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O'Malley, King (1858–1953)

by Arthur Hoyle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

King O'Malley (1858-1953), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

King O'Malley (1858-1953), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366640

King O'Malley (1858?-1953), insurance salesman and politician, was by his own account born on 4 July 1858 at Stamford Farm, Quebec, Canada, but more probably at Valley Falls, Kansas, United States of America, son of Irish migrant William O'Malley and his wife Ellen, née King. By O'Malley's own account again, his father was killed in the Civil War and King was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in New York. His uncle owned a small bank where O'Malley started work at 14 after a very sketchy education. Banking fascinated him throughout his life.

About 1880, however, he launched himself into a new career, selling insurance; he also branched unsuccessfully into real estate. He concentrated on Wichita, Topeka and Lawrence in Kansas before moving on to California, Washington State and Oregon. With a very friendly manner, a fund of anecdotes and indestructible resilience, O'Malley was a highly successful salesman. He made contact with several fundamentalist religious groups and from them derived the inspiration for his alleged creation of the Waterlily Rockbound Church—the Redskin Church of the Cayuse Nation, of which he was the first and only bishop. His account of the 'Church', complete with details of miracles and a beautiful young acolyte Rosy Wilmot, whom he claimed to have married, was to be widely believed in Australia. In the same period he was converted to the cause of temperance and for the rest of his long life was an inveterate hater of what he called 'stagger juice'. He was also purported to have been a journalist on the Arizona Kicker.

O'Malley arrived in Melbourne about August 1888, and was soon selling insurance. When business proved disappointing, he moved to Hobart in 1889, setting himself up as the travelling commissioner of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States. Late in 1890 he moved to the new mining town of Zeehan, hoping to repeat his successes in similar towns on the west coast of the U.S.A. However, the mining boom burst in August 1891 and O'Malley moved to Launceston in January 1892, in October to Coolgardie, Western Australia, where he speculated profitably, and then to Adelaide in 1893. He soon became a widely known and highly successful insurance agent there.

O'Malley's interest in politics had been growing and in January 1896 he announced his candidature for the House of Assembly. To be eligible for election a candidate had to be a British citizen; this posed some difficulty, for O'Malley had been proclaiming that he was an American. He overcame this restriction by declaring that he had been born in Canada but brought up in the U.S.A. Although most of his views were in line with those of the United Labor Party, he was returned as an Independent in April 1896 as one of two members for Encounter Bay. Soon after his election a man who had known him in the U.S.A. published a statement that O'Malley was an American citizen who had fled the country after embezzling funds. O'Malley sued for libel but declined to enter the witness-box and was awarded damages of forty shillings. It was a technical, but damaging, victory which roused suspicion that a financial scandal had led him to migrate.

O'Malley's only legislative success in the assembly was the passage of a bill which legitimized children born out of wedlock whose parents subsequently married. In the 1899 election he was narrowly defeated in a bitter campaign; after evidence was accepted of bribery by a successful candidate, another election was held for Encounter Bay but again O'Malley was defeated.

Disgusted with South Australia, he returned to Zeehan in February 1900 and in March stood unsuccessfully, despite his gift for self-promotion, for the mining seat of Lyell. O'Malley was a keen Federationist and, undaunted, decided to stand for the new House of Representatives. For ten months he campaigned hard among the west-coast miners, advocating compulsory arbitration, a usury law and a Federal department of labour. Candidates in this election stood on a State-wide basis. To general surprise, O'Malley came an easy second to the former premier, Sir Edward Braddon.

O'Malley first sat as an Independent but in June 1901 joined the Australian Labor Party. On 19 July he moved to set aside an area of not less than 1000 sq. miles (2590 km²) of healthy and fertile land as Federal territory. Tasmania was divided into electorates for the second Federal election in 1903 when O'Malley narrowly won Darwin. When the short-lived Watson government was formed in 1904, he hoped for a ministerial post but was not considered. Following the defeat of Labor, Prime Minister (Sir) George Reid was pressured by both the Liberal and Labor parties to inquire into the possibility of establishing old-age pensions. In recognition of his interest, O'Malley was appointed a member of the select committee (1904) and of the subsequent royal commission (1905-06) on the subject.

Although deeply concerned with social issues, from 1905 O'Malley's dominant interest was banking. As a Tasmanian delegate to the Commonwealth Political Labor Conference in July he sought unsuccessfully to include a proposal for a state bank of deposit and issue in the party's fighting platform; a national bank was, however, placed on the general platform. In 1908 O'Malley presented to parliament a detailed plan for the creation of a national bank of deposit, issue, exchange and reserve, and in the same year at the third Federal conference of the A.L.P. succeeded in transferring creation of a 'Commonwealth Bank' to the fighting platform. Despite this, O'Malley knew that many party members were lukewarm and he devoted the next two years to educating them. Partly because of his bad relations with Prime Minister Fisher and W. M. Hughes, O'Malley was not elected by caucus to the ministry in 1908. Fisher and Hughes were not convinced of the need for a national bank before the government was defeated in June 1909. But party support was growing for a competing bank which would smash the 'Money Power'.

