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Meagher, Edward Raymond (1908–1988)

by P. K. Rodan

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

Edward Raymond Meagher (1908-1988), politician, was born on 22 November 1908 at Brunswick, Melbourne, son of Edward Roden Meagher, storeman, and his wife Florence May, née Williams.  Ray was educated at Moreland State School and the Working Men’s College, leaving just before his fifteenth birthday.  Unemployed for several years, he eventually gained work as a clerk with the Brunswick City Council.  On 9 September 1939 at Brunswick he married with Congregational forms Winifred Jean Hard, a typist.

Already holding a commission in the Citizen Military Forces, Meagher was appointed as a captain in the Australian Imperial Force on 2 May 1940 and promoted to major in October.  As second-in-command of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, he served in Syria (1941) and Java (1942), before being taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to Thailand.  For bravery and leadership in action and in captivity, he was appointed MBE (1947).  He was demobilised in Australia in January 1946.

From 1948 Meagher ran a newsagency, milk bar and grocery in the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris.  His views, hardened by the Depression and war, led him to join the Liberal Party of Australia and to accept preselection for the ostensibly safe Australian Labor Party seat of Mentone for the 1955 State election.  The Labor split of that year saw him victorious, and he served as government whip (1956-58) and secretary to cabinet (1958-61).  In 1967 he transferred to the neighbouring seat of Frankston.

Meagher’s succinct and direct parliamentary contributions were occasional rather than frequent; finance, taxation and public administration were his main areas of interest.  Independently minded, he took literally his party’s policy on parliamentarians’ freedom and crossed the floor three times, most notably opposing a controversial bill in 1960 to introduce a totalizator in Victoria and so raise public revenue from gambling.  Such behaviour may not have impressed the premier, (Sir) Henry Bolte, but Meagher held the respect of colleagues who elected him to a succession of cabinet positions.  He served as minister without portfolio (1961-62), then held the portfolios of immigration (1962), transport (1962-67, 1973-76), housing (1967-72), forests (1967-73), and Aboriginal affairs (1967-72).  He was assistant chief secretary and assistant attorney-general in 1962 and chief secretary in 1972-73.

While seen as allied to the right-wing elements of his party, Meagher proclaimed himself 'a genuine Liberal'.  As minister for Aboriginal affairs he was responsible for granting Indigenous land rights in Victoria in 1970—only the second such instance in Australia (after South Australia).  As housing minister he opposed high-rise development in inner-suburban Melbourne, but people protesting against his support for 'slum clearance' burned him in effigy.  While transport minister he oversaw the development of Melbourne’s underground rail loop.  His commitment to public transport—which included a suggestion for fringe parking stations from which commuters would travel by bus, tram or train to the central business district—distinguished Meagher from most of his conservative colleagues, including Bolte.

Meagher ran against (Sir) Rupert Hamer for the post of deputy-leader in 1971 and for leader the following year, losing on both occasions.  He argued that a contest was preferable to the unopposed election of Bolte’s favoured candidate, but he might also have acted on an innate suspicion of a more progressively aligned leader, especially one trained in the Upper House.  While often railing against the press’s portrayal of him as reactionary, as chief secretary Meagher appeared intent on imitating the outraged puritanism of his predecessor, Sir Arthur Rylah, on censorship, but, in a rapidly changing society, achieved not much more than looking ridiculous and out of touch.  A low point was the notoriety he achieved during his attempt to prosecute a Melbourne bookseller who displayed posters of Michelangelo’s 'David'.  In 1975 he also voted against the abolition of capital punishment, one of the defining issues of Hamer’s premiership.  That year he made the colourful, if hyperbolic, observation:  'I didn’t get filled full of bullet holes on the Burma Railway to see a bunch of socialists take over this country'.

Retiring in 1976, to care for his ailing wife (d.1979), Meagher remained critical of the Liberal government, threatening to resign his party membership in 1977 over the expulsion of Douglas Jennings and Charles Francis.  Appointed CBE in 1976, Ray Meagher died at Frankston on 31 May 1988, survived by his son, Douglas, a prominent Melbourne QC.  He was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Blazey, Bolte (1972)
  • R. Broome, Aboriginal Victorians (2005)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 2 August 1988, p 1
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 May 1972, p 4
  • Bulletin, 7 October 1972, p 21
  • National Times, 25-30 August 1975, p 5

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. K. Rodan, 'Meagher, Edward Raymond (1908–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/meagher-edward-raymond-14958/text26147, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2018.

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

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