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Snedden, Sir Billy Mackie (1926–1987)

by Bernie Schedvin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Billy Mackie Snedden (1926-1987), politician and lawyer, was born on 30 December 1926 in Perth, youngest of six surviving children of Scottish-born parents Alan Snedden, stonemason, and his wife Catherine, née Mackie.  Billy was 3 when his father deserted the family, which then struggled financially.  From the age of 8 he delivered newspapers in the morning and sold them on street corners in the afternoon, a demanding routine that shaped his work ethic.  He attended Highgate State and Perth Boys’ schools, but left in April 1942 to work as a law clerk for T. J. ('Diver') Hughes, while he studied at night for his Junior and Leaving certificates at Perth Technical College.  In January 1944 he joined the staff of the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor’s Office.  On 5 January 1945 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force; he trained as an aircraftman at Busselton and at Somers, Victoria, before being discharged on 14 September.  Eligible to further his education under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, he entered the law faculty, University of Western Australia (LL.B, 1950).

As a student, Snedden worked in the Crown Solicitor’s Office, operated a morning newspaper run and delivered greengroceries on his bike.  He also participated in cricket and football, debating and amateur dramatics.  Interested in politics, he was attracted to the Liberal Party of Australia because of its emphasis on preserving individual freedom, and was president of the university Liberal Club.  He gained experience in political campaigning by standing in a by-election for the State seat of Boulder in December 1948 and in two Federal elections, for the seats of Fremantle (December 1949) and Perth (April 1951).  At university he consciously developed his voice and speaking skills, worked on his 'manners' and extended his reading.  President of the Western Australian division of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia, he was elected first federal chairman of the organisation in 1951.  On 10 March 1950 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth, he had married Joy Forsyth, a dental nurse.

After completing his law degree, Snedden took articles with C. B. Gibson, of the Perth legal firm Hardwick, Slattery & Gibson.  In March 1951 he returned briefly to the Crown Solicitor’s Office, but left to take a job with Angus & Coote Pty Ltd, mainly selling hearing aids.  He was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of Western Australia on 21 December 1951.  Next year he was appointed a selection officer in the Department of Immigration; he served in Italy for eighteen months and in England for a year.  Deciding to return to Australia and to practise law, he worked for the Legal Service Bureau, Melbourne, until his admission to the Victorian Bar on 1 September 1955.  The Snedden family settled at Ringwood.

In 1955 Snedden was endorsed by the Liberal Party for the Federal seat of Bruce, and won it on preferences at the election on 10 December.  He combined parliamentary duties with legal work until March 1964, when Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies appointed him attorney-general.  That year he took silk.  Continuing to hold the portfolio under Harold Holt, he introduced a bill to deal with restrictive trade practices by administrative rather than penal process.  Despite opposition from within the Liberal and Country parties and in cabinet, and resistance from the chambers of Manufactures and of Commerce, the Trade Practices Act (1965) was passed, albeit as a much weaker version than Snedden had wanted.

From December 1966 to November 1969, Snedden was minister for immigration under prime ministers Holt and (Sir) John Gorton.  His approach to the portfolio was shaped to some extent by his experiences as an immigration officer.  He rejected the previous emphasis on 'assimilation' and pursued instead a policy of integration, and sought to broaden the ethnic and racial basis of Australia’s immigration intake.  In December 1966 he was appointed leader of the House by Holt, whom he liked and admired and from whom he had learned much about the workings of the parliament.  After Holt’s disappearance a year later, he unsuccessfully contested the party leadership.  Gorton, the new prime minister, removed him from his post as leader of the House in February 1969. He was to have a second stint from November 1969 to March 1971.

Amid growing public dissent about Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, in November 1969 Snedden became minister for labour and national service and a member of cabinet, and resumed leadership of the House.  He favoured conscription and the ballot system based on date of birth, but failed to find an appropriate 'civilian' alternative for those who objected to military service.  (Sir) William McMahon replaced Gorton as party leader and prime minister in March 1971 and appointed Snedden treasurer.  Growing inflationary pressures, exacerbated by increased welfare spending and fuel excise, complicated government budgeting and management of the economy.  Snedden’s two budgets—for which McMahon and Treasury had to accept some of the blame—were considered inadequate.  The rising value of the Australian dollar became a contentious issue and almost precipitated a Country Party walkout.  Internal party divisions festered and Snedden succeeded Gorton as deputy-leader on 18 August 1971.  He was appointed a privy councillor in June next year.

