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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Reid, Gordon Stanley (1923–1989)

by Geoff Gallop

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

Gordon Stanley Reid (1923-1989), parliamentary official, political scientist and governor, was born on 22 September 1923 at Hurstville, Sydney, third of four children of Sydney-born parents Stanley Archibald James Reid, cabinet-maker, and his wife Emily Matilda, née Hewitt.  Gordon grew up in what John Nethercote later described as 'ordinary but happy circumstances'.  Educated (1934-37) at Hurstville Central Technical School, he passed the Commonwealth Public Service entrance examination and started work at 14 as a telegram messenger at Cronulla Post Office.  He was a clerk in the Ministry of Munitions when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 18 July 1942.  After training as a navigator in Canada and England, he flew in Lancaster bombers in operations over Europe in 1944-45, first with No.106 Squadron, then with No.83 Squadron, Royal Air Force.  On 30 June 1945 at Earlsfield Congregational Church, Wandsworth, he married Ruth Amelia Fish, a bank cashier.  In February 1946 he was demobilised in Australia as a flying officer.

Employed in 1946 as a clerk in the House of Representatives, Canberra, Reid rose to become serjeant-at-arms in 1955.  From 1949 he also studied commerce at Canberra University College (B.Com., 1954).  Taking leave without pay from the parliament, he undertook postgraduate work at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Ph.D., 1957); his thesis, a comparison of the financial procedures of the British House of Commons and the Australian House of Representatives, won him the Hutchison medal for excellence in research.  A senior lecturer in politics and public administration (1958-65) at the University of Adelaide, he became foundation professor of politics at the University of Western Australia in 1966.  In 1971 he moved back to Canberra as professor of political science in the school of general studies, Australian National University.  Returning to UWA in 1974, he was again professor of politics, then deputy vice-chancellor in 1978-82.

During his academic career Reid wrote The Politics of Financial Control (1966), Out of the Wilderness: the Return of Labor (with C. J. Lloyd, 1974) and The Premiers of Western Australia, 1890-1982 (with M. R. Oliver, 1982).  He also edited The Western Australian Elections — 1974 (1976).   A superb essayist, he published many articles in academic and public-interest journals on the importance of politics, the three-way struggle between the House of Representatives, the Senate and the cabinet, and the growing role of the judiciary and statutory authorities in the political system.  In 'The Changing Political Framework', which won him the George Watson essay prize in 1979, he used Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers to criticise the view that executive government alone could adequately respond to the governed and protect the rights of the individual.

Concerned for institutional integrity and the retention of checks and balances, in his work Reid went beyond description to evaluation.  He saw politics as an ongoing conversation involving different interests and values—'the means for settling differences by words'—and argued that parliament had lost power and authority to the executive due to strong party discipline and changed practices.  Only in the Senate, with its non-government majorities, was scope for independent parliamentary action maintained.  He considered that too many matters requiring political resolution were being referred to inquiries run by judges or legal advisers, thus undermining their independence.  Reid was a member (1981-84) of the Administrative Review Council.  In 1982 he was commissioned to write 'an analytical study of the Australian Federal Parliament' as part of the parliament’s bicentenary publications project.  He resigned from the deputy vice-chancellorship to undertake this task.  In 1983 he was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

In February 1984 Reid was named governor of Western Australia.  Taking up the post in July, he saw his role as 'building bridges in the community' and, supported by his wife, took up his social responsibilities with enthusiasm.  Politics, he said, was necessarily animated, partisan and sometimes noisy; the office of governor, on the other hand, aimed to project qualities that were stable and continuous, and, in Walter Bagehot’s words, to 'encourage' and 'warn' the government through the Executive Council.  Appointed AC in 1986, he was awarded honorary doctorates by Murdoch University (1987) and UWA (1988).  He completed his history of the Australian parliament which, co-authored with Martyn Forrest, was published as Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1988: Ten Perspectives (1989).

Reid, who had been raised a Presbyterian, was a regular worshipper at his local Baptist Church.  Six ft 3 ins (191 cm) tall, he was a 'gentle man', always a willing listener.  Fishing was a favourite pastime.  He resigned as governor in September 1989 because of illness.  Survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons, he died of cancer on 26 October 1989 at his Nedlands home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. de Garis (ed), Campus in the Community, 1988
  • K. Spillman (ed), A Gentle Man, 1990
  • Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1990, p 71
  • Reid papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A9800, item Reid G S (National Archives of Australia)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Gallop, 'Reid, Gordon Stanley (1923–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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