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Sir Kenneth McColl (Ken) Anderson (1909–1985)

by Peter J. Tyler

This article was published:

Sir Kenneth McColl (Ken) Anderson (1909-1985), real-estate agent, property valuer and politician, was born on 11 October 1909 at sea off Adelaide, fifth of six surviving children of David More Anderson, an agent from Scotland, and his Sydney-born second wife Florence May, née McWhirter. David was to become an auctioneer and building contractor, an alderman and mayor of Ryde, and a member (1920-30) of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Educated at Ryde Public and Petersham Boys’ Intermediate schools, Ken worked as an insurance clerk until his retrenchment during the Depression. He then followed his father into the real-estate business at Eastwood, later buying a larger agency, J. G. Stone & Co., at West Ryde and qualifying as an auctioneer and property valuer. At the Presbyterian Church, Meadowbank, on 17 June 1936 he married Madge Martha Merrion, a cashier.

Having served as a signalman in the Militia, Anderson enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 2 July 1940. Within fifteen months he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 8th Divisional Signals, serving in Malaya until the fall of Singapore. As a prisoner of war from February 1942, he was held at Changi camp and later suffered severe hardship on the Burma-Thailand Railway. Released in September 1945, he returned to Australia next month and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 4 December. His wife had run his business during the war.

Anderson’s career continued to parallel that of his father. He was mayor of Ryde in 1949-50 and in June 1950 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as the Liberal Party member for Ryde. In 1949-51 he also served on the Cumberland County Council, the statutory body formed to control the planning of a burgeoning postwar Sydney. At this time he disposed of his real-estate agency in order to concentrate on his political career. He was defeated at the 1953 State election, but on 9 May that year was elected to the Senate after defeating the incumbent senator John Tate and the former New South Wales premier Sir Bertram Stevens at the Liberal Party preselection.

In the Senate Anderson was an active member of committees and served as chairman of the Select Committee on Road Safety in 1959-60. Ironically, he was later injured in two motor accidents. When Sir Robert Menzies reshuffled his ministry on 10 June 1964, Anderson was appointed minister for customs and excise. On 28 February 1968, after (Sir) John Gorton became prime minister, Anderson replaced him as leader of the government in the Senate and was elevated to cabinet as minister for supply. He led an Australian parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe in 1971 and was a member of delegations to the Inter-Parliamentary Union on three occasions.

Following the departure of Leslie Bury from the McMahon ministry, on 2 August 1971 Anderson was made minister for health, a position he retained until the defeat of the government on 2 December 1972. He then continued as an Opposition Senator, serving on several standing committees before his retirement at the 1975 election. After the defeat of the coalition government in New South Wales in 1976, he became president of the State division of the Liberal Party, with a mandate to restore harmony within the party. He held office for two years.

In his maiden speech to the Senate on 16 September 1953, Anderson had stated: `I just want to do whatever is within my power to help my fellow man’. Although it seemed a disingenuous remark, it epitomised his character. Not a natural orator, he was nevertheless a competent public speaker, described by a colleague as `quiet and persuasive’. He was one of those politicians whose career improved after making the transition from the State to Federal sphere, where he was unspectacular but assiduous in his parliamentary duties. Anderson had the rare distinction of holding ministerial office under five successive prime ministers— Menzies, Harold Holt, Sir John McEwen, John Gorton and Billy McMahon. This record was testament to his loyalty to his leader, as well as his detachment from any particular interest groups within his party.

Essentially Anderson was a conservative man, yet his Calvinist Presbyterian principles gave him a social conscience that led him to introduce measures for the liberalisation of censorship, to negotiate a new pharmaceutical benefits scheme and to devise new funding arrangements for nursing homes. Although these were contentious issues, he adroitly avoided public controversy. His integrity and reputation as a conciliator, assisted by his courteous demeanour and ability to interact with people from all social and ethnic back­grounds, earned the respect of both sides of politics at all levels of government.

Like his father before him, Anderson was president (1951-53) of the Ryde Bowling Club and chairman (1961-64) of the Ryde District Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital board. He was also president of the Food for Babies Fund and Good Samaritan Association, and a member of the Returned Services League of Australia and the National and Union clubs. Knighted in 1970, he was appointed KBE in 1972.

A man of average height, with a dark complexion, black (later grey) hair and hazel eyes, Sir Kenneth was an undemonstrative, gentle man who enjoyed the time spent with his family and pet animals. They lived in his father’s old home at Meadowbank, later moving to Eastwood. He bought a holiday house at Bilgola Beach, and a yacht, Sinbad, but did not prove to be an adept sailor. Never in robust health following his experiences as a prisoner of war, he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and died on 29 March 1985 in a nursing home at Lane Cove; he was cremated after a state funeral. His wife and their daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 16 Sept 1953, p 78, 16 Apr 1985, p 1019
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 16 Apr 1985, p 1151
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Apr 1985, p 15
  • Liberal Party of Australia (New South Wales), Senate preselection papers, MSS 2385, box Y4691, items 3, 7 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • M. Pratt, interview with K. Anderson (typescript, 1977, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter J. Tyler, 'Anderson, Sir Kenneth McColl (Ken) (1909–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 October, 1909
at sea


29 March, 1985 (aged 75)
Lane Cove, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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