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Cameron, Archie Galbraith (1895–1956)

by John Playford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Archie Galbraith Cameron (1895-1956), farmer and politician, was born on 22 March 1895 at Happy Valley, South Australia, son of John Cameron, labourer, and his wife Mary Ann, née McDonald. Educated at Nairne Public School until the age of 12, Archie was employed to clear scrub before working on his father's farm near Loxton. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 April 1916, fought on the Western Front and rose to temporary regimental quartermaster sergeant. Arriving home in July 1919, he was discharged on 7 September.

That year Cameron took up land at Noora as a soldier settler. He served (1920-24 and 1926-27) on the Loxton District Council, read widely in literature and history, and learned to speak fluent German. Received into the Catholic Church from a strict Presbyterian background, he was to become close friends with Dr Matthew Beovich, the archbishop of Adelaide. On 15 April 1925 at St Joseph's Church, Brighton, Cameron married a 22-year-old office-worker Margaret Eileen Walsh; they were to have a son and daughter. In 1942 the family moved to a dairy-farm near Oakbank in the Adelaide hills.

Having unsuccessfully stood for the House of Assembly as a Country Party candidate for Wooroora in 1924, Cameron won the seat in 1927 and held it until 1934. As his party's parliamentary leader (1928-32), he played an important role in forming the South Australian Emergency Committee, which brought together the major, local, non-Labor groups from which the Liberal and Country League emerged in 1932. The principal figure in the Emergency Committee (Sir) Archibald Grenfell Price wrote that Cameron had 'remarkable abilities and grave faults . . . He was an excellent speaker, and most forceful, but he was unreliable . . . I soon learnt to be careful with Cameron'.

Under the terms of the amalgamation, Cameron was guaranteed endorsement by the L.C.L. for a safe seat in the House of Representatives. In 1934 he was elected to Federal parliament as the member for Barker, a seat he was to retain until his death. He had persuaded his friend and old army comrade (Sir) Thomas Playford to contest Murray (successfully) for the L.C.L. at the 1933 State election.

Cameron chose to sit in parliament as a representative of the Federal Country Party, as he was entitled to do under the rules of the L.C.L. He immediately became the focus of public attention by making an affirmation instead of swearing the oath of allegiance. Soon after, he attempted to have John Garden expelled from the House on the grounds of his previous communist affiliations. Cameron's obvious talents were recognized by his appointment on 29 November 1937 as an assistant-minister in Joe Lyons's cabinet. While acting-minister for commerce in 1938, Cameron became the first minister to be named and suspended from Federal parliament, for calling the Victorian Independent Alexander Wilson a 'clean-skin' (meaning 'unbranded') and refusing to withdraw the remark when called upon by the Speaker.

On 7 November 1938 Cameron was promoted to postmaster-general. His conflict with the broadcasting industry culminated next month when he temporarily revoked radio 2KY's licence because he objected to views expressed by one of the station's news commentators. Cameron is alleged to have told the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, William Cleary: 'Forget your charter, I don't believe in boards or commissions—I believe in ministerial control'. (Sir) Robert Menzies' first ministry, installed in April 1939, consisted only of United Australia Party members and Cameron returned to the back-benches.

Following Sir Earle Page's retirement in September as Federal Country Party leader, a deeply divided party unexpectedly elected Cameron as his successor. With the coalition restored, Cameron was appointed deputy-prime minister, minister for commerce and minister for the navy on 14 March 1940. In circumstances as dramatic as those of his election, he lost the Country Party leadership in October, and left the party and the ministry. Throughout the rest of the decade he was to sit with the U.A.P. and subsequently the Liberal Party, becoming a biting critic of the Labor governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley. By 1943 Price thought that Cameron had 'improved immensely', though 'all his old recklessness remained'. He also noted that Cameron 'was one of the few who could reduce Eddie Ward to impotence'.

