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Southey, Sir Robert John (1922–1998)

by James C. Murphy

This article was published online in 2022

Sir Robert John Southey (1922–1998), businessman and Liberal Party president, was born on 20 March 1922 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, younger child of Allen Hope Southey, lawyer, and Ethel Thorpe (Nancy), née McComas. His maternal grandfather was Robert Bond Wesley McComas (1862–1938), a significant Victorian wool merchant. Robert was schooled at Glamorgan Preparatory School for Boys, Toorak, and Geelong Church of England Grammar School (1935–39), where in his final year he was dux and editor of the school’s journal, the Corian. In October 1940 he went to Magdalen College, Oxford (MA, 1948), but World War II interrupted his university studies.

Having trained as an officer cadet at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, on 29 November 1941 Southey was commissioned in the Coldstream Guards. He saw active service with the regiment’s 2nd Battalion in North Africa (1942–43) and Italy (1944–45), as a platoon commander and, after his promotion to temporary captain in November 1944, as a company commander. He relinquished his commission in August 1946.

On 20 August 1946 at St John’s Church of England, Toorak, Southey married Valerie Janet Clarke, daughter of Sir Frank Clarke, a Liberal Party politician and former president (1923–43) of the Victorian Legislative Council. In September the couple travelled to Oxford, where Southey resumed his studies, gaining a first in philosophy, politics, and economics. Returning to Australia in February 1949, he joined his grandfather’s wool business, William Haughton and Co. Pty Ltd. Beginning as a junior wool buyer, he became a director in 1953 and was later managing director (1959–75) and chairman (1968–80). He was also a director of a number of public companies, including BP Australia Ltd from 1962, and was chairman (1966–72) of the Geelong Grammar School Council.

Southey had joined the Liberal Party of Australia in 1949 and rose through the party ranks to State president (1966–70), federal executive member (1966–82), and federal president (1970–75). It would prove a tumultuous time to take the helm, the federal parliamentary party steering into troubled waters just as he took on leadership of the organisational wing. Southey was dismayed to see William McMahon ascend to the parliamentary leadership and prime ministership in 1971, given McMahon’s reputation among some parliamentary colleagues for being untrustworthy. Recognising the party’s vulnerability to Labor, he warned of complacency ahead of its 1972 election loss. He worked to keep the organisational wing clear of party-room leadership battles during the period in Opposition, but became involved in the Liberal Party’s internal debate about whether its senators should block the Whitlam government’s budget. Although he hesitated to support the strategy when proposed by Opposition Leader Billy Snedden in 1973, in October 1975 he told the party’s Federal Council that there was now a case for breaching the constitutional convention of affording supply to a government with a lower-house majority. He also approved of the dismissal of Whitlam in November that year, later telling the governor-general Sir John Kerr that he was ‘proud of your courage and eternally grateful to you for saving us from tyranny’ (Southey 1978).

Harbouring ambitions for public office, Southey stood unsuccessfully for preselection for the seat of Higgins in 1975 and for a Senate vacancy in 1976. He was considered a front runner for the latter, until the publication in November 1976 of private memos he had written to McMahon in 1972. He had warned that certain elements of the press were bent on the government’s ‘destruction’ and that the editor of the Age, Graham Perkin, ‘must be brought into line or circumvented’ (Nisbet 1976, 5). The memos were a minor scandal and, while Southey denied they had an impact, the Liberal party did not select him for the Senate vacancy and he did not stand for preselection again.

Southey was appointed CMG in 1970 and knighted in 1976 for services to politics. Widowed in 1977, on 22 July 1982 at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak, he married Marigold Merlyn Shelmerdine, née Myer, daughter of the merchant Sidney Myer and the philanthropist Dame Merlyn Myer, née Baillieu. In his later years Southey was a director of a range of companies and a board member of many cultural and educational organisations. A member and president (1978–79) of the Melbourne Club and a self-described ‘Establishment Man’ (Cunningham 1998, 26), he was a keen angler and had a lifelong interest in ballet. As chairman (1980–90) of the Australian Ballet Foundation, he was embroiled in a 26-day dancers’ strike in 1981, which was resolved only after the intervention of the former Victorian Liberal premier Rupert Hamer. In 1993 he was appointed AO for services to the arts. Survived by his wife and the five sons of his first marriage, Sir Robert died on 29 September 1998 at Malvern and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Collins Persse, Michael. ‘Sir Robert Southey AO CMG.’ Corian (Geelong Grammar School), 1998, 438–40
  • Cunningham, James. ‘Sir Robert Southey: Establishment Man.’ Age (Melbourne), 2 October 1998, 26
  • Monks, James. ‘Obituary—Sir Robert Southey.’ Independent (London), 19 October 1998, 6
  • Nisbet, Stephen. ‘Book says Top Lib Urged Move on “Age.”’ Age (Melbourne), 25 November 1976, 5
  • Russell, Philip, comp. Old Geelong Grammarians at War. Ocean Grove, Vic.: P. Russell for Old Geelong Grammarians, 1996
  • Southey, Robert. ‘Hasluck Reminds Me ….’ Quadrant Magazine 41, no. 6 (June 1997): 12–16
  • Southey, Robert John. Interview by Michelle Potter, 7 March 1994. Transcript. Esso Performing Arts collection. National Library of Australia
  • Southey, Robert John. Letter to Sir John Kerr, 15 June 1978. Personal Correspondence of Sir John Kerr, M4526, Item 50. National Archives of Australia

Additional Resources

Citation details

James C. Murphy, 'Southey, Sir Robert John (1922–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/southey-sir-robert-john-31980/text39469, published online 2022, accessed online 3 December 2022.

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