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Richard Valentine Keane (1881–1946)

by Don Rawson

This article was published:

Richard Valentine Keane (1881-1946), politician and trade union official, was born on 14 February 1881 at Beechworth, Victoria, fourth child of Irish-born parents Timothy Keane, police constable, and his wife Hanorah, née O'Sullivan. After his father was transferred to Melbourne, Dick was educated at Christian Brothers' College, St Kilda. In November 1897 he was employed as a clerk in the accountant's branch of the Victorian Railways. At St James's Catholic Church, Elsternwick, on 9 June 1909 he married Ruby Thorne (d.1923), a milliner; they were to have a son and two daughters. From 1918 Keane held office in the Victorian Railways Union which federated with similar bodies in other States to form (1920) the Australian Railways Union. He was its general (national) secretary in 1925-29.

In the 1920s the A.R.U. was the largest union in Victoria with about 20,000 members. During times of crisis for the railways, the union criticized E. J. Hogan's minority Labor governments (1927-28 and 1929-32) for failing to protect the workers. As national secretary, Keane largely isolated himself from this hostile relationship and concentrated on gaining Federal awards for his union. He was a vice-president (1928) and president (1930 and 1937-38) of the Victorian central executive of the Australian Labor Party. In 1925 he had unsuccessfully stood for the Senate, and for the province of Melbourne South in the Legislative Council. Having lobbied against Prime Minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce's attempt to dismantle the Federal industrial arbitration system in 1929, in October that year Keane won the seat of Bendigo in the House of Representatives.

He was not prominent in the hectic life of the Scullin government, but—while the prime minister was in Britain in 1930—helped to secure the passage of the Gold Bounty Act. Keane had no chance of surviving the massive swing against Labor in December 1931, and obtained only 41 per cent of the vote. He resumed his involvement with the A.R.U. and was among those re-elected to the A.L.P.'s Victorian executive to ensure that Hogan's government refused to extend the deflationary Premiers' Plan in 1932. Keane again contested Bendigo in 1934 and was defeated, though this time he gained 48 per cent of the vote. Elected to the Senate in 1937, he was deputy-leader of the Opposition (1938-41) and, from 1943, leader of the government in the Senate. On 29 April 1940 at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, he had married Millicent Dunn, a 37-year-old typist.

When the Curtin government came to office in October 1941, Keane was appointed minister for trade and customs. His department administered wartime rationing and price controls. Restrictions on the consumption of newsprint involved him in controversy, especially on the eve of the 1943 elections. He had a longstanding antipathy to 'the Murdoch press' and was quoted as saying, and repeating, that Sir Keith Murdoch was 'a damn scoundrel'. In other respects Keane's ministerial career was arduous but not particularly noteworthy. He visited North America in 1944, principally to obtain a commitment from the United States of America to continue to support Australia during 'Stage II' of the Lend-Lease scheme—the period between the expected defeat of Germany and that of Japan. In 1946 he returned to the U.S.A. to terminate the Lend-Lease arrangements.

Keane was six feet (183 cm) tall and weighed some twenty stone (127 kg). He died suddenly on 26 April 1946 in Washington. Accorded a state funeral, he was buried in Brighton cemetery, Melbourne; his wife, their daughter and the children of his first marriage survived him. In November 1946 goods valued at £1230 and shipped from the U.S.A. to his wife, who had been travelling with him, were seized by customs officers in Melbourne. Keane's friend Joseph Goldberg claimed to have bought the articles at his request; Goldberg was fined for importing prohibited goods, but later won an appeal against the conviction.

Apart from the conflict over newsprint rationing, Keane had been a genial figure and generally popular. (Sir) Robert Menzies described him as 'clear headed [and] always fair to an opponent'. Keane was representative of the Labor politicians of his day: he had pursued a successful career by prudently using an important trade union position to secure parliamentary and ultimately ministerial office.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1977)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 17 Oct 1942
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1930, 8 Dec 1944, 29 Apr, 27 May 1946
  • Herald (Melbourne), 16 Aug 1943, 27 Apr, 8, 13 Nov 1946, 1 May 1947
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 17 Aug 1943.

Citation details

Don Rawson, 'Keane, Richard Valentine (1881–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 February, 1881
Beechworth, Victoria, Australia


26 April, 1946 (aged 65)
Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America

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