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Murphy, Denis Joseph (1936–1984)

by B. J. Costar and Kay Saunders

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

Denis Joseph Patrick Murphy (1936-1984), historian, Labor Party president and politician, was born on 6 August 1936 at Nambour, Queensland, youngest of eight children of Queensland-born parents Martin Murphy, railway-bridge carpenter, and his wife Lilian May, née Campbell. Denis completed his schooling as a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Nudgee, Brisbane, where he excelled academically and athletically. In 1955 he enrolled at Queensland Teachers’ Training College; next year he began teaching at Nundah State School and also undertook national service in the Royal Australian Air Force. He studied part time at the University of Queensland (Dip.Phys.Ed., 1960; BA, 1964; Ph.D., 1972). On 17 December 1959 at St Agatha’s Catholic Church, Clayfield, he married Gwendoline May Butcher, also a teacher.

In 1960-61 Murphy taught physical education and coached the senior cricket team at a private secondary school in Britain. Back in Brisbane, in 1961-65 he taught physical education, mathematics and English at Redcliffe State High School. He played A-grade cricket for Toombul District Cricket Club. In 1964 he joined the Australian Labor Party and in 1965-67 was president of the Young Labor Association of Queensland. After completing a master’s qualifying thesis on Queensland’s state enterprises, he was appointed (1966) a tutor in history at the University of Queensland. He was promoted to senior tutor (1969), lecturer (1971), senior lecturer (1975) and reader (1979).

Murphy’s teaching responsibilities lay largely in Australian history and industrial relations; he also lectured regularly for the Australian Trade Union Training Authority. A prolific author, he produced eleven books (some as editor), fifteen articles or book chapters, and thirteen entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In 1974-84 he was chairman of the ADB’s Queensland working party. His political biography of T. J. Ryan won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies award for 1975. Although, according to a former student, Peter Charlton, ‘it was impossible to detect his political preferences from his lectures’, he had become increasingly active in the ALP, joining the Queensland Central Executive in 1968. Campaign manager (1969) for the Labor candidate in the Federal seat of Petrie, he unsuccessfully contested the seat himself at the 1972 and 1974 elections.

At the State election of 1974, Queensland Labor was reduced to eleven members in the Legislative Assembly. On returning from study leave in 1976 at Duke University, United States of America, Murphy was drawn to those seeking party reform but, determined not to give the union-dominated organisational leadership any excuse to suspend or expel him, displayed characteristic tactical caution. On 30 July 1978, at an unofficial meeting attended by three hundred ALP branch members, he delivered a moderately worded but withering critique of the electoral incompetence of the QCE leadership. A large majority resolved to call on the federal executive ‘to take such action as will bring about a major restructuring of the Queensland branch’. Murphy was acknowledged as the leader of the reform group. The party had descended into turmoil and on 1 March 1980 the federal executive dissolved and reorganised the Queensland branch. The ‘Old Guard’ (as the former executive became known), led by Clem Jones and Harry Hauenschild, refused to relinquish the party’s assets and initiated legal action.

Elected State president in 1981, Murphy was determined to avoid a repetition of the 1957 Labor Party split. After the Supreme Court of Queensland dismissed the Old Guard’s appeal in July 1981, with his allies Peter Beattie and Manfred Cross, he set about stabilising the party’s finances and rebuilding its electoral stocks. Gaining a private pilot’s licence, he flew around the State visiting ALP branches. He began research for a biography of Andrew Fisher and served (1982-83) as the university’s president of the staff association and a member of its senate.

At the State election on 22 October 1983 Murphy won the marginal Liberal seat of Stafford. He was to attend parliament only twice because, a few weeks before polling day, he was diagnosed with cancer. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 21 June 1984 in Brisbane and was buried in Mooloolah cemetery. W. G. (Bill) Hayden lamented the loss of ‘potentially one of the greatest Labor leaders of this country’. The University of Queensland commemorated him with a student prize and a memorial scholarship, and in 2006 the ALP created annual Denis Murphy awards for outstanding branch members.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 22 Aug 1984, p 7
  • B. Costar, ‘Denis Murphy’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 34, 1988, p 93
  • K. Saunders, ‘Denis Murphy at the University of Queensland’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, vol 19, no 9, 2006, p 14
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 3 July 1981, p 1, 22 June 1984, p 4
  • Australian, 8 June 1984, p 9
  • Sun (Brisbane), 1 Mar 1990, p 12
  • Murphy papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

B. J. Costar and Kay Saunders, 'Murphy, Denis Joseph (1936–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murphy-denis-joseph-15064/text26263, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 June 2017.

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

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