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Roy Frederick Fagan (1905–1990)

by Michael Field

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Roy Frederick Fagan (1905-1990), politician, was born on 28 December 1905 at Waratah, Tasmania, eldest child of James Fagan, a Victorian-born hotelkeeper, and his Tasmanian wife Annie Theresa, née Breheney. The family moved to a farm at Wynyard and Roy’s mother, a strict Catholic, sent him to St Virgil’s College, Hobart. He was later an agnostic who never went to Mass after he was out of his mother’s sight. Leaving school at 16, he worked in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia at Burnie. On 8 December 1925 at the Catholic Presbytery, Wynyard, he married Gertrude Estelle Cooney (d.1946), a shop assistant. Estelle Cooney was pregnant when they married.  They were not living together when the baby was born nor did they live together after that.  They were still married when Estelle died in 1946.

Transferring to Hobart, Fagan studied part time at the University of Tasmania (LL B, 1934; BA, 1935). Meeting individuals of like mind, including W. H. Perkins and K. M. Dallas, he was a member of what was known as the `Fabian branch’ of the Australian Labor Party. He was president (1931-33) of the Tasmania University Union. A fellow student, Mavis Isabel Smith, became his partner for the rest of his life. Regarding themselves as progressives, the couple were particularly interested in the writings of G. B. Shaw and Aldous Huxley.

Admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 8 August 1934, Fagan felt a strong sense of injustice on behalf of his clients when representing farm workers from the Midlands region who were treated like serfs by landowners and often paid in kind. In 1941-46 he lectured part time in law at the university. The premier (Sir) Robert Cosgrove asked him to stand in the November 1946 election for the ALP in the seat of Wilmot, which covered more than half the State. Under Tasmania’s Hare-Clark proportional representation system he was elected second, after the leader of the Liberal Party, Neil Campbell. Immediately appointed attorney-general, he sold his law practice as the premier expected him to be a full-time politician. He became a mentor to two other new members of parliament, W. A. Neilson and E. E. Reece; Neilson was later to describe him as a man to whom `colleagues could always turn for friendship and wisdom’. On 23 January 1947 at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Bellerive, Roy, now widowed, and Mavis, a schoolteacher, were married.

As attorney-general, Fagan was involved in several political crises. In December 1947 he indicted Cosgrove on a conspiracy charge; Cosgrove, who stood down as premier, was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Tasmania in February next year and reinstated. The Legislative Council denied supply over the issue and the government was forced to an election in August 1948. At the elections in 1950 and 1955 neither party gained a clear majority but Labor remained in power. In September 1956 when the minister for housing C. A. Bramich defected to the Liberals, Fagan was credited with saving Labor, by moving and gaining an adjournment of the House. This action prevented the Liberals from exercising their newly gained majority and becoming the government. Fagan then worked all night preparing the case for dissolving parliament; the governor Sir Ronald Cross agreed to an election and Labor, able to go to the people with the advantage of incumbency, won narrowly.

In 1958 allegations of bribery and corruption were made against Cosgrove and his treasurer R. J. D. Turnbull over the granting of a lottery licence. As attorney-general, Fagan laid charges against both to enable a court determination. Turnbull’s animus made it impossible for Fagan to remain in cabinet and he resigned his portfolio in July. He sat on the back-bench until May next year, when he again became attorney-general, in the Reece ministry. While it is generally accepted that he was not ambitious, many believed that if he had been in cabinet at the time of Cosgrove’s retirement, he would have succeeded him as premier. He was deputy-leader of the Labor Party (1948-58), deputy-premier (1959-69), minister administering the Industrial Development Act 1954 (1959-69), deputy-leader of the Opposition (1969-72) and, when Labor returned to power, minister for industrial development and forests (1972-74). In 1970-74 he lectured part time in constitutional law at the University of Tasmania.

Although a man of quiet disposition, in parliament Fagan spoke with such intellectual authority and deep moral conviction that members listened to him in silence. Thoroughly preparing his arguments, he often destroyed his opponents with devastating logic. He was a persuader rather than a fighter. In 1970, while in Opposition, Fagan inveigled the Liberal government into abandoning plans to build a fence around Risdon Prison. However, a more combative Labor colleague, Mervyn Everett, intervened and the government reverted to its former position. A Liberal member, F. A. Marriott, said: `I just wouldn’t take him on because if I did, I knew I’d get a roasting’. Marriott recalled that he always played the game `extra decently’. Although he judged Fagan `one of the best debaters’ of his time, he `never once heard him indulge in personalities’.

Fagan regarded his greatest achievement in politics as the abolition of capital punishment. Owing to the conservatism of the Legislative Council, the reform was rejected in the Upper House twelve times before Fagan succeeded on the thirteenth, in 1968. It is testament to his stature in the parliamentary Labor Party that he was authorised to pursue the measure to this extent. His speech on capital punishment is regarded as one of the finest ever given in the House of Assembly, but because there was no Hansard in the Tasmanian parliament at the time, it was unrecorded.

In 1973 Fagan told one of his sons: `the acceptance of responsibility is what life is all about’. He advised him to be kind but firm, to give praise where it was deserved and never to lose his temper `for your dignity is lost with it’. Fagan retired from parliament at the 1974 election. His old age was marred by the development of Alzheimer’s disease. He died on 18 July 1990 in Hobart and was cremated. His wife and their three sons, and the daughter of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Ferrall, Notable Tasmanians (1980)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 21 Aug 1990, p 2151
  • Sunday Examiner Express (Launceston), 20 July 1974, p 4
  • Mercury (Hobart), 19 July 1990, p 8, 13 Mar 1993, p 37
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Michael Field, 'Fagan, Roy Frederick (1905–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 July 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]


28 December, 1905
Waratah, Tasmania, Australia


18 July, 1990 (aged 84)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.