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Robinson, Eric Laidlaw (1929–1981)

by Donald Markwell

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

Eric Laidlaw Robinson (1929-1981), businessman and politician, was born on 18 January 1929 in East Brisbane, second child of Queensland-born parents Arthur Neville Robinson, merchant, and his wife Florence Evelyn, née Laidlaw.  After attending Slade School, Warwick, Eric entered the family sports and marine goods business.  Energetic and committed to advancing 'free enterprise', he became chairman and managing director of Robinson Holdings Pty Ltd and developed a chain of stores in coastal Queensland.  In 1957 he joined the Liberal Party of Australia and in 1963 formed its Surfers Paradise branch in the Federal seat of McPherson.  On 25 March 1964 at Scots Memorial Church, Surfers Paradise, Robinson married with Presbyterian forms Narelle Mary-Anne Beel, née Jones, a divorcee with two children; she was to be a supportive political wife.

A member from 1964 of the State executive of the Liberal Party, Robinson was elected State president (1968-73).  His presidency, which began in controversy over a possible 'three-cornered contest' in the seat of Landsborough, spanned difficult years in the relations between the dominant Country (National) Party and the Liberal Party in the Queensland coalition government, particularly in regard to electoral redistribution.  A confidant on business and economic matters of (Sir) William McMahon, after the October 1969 election Robinson publicly criticised the leadership of Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton.  In March 1971 he called for Gorton’s replacement during the turbulent events that led to McMahon’s becoming prime minister.

Wealthy and ambitious, Robinson was elected in 1972 to the House of Representatives as the member for McPherson on a slender first-preference lead over the candidate for the Country Party, which had previously held the rapidly growing and urbanising seat.  In 1974 he was one of a group of dissident Liberal politicians who unsuccessfully challenged the Liberal Opposition leader, (Sir) Billy Snedden, to resign in favour of Malcolm Fraser.  After Fraser’s win in the 1975 election Robinson was the minister for the Capital Territory (1975-76) and for posts and telecommunications (1976-77).  He oversaw the creation of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and the Special Broadcasting Service.  Robinson supported satellite broadcasting to remote areas previously without television but opposed a ban on radio and television advertising of tobacco products.  The journalist Alan Reid wrote in 1976 that the 'fearless and outspoken' Robinson 'was personally companionable, compassionate, and considerate; politically he was harshly realistic, making his judgments in a wholly political context, discarding his personal feelings and affections'.

In December 1977 Robinson was promoted to cabinet as minister for finance.  An economic 'dry' but a political pragmatist, he worked to reduce inflation through containing government expenditure and was an early advocate of the privatisation of government business enterprises.  His support for McMahon and Fraser, however, had alienated fellow Queensland Liberal parliamentarians who had supported Gorton and Snedden.  In April 1978 Fraser appointed a royal commission to investigate allegations that Robinson had sought to influence Federal electorate boundary changes in Queensland.  Robinson 'stood aside' as minister during the commission, which exonerated him but led to the controversial dismissal of Senator Reginald Withers as leader of the government in the Senate.

Restored to cabinet in August 1978, Robinson resented Fraser’s interventionist approach and his lack of support for the Queensland Liberal Party in its struggle with the National Country Party, led by the increasingly authoritarian (Sir) Johannes Bjelke-Petersen.  In February 1979 Robinson unexpectedly resigned from cabinet, citing his inability to give 'unqualified support' to Fraser (whom he privately referred to as 'that bastard').  Three days afterwards he agreed to return after long discussions with Fraser, brokered by (Sir) Phillip Lynch.  In the 1980 election Robinson survived a strong challenge in McPherson from an Independent National Party candidate.  Offered a ministry outside the cabinet, he decided instead to return to the back-bench.  He was outwardly optimistic about resuming high office but his health suffered as a result of political stresses.

Robinson was a member of the Brisbane Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Playground and Recreation Association of Queensland (1962-67) and of the Queensland Freedom from Hunger Campaign (1966-68).  A member of the council of the Queensland Lawn Tennis Association and of his local yacht club, he enjoyed fishing and water skiing.  Silver-haired in his maturity, urbane and athletic, he often coolly raised an eyebrow in silent commentary on meeting-proceedings.  Survived by his wife, he died of acute myocardial infarction on 7 January 1981 at Southport; he was cremated after a state funeral at the Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit, Surfers Paradise.  In July 1981 the new terminal at Coolangatta airport was named in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Reid, The Whitlam Venture, 1976
  • D. Markwell, 'The Politics of Ministerial Resignations', in P. Weller and D. Jaensch (eds), Responsible Government in Australia, 1980
  • G. Brandis et al (eds), Liberals Face the Future, 1984
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 24 February 1981, p 1
  • Australian, 'Weekend Mag', 10 February 1979, p 2
  • Australian, 9 January 1981, p 2
  • Canberra Times, 8 January 1981, p 1
  • Canberra Times, 9 January 1981, p 2
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 January 1981
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

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Citation details

Donald Markwell, 'Robinson, Eric Laidlaw (1929–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-eric-laidlaw-14459/text25551, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 October 2019.

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

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