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Charles Robert (Bert) Kelly (1912–1997)

by Baden Teague

This article was published online in 2023

Charles Robert Kelly (1912–1997), farmer, politician, and columnist, was born on 22 June 1912 at Riverton, South Australia, second child of South Australian-born parents William Stanley Kelly, farmer, and his wife Ada May, née Dawson. Bert, as he became widely known, attended Merrindie Public School, before boarding at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide (1925–29). He then returned to work on the family farm, also named Merrindie, and on 7 January 1936 married Lorna Claire Hill in the Ashton Memorial (Methodist) Church, Stirling. In August 1942 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force as air crew, but shortly afterwards transferred to the RAAF Reserve so as to continue managing the farm. He served on the South Australian Advisory Board on Agriculture, and in 1951 was awarded a Nuffield Foundation fellowship to study farming in Britain.

Kelly’s subsequent career was deeply influenced, firstly by decades of discussion about farming and economics with his father and secondly by his mentor Charles Hawker, the World War I veteran, pastoralist, and member for Wakefield (1929–38) in the House of Representatives. Kelly admired Hawker’s courage (war wounds had left him severely disabled) and integrity, and regarded him as the finest man he had known: ‘He was a hero to me’ (Colebatch 2012, 62). Hawker had urged him to prepare for a life in politics, but it was not until 1958 that Kelly followed in his mentor’s footsteps to become the Liberal member for Wakefield. He was also continuing a family tradition of involvement in agricultural politics; his grandfather, Robert Kelly, having been the member for Wooroora in the South Australian parliament (1891–93), as well as serving on the land and pastoral boards (1894–1925). Kelly’s father had served on the South Australian Advisory Board of Agriculture before being appointed to the Federal Tariff Board (1929–39), and during World War II had been an advisor on agricultural products to the Commonwealth prices commissioner, (Sir) Douglas Copland.

With an average two-party-preferred vote of over 65 per cent, Kelly went on to win eight elections (1958–77). For those two decades as a politician, then two more as a columnist, his single-minded purpose was to rid the economy of trade restrictions. His central argument was unambiguous: tariffs on imported goods raised prices, distorted domestic production, encouraged inefficient industries, and directed resources away from what the country produced most efficiently. Protection had been a staple of Federal government economic policy since 1901, and by the late 1950s and 1960s was particularly associated with the deputy prime minister and leader of the Country Party, (Sir) John McEwen. Kelly advocated for reduced protection from his maiden speech, and soon singled him out as his principal adversary. By 1961 his attacks in the parliament on what he perceived as McEwen’s sway over the Tariff Board’s independence became so persistent that the deputy prime minister, in Kelly’s words, ‘did his block’ (Colebatch 2012, 111). Then in November 1962, the board chairman, Sir Leslie Melville, resigned, which Kelly claimed was in protest against McEwen’s interference. He gave many speeches about the flaws of ‘McEwenism,’ but as long as protectionist policies enjoyed broad support across the parliament, he needed to withstand pressure from all sides. With the Menzies government reliant on a stable working relationship with the Liberals’ coalition partners, Kelly was never likely to gain his leader’s blessing. Often only his ever-supporting wife, Lorna, cheered him on. His courage also came from a cerebral Methodism, as if he were on a righteous crusade for truth and justice.

On 28 February 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt made Kelly minister for works, an appointment generally seen as seeking to restrict his latitude to criticise government policy. On 28 February 1968 Holt’s successor, (Sir) John Gorton, appointed Kelly minister for the navy, but when on 12 November 1969 the prime minister removed him from the ministry, for reasons that remain unclear, Kelly was able to resume his campaign as a vocal backbencher.

Having lost preselection to a fellow sitting member whose adjoining seat had been abolished in an electoral redistribution, Kelly left parliament in 1977. He was appointed CMG in 1979, and continued advocating his economic reforms as a writer. In time he attracted support for his views on tariffs, notably through the ‘Society of Modest Members’ formed in August 1981 by his fellow Liberals John Hyde and Jim Carlton, with Kelly as patron. He published an autobiography, One More Nail (1978), and contributed columns to the Australian Financial Review, the Bulletin, and the Australian (November 1969–May 1987), building his economic messages around the fictitious characters of ‘the modest member’ (‘the modest farmer’ once he had left the parliament), his wife Mavis and neighbour Fred, and the economics professor Eccles. His wry humour and earthy anecdotes reinforced his economic message, each article seeking to drive ‘one more nail’ into the coffin of Australia’s old economy. By the 1980s reducing tariffs on imports had become a fundamental part of economic reform, endorsed by governments of all persuasions.

Kelly died on 17 January 1997 and received a state funeral. Politicians and industrialists across the political spectrum eulogised him, from Prime Minister John Howard and National Party leader Tim Fischer, Western Mining Corporation’s executive officer, Ray Evans, to former ALP prime minister Gough Whitlam who also attended his funeral. They shared a respect for his tenacious advocacy of lower tariffs (Aust. HOR 1997, 4–7). Howard dubbed him ‘the trailblazer of lower tariffs’ (Aust. HOR 1997, 4), while Evans noted that he campaigned with an ‘indifference to preferment’ (Colebatch 2012, xiv). They agreed that he played a critical part in the growing political appetite to dismantle tariffs and other protectionist measures. He was also renowned for delivering his message with gentle and self-deprecating humour. His funeral was conducted at the Wesley Uniting Church, Kent Town, and he was cremated at the Centennial Park crematorium, Unley. He was survived by his wife and their sons Robert, Kimball, and William.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. House of Representatives. Hansard, 4 February 1997, 4–5
  • Colebatch, Hal G. P. The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly. Ballan, Vic.: Connor Court Publishing, 2012
  • Kelly, Charles Robert. Interview by Bruce Edwards, 1 September-9 October 1986. Transcript. Parliament’s Oral History Project Collection. National Library of Australia
  • Kelly, C. R. (Bert). Merrindie: A Family’s Farm. Adelaide: CR Kelly, 1988
  • Kelly, Charles Robert ‘Bert.’ Interview by Stewart Cockburn, 22 October 1992. Sound recording. National Library of Australia
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7424, Kelly, C. R. (Charles Robert), 1912–1997, Diaries, 1959–1982

Additional Resources

Citation details

Baden Teague, 'Kelly, Charles Robert (Bert) (1912–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Robert Kelly, 1974

Charles Robert Kelly, 1974

National Archives of Australia, K26/7/74/130

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1912
Riverton, South Australia, Australia


17 January, 1997 (aged 84)
Myrtle Bank, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Political Activism