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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Riordan, William James (Bill) (1908–1973)

by A. N. Preston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

William James Frederick Riordan (1908-1973), politician, was born on 8 February 1908 at Chillagoe, Queensland, son of William James Riordan, engine driver, and his wife Annie Helen, née Page, both Queensland born. Educated at state schools at Chillagoe, Mareeba and Gordonvale, and at Brisbane Grammar School, young Bill worked in the Department of Justice, Brisbane, for seven years before becoming secretary to his father, a former trade-union official, who was appointed to the Industrial Court of Queensland in 1933.

Growing up in a family with a trade-union and political background (his father was a member of the Legislative Council in 1917-22 and his uncle Ernest was to enter the Legislative Assembly in 1936), Riordan had become interested in politics at an early age and joined the Australian Labor Party. On the death of another uncle, David ('Darby') Riordan, in 1936, he interrupted his legal studies at the University of Queensland and won Darby's Federal seat of Kennedy at a by-election on 12 December; at the age of 28 he was the youngest member of the House of Representatives. He was admitted to the Queensland Bar on 22 April 1941, but never practised. On 19 December 1942 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, he married Kathleen Amelda Garvey (d.1970), an interior decorator; they were to remain childless.

The electorate of Kennedy covered much of Central and North Queensland. Representing his constituents in this vast area, Riordan faced a daunting task—communications were poor, the roads being mostly gravel or worse, and telephone services proved unreliable—but he received valuable support from the powerful Australian Workers' Union. In the late 1930s he was concerned about the vulnerability of northern Australia and, from the Opposition back-benches, urged the government to take measures to bolster defence.

Labor gained office under John Curtin in October 1941. Riordan was elected chairman of committees and deputy-Speaker in June 1943. He was appointed minister for the navy in the second Chifley government in November 1946 and held that portfolio until Labor's defeat at the general elections in December 1949. Since postwar defence policy had been broadly settled, his roles as minister were to run his department and implement the re-equipment programme, which included the introduction of a fleet air-arm. Although he knew little about naval matters, he carefully read the papers submitted to him, effectively represented the navy in cabinet, and made himself available to politicians of all parties who sought his assistance.

Riordan adhered firmly to A.L.P. principles and embraced the socialization objective (1921). A member (1941-42) of the joint parliamentary committee on broadcasting, he had endorsed the minority Labor Party report which recommended the nationalization of commercial radio-stations. He backed the government's proposal to regulate the marketing of primary products: in 1946 he spoke approvingly of the sugar industry, in which prices and charges for milling and refining were fixed by the government, and workers' wages were determined by arbitration. Legislation introduced in 1947 to nationalize the private banks also received his support.

An electoral redistribution in 1948 led to Riordan's electorate being halved in size, but it still covered much of Central Queensland. He was able to retain his predominantly rural seat by developing and maintaining strong personal ties with working-class families in the sugar, mining and meat industries, and in the railways. During parliamentary recesses he travelled constantly throughout his electorate, but the strain taxed his health. He retired from parliament in 1966 on medical advice. In the ensuing by-election the Country Party won Kennedy.

A tall, well-built man, Riordan liked people and was unfailingly courteous to them. He had a strong voice, but, due to his impaired hearing, sometimes spoke more loudly in public than he intended. For recreation, he played golf. In 1967 he was appointed C.B.E. He died of pneumonia on 15 January 1973 in Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane, and was buried in Nudgee cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Frame et al (eds), Reflections on the RAN (Syd, 1991)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives, Commonwealth), 18 June 1937, p 80, 3 May 1938, p 713, 2 June 1942, p 1882, 10 Apr 1946, p 1321, 6 Nov 1947, p 1792, 11 May 1966, pp 1684, 1687
  • Cairns Post, 31 Oct 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan 1973
  • private information.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

A. N. Preston, 'Riordan, William James (Bill) (1908–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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