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Stewart, Francis Eugene (1923–1979)

by David Clune

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

Francis Eugene Stewart (1923-1979), by Australian Information Service, 1974

Francis Eugene Stewart (1923-1979), by Australian Information Service, 1974

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24229115

Francis Eugene Stewart (1923-1979), politician, was born on 20 February 1923 at Belmore, Sydney, second child of native-born parents Patrick Francis Stewart, railway clerk, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Donnellan. Frank was educated at St Joseph's convent school, Belmore, and by the Christian Brothers at St Mary's Cathedral High School, Sydney. He began work in 1939 as a clerk in the office of the commissioner for road transport and tramways. On 3 November 1941 he enlisted in the Militia. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 15 November 1943, served in New Guinea with the 39th Transport Platoon in 1944-45 and rose to sergeant. Discharged from the army on 11 December 1945, he returned to his civilian occupation. A keen sportsman, he held the Australian Army Service Corps' light-heavyweight boxing championship and played (1948-50) first-grade Rugby League football for Canterbury-Bankstown. At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Belmore, on 2 August 1952 he married Maureen Neagle Smith.

Following family tradition, Stewart had joined the Australian Labor Party in 1942. The Federal electorate of Lang contained his clan's home base, and, when the sitting member died in 1953, Stewart won the hotly contested pre-selection ballot. He was elected to the House of Representatives in a by-election on 29 August that year. In parliament, he made no secret of his right-wing Catholic views. He participated spiritedly in debates on defence and social security. In October 1954 a move was made in caucus against H. V. Evatt's leadership: Stewart was one of eight New South Wales members who voted for a 'spill'. All of them were subsequently stigmatized as 'groupers'. In 1957 anti-grouper elements in Stewart's electorate tried unsuccessfully to deprive him of pre-selection. Later that year the A.L.P.'s federal executive received a complaint that he had breached party policy by advocating that the army be equipped with nuclear weapons. The executive unanimously exonerated him.

Stewart became Opposition spokesman on fuel and natural resources in April 1969. Given the new portfolio of tourism and recreation on 19 December 1972 in E. G. Whitlam's Labor ministry, he set up a wide-ranging programme of grants to sport, and arranged for the government to pay the full travel costs of Australian teams in the Commonwealth and Olympic games. Another of his initiatives was a bill, blocked in the Senate, to license travel agents and safeguard travellers' funds. In February 1973 Stewart was also appointed minister assisting the treasurer. W. G. Hayden found him 'a tremendously loyal colleague. He was always master of even the most complex economic documents, always ready strongly to support the Treasurer in a difficult Cabinet role'.

Following the general election in 1974, Stewart resumed his previous ministerial responsibilities, including those of vice-president of the Executive Council, a position he had held since November 1973 and one which was to embroil him in controversy. In May 1975, in the absence of the governor-general Sir John Kerr, he presided over an Executive Council meeting that revoked R. F. X. Connor's authority to seek an overseas loan. Five months later Connor was forced to resign from the ministry for having misled the prime minister about his continued loan-raising activities. In December a report in the Bulletin claimed that Stewart had secretly told Kerr that Connor was entitled to believe he had Whitlam's approval to continue the search for loans. Stewart denied the assertion. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald later published allegations that the loans affair had so troubled Stewart's conscience that he had given confidential information to the Opposition about the matter. Both stories remain unproven.

Stewart did not hesitate to speak out on moral issues. A vigorous opponent of abortion and divorce, he led the opposition in parliament to the family law bill, which was passed on a free vote in 1975. Depressed and disillusioned, he contemplated retirement. The circumstances of the government's dismissal in November made him decide to stand again. He did not join Labor's shadow ministry. After his seat was abolished in 1977, he transferred to Grayndler.

Forthright and convivial, Stewart was solidly built, with the appearance of a front-row forward. He maintained his interest in sport throughout his life and was an excellent tennis player. While playing squash, he died suddenly of myocardial infarction on 16 April 1979 at Long Jetty, New South Wales; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Rookwood cemetery, Sydney. His wife, and their son and five daughters survived him. Stewart's younger brother, Kevin, held the seat of Canterbury in the Legislative Assembly in 1962-85 and was a minister in 1976-85.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives, Commonwealth), 1 May 1979, p 1673
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate, Commonwealth), 1 May 1979, p 1447
  • Sun (Sydney), 3 Dec 1975
  • Australian, 4 Dec 1975, 17 Apr 1979
  • Bulletin, 6 Dec 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Dec 1975, 17 Apr 1979, 11 Nov 1985
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 Apr 1979
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 10 Nov 1985
  • private information.

Citation details

David Clune, 'Stewart, Francis Eugene (1923–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-francis-eugene-11768/text21049, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

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