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Sir David Eric Fairbairn (1917–1994)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published:

Sir David Eric Fairbairn (1917–1994), grazier and politician, was born on 3 March 1917 at Claygate, Surrey, England, younger son of Australian-born Clive Prell Fairbairn, pastoralist, and his wife Marjorie Rosa, née Jowett. Clive had served in the Scots Guards in World War I and, twice invalided out, brought his family to Australia in 1918. He bought a 25,000-acre (10,117 ha) property at Woomargama, near Albury, New South Wales. His alcoholism became a factor in the break-up of the marriage in the 1930s.

Taught initially by governesses, David attended a preparatory school before boarding at Geelong Grammar School, Victoria, from 1927. In 1935 he followed his father and grandfather to Jesus College, Cambridge (BA, 1938; MA, 1944), where at his father’s suggestion, he read agriculture. He rowed in the successful college eight and, in 1938, just missed selection for the Cambridge first crew. Returning to Australia, he assumed management of the farm, Dunraven, in 1939, introducing improvements that in the next thirty-two years raised the carrying capacity from less than one sheep to more than four sheep per acre (0.4 ha).

Fairbairn served in the 21st Light Horse Regiment (Riverina Horse), Citizen Military Forces, before enlisting as air crew in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 3 February 1941. Commissioned as a pilot officer in September, he was sent to Britain and posted in March 1942 to No. 4 Squadron, Royal Air Force. He flew Mustangs on low-level reconnaissance flights over occupied Europe. In October he was reassigned to No. 140 Squadron, with which he completed high-level mapping preparatory to D-Day, and was one of the first to photograph a V-2 rocket site.

Promoted to flight lieutenant on 23 September 1943, Fairbairn returned to Australia in January 1944. He was ‘rather shocked’ (Fairbairn 1985) to learn he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation described him as ‘an extremely keen and able deputy flight commander’ who had ‘destroyed five locomotives, one ship and attacked many troop concentrations,' and commended him for obtaining photographic material when under heavy fire (NAA A9300). Posted in June to No. 79 Squadron, RAAF, and based on Manus Island, New Guinea, he became so disenchanted with the low morale and general inactivity that in January 1945 he secured early demobilisation to return to his civilian occupation. His unblemished record included his commanding officer’s report describing him as ‘an excellent type’ and ‘an above average fighter pilot’ (NAA  A9300). On 1 December 1945, at St Mark’s Church, Woomargama, where he was a churchwarden and played the organ, he married Ruth Antill Harrison, née Robertson, in a Church of England ceremony. She was the widow of Lieutenant Frank Harrison who was killed in New Guinea in July 1943, and with whom she had had a daughter.

 Having joined the Australian Country Party after the war, Fairbairn soon switched to the Liberal Party of Australia. He had an impressive political pedigree: both his grandfathers—Sir George Fairbairn and Edmund Jowett—had served in the Australian parliament, and his father’s cousin, James Fairbairn, was one of three ministers in the Menzies government killed in the 1940 Canberra air disaster. Recruited by senior Liberal officials from Sydney, Fairbairn stood for the New South Wales seat of Farrer in the 1949 Federal election. He won, after the distribution of ACP preferences, and easily retained the seat at the next ten elections.

His parliamentary colleague (Sir) Paul Hasluck found this scion of the ‘squatter class,' with his ‘erect carriage, good appearance and agreeable manners,' to be strangely lacking in self-confidence (Hasluck 1997, 181-84). He believed that Fairbairn was in politics only because his ‘overambitious’ wife wanted him there (Hasluck 1997, 181-84). According to Les Irwin, a Liberal member of parliament, ‘Ruth had become Ruthless,’ (NAA M3787/1/48). (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed Fairbairn minister for air in August 1962 and, in June 1964, moved him to national development, and into cabinet. In this portfolio, Fairbairn focused on the Ord River scheme, dam construction, energy, forestry, and minerals.

Malcolm Fraser prodded Fairbairn into supporting (Sir) John Gorton for the Liberal leadership following Harold Holt’s death in 1967. Following the government’s near defeat in the 1969 election, and disillusioned by the prime minister’s maverick style—evident in his attack on state finances—Fairbairn refused to serve under Gorton. After he and (Sir) William McMahon failed in separate leadership challenges, he joined the anti-Gorton backbenchers. He became a spear carrier in a plot involving the journalist Alan Reid (Hancock 2002, 302), to embarrass the prime minister over his refusal to consult the States before seeking Commonwealth control over the continental shelf and the territorial sea. Insisting that he, when minister for national development, had committed the government in September 1969 to consultations, Fairbairn, with no official record to support his claim, was reduced to questioning the state of public morality and the ‘irresponsibility of the permissive society at Government level’ when a government could override a legally unenforceable promise (Canberra Times 1970, 10).

Both Fairbairn and his wife were consulted by Fraser before he resigned as minister for defence in March 1971, triggering a successful party room revolt against Gorton. McMahon, the replacement prime minister, appointed Fairbairn to the education and science portfolio in 1971 and later that year to defence. Following the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972, Fairbairn initially shadowed Rex Connor, minister for minerals and energy, but left the front bench, announcing that after the 1974 election he would not stand again.

He retired from parliament in 1975, and was appointed KBE in 1977. Sir David served as ambassador to the Netherlands (1977–80). Having sold Dunraven in 1971, and dispensed with other land and residential properties, he settled in Canberra in 1980. In retirement, he retained an interest in national and international politics and frequently attended diplomatic, charity and gala functions. He enjoyed openings of exhibitions, and race meetings organised by the Canberra Picnic Race Club. He was a keen gardener, and a member of the Royal Canberra Golf and Commonwealth clubs. Survived by his wife, their two daughters, and his step-daughter, he died in Woden Valley Hospital on 1 June 1994 and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Australian Legislative Election.’ Accessed 16 June 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • Canberra Times. ‘Government is Accused.’ 9 May 1970, 10
  • Fairbairn, Sir David. Interview by Mel Pratt, 24 March 1976. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Fairbairn, Sir David. Interview by Robert Linford, 4–27 June 1985. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Hancock, Ian. John Gorton: He Did it His Way. Sydney: Hodder Headline, 2002
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Chance of Politics. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1997
  • Howson, Peter. The Howson Diaries: The Life of Politics, edited by Don Aitkin. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking Press, 1984
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Fairbairn D.E.
  • National Archives of Australia. M3787/1/48, Gorton papers
  • National Library of Australia. MS 5000, Liberal Party Papers
  • Starr, Graeme. Carrick: Principles, Politics and Policy. Ballan, Vic.: Connor Court, 2012

Additional Resources

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Fairbairn, Sir David Eric (1917–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir David Fairbairn, 1969

Sir David Fairbairn, 1969

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L85999

Life Summary [details]


3 March, 1917
Claygate, Surrey, England


1 June, 1994 (aged 77)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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