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Spooner, Eric Sydney (1891–1952)

by C. J. Lloyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Eric Sydney Spooner (1891-1952), by unknown photographer, 1939

Eric Sydney Spooner (1891-1952), by unknown photographer, 1939

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 28533

Eric Sydney Spooner (1891-1952), accountant and politician, was born on 2 March 1891 at Waterloo, Sydney, son of native-born parents William Henry Spooner, printer, and his wife Maud Ann, née Dubois. Aged 14, he left Christ Church St Laurence School to work as a telegraph messenger for 7s. 6d. a week; he gained a diploma in economics and commerce by evening study at the University of Sydney in 1916 and brilliantly passed the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants' examinations. In the Methodist Church, Chatswood, on 9 December 1919 Spooner married Mary Berry, a bank clerk. Having practised as a chartered accountant at Orange from 1919, he returned to Sydney in 1922 to establish the firm of Hungerford, Spooner & Co. with his brother (Sir) William (later a senator and prominent Liberal cabinet minister).

Attracted to politics and encouraged by (Sir) Bertram Stevens, Spooner won the Legislative Assembly seat of Ryde for the United Australia Party in June 1932 and joined Stevens' government as an honorary minister. At his first appearance in the House he captured its attention by nodding off to sleep at 9 p.m.: woken by an interjection, he smiled and went back to sleep. Next February Spooner became assistant treasurer and minister for local government; retaining local government in 1935, he also became secretary for public works and deputy leader of the parliamentary party. He implemented unemployment relief and employment-creating capital works, encouraged municipal housing schemes, established the Sydney County Council to provide gas and electricity services, and consolidated Newcastle local government boundaries. In addition, he funded surf clubs, encouraged the meshing of Sydney beaches against sharks and required men to wear full-length bathing costumes. He was rarely out of the news during seven turbulent years as a senior minister.

Spooner's political ambitions made him a central figure in bitter dissensions within the coalition. His portfolios gave him powerful sources of patronage and he was mistrusted by the Country Party leader (Sir) Michael Bruxner. Increasingly wary of his protégé, in 1938 Stevens bypassed Spooner for Alexander Mair as treasurer. In mid-1939 Spooner opposed Mair's proposals to cut government spending in order to restrain a growing deficit: at a stormy party meeting on 19 July Spooner did not deny allegations that he had described the State budget as 'faked' and its finances as 'manipulated'. Two days later he resigned from cabinet. On 1 August he moved a parliamentary motion criticizing the government's economic policies. Nine U.A.P. members crossed the floor to defeat the Stevens-Bruxner government. Expecting to succeed Stevens as premier, Spooner failed to form a new coalition with the Country Party (Bruxner refused to join him) and resigned his deputy leadership.

In August 1940 Spooner resigned from the assembly and won the Federal seat of Robertson in October. A vigorous Federal parliamentarian, he rejected deflation and favoured a national government, Australia-wide child endowment and post-war reconstruction. He chaired an inquiry into labour resources, this time clashing with Mair over manpower policy. Despite Spooner's record of independence, even disloyalty, (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed him minister for war organization of industry in June 1941 and to the economic and industrial committee of cabinet. He retained his portfolio under (Sir) Arthur Fadden, but the government was defeated in October. Spooner was a member of a committee which examined uniform taxation in 1942 and supported legislation which he considered constitutional and vital to financing the war effort. He often criticized Menzies' leadership.

Defeated at the elections in August 1943, Spooner returned to commerce and accountancy. He joined Menzies' Liberal Party, but was threatened with expulsion in 1945 for suggesting modification of the White Australia policy. After unsuccessfully challenging Prime Minister Ben Chifley in Macquarie in 1946, Spooner took no further part in politics. In 1950 he served on a committee reviewing Commonwealth tax legislation.

Besides farming at Carcoar and Richmond, Spooner was chairman of Hub Pty Ltd and Western Steel Enterprises Ltd, and a director of Overell's Ltd and Robert Reid & Co. Ltd. Survived by his wife, three sons and daughter, he died in Sydney on 3 June 1952 of cancer and was buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery after a state funeral at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Chatswood. Energetic, imaginative and persuasive, Spooner was proud of his achievements and said that 'he had come from the rank and file, of humble parentage, and had fought a battle with life'. His political talents and popular appeal were conceded even by his numerous enemies. Seemingly destined for high political office, he was frustrated by his own impatience and inflexibility, and by the aura of mistrust that he generated among his senior colleagues.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 18 Aug 1952, p 20
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1932, 4 June 1952
  • Australian National Review, 28 June 1932
  • M. Anderson, Notes on Spooner, 24 Aug 1939 (copy held on ADB file).

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Spooner, Eric Sydney (1891–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spooner-eric-sydney-8608/text15035, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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