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Nicklin, Sir George Francis (Frank) (1895–1978)

by Brian F. Stevenson

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

Sir George Francis Reuben (Frank) Nicklin (1895-1978), fruit-grower and premier, was born on 6 August 1895 at Murwillumbah, New South Wales, son of George Francis Nicklin, a Queensland-born journalist and later newspaper proprietor, and his wife Edith Catherine, née Bond, who came from New Zealand. Frank was educated at Murwillumbah Public School and Highfield College, Turramurra, Sydney. About 1910 the family moved to Beerwah, Queensland, where he worked on his parents' banana plantation. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 May 1916 and joined the 49th Battalion on the Western Front in July 1917. Three months later he was promoted corporal. On 5 April 1918 at Dernancourt, France, he took charge when his platoon commander was killed, led his men bravely and won the Military Medal.

Sent to England in June for officer-training, Nicklin was commissioned in January 1919 and promoted lieutenant in April. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Brisbane on 16 September. He bought a 20-acre (8 ha) pineapple-farm at Palmwoods, near Nambour, under the soldier-settlement scheme. His farming experience and the fact that he paid a large deposit on his block helped him to make a success of his holding. On 22 October 1921 at the Joyful News Mission, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, he married Georgina Robertson Fleming (d.1960), a 25-year-old dental assistant; they were to remain childless.

In the 1920s Nicklin was connected with local fruit-growing associations, usually as an office-bearer. This involvement led him into politics. On 11 June 1932 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as the Country Party's candidate for the seat of Murrumba. As an Opposition back-bencher he was unremarkable, except when speaking on agricultural matters. His informed contributions earned praise from Frank Bulcock, secretary for agriculture and stock in the Australian Labor Party government. Nicklin spoke often, and with feeling, about the problems experienced by his fellow soldier settlers. He soon won esteem in his electorate for his 'honesty of purpose and character'. By 1941 he held the safest Opposition seat in the Assembly.

Following the 1941 elections, most members of the Country and United Australia parties in State parliament formed themselves into the Country-National Party. Nicklin became its leader in June. In 1942-46 he commanded the 6th Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps. When the conservatives resumed their two-party arrangement in 1944, he continued to lead the Opposition. He was to lose five general elections in 1944-56. Although he faced the hurdle of Labor's electoral zoning system after 1949, the conservatives' listless performances usually contributed to their defeat. From 1950 Nicklin held the seat of Landsborough.

After the A.L.P. government split in April 1957, Vince Gair attempted to retain power as leader of the Queensland Labor Party. He negotiated with Nicklin for parliamentary backing, offering electoral redistribution as an inducement. Perennially good natured but surprisingly naive after a quarter of a century in politics, Nicklin briefly considered the idea until the federal Country Party leader Sir Arthur Fadden pointed out that Nicklin had an excellent chance to win government himself. Gair's administration fell in June and elections were called for 3 August. Nicklin and the Liberal Party leader (Sir) Kenneth Morris campaigned on the theme of unity, and the coalition won comfortably. While premier, Nicklin held the additional portfolios of chief secretary (1957-63) and State development (1963-68).

To safeguard the coalition's position, the government legislated in 1958 for a new system of electoral zones which favoured the conservatives. In return for additional seats in the Brisbane metropolitan area, the Liberals agreed to retain the principle of zonal weighting in favour of rural regions. Nicklin's direct influence on these negotiations cannot be demonstrated, but the arrangements advanced his interests considerably.

Nicklin was a staunch coalitionist who wisely regulated cabinet decision-making in order to promote harmony between the Country and Liberal parties. He presided over, rather than dominated, his cabinet, though from time to time there were rumours that he used 'the iron fist in private'. His relations with Morris—and with Morris's successors (Sir) Alan Munro, (Sir) Thomas Hiley and (Sir) Gordon Chalk—were invariably good, despite expansionist moves from elements in the Liberal Party in the later years of Nicklin's premiership.

In 1962 the coalition parties had agreed to restore preferential voting. The change gave the Liberals the means and the excuse to mount campaigns in traditional Country Party electorates. Nicklin tried to placate the Liberals, but failed to prevent them from contesting (unsuccessfully) eight 'Country Party' seats at the elections in 1966. While feelings within the coalition were bitter, disaffected Liberals usually exempted Nicklin from their criticisms of his party.

Nicklin could be unyielding when he chose. In 1961 he intimidated the Country Party conference into abandoning plans for a standing committee on hospitals. 'When he thinks it is necessary he cracks the whip hard', the Courier-Mail reported. 'He was . . . serious and determined [before reverting] to the role he likes best—the friendly leader listening to the problems of his friends'. The conference later authorized him to select his own ministers.