Labor's victory in both houses at the 1910 election again brought Fisher to office, and, this time, O'Malley was elected by caucus and appointed minister for home affairs. He had very strong views on the role of the minister and soon found himself in conflict with his senior officers, especially Colonel David Miller and others whom he termed 'gilt-spurred roosters'. Responsible for the planning of the new national capital, he threw himself into the task with enthusiasm, although previously he had been heard to say that the Federal government should remain in Melbourne and that the site selected was 'a howling wilderness'. Controversy over the design of the new city was resolved when O'Malley endorsed the view of a majority of the selection committee, approving the plan of fellow-American Walter Burley Griffin. Through all his troubles in Australia, Griffin had a firm supporter in his friend. O'Malley had hoped that the capital would be named Shakespeare or Myola.

His campaign for a national bank, backed by a 'torpedo brigade' of nineteen members of caucus, ended on 15 November 1911 when Fisher introduced a bill to establish a 'National Bank' to carry on general banking business in the same way as any commercial bank. This was not O'Malley's idea of a Commonwealth Bank and he was bitterly disappointed. As established, it was, without doubt, a Fisher bank, but it may be claimed that O'Malley was the spiritual father of the later Commonwealth and Reserve banks.

Labor lost office in 1913 but O'Malley easily retained his seat then, and in 1914 when Fisher again became prime minister. However, in view of the hostility of Fisher, Hughes and (Sir) George Pearce, he was not elected to the ministry. The outbreak of World War I placed O'Malley, a convinced pacifist representing a strongly patriotic constituency, in an uncomfortable position. His growing hostility to Australia's part in the war distanced him even further from the party leaders and he moved closer to the radical anti-war faction. Following Fisher's resignation in 1915, O'Malley was elected to the Hughes ministry, again at Home Affairs, where he found himself under constant attack from his Labor predecessor W. O. Archibald. The construction of Canberra proceeded slowly and a series of scandals over the building of the transcontinental railway gave ammunition to his enemies. His idiosyncratic dealings with his departmental staff became increasingly difficult and he was unable to command their loyalty.

During 1916, while not active as an anti-conscriptionist, O'Malley refused to resign his portfolio despite Hughes's pressure. He finally lost office on 13 November when Hughes and twenty-four other members left caucus to form the National Labor ministry. In the 1917 election O'Malley was defeated decisively in his pro-conscription electorate. He was defeated again for Denison in 1919 and for Bass in 1922 when he stood as an independent Labor candidate. In retirement he constantly asserted his claim to be the true founder of the Commonwealth Bank, promulgating varying versions of his role. Two of his close friends, Dorothy Catts in her King O'Malley Man and Statesman (Sydney, 1957) and L. C. Jauncey in his Australia's Government Bank (London, 1933), faithfully backed his claims.

On 10 May 1910 in Melbourne, giving his age as 51 and describing himself as a widower since 1886, O'Malley had married Amy Garrod, a New Zealander; they had no children. He had property in Seattle, Oregon, and invested in many houses in Melbourne, some of them slum cottages. A consistent supporter of the rights of women, O'Malley immediately on his marriage ensured that his wife was financially independent.

Tall and bearded, with flowing tawny hair, O'Malley had an arresting and, to many, an irritating presence. His mocking, mischievous personality contributed to the controversy he deliberately invited, but his verbal clowning never entirely obscured the complex and hard-headed man who was perhaps 'his own worst enemy'.

The last survivor of the first Commonwealth parliament, O'Malley died on 20 December 1953 at his Albert Park home, and was cremated after a state funeral. His estate of over £70,000 and that of his wife who died in 1958 were invested to provide scholarships, eventually thirty a year, for girls in home economics. A portrait by Dudley Drew is held by the Commonwealth Bank, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Canb, 1968)
  • A. R. Hoyle, King O'Malley (Melb, 1981)
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, May 1963
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17, 29 Apr, 3 Dec 1896
  • Bulletin, 4 May 1901
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 25 July, 1 Aug 1903, 27 Feb 1904, 26 Jan 1907, 28 June 1913
  • Worker (Sydney), 27 June 1907
  • Punch (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1907, 5 May, 28 July 1910
  • Sydney Mail, 13 July 1910
  • Sun (Sydney), 1 Sept 1912
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Dec 1953
  • Canberra Times, 5, 6 Oct 1967
  • King O'Malley papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Arthur Hoyle, 'O'Malley, King (1858–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/omalley-king-7907/text13753, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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