extra Senate seat for the government. Disgusted by this ‘course of bribery and corruption’, McManus claimed that he too had been offered an ambassadorship, to the Vatican, in 1973. Determined to see the end of the Whitlam ministry, he supported the Liberal-Country Party coalition’s blocking of supply in the Senate, expecting to gain a joint coalition-DLP ticket at the ensuing election. (Sir) Billy Snedden denied the alleged agreement. McManus’s strategic miscalculation saw the DLP’s Senate representation extinguished in May 1974. In 1977 he published his political memoir, The Tumult & the Shouting. After the DLP was dissolved in March 1978, McManus was among those who sought to revive the party later that year. He was appointed CMG in 1979.

Regarded by some as bitter and resentful, McManus was glad to be reconciled with Calwell shortly before the latter’s death. The journalist Alan Reid described McManus as long, lean, bespectacled and unforgiving, with a biting tongue. Despite his austere public face, he was a congenial man and a rich source of oral history, with, according to Brian Harradine, ‘a dry sense of humour and a well-developed sense of the ridiculous’. A keen reader of history, biography and foreign affairs, he had a strong sense of place, referring to North Melbourne as his ‘native land’, and he wrote with affection about Essendon, where he had either taught or lived for nearly fifty years. He was a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (1975-83) and the patron of the North Melbourne Football Club.

Survived by his wife, and their two sons and two daughters, McManus died on 28 December 1983 at Kew and was buried in Fawkner cemetery after a requiem Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. Although his life had been devoted to opposing communism, he had maintained that the split was not based on ideology: ‘it was a personality split caused by internal hates’ and a struggle for power. Months after his death his family was still receiving abusive phone calls from those who had never forgiven his role in the conflict.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 13 Apr 1961, p 487, 10 Apr 1974, p 889, 28 Feb 1984, p 1
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 2 Mar 1933, p 9, 31 Jul 1946, p 8
  • Age (Melbourne) 14 Dec 1970, p 9, 15 May 1974, p 9
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 15 June 1974, p 25
  • Australian, 30 Dec 1983, p 2
  • M. Pratt, interview with F. McManus (ts, 1976, National Library of Australia)
  • F. McManus papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'McManus, Francis Patrick (Frank) (1905–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcmanus-francis-patrick-frank-15005/text26194, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 11 December 2017.

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

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