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Walsh, Francis Henry (1897–1968)

by J. C. Bannon

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

Francis Henry Walsh (1897-1968), stonemason and premier, was born on 6 July 1897 at O'Halloran Hill, Adelaide, one of eight children of Irish-born parents Thomas Walsh, labourer, and his wife Ellen, née McDonough. Educated at state schools and at Christian Brothers' College, Adelaide, Frank left school at 15 and worked as a messenger-boy before being apprenticed to a stonemason. He followed his trade for many years, and from 1923 served on the executive of the South Australian branch of the Operative Stonemasons' Society of Australia. On 29 December 1925 at St Anacletus's Church, Peterborough, he married with Catholic rites Hilda Mary Cave. They lived at Black Forest in a modest but neat home which had a freestone frontage cut by Walsh.

In 1924, as State president of the stonemasons' society, Walsh began a thirty-eight-year career of leadership of the State and federal bodies. Employed in 1938 on the project to complete Parliament House in Adelaide, he followed in the footsteps of Labor premier Thomas Price, who had worked as a stonemason on the first stage of the building fifty years before. Walsh said of his political aspirations that, having worked on parliament, there was every reason why he should work in parliament. In the March election he contested the safe Liberal and Country League House of Assembly seat of Mitcham for the A.L.P. Although unsuccessful, his vigorous campaign was noticed and he was endorsed at the next general election for the adjoining seat of Goodwood. He entered the House of Assembly in March 1941; he was to hold Goodwood (renamed Edwardstown in 1956) continuously, until he retired in 1968.

On the Opposition back-benches Walsh's aggressive style of debate resulted in his election in 1949 as deputy to the avuncular Mick O'Halloran. During the split of the 1950s he supported O'Halloran's refusal to condone the industrial groups, and resisted the element that became the Democratic Labor Party. A practising Catholic in a Protestant-dominated Labor caucus, Walsh had no time for the mixing of church and politics. In his maiden speech in 1941 he had recounted how he had rejected 'a reverend gentleman's' offer of a preferred place on a sectarian how-to-vote ticket. He asserted that such tickets should only be issued by political parties: 'I think it would be for the best for persons connected with churches to look after their own religious matters and leave politics alone'.

Walsh's years as deputy-leader did not guarantee him the leadership on O'Halloran's death in 1960. With Labor needing to shake itself out of the torpor of apparent permanent Opposition, he was challenged by two candidates, one of whom was the dynamic young Donald Dunstan. Walsh managed to win the contest, declaring that he was determined to achieve government. His attacks on the premier (Sir) Thomas Playford were energetic but marred by his habit of uttering malapropisms and using complex words in the wrong context.

In the 1962 election Labor gained a substantial majority of votes over the incumbent L.C.L. but failed to win government. For the next three years Playford depended on the casting vote of the Speaker Tom Stott, an Independent, to stay in power. With a determined sense of grievance, Walsh refused to recognize Playford by the courtesy title of 'premier', and referred to him as 'treasurer', deriving from his main portfolio. Industrial development and demographic change were eroding the advantage which the L.C.L. gained from existing electoral boundaries. A redistribution, which would have entrenched the imbalance, was blocked by Labor.

At the election in March 1965 Walsh became the first Labor premier in South Australia in thirty-two years—and the first Catholic. On gaining office he underlined his legitimacy by creating the portfolio and department of the premier, and was the first person to be officially designated 'premier'. Already aged 67, Walsh was required under party rules to retire from parliament at the next election. He was thus seen as a stop-gap leader, but surprised his critics with an ability to sustain the role for the next two years. Apart from active support for gambling law reform (which resulted in a State lottery and the establishment of the Totalisator Agency Board), and more liberal licensing laws, his policies followed those of Playford, emphasizing industrialization and resource development. Quick to recognize the value of natural gas discoveries at Moomba in the north of the State, he obtained Commonwealth government assistance to build a pipeline to Adelaide.

Enjoying the role of premier, Walsh was reluctant to step down to allow a successor to be groomed, and suggested that the retiring age might be lifted for him. His colleagues disagreed and moves to induce him to resign culminated in a motion to the State council of the party congratulating him on his 'three achievements': leading Labor from the political wilderness of Opposition; bringing natural gas to Adelaide; and selflessly stepping down so that a new leader could establish himself before the next election. Although somewhat bemused, he accepted with good grace the overwhelming reception accorded to him on this occasion, and resigned as leader on 1 June 1967. He continued in cabinet as minister of social welfare in Dunstan's first government until March 1968.

Of medium height, with hair cut short at the back and sides and neatly parted in the middle, Walsh was a speaker of the old school with a loud, stump-thumping technique and high-velocity delivery which was ill-adapted to the emerging medium of television. His and Playford's retirements, at the same time, marked the end of a century-old political style. The incoming L.C.L. government of R. Steele Hall appointed Walsh to the State Forestry Board. Two days later, on 18 May 1968, he died of a coronary occlusion at Parkside and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery after a state funeral. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Blewett and D. Jaensch, Playford to Dunstan (Melb, 1971)
  • D. Jaensch, The Government of South Australia (Brisb, 1977)
  • D. Dunstan, Felicia (Melb, 1981)
  • A. Parkin and J. Warhurst (eds), Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party (Syd, 1983)
  • D. Jaensch (ed), The Flinders History of South Australia (Adel, 1986)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 17 July 1941, p 144, 25 June 1968, p 5
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 Mar 1965, 23 Mar 1966, 21 Jan 1967, 17, 20 May 1968
  • News (Adelaide), 8 Mar 1965
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 20 May 1967.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. C. Bannon, 'Walsh, Francis Henry (1897–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walsh-francis-henry-11952/text21423, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 November 2014.

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

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