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Morris, Sir Kenneth James (1903–1978)

by Brian F. Stevenson

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

Sir Kenneth James Morris (1903-1978), politician, businessman and farmer, was born on 22 October 1903 at Paddington, Brisbane, eighth child of James Reuben Morris, an English-born farmer, and his wife Christina McKenzie, née Grant, who came from Victoria. Educated at Ithaca Creek, Yeppoon and Mapleton state schools, and at Brisbane Grammar School, Ken directed the family's boot-manufacturing company and other subsidiary firms. At the Presbyterian Church, Ithaca, on 1 October 1931 he married Ettie Louise Dunlop, a 22-year-old typiste. In 1938 he stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly seat of Ithaca as the United Australia Party's candidate.

On 13 October 1939 Morris was appointed lieutenant, Australian Army Service Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He served in Britain (1940) and—with the 9th Division—at Tobruk, Libya (1941), and El Alamein, Egypt (1942). After returning to Australia, he was attached to A.A.S.C. units in Papua and New Guinea in 1943-44, and rose to major. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Queensland on 9 June 1944. Eight weeks earlier he had been elected to the Legislative Assembly as the Queensland People's (later Liberal) Party member for Enoggera (Mount Coot-tha from 1950). Following terms as party whip (1944-50) and deputy-leader (1950-54), he became leader on 17 August 1954.

A coalition of the Country and Liberal parties led by (Sir) Frank Nicklin took office on 12 August 1957. Morris was appointed deputy-premier, and minister for labour and industry. As part of his campaign to attract investment and new industries to Queensland, he and a delegation of businessmen visited Britain, Europe, Canada and the United States of America. They persuaded some overseas companies to license their products to Queensland manufacturers. Morris helped to develop tourism as a major industry by visiting more than fifty resorts in his first fifteen months as minister and by establishing Queensland tourist agencies abroad. To cope with the increasing use of cars in Brisbane's inner city, he implemented a traffic plan involving a system of co-ordinated traffic lights and a network of one-way streets.

In March 1961 Morris introduced a bill to amend the State's conciliation and arbitration laws. The legislation aimed to provide additional incentive for foreign companies to invest in mining. One of the bill's provisions removed the power of industrial authorities to award bonus payments to employees. Claims for increases in bonuses paid to employees of Mount Isa Mines Ltd were about to be heard in the State Industrial Court. The court abandoned proceedings. On 11 April the bill was proclaimed as an Act, leading to a two-month strike (from September) at Mount Isa.

A hard worker, Morris had a dynamic and, at times, aggressive personality. He once advised a group of Liberal candidates: 'When you see a head, hit it'. The junior partner in the coalition contrasted with the more easygoing Nicklin, for whom the peppery Morris was at times a trial. Although it was a custom to deal with cabinet submissions in order of receipt, Morris pestered Nicklin now and again to consider his submissions first. For the sake of coalition harmony, Nicklin let him have his way. While Morris wanted his party to increase its numbers in parliament and exert more influence in government, he was a staunch coalitionist who remained loyal to Nicklin.

Overwork took its toll on Morris's health. Stepping down as party leader and deputy-premier on 23 August 1962, he resigned from the ministry on 28 December and did not contest the elections in June 1963. He moved to a property north-west of Cooktown, where, thin from illness but 'jaunty as a boy in his khaki shorts', he cultivated legume seed. His health restored, he won a seat in the Senate in December as an ungrouped Liberal candidate. The victory was a 'remarkable electoral feat'. Morris aimed to promote 'the interests of the north specifically and those of Queensland generally'. He claimed to enjoy the Senate's 'broader canvas', but his years in Federal parliament were quiet. In mid-1967 he lost Liberal endorsement, and took the rejection calmly: 'I'm content. You've got to be big about these things'. Appointed K.B.E. in January 1968, he left the Senate in June and returned to Cooktown where, in the early 1970s, he ran a milk-delivery service. Sir Kenneth died on 1 June 1978 at Chermside, Brisbane, and was cremated; his wife, daughter and three of his four sons survived him.

Morris was slightly built and 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall. Shy, and a diffident speaker early in his career, as a minister he frequently embarrassed his colleagues by putting personal integrity before political expediency. According to Katharine West, he also discomfited the government with his 'loose, publicity-conscious tongue, which often was too far ahead of his sound but slow-thinking brain'. If his mercurial personality and occasional bombast diminished his effectiveness, his probity, dedication, determination and energy were seldom questioned.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (compiler), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), The Big Strikes (Brisb, 1983)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1 Aug 1978, p 1458
  • Queensland Government Public Relations Bureau, News Bulletin, 3 Feb, 14 Nov 1958
  • Truth (Brisbane), 4 Aug 1957, 30 July 1967
  • Queensland Liberal, 1 Feb 1960, Sept 1963
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 3 Mar 1961, 18 Dec 1963, 3 June 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'Morris, Sir Kenneth James (1903–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morris-sir-kenneth-james-11173/text19907, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 28 August 2014.

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

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