The coalition parties were defeated at the election on 2 December 1972 and Snedden was elected party leader and thus leader of the Opposition.  There was a crisis of morale and seething discontent within the Liberal Party, which had come to regard itself after twenty-three years as 'the natural party of government'.  Snedden faced some pressing issues, including renegotiating the terms of co-operation between the Liberal and Country parties and revising the party platform.  The process of overhauling policies highlighted tensions between conservatives and liberals in a party that had always relied heavily on a pre-eminent leader.

Uncomfortable in the role of leader of the Opposition, Snedden made a number of unfortunate gaffes in parliament and in the media.  Many perceived him as lacking clear direction in his attempts to unite the party; some critics labelled him a 'trendy-conservative'.  Impatient colleagues attacked him for not being sufficiently adept at exploiting government weaknesses.  The Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, a commanding figure, dominated him in the House.  Anxious to placate his critics, Snedden pursued a strategy to force an early election by using Senate numbers to hold up the appropriation bills.  As a result, Whitlam requested a dissolution of both houses of parliament, and won the subsequent election in May 1974.  While Snedden’s position was weakened by this outcome, a growing number of government blunders and instances of economic mismanagement increased the likelihood that Labor would lose the next election.  Snedden survived one challenge to his leadership, but was ousted on 21 March 1975 by Malcolm Fraser.  At the election in December that year, which followed the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, the coalition was returned to power, with Fraser as prime minister.

Snedden was elected Speaker on 17 February 1976.  As an experienced parliamentarian, who had taken a special interest in the 'lore and law' of parliament, he was well qualified.  He sought to enhance the presiding officer’s role and to ensure its independence, as in the British House of Commons.  Advocating improved parliamentary facilities and support services, he fought for greater autonomy for the parliament’s budget.  He promoted the construction of a new and permanent Parliament House and co-ordinated the stages of its progress, a project that satisfied his need to 'make a contribution'.  He was appointed KCMG in 1977.

After the defeat of the Fraser government in 1983, Snedden resigned from parliament on 21 April, on the grounds that a past Speaker should leave the House.  Separating from his wife, he moved into a flat in inner-city Melbourne.  Having spent so many years away from full-time legal practice, he had difficulty resuming his profession; he joined the boards of several companies, including Charles Davis Ltd, Harris Scarfe Ltd, Mercedes-Benz (Australia) Pty Ltd, Greetings Group Ltd, Standard Chartered Australia Ltd and Group Property Services Ltd.

A keen supporter of the Melbourne Football Club, Snedden was patron of the Melbourne 'coterie' and chairman of the club in 1980-85; he was also a director of the Victorian Football League.  Efforts to ensure that Melbourne was financially viable, and the appointment of Ron Barassi in 1981 as coach, rendered the executive, and Snedden in particular, vulnerable to criticism from those who were impatient for victory in the first division.  An acrimonious internal dispute soured his final months with the club.  Proud of his Scottish heritage, he was a senior vice-president of the Melbourne Scots club.  He was also an enthusiastic member of 'Club 13', an informal social group that met regularly for lunch.

Sir Billy continued to work on behalf of the Liberal Party, mainly raising funds, and joined the State finance committee in 1986.  On 25 June 1987 in Sydney he attended the Liberal Party’s campaign launch for the forthcoming election and spent a convivial evening with friends.  Returning to his Rushcutters Bay motel room with a female companion in the early hours of 26 June, he died there soon after of coronary artery disease.  Following a state funeral at Scots Church, Melbourne, he was cremated.  His wife and their two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Kelly, The Unmaking of Gough (1976)
  • H. R. Penniman (ed), Australia at the Polls (1977)
  • B. M. Snedden and M. B. Schedvin, Billy Snedden (1990)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 14 September 1987, p 24
  • Legislative Studies, vol 11, no 1, 1996, p 68
  • Australian Financial Review, 4 May 1972, p 2
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 June 1987, p 4
  • C. Santamaria, interview with B. Snedden (ts, 1976, National Library of Australia)
  • B. Schedvin, interview with B. Snedden (ts, 1983-87, National Library of Australia)
  • Snedden papers (National Library of Australia).

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Citation details

Bernie Schedvin, 'Snedden, Sir Billy Mackie (1926–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 1 August 2021.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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