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Townley, Athol Gordon (1905–1963)

by Scott Bennett

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

Athol Gordon Townley (1905-1963), pharmacist and politician, was born on 3 October 1905 in Hobart, younger son and fourth child of Tasmanian-born parents Reginald George Townley (d.1906), accountant, and his wife Susan, née Bickford. After Reginald's death, Susan and her three surviving children lived with her sister Rebecca and brother-in-law Harry Sidwell. Educated at Elizabeth Street State and Hobart High schools, and at Hobart Technical College, Athol qualified as a pharmaceutical chemist in 1928. He served his apprenticeship in his uncle's company Ash, Sidwell & Co.

About 1930 Athol and his elder brother Rex moved to Sydney seeking employment. Athol joined Gartrell White Ltd, bakers, where he was placed in charge of the laboratory responsible for quality control. At the Baptist Church, Dulwich Hill, on 26 December 1931 he married Hazel Florence Greenwood. The couple moved to Hobart, and in 1935 Athol joined Rex in partnership in Sidwell & Townley. He eventually became general manager of the firm, which was to own three pharmacies in Hobart, the main one being at 26 Elizabeth Street opposite the General Post Office.

Townley developed a wide network of acquaintances due to his activity in many voluntary organizations, including the Baptist Church. An active sportsman, he played Australian Rules football for North Hobart and cricket for New Town. His church and community work gave him an understanding of the disadvantaged, and he was never as rigid in his attitude to trade unions as were many of his future Liberal Party colleagues. In a notable political speech (1950) he reminded employers that in their drive for profit they should remember that their employees were 'human beings' who possessed 'human dignity'.

On 15 September 1940 Townley was appointed probationary sub-lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Mobilized eight days later, he was promoted provisional lieutenant in February 1941 and sent to England, where he trained and was briefly involved in bomb- and mine-disposal work. Back in Australia, he commanded the patrol boat Steady Hour which assisted in destroying a Japanese midget submarine in Sydney Harbour on 1 June 1942. He took command of Fairmile Motor Launch No.817 in January 1943 and was promoted acting lieutenant commander on 31 March. His boat was the first of its class to go to Papua, where it conducted anti-submarine patrols, escorted convoys, and took part in coastal surveillance and general harassment of Japanese small-boat traffic. M.L.817 was assigned to the United States' VII Amphibious Force for the assault on Lae, New Guinea, but came under bombing attack at Morobe on 3 September. Townley nursed the craft to safety, enabling it to be towed to Sydney for repairs. He later commanded a flotilla of Fairmiles. Demobilized on 25 June 1945, he remained in the naval reserve until 1955.

The Townley brothers saw their pharmacies as an important part of the Hobart community. They were highly regarded for their willingness to give discounts, or even free medicines, to the needy. When they began to involve themselves in Hobart politics, their benevolence had enabled them to build up a great deal of community support. Although Athol's early political views were sympathetic to Labor, he became interested in the recently formed Liberal Party, largely because of his opposition to bank nationalization. Unexpectedly invited to stand as a Liberal candidate in the Federal election on 10 December 1949, he won the House of Representatives seat of Denison; he was to hold it until his death. In 1946 Rex had been elected to the House of Assembly for Denison as an Independent although he was to lead the State Liberal Party in 1950-56. Neither brother ever lost a parliamentary election contest.

Townley was a popular member of parliament. Don Whitington described him as 'a bluff, friendly, robust man', who mixed easily, and called most people 'mate'. (Sir) John McEwen was endlessly tolerant of Townley's habit of appearing in his office to recount his latest joke, while (Sir) Robert Menzies enjoyed his cricket yarns, although others found that his wartime stories could start to pall. Townley disliked the abrasiveness of the House of Representatives, and always endeavoured to treat his opponents with courtesy. Arthur Calwell later acknowledged that Townley 'could enter into debate, take all the barbs that were hurled at him and, in replying, not seem to wound', while (Sir) Paul Hasluck noted that he was not the type of politician who plotted against his colleagues.

Menzies plucked Townley from the back-bench on 11 May 1951 to become minister for social services. He was successively given the portfolios of air and civil aviation (9 July 1954), immigration (24 October 1956), and supply and defence production (11 February 1958). He was a safe, if unspectacular, junior minister, whose most notable achievements were the introduction of non-means-tested pensions for the blind, and the 'Bring out a Briton' scheme. Townley was appointed minister for defence on 10 December 1958. His advancement reflected the patronage of Menzies, who seemed to see something of a larrikin son in the brash Tasmanian.