A temporary major (commissioned 1927) in the Militia, Cameron was mobilized in November 1940 and subsequently worked in the Directorate of Military Intelligence at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. His uniform comprised a World War I Highland beret, World War II battledress and the elastic-sided boots he habitually wore. He combined his military and parliamentary duties, and added to his burden 'the management of the parliamentary concerns of A. M. Blain', the member for the Northern Territory who was a prisoner of war. Cameron's relations with General Sir Thomas Blamey were punctuated by bitter and stormy disputes over the conduct of the war. On 5 May 1944 Cameron was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. After his death it was disclosed that the work he had done on the Japanese order of battle had been of the 'greatest possible value' to army intelligence. Characteristically, he had never talked about it.

With the return of the Liberal and Country parties to office in 1949, Menzies nominated him as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Cameron's fiery independence as minister or backbencher could have easily destabilized the new government. On his election in 1950 he wore the traditional wig and robes of office discarded by his Labor predecessor John Rosevear. Cameron objected to using Bert Evatt's High Court of Australia wig, which had been presented to parliament, but none other was available, and he contented himself with the statement: 'It will be the first time there has been any clear, straight thinking under this wig'. Cameron's relations with the governor-general, the former Labor premier of New South Wales, (Sir) William McKell, were strained due to personal comments made by McKell ten years earlier. Cameron informed the House in March that, while 'he would fully and courteously discharge all official duties' with McKell, in other matters he would have 'nothing whatever to do with him'.

A firm disciplinarian, Cameron caused an immediate stir by imposing a rigid ban on betting in Parliament House and by forbidding card-playing or any other game of chance. He unavailingly summoned Labor's Gil Duthie to his rooms to be rebuked, but was more successful in implementing his views on propriety in other areas. The print of the racehorse, Phar Lap, which graced the wall of the barber's salon, was ordered to be removed. Cameron also insisted that everyone should be properly dressed in the lobbies, but did not invariably apply his rules to himself: on a hot day he frequently 'received visitors dressed only in shorts and a singlet', his bare feet upon his desk. The cleaning staff resented his weekend habit of walking around the lobbies so attired, fearing that visitors might mistake him for a cleaner and 'damage their prestige'.

Cameron was a tempestuous character, one of the most colourful individualists ever to sit in Federal parliament. Stories are still told about him. He neither smoked nor drank. Holding strong Jacobite views, during a visit to London he charmed the Queen Mother by telling her that 'when there is a Prince named Charles and a Princess named Anne a Cameron may visit Buckingham Palace in perfect safety'. Although a man of stern exterior, he performed many personal kindnesses to members on both sides of politics. As a member of parliament, he was a well-informed and fluent debater, always extremely forceful in expression. As a minister, he was at times irascible, but he was hard working and determined, and a good administrator. As Speaker, he was certainly autocratic and at times eccentric, yet Labor's Clyde Cameron summed him up as 'easily the best Speaker in living memory'. Archie's integrity was never held in doubt, even by his severest critic.

In August 1955 Cameron suffered attacks of influenza which affected his lungs and heart, both weakened by gas in World War I. He died of myocardial infarction on 9 August 1956 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney; accorded a state funeral in Adelaide, he was buried in Mount Barker cemetery. His wife and son survived him. (Sir) Ivor Hele's portrait of Cameron was hung in Parliament House, Canberra, a place which was more placid after his departure.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • E. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • A. Fadden, They Called Me Artie (Brisb, 1969)
  • P. Hasluck, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • E. M. Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (Adel, 1972)
  • P. Spender, Politics and a Man (Syd, 1972)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey, Controversial Soldier (Canb, 1973)
  • A. Thomas, Broadcast and Be Damned (Melb, 1980)
  • C. Kerr, Archie (Melb, 1983)
  • G. Duthie, I Had 50,000 Bosses (Syd, 1984)
  • G. Souter, Acts of Parliament (Melb, 1988)
  • C. Cameron, The Cameron Diaries (Syd, 1990)
  • Australian Country Party Monthly Journal, 1 Sept 1935
  • People (Sydney), 6 Dec 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Aug 1956, 5 Jan 1959
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 Aug 1956
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Aug 1956
  • Bulletin, 15 Aug 1956, 12 Sept 1978
  • private information.

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Citation details

John Playford, 'Cameron, Archie Galbraith (1895–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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