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Robert McKeeman Oakley (1871–1927)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

Robert McKeeman Oakley (1871-1927), public servant, was born on 28 March 1871 at Warrnambool, Victoria, son of Thomas Oakley, Suffolk-born harbour boatman and his Irish wife Elizabeth, née McKeeman. After schooling he joined the Trade and Customs Department on 3 January 1889 and acquired a detailed knowledge of public accounting procedures and customs policies and practices. Commissioned lieutenant in the Victorian Garrison Artillery in 1892, he was promoted captain in 1897 and major in the Australian Garrison Artillery in 1904. On 18 November 1896 he had married Serena Laura Blamey at the Wesleyan Church, North Fitzroy.

After Federation Oakley was appointed clerk in the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs on 11 October 1901 and worked with (Sir) Harry Wollaston and (Sir) Nicholas Lockyer. He was promoted accountant (1904), chief clerk (1909), and collector of customs in Western Australia on 27 April 1914. Returning to Melbourne in 1917, he was several times acting comptroller-general. He became collector of customs in Victoria in June 1921 and deputy comptroller-general with responsibility for the tariff next year. In 1920-21 Oakley had prepared a revised tariff schedule for the minister for trade and customs, (Sir) Walter Massy-Greene, proposing the establishment of a board which, on reference from the minister, would review departmental tariff decisions. In March 1922 Oakley was appointed chairman of the Australian Tariff Board, a decision widely interpreted as constituting an appeal from Caesar to Caesar. After being promoted comptroller-general from 1 May 1923, he remained chairman until March 1925; reappointed in November 1926 he resigned on 7 March 1927.

Under Oakley the board chiefly dealt with deferred duties, by-law administration and the Customs Tariff (Industries Preservation) Act, largely ignoring the general question of tariff review. It tended to support protectionist policies and criticized the Navigation Act for failing to protect Australian industry. Accused of attempting to destroy that legislation, Oakley protested that he always supported the decisions of parliament. Labor members of the 1923-24 royal commission on the Navigation Act criticized both Oakley's evidence and his administration of the Act, and when Oakley, on the advice of the minister, (Sir) Austin Chapman, briefed (Sir) Earle Page on tariff matters, Matthew Charlton alleged that Oakley had compromised the board by allowing himself to be used for political purposes. However he was regarded as 'a valued public servant' whose 'probity, honour and integrity were unquestioned'.

He was appointed to the Commonwealth Board of Trade in June 1923 and later that year attended the London Imperial Conference as 'chief economic adviser' to S. M. (Viscount) Bruce. Oakley's negotiations in Canada led to a reciprocal tariff treaty in 1925. An authority on the Australian tariff, he shared his knowledge with grateful domestic manufacturers. His censorship decisions were sometimes questioned; he permitted de luxe editions of Boccaccio's The Decameron to be imported, but prohibited cheap editions.

Oakley was appointed C.B.E. in 1923. He was an enthusiastic tennis player and a Methodist lay preacher. He died suddenly of angina pectoris at his Elsternwick home on 27 August 1927 and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. His wife, two daughters and three sons survived him. His friend Herbert Brookes arranged for memorial windows in the Orrong Road Methodist (Uniting) Church and the R. M. Oakley prize awarded annually by Queen's College, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Rivett, Australian Citizen
  • Herbert Brookes 1867-1963 (Melb, 1965)
  • Bulletin, 14 Feb 1924, 1 Sept 1927
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1927
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Apr, 25 Oct 1928
  • G. J. Hall, The Australian Tariff Board 1922-56 (M. Comm. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1958)
  • Prime Minister's Department: Censorship—the Big Parade, CRS A. 458-H318/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Trade and Customs: prohibited publications 1923-38, CRS 69/5831 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Oakley, Robert McKeeman (1871–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 March, 1871
Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia


27 August, 1927 (aged 56)
Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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