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Sir Reginald Charles Wright (1905–1990)

by Scott Bennett

This article was published:

Sir Reginald Charles Wright (1905-1990), barrister and politician, was born on 10 July 1905 at Central Castra, Tasmania, eighth of ten children of Tasmanian-born parents John Forsyth Wright, farmer, and his wife Emma Maria, née Lewis. Educated at Devonport High School and the University of Tasmania (LL.B, 1927; BA, 1928), Reg was admitted to the Tasmanian Bar on 6 February 1928. After entering private practice in Hobart, he earned a reputation as a tough, unyielding advocate. He was a part-time lecturer (1930-46) in the faculty of law, University of Tasmania. On 29 November 1930 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Hobart, he married Evelyn Olive Arnett (d.1982).

Having been active in the Militia, in World War II Wright volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force and served (1941-44) in Tasmania with the 6th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, reaching the rank of captain. In 1944-45 he contributed to the formation of the Liberal Party of Australia and next year was foundation president of the Tasmanian division. Elected to the House of Assembly for the seat of Franklin in 1946, he became deputy-leader of the Opposition. He resigned in October 1949 to successfully contest the Senate elections in December.

In his Senate career Wright was hard working and controversial. In an office ‘awash with papers’ he read legislation in great detail; his detection of drafting errors was legendary and his committee work thorough. Although he was government Senate whip (1950–51), he began to show his notorious independence, refusing to adhere to party discipline. Regarded as a rebel, he infuriated his Liberal colleagues by crossing the floor in divisions on 150 occasions. Critics noted, however, that when a final vote was taken on a bill, he often reversed his stance to support the legislation, or absented himself: Alan Reid observed that ‘he was ever ready to wound but reluctant to slay’. Wright believed that the Senate had been corrupted by party and he worked to break its domination of the chamber. According to the Liberal minister Peter Reith, Wright’s minority report to the 1959 Joint Committee on Constitutional Review was ‘one of the great expositions of the arguments which support the bicameral system and the concept of an independent Senate’.

Credited with having secured for Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton the Tasmanian votes in the 1968 ballot for the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party, Wright was appointed minister for works and minister-in-charge of tourist activities assisting the minister for trade and industry (1968-72). His party loyalty was unwavering, for he saw his first responsibility as being to the government.

A major conservative voice in parliament, Wright opposed the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth, supported the death penalty, believed that ‘guilt’ should remain part of the divorce law and attacked the liberalisation of family law as a ‘camouflage’ for the destruction of the family; he was hostile to trade unions. He argued against various moves to amend the Constitution, many of which he saw as attempts to increase central power at the expense of the States. His support for the forcing of the 1974 and 1975 elections by threatening supply was firm.

Wright was a parliamentary ‘character’. A ‘rotund, Dickensian figure’, he was often jovial but his debating style allowed for no opposition. According to Don Whitington, Wright was often influenced by ‘bitterness, intolerance or a tendency to demagoguery’. He enlivened the Senate but did not win friends, often speaking when many colleagues ‘would have wished he remained silent’. His view that ‘members of the Parliament should always vote according to their consciences’ was unrealistic. He cherished his place in Senate history, claiming to have helped build ‘an attitude of independent thinking’ in the Upper House. It was clear, however, that he spoke of a parliament that had not existed at any time since Federation when voicing his opposition to the idea of ‘a member of the Parliament [being] obligated to follow the secret decisions of Cabinet or caucus’.

In June 1978 Wright resigned from the Liberal Party over moves to introduce an increased pension for senators. Knighted two days later, he retired to Central Castra. On 19 September 1986 at St Ignatius Catholic Church, Toowong, Brisbane, he married Margaret Letitia Elwin (Letty) Steen, his former long-term secretary. Survived by his wife and the two sons and four daughters of his first marriage, Sir Reginald died on 10 March 1990 at Central Castra. Following a state funeral at the Uniting Church, Ulverstone, he was buried in Ulverstone general cemetery beside his brother Sir Roy Douglas Wright, who had died ten days previously and with whom he had been reconciled after a long estrangement caused by their rivalry and divergent political views.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Whitington, Ring the Bells (1956)
  • A. Reid, The Gorton Experiment (1971)
  • D. Whitington and R. Chalmers, Inside Canberra (1971)
  • S. Bennett and B. Bennett, Biographical Register of the Tasmanian Parliament 1851-1960 (1980)
  • S. Bennett, ‘Wright, Sir Reginald Charles’, in Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol 3 (2010)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 24 Nov 1959, p 1777, 28 Oct 1965, p 1313, 8 May 1990, p 26
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 8 May 1990, p 45
  • Bulletin, 13 June 1978, p 17
  • Canberra Times, 2 Apr 1969, p 10
  • Mercury (Hobart), 5 July 1978, p 5, 12 Mar 1990, p 1
  • Examiner (Launceston), 8 July 1978, p 7, 12 Mar 1990, p 3
  • Advocate (Burnie), 12 Mar 1990, pp 1, 2
  • B883, item TX6066 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Wright, Sir Reginald Charles (1905–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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