Townley's charitable view of his fellows and of society excluded communists: 'I find it difficult to see how we can extend the orthodox and normal processes of the law to Communists'. In 1959 and 1962 he oversaw increases in defence spending designed to enable Australia to act effectively with Western allies in South-East Asia. On 24 May 1962 he announced that Australia would be sending thirty army advisers to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). His justification was that if communism succeeded in Vietnam, it would affect South-East Asian security and ultimately threaten Australia—a view that became known as the 'domino' theory. Townley claimed that, in accordance with Australia's obligations to the South-East Asia Treaty Organization, the advisers were being sent in response to a South Vietnamese invitation and would have no combat role. A critic, John Murphy, later noted that each of these assertions 'was, at best, a half-truth'. Townley was thus the agent for ushering in 'one of the most divisive, bitter and controversial eras of conflict in Australia's history'.

In the early 1960s Townley endured a long period of ill health, suffering a heart attack and recurring bouts of pneumonia. In May 1963 Menzies relieved him of ministerial duties for two months to enable him to recuperate. Despite continuing poor health, Townley travelled to Washington in October to sign an agreement for the purchase of new strike aircraft (later known as the F-111). Menzies used this initiative in the 1963 election campaign, but as the cost of the aircraft increased it became clear that the contract had been poorly executed.

During the negotiations, Sir Howard Beale, the Australian ambassador to the United States of America, had been concerned about Townley's physical well-being. When he farewelled the minister he advised a less frenetic journey home: 'take a slow boat to China'. On 17 December Menzies announced that Townley would succeed Beale, but Townley died of myocardial infarction seven days later, on 24 December 1963, at the Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne. He was accorded a state funeral and was cremated. His wife and their son survived him. The loss to the prime minister was great: 'I cannot permit myself to say all that one should say. This touches me too closely'.

The ease with which Townley had risen in the ranks had antagonized many Liberals. Hasluck, who described him as a 'teacher's pet', characteristically dismissed his 'slight' administrative abilities, claimed that no cabinet colleagues rated him highly (except for Menzies), and alleged that senior departmental officers had complained of his 'lack of courage' in making hard decisions. Peter Howson disliked this 'complete extrovert', whose speeches in the House were 'lamentable', and who 'never expressed an opinion but those the PM wanted to hear'. By contrast, the retired public servant Sir John Bunting, who had been present at many cabinet meetings, noted that Townley was one of a small number of colleagues on whom Menzies relied for their 'general experience and wisdom, including political wisdom'. Bunting believed that their true value lay not so much in their control of particular portfolios, as in their 'matter-of-fact' political judgement and advice. Townley, for example, dealt with the controversy over nuclear tests at Maralinga, South Australia, by focusing on the need to minimize the political impact caused by safety fears, rather than on the issue of the tests themselves.

Townley was a man who scorned the theoretical, preferring 'plain down-to-earth common sense', and it seems that for Menzies this trait was worth a great deal. Hasluck conceded that Townley had 'brought a warmth into human relations generally in the Cabinet circle', and marvelled at the high regard for him that many Hobart citizens displayed at his funeral; they recognized the humanity of the man who had earned so respected a place among them.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • G. Greenwood and N. Harper (eds), Australia in World Affairs 1961-1965 (Vancouver, 1968)
  • T. H. Kewley, Social Security in Australia, 1900-72 (Syd, 1973)
  • H. Beale, This Inch of Time (Melb, 1977)
  • P. Howson, The Howson Diaries (Melb, 1984)
  • P. Edwards, Crises and Commitments (Syd, 1992)
  • P. Hasluck, The Chance of Politics (Melb, 1997)
  • A. Crowe, The Battle after the War (Syd, 1999)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 15 Mar 1950, p 801, 16 May 1950, p 2675, 2 Nov 1950, p 1870
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth, House of Representatives), 25 Feb 1964, p 16
  • Mercury (Hobart), 26 Dec 1963, 11 Sept 1985
  • Townley papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Townley, Athol Gordon (1905–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/townley-athol-gordon-11876/text21263, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 November 2014.

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

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