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The Honourable
 Sir Eric Willis

In office
23 January 1976 – 14 May 1976
Deputy Leon Punch (1976)
Preceded by Tom Lewis
Succeeded by Neville Wran

In office
17 June 1950 – 16 June 1978
Preceded by New district
Succeeded by Ken Gabb

Born 15 January 1922(1922-01-15)
Murwillumbah, New South Wales Australia
Died 10 May 1999 (aged 77)
Sydney, New South Wales New South Wales
Political party Liberal Party of Australia

Sir Eric Archibald Willis, KBE, CMG (15 January 1922 – 10 May 1999) was a New South Wales politician and Cabinet Minister in the government of Sir Robert Askin for the Liberal Party of Australia. Willis was Premier of New South Wales, Australia from 23 January 1976 to 14 May 1976, when he lost the election to Leader of the NSW Labor Party, Neville Wran, by two seats.[1]


Early life

Willis was born in in January 1922 in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, the first son of Archibald Clarence Willis, butter factory hand and First World War veteran, and his wife Vida Mabel Buttenshaw.[2] The youngest brother was NSW Legislative Council Member from 1970-1999 and President from 1991-1998, Max Willis.[1] He was educated at Tyalgum Public School and then at Murwillumbah High School, at which he was Dux of his year and won a scholarship to study Arts at Sydney University.[1]

He received a Bachelor of Arts with honours in History and Geography (BA (Hons)) from the University of Sydney in 1942.[2] He served in the Second Australian Imperial Force from 1941 to 1946 in Army Intelligence in New Guinea and Philippines during the Second World War, before he was discharged with the rank of Sergeant. He continued to serve in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF), achieving the rank of Major, until retiring in 1958. He married Norma Knight on 11 May 1951[3] and they had one daughter and two sons.

Early political career

Willis joined the newly-formed Liberal Party of Australia in 1945, after hearing a speech by Sir Robert Menzies.[4] Willis sought preselection for the federal seat of Evans in the 1949 federal election but was defeated in favour of Frederick Osborne.[1] Instead, Willis gained preselection for and contested the Labor seat of Lang and gained 45.3% of the vote but was defeated by the sitting member, Daniel Mulcahy.[1]

Willis was elected to the newly created seat of Earlwood in the inner southwestern suburbs of Sydney in 1950 and gained a reputation as rebel in the House, always attacking the Labor Speakers, and consequently being expelled from the house more than any other member.[4] During his time as member for Earlwood, Willis catered to the changing demographics of his electorate by creating the first-ever Greek branch of the Liberal Party and formed the first Young Liberals branch in Australia, which counted among its recruits future Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007).[4] In 1959, when the Liberal leadership was vacated by Pat Morton, Willis declined to run for the leadership and Deputy-Leader Robert Askin was made Leader. Willis then ran unopposed an subsequently became Deputy-Leader.[4]

In 1965, the general election ended 24 years of Labor government and began the ministerial career of Willis which spanned the entire length of the Coalition Government. He held the post of Chief Secretary and Minister for Tourism from the election of the Askin government in May 1965 to June 1972.[2] Willis was appointed Minister for Labour and Industry from 1965 to March 1971 and during that same time he was also Minister for Sport. From June 1972 to January 1976 he was Minister for Education, where he presided over a huge expansion of Schools, teachers and ancillary staff. Willis was regarded as the outstanding minister of the Askin Government and is considered one of the state's greatest Education Ministers.[4]


Upon Askin's retirement in January 1975, Willis was seen as the favourite to take the Premiership. However, Askin had been privately supporting the Minister for Lands, Tom Lewis.[4] Willis, sure he had support, refused to campaign, and the party put its support behind Lewis, leading to his election to Premier. Willis was then replaced as Deputy by John Maddison. Lewis was Premier for only one year and looked increasingly likely to lead the state Liberals to defeat. Therefore on 20 January 1976, the Parliamentary Liberal party voted Willis as leader 22 votes to 11 and became Premier.[4]

In his time as Premier he extensively reshuffled the cabinet, dropping five ministers in an attempt to distance himself from the past. His most significant decision was to set up in April 1976 the long-demanded inquiry into the prison system in the form of a Royal Commission under Justice Nagle. Willis also introduced Daylight Saving time, to be decided upon in a referendum.[4]

In May 1976, in a snap election, Willis' Government lost power to the Labor Party under Neville Wran. The election was notable for being very close run; with the seats of Gosford and Hurstville being lost by only 74 and 44 votes respectively. Had Willis retained those seats he would have remained in government.[4] At that same election Daylight Saving time for New South Wales was passed by 68.4 percent for and 31.6 percent against. Whenever Willis was asked what his greatest achievement as Premier was, he would always say "Daylight Saving".[5]


The Willis Cabinet

  • Sir Eric Willis, Premier and Treasurer
  • Leon Punch, Deputy Premier, Minister for Public Works, Minister for Ports (CP)
  • Neil Pickard, Minister for Education
  • Dick Healey, Minister for Health
  • John Maddison, Attorney General, Minister for Justice
  • Bruce Cowan, Minister for Agriculture, Minister for Water Resources (CP)
  • Peter Coleman, Chief Secretary
  • Thomas Lewis, Minister for Local Government
  • James Bruxner, Minister for Transport, Minister for Highways (CP)
  • George Freudenstein, Minister for Mines, Minister for Energy (CP)
  • Max Ruddock, Assistant Treasurer, Minister for Revenue
  • Ian Griffith, Minister for Housing, Minister for Co-operative Societies
  • David Arblaster, Minister for Culture, Minister for Sport and Recreation, Minister for Tourism
  • Milton Morris, Minister for Decentralisation and Development
  • Colin Fisher, Minister for Lands, Minister for Forests (CP)
  • James Clough, Minister for Youth, Ethnic and Community Affairs

After politics

After the election he retained the Liberal leadership but proved to be less than suited for opposition. On 19 January 1977, eighty three people died as a result of the Granville rail disaster. In response to this Willis declared that there had never been as many deaths on the railways during Liberal Government. The insensitive remark sparked a leadership challenge.[4]

On the 16 December 1977 Willis resigned and was replaced as leader by Peter Coleman. Willis resigned as Member for Earlwood on 16 June 1978, at the age of 56.[2]

After retiring from politics Willis held positions with various medical colleges and the Arthritis Foundation of which he was Executive Director from 1984-1991. Willis also spent time as Vice-President of the Red Cross (NSW Branch).[2] Willis left his residence in Bardwell Park and moved to Neutral Bay, where his marriage collapsed.[4]

He divorced his first wife, Norma Knight, and remarried. He died in Sydney on 10 May 1999.[2]



Parliament of New South Wales
New district Member for Earlwood
1950 – 1978
Succeeded by
Ken Gabb
Party political offices
Preceded by
Sir Robert Askin
Deputy Leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party
1959 – 1975
Succeeded by
John Maddison
Preceded by
Tom Lewis
Leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party
1976 – 1977
Succeeded by
Peter Coleman
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Charles Cutler
Minister for Education
1972 – 1976
Succeeded by
Neil Pickard
Preceded by
Tom Lewis
Premier of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Neville Wran
Treasurer of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Jack Renshaw
Preceded by
Neville Wran
Leader of the Opposition of New South Wales
1976 – 1977
Succeeded by
Peter Coleman


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