Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir David Eric (Dave) Nicholson (1904–1997)

by Brian F. Stevenson

This article was published online in 2023

Sir David Eric Nicholson (1904–1997), politician, electrical technician, and sportsman, was born on 26 May 1904 at Mikimiki, near Masterton, New Zealand, son of New Zealand-born parents John Albert Nicholson, farmer, and his wife Maria Mary, née Henderson. Educated at the Masterton public primary and secondary schools, Dave moved to Australia in 1926 as a professional cyclist, under contract to ride at the Sydney Sports Ground, but the next year switched to motorcycle racing. In 1928 he changed again, to sideshow riding. He and his colleagues performed at city and country shows, riding their Indian Scout motorcycles around the inner surface of a perpendicular circular wall—the so called ‘Wall [sometimes Whirl] of Death,’ 82 feet (25 m) in circumference—‘at dizzy speed’ (Brisbane Courier 1928, 7). A versatile sportsman, he also played rugby union and was an amateur boxer.

By 1934 Nicholson was working as a salesman and living in South Brisbane. On 4 August that year in the suburb’s Park Presbyterian Church, he married Cecile Flloyd Smith (d. 1987), a saleswoman. The couple moved to Caboolture, north of Brisbane, where he owned and operated a business as a radio and refrigeration technician. In World War II he served part time as a warrant officer, class two, in the Volunteer Defence Corps, with the 2nd Battalion, Brisbane (1942–44), and the 6th Battalion, Nambour (1944).

In March 1950 the Australian Country Party–Queensland nominated Nicholson for the safe Legislative Assembly seat of Murrumba, which encompassed Caboolture. He had been a member of the party since 1937. Winning easily in the general election on 29 April 1950, he would hold the seat in the next seven elections. In his first speech he focused on the problems of farmers, who ‘work as hard to earn £1 as the average worker works to earn a full wage’ (Qld Parliament 1950, 194), and suggested that the Australian Labor Party government assist by extending subsidies. Noting that the minister for public instruction had recently toured isolated schools in western Queensland, Nicholson reminded parliament that ‘on the very border of Brisbane, there are educational facilities that are far worse than in the western part of the State’ (Qld Parliament 1950, 195).

Despite having been in parliament for only ten years and having limited experience of chairmanship, Nicholson, the preferred Country Party candidate, was nominated as Speaker on 23 August 1960. He had already defeated the Liberal Party of Australia’s candidate, Harold Taylor, in the coalition’s party room. In nominating Nicholson, Jack Pizzey, the minister for education, referred to him as ‘a man of irreproachable character, quick decision, and steady nerve’ (Qld Parliament 1960, 3). When a non-government member, Ted Walsh, mischievously nominated the defeated Liberal, Taylor declined and Nicholson was elected unopposed.

Nicholson’s speakership was comparatively quiet, with few controversies. During the 1963 election campaign a photograph of Parliament House featuring a superimposed hammer and sickle insignia appeared in a Liberal election advertisement. In response to a Labor protest, Nicholson claimed there was little he could do because he was not Speaker at the time the advertisement appeared, as parliament was dissolved. Two years later he defused a difficult situation after he took a Labor member, Colin Bennett, to task for continually complaining to the press about his management of parliamentary questions. Bennett denied the charge. Nicholson accepted the denial, but Bennett was temporarily suspended by a vote of the House anyway.

In late 1968 Nicholson fell out with the premier, (Sir) Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, after the latter provided an incorrect answer to a parliamentary question about police radar traps. Confronted with evidence of his error, Bjelke-Petersen, in a rare moment of contrition, apologised to parliament. Nicholson, incensed about the misleading of the House—intentionally or unintentionally—wrote a letter to the premier, in which he warned, as ‘custodian of the rights and privileges of Members’ (Wanna and Arklay 2010, 259–60), he would in future consider charging with contempt departmental officers who misinformed ministers; the letter was later leaked to the press. In October 1970 Nicholson was one of the four Country Party members who, alarmed by a drop in the government’s popularity, warned Bjelke-Petersen that a vote of no confidence in him would be moved at a party meeting if he did not resign as premier; he refused and the vote failed.

As Speaker, Nicholson preferred parliamentary questions to be on notice, with the rationale that a full and complete answer the next day was better than a partial one on the spot. Nevertheless, in September 1970 he had introduced questions without notice, using the occasion to stipulate that every question, with or without notice, ‘should contain only sufficient information to make the reason for asking [it] clear’ (Qld Parliament 1970, 407). Questions without notice enabled government members to develop the tactic of asking ‘Dorothy Dixers’ to use up time and attack the Opposition. Only weeks after the innovation, Nicholson averred that it had led to a deterioration in question time from ‘a fact-seeking and finding session into a slanging match’ (Qld Parliament 1970, 767). He was similarly vigilant with parliamentary speeches, stopping members from reading their speeches rather than using notes, and listening intently to each speaker to detect and suppress needless repetition.

In January 1972 Nicholson was knighted, and on 25 May he retired from parliament, after a record term as Speaker of eleven years and nine months. Five feet seven and a half inches (171 cm) tall and weighing twelve stone (76 kg), he had an oval face, gapped front teeth, and a receding hairline in middle age. Sir David was a director (1972–84) of the construction conglomerate Kern Corporation Ltd and a member (1972–76) of the Builders’ Registration Board of Queensland. The community and sporting bodies he supported included the Redcliffe Trotting Club (honorary life member), New Farm Bowls Club, and Redcliffe Show Society. He died on 13 December 1997 at Bribie Island and was cremated. His two sons and two daughters survived him. Although it would be claimed of his successors in the Speakership that Bjelke-Petersen unduly influenced them in the execution of their duties, no such accusation was made about Nicholson, who ‘was hailed for his good-humoured discipline’ and ‘reputation for having no real enemies on either side of the House’ (Qld Parliament 1998, 3).

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Knockabout Speaker Had Dignity and Wit.’ 16 December 1997, 6
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, Q201502
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 29 August 1950, 193–97
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 23 August 1960, 3
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 11 March 1965, 2523–24
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 1 September 1970, 407–08, 415–16
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 24 September 1970, 767
  • Queensland. Parliament. Parliamentary Debates, 3 March 1998, 3–6
  • Wanna, John, and Tracey Arklay. The Ayes Have It: The History of the Queensland Parliament, 1957–1989. Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010
  • ‘Wayfarer.’ `Dare-Devils: 60 M.P.H. Around an 82 Ft Circle.’ Brisbane Courier, 2 August 1928, 7
  • Wear, Rae. Johannes Bjelke-Petersen: The Lord’s Premier. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2002

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'Nicholson, Sir David Eric (Dave) (1904–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholson-sir-david-eric-dave-29922/text37042, published online 2023, accessed online 19 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

26 May, 1904
Masterton, New Zealand

Death

13 December, 1997 (aged 93)
Bribie Island, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Occupation
Military Service
Awards
Key Organisations
Political Activism
Workplaces