On coming to power, Nicklin had rapidly conciliated Queensland's public servants, whom Labor had alienated by its parsimony. In 1958 all government employees were reclassified and a large salary rise was implemented. The pace of reform later slowed and by 1968 the Queensland State Service Union was complaining that its members' salaries had fallen behind those paid to public servants in other States and the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the service remained loyal to Nicklin and gave few useful 'leaks' to the Opposition. When he retired, the union described him as a man who could 'say a very firm ''No" in a very pleasant manner'.

Nicklin was less adept in his handling of the strikes at Mount Isa in 1961 and 1964-65. Precipitated by legislation in 1961 threatening traditional bonuses paid to employees of Mount Isa Mines Ltd, the strike that year ended when Nicklin proclaimed a state of emergency, ordered the craft unions back to work and directed M.I.M. to negotiate with union leaders on conditions of work. The issue that caused the trouble was not discussed and the dispute ended with an uneasy truce.

In August 1964 the State Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Commission rejected a bid by M.I.M.'s workers for a pay rise of £4 a week in lieu of an increase in the bonus. The contract miners decided to 'revert to wages', effectively slowing production. After months of fruitless negotiation, the government issued an order-in-council on 10 December directing the men to return to contract work. Four days later the government amended the order, giving M.I.M. the right to dismiss recalcitrant employees. Next day the company sacked 230 underground miners.

By late January 1965, with funds running low, the strikers were close to accepting an offer of a prosperity loading of £3 a week. On the 27th, however, the government issued another order-in-council which incorporated regulations allowing the police to deny access to Mount Isa of any 'undesirable' and to use necessary force to enter any building. Nicklin defended his actions on the ground that the communists had planned a programme of industrial disruption with the aim of reducing Queensland to 'economic chaos'. Faced with overwhelming public disapproval, his government grudgingly withdrew the order on 1 February. The strikers began to return to work soon after.

Despite the misplaced severity he exhibited in the Mount Isa disputes, Nicklin saw his political popularity as being linked to his genial disposition and personal probity. During the 1957 election campaign a senior party official had coined the nickname 'Honest Frank'. The epithet stuck, and for good reasons. When Queensland seemed on the verge of an oil boom in 1962, Nicklin asked members of his cabinet to refrain from investing in oil shares.

Although Nicklin was later shown to have misled the public on two occasions, his image was not unduly tarnished. Both incidents involved suppressing the truth about circumstances relating to a minister's dismissal. In the first instance (1960) Nicklin admitted, 'I wanted to cover up as much as I could for an old friend and an old cobber' (a tax defaulter). Nicklin's action 'sadly disillusioned' Jack Duggan, the leader of the Opposition, without shaking his belief that the premier was 'a man of the highest principles'. In the second instance (1967) Nicklin concealed for a time details of alleged sexual misbehaviour by one of his ministers, but the Courier-Mail forgave him for his 'white lie'.

In a fateful step early in 1958 the government appointed Frank Bischof as Queensland's commissioner of police. When allegations of his involvement in starting-price betting began to circulate, the solicitor-general advised cabinet that nothing could be proved against him. The government believed that it would be difficult to obtain a conviction. With Nicklin's blessing, Hiley confronted Bischof, who capitulated. A continuing pattern of corruption within the police force eventually led to G. E. Fitzgerald's inquiry in 1987-89.

In 1967 Nicklin entered hospital with a serious illness that may have stemmed from being gassed in the trenches during World War I. He resigned as premier on 17 January 1968 and retired from parliament in the following month. The University of Queensland had awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1960. In 1968 he was appointed K.C.M.G. Sir Francis died on 29 January 1978 at Nambour and was cremated with the forms of the Uniting Church. His estate was sworn for probate at $132,108. (Sir) William Dargie's portrait of Nicklin is held at Parliament House, Brisbane.

Nicklin was a large, personable and ruggedly handsome man with the type of 'bony, angular face that cartoonists used to draw to typify the First World War digger'. At 52 he weighed 14½ stone (92 kg); at 61 he was 'an erect six-footer who would pass for 51'. As a politician he was more subtle, astute and complicated than many realized. On various occasions he demonstrated resilience, conciliation, assertiveness and sternness. He often identified his government with the policy of 'development', but left the fine details to his ministers, especially the Liberal treasurers. The role he filled was that of a trustworthy and honourable leader. He presided over the most tranquil ten years in Queensland politics in the twentieth century.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Stevenson, 'George Francis Reuben Nicklin: ''Honest Frank"
  • —the Gentleman Premier', in D. J. Murphy et al (eds), The Premiers of Queensland (Brisb, 1990)
  • B. Stevenson, 'Frank Nicklin and the Coalition Government, 1957-1968', Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 13, no 11, 1989, p 401.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'Nicklin, Sir George Francis (Frank) (1895–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicklin-sir-george-francis-frank-11237/text20039, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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