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Sir Michael Neil O'Sullivan (1900–1968)

by Brian F. Stevenson

This article was published:

Sir Michael Neil O'Sullivan (1900-1968), politician and solicitor, was born on 2 August 1900 at Toowong, Brisbane, fifth child of Queensland-born parents Patrick Alban O'Sullivan, solicitor, and his wife Mary Bridget, née Macgroarty. Patrick O'Sullivan was his grandfather; Thomas O'Sullivan and Neil Macgroarty were his uncles. Young Neil proceeded from Taringa State School to St Joseph's College, Nudgee. He retained a strong interest in the college as a foundation member (1922) and president (1940-41) of the Old Boys' Association. After serving his articles with firms in Brisbane and at Warwick, he was admitted as a solicitor on 5 December 1922. He took over his father's Brisbane practice and later formed a partnership with J. J. Rowell.

On 3 April 1929 at St Stephen's Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane, O'Sullivan married 18-year-old Jessie Margaret Mary McEncroe. As the United Australia Party's candidate, he unsuccessfully contested the House of Representatives seat of Brisbane in 1934 and the Legislative Assembly seat of Windsor in 1941. He was president of the Brisbane Chamber of Commerce (1936-37) and the Property Owners' Protection Association (1937-38). Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 8 May 1942, he was commissioned and promoted flying officer in June. For the next two and a half years he performed intelligence and administrative duties in Australia and the South-West Pacific Area. His R.A.A.F. appointment terminated on 15 December 1944.

At the 1946 Federal general elections O'Sullivan stood for the Senate as a Liberal Party candidate. (Sir) Robert Menzies described him as the best speaker he heard on the Queensland leg of the campaign. O'Sullivan entered the Senate on 1 July 1947. As one of two Liberals—(Dame) Annabelle Rankin was the other—in the three-person Opposition in the Upper House, he had some claim to the leadership, but left this role to his experienced Country Party colleague (Sir) Walter Cooper. Following the coalition's victory in the general elections in December 1949, O'Sullivan became leader of the government in the Senate, an office he was to hold for nine years. The government lacked a majority in the Upper House for half that period, yet most of its legislative programme was passed.

O'Sullivan had been appointed minister for trade and customs on 19 December 1949. Playing a significant part in expanding and stabilizing the sugar industry, he set up a committee which in 1952 reviewed the Sugar Agreement between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments. In 1953 he led the Australian delegation to a conference in London (convened by the United Nations) to discuss changes to the International Sugar Agreement which regulated production and marketing. Acting in concert with (Sir) John McEwen, O'Sullivan instituted measures to assist the development of the tobacco industry. He and McEwen were joint-leaders of the Australian delegation which travelled to Geneva in 1954 for a special meeting to review the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Relinquishing the trade and customs portfolio in January 1956, O'Sullivan served as minister for the navy (January-October) and as vice-president of the Executive Council (from 24 October). On 15 August 1956 he had been made attorney-general. Although flattered by this appointment, he believed that the attorney-general, as leader of the Australian Bar, should be a barrister. He resigned from cabinet in December 1958, telling Menzies that it was time 'some of our younger members be given a chance of Ministerial experience'. O'Sullivan chaired (1956-59) the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review. As a general principle, he thought that senators should not be ministers so that the Senate could better exercise its function as a house of review. Appointed K.B.E. in 1959, he retired from parliament on 30 June 1962.

O'Sullivan was a director of several companies, including L. J. Hooker Investment Corporation Ltd and Queensland Press Ltd. He was a member of the council and the executive-committee of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (Queensland section), and the council of the Queensland branch of the Australian Boy Scouts' Association. In 1950 a journalist had described him as 'distinguished-looking, diplomatic and friendly . . . silver-haired, one of the best-dressed men in politics'. Sir Neil enjoyed golf and tennis; he also liked surfing, but once remarked that he would rather read a telephone directory than go fishing. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died suddenly of a coronary occlusion on 4 July 1968 in the Carlton Rex Hotel, Sydney; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Nudgee cemetery, Brisbane. Colleagues remembered him as a 'generous, calm and persuasive' man who gave his name and energy to charitable causes.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Lougheed, A Century of Service (Brisb, 1969)
  • Queenslander, 19 July 1934
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 July, 26 Aug 1953, 9 Dec 1958, 5 July 1968
  • O'Sullivan papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Brian F. Stevenson, 'O'Sullivan, Sir Michael Neil (1900–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 June 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

Neil O'Sullivan, c1947?

Neil O'Sullivan, c1947?

National Library of Australia, 24652788

Life Summary [details]


2 August, 1900
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


4 July, 1968 (aged 67)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.