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Parkhill, Sir Robert Archdale (1878–1947)

by C. J. Lloyd

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

Robert Archdale Parkhill (1878-1947), by Sidney Riley, 1927-37

Robert Archdale Parkhill (1878-1947), by Sidney Riley, 1927-37

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23488310

Sir Robert Archdale Parkhill (1878-1947), politician, was born on 27 August 1878 at Paddington, Sydney, son of Sydney-born Robert Parkhill, monumental stonemason, and his Scottish wife Isabella, née Chisholm. Educated at Paddington and Waverley Public schools, Parkhill was an excellent cricketer and an adept fencer, boxer and horse-rider. He was working as a clerk before he emerged as Alderman Archie Parkhill of Waverley Municipal Council in 1904-09. In 1904 he was appointed secretary of the Liberal and Reform Association of New South Wales, as the protégé of (Sir) Joseph Carruthers. On 9 May 1906 at Woollahra, Parkhill married Florence Ruth Watts.

Building on Carruthers' framework, Parkhill reformed the Liberal Party administration, imbuing it with a professionalism that made it and its National Party successor Australia's pre-eminent political machines. He created speakers' groups which trained a generation of non-Labor politicians. Liberal Party administration was centralized at Sydney headquarters, where a successful social club supplemented political activity.

His outstanding political and administrative talents were most evident in the nineteen Federal and State election and referendum campaigns that he directed in New South Wales between 1904 and 1928. He created a mystique as a commanding and ingenious political strategist, introducing new campaign techniques, such as film and radio. His publicity was robust to the brink of unscrupulousness; sometimes he went too far, and he was sued for libel in 1914. In his most successful campaign, for the 1925 Federal election, he skilfully combined fear of Bolshevism with aspirations for home ownership.

Parkhill's success in New South Wales made him a national figure although, inevitably, he incurred some of the odium associated with political machines. He was closely associated with Billy Hughes and William Holman in the creation of the National Party after Labor's split over conscription in 1916-17. He became Hughes's political intimate and organized the £25,000 subscription for his services in World War I. Under Hughes and his successor, Stanley (Viscount) Bruce, Parkhill was the central figure in the Federal organization of the National Party, serving as secretary of the Australian National Federation. As secretary of the New South Wales Consultative Council (1919-29), he co-ordinated the party's covert fund-raising with the Victorian counterpart, the National Union.

When, in 1922, Parkhill surrendered his candidacy for the blue-ribbon seat of North Sydney to Hughes, a grateful party subscribed a solatium of £3000. In 1927 he succeeded Sir Granville Ryrie at a by-election for Warringah. Parkhill expected early ministerial preferment, but his hopes were dashed when the Bruce-Page government lost the 1929 election. In the severely depleted Opposition under (Sir) John Latham, Parkhill emerged as a dominant parliamentarian, ceaselessly attacking the Scullin government and, with Latham and (Sir) Henry Gullett, devising the skilful tactics which revived party morale as Scullin's government crumbled. Even the Labor Daily acknowledged his effectiveness: 'When he appears in the thick of a debate one seems to hear the rattle of musketry'. He always had the rare ability to fill the chamber when he spoke, because something was expected to happen.

Parkhill, who described Nationalism as his 'Nicene Creed', was unenthusiastic about the emergence of the United Australia Party under Joseph Lyons, describing it as a 'party of spare parts' and predicting that Latham would remain the real leader with Lyons as figurehead. However, after the U.A.P. won the 1931 election Parkhill was minister for home affairs and transport in January-May 1932, minister for the interior, May-October 1932, and postmaster-general in October 1932–October 1934, representing Australia at the International Postal Union Conference in 1934. He rose rapidly in cabinet status, assisted by the fortuitous departure of the senior ministers Bruce and Gullett. By 1934 he was second only to Lyons and Latham, serving in their absence as acting prime minister in the House of Representatives with fluent urbanity. His early reservations about Lyons evaporated and he became his confidant and enthusiastic supporter.

A successful defence minister (1934-37), Parkhill adhered to traditional policies of Imperial co-operation, but developed coastal defence and Australian defence production, establishing the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. But his selection of an American model for its first trainer aircraft cost him press and party support. He cultivated a bipartisan approach to defence policy, emphasizing points of difference with Labor but praising the essentials of its policy and refraining from crude political point-scoring. Despite his authority and ministerial record, however, Parkhill was not generally popular within his party. He was narrowly defeated by (Sir) Robert Menzies for the deputy leadership in December 1935. In 1937 Parkhill led the Australian parliamentary delegation to the coronation of King George VI, and attended the Imperial Conference as defence minister. After this long absence he was opposed in the 1937 election by unofficial U.A.P. candidates (Sir) Percy Spender and Joseph Hamlet, and lost to Spender on preferences. He took the defeat badly, refusing to shake hands after the poll.

Out of political life after almost forty years, Parkhill joined several company boards. He considered re-contesting Warringah, but Spender's reconciliation with the U.A.P. and his parliamentary success made this impossible. Despite rumours that he would be appointed minister to China in 1940, and that he would conduct a major overhaul of the ailing U.A.P. in 1941, he did not return to public life. Bitter towards Menzies, in 1941 he described his wartime leadership as 'tragic'. He died in St Luke's Hospital, Sydney, on 2 October 1947 and was buried in Waverley cemetery with Presbyterian forms after a state funeral. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

Although regarded as leader of the conservative wing of the U.A.P., Parkhill was in many ways more radical than Menzies, who probably had his measure after 1935. He was a staunch supporter of free trade and a vehement critic of press or broadcasting monopolies. Some members of the U.A.P. and the Country Party found him arrogant, and he could be insensitive and aggressive, but he was respected by Labor members for his amiability, attention to representations and willingness to inform parliament.

About 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall and increasingly portly, Parkhill was something of a dandy, although he over-dressed to the point of fatuousness. He favoured blue cravats and grey spats which he wore regularly, even to surf carnivals. During one all-night parliamentary sitting he lolled on the Opposition benches in a fawn dressing-gown. After his appointment as K.C.M.G. in 1936 he affected an 'Oxford' accent, but was forced to revert to normal tones by loud interjections of 'Haw, Haw'. Variously nicknamed 'Archduke', 'Sir Spats', 'Sir Kewpie' and 'Perky', he was likened by Billy Hughes to a caricature of a Botticelli cupid. A devout churchman and lay-reader, he was extremely conservative on social and moral issues.

An enigmatic man, reticent about his origins, Parkhill aspired to be prime minister. For Lyons, hard-pressed by Menzies during 1938-39, Parkhill's defeat was a personal blow. His principal achievements were the professionalism that he brought to the organization of Australian politics, his vigorous parliamentary contribution to the revival of the non-Labor parties in the early 1930s, and the purpose which he restored to Australian defence policy in the mid-1930s.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Today (Melbourne), 1 June 1933, 1 Nov 1934
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 28 Jan 1915
  • Australian National Review, 20 Feb 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Oct 1947
  • Parkhill papers and scrapbooks (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Parkhill, Sir Robert Archdale (1878–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/parkhill-sir-robert-archdale-7960/text13859, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 October 2018.

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

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