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Nicholas Edward McKenna (1895–1974)

by Peter Baume

This article was published:

Nicholas Edward McKenna (1895-1974), politician and lawyer, was born on 9 September 1895 at Carlton, Melbourne, second son of John McKenna, a prison warder from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Alice, née Darcy. John was later deputy-governor of Pentridge gaol. Nick attended Christian Brothers' College, North Melbourne, with Arthur Calwell, a future leader of the Australian Labor Party in Federal parliament. In July 1912 McKenna joined the Commonwealth auditor-general's office as a clerk. While studying at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1923), he lived briefly in Newman College where he took a prominent part in social functions and excelled as a baritone. He played Australian Rules football (possibly for North Melbourne) until he was about 30, but not at the top level.

From 1924 McKenna was employed as a public accountant, initially at Townsville, Queensland, and then in Melbourne. Admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1928, he practised locally before moving to Hobart in 1929. He joined the firm of Albert Ogilvie, a future Labor premier of Tasmania. At St Patrick's Cathedral, East Melbourne, on 9 January 1930 McKenna married Kathleen Mary Coghlan, a 25-year-old telephonist; they were to have a son and daughter.

McKenna was elected to the Senate in 1943 as one of Tasmania's three Labor representatives; he entered that chamber on 1 July 1944 and was to be returned in 1949, 1951, 1955 and 1961. In his maiden speech he expressed the sentiments which guided him throughout his career:

the Senate has for its objective the true welfare of the people of Australia . . . I am certain that we shall have differences of opinion as to how that end may be attained, but I submit that so long as we all keep that high objective well before our minds we should be able to pursue our way without undue acrimony.

Joining J. B. Chifley's ministry on 18 June 1946, McKenna held the portfolios of health and social services until Labor lost power in December 1949. At various times he also acted as treasurer, attorney-general and minister for the interior when his colleagues were absent. In the Senate he was deputy-leader (1946-49) of the government, and deputy-leader (1949-51) and leader (1951-66) of the Opposition. He was also a member and chairman of numerous parliamentary committees.

With Chifley, J. J. Dedman and H. V. Evatt, McKenna had been one of federal Labor's 'Big Four' in the mid- to late 1940s. He was a close confidant of Chifley and Evatt. McKenna campaigned strongly in support of the 1946 referendum on social services, marketing and industrial employment. Following the success of the social services proposal, he oversaw the government's efforts to introduce measures for national health and free medicine. While in the Opposition he supported Chifley's attempt—foiled by the A.L.P.'s federal executive—to have civil-rights safeguards inserted in the Communist Party dissolution bill (1950). After the legislation was disallowed by the High Court of Australia, McKenna took part in Evatt's crusade to defeat the 1951 referendum on banning the Communist Party of Australia.

Before the Labor Party split in 1955, McKenna remained close to Evatt. Ten years later he and Senator P. J. Kennelly conducted secret negotiations with B. A. Santamaria in an endeavour to reunite the A.L.P. and the Democratic Labor Party. In 1960 McKenna had led moves that secured E. G. Whitlam's election over E. J. Ward as deputy-leader of the federal parliamentary party. Retiring from the Senate on 30 June 1968, McKenna said that the highlight of his career had been the fight against attempts to proscribe communism: it had ended 'when Australia decided not to become a police state'.

McKenna's wife and son both died in 1969. He continued to live in Sydney and saw his party return to government under Whitlam. Survived by his daughter, he died on 22 April 1974 at Crows Nest and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. Parliamentary colleagues remembered him for his courtesy, kindness, knowledge of the Senate's standing orders, and the care with which he prepared and presented arguments in debate. Tall and fatherly in appearance, he never entered the Senate without a copy of the standing orders under his arm; he spoke on questions of procedure, both to instruct his peers and to give the presiding officer time to take advice on any difficult matter. In a chamber where disorderly interjections are common, he was noted for his close attention to the speeches of others and for his disinclination to interrupt. The Liberal senator (Sir) Reginald Wright said that McKenna had 'ennobled this place and contributed to its operation with ability and . . . genuine interest'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Lond, 1960)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill (Melb, 1991)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 17 July 1944, p 12
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 10 July 1974, p 29
  • Australian Financial Review, 22 July 1966
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1968, 24 Apr 1974
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Baume, 'McKenna, Nicholas Edward (1895–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1895
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


22 April, 1974 (aged 78)
Crows Nest, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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