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The Honourable
 Sir Robert Askin
 GCMG

Askin after his electoral win in 1973

32nd Premier of New South Wales
Elections: 1965, 1968, 1971, 1973
In office
13 May 1965 – 3 January 1975
Deputy Sir Charles Cutler (1965-1975)
Preceded by Jack Renshaw
Succeeded by Tom Lewis

In office
17 November 1973 – 3 January 1975
Preceded by New district
Succeeded by Bruce Webster

In office
17 July 1959 – 13 May 1965
Preceded by Pat Morton
Succeeded by Jack Renshaw

Born 4 May 1907(1907-05-04)
Australia Sydney, New South Wales
Died 9 September 1981 (aged 74)
New South Wales Sydney
Political party Liberal Party of Australia

Sir Robert William Askin, GCMG (4 April 1907 – 9 September 1981) was the first Premier of New South Wales from the Liberal Party of Australia 1965 to 1975. He was born Robin William Askin, but he always disliked his first name and he changed it by deed poll in 1971. Before being knighted in 1972, however, he was generally known as "Bob Askin".

Askin was the longest serving Premier of New South Wales, a record overtaken by Neville Wran in the 1980s. Askin is the longest serving Leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party. His success at the 1965 election ended 25 years of a Labor hold on government and presented the Liberal Party as a viable alternative. However, despite the achievements and progressive attitudes of his ten years in government, Askin's reputation has been tarnished by persistent allegations that he was involved in organised crime and official corruption.[1]

Contents

Early years

Askin was born in Sydney in 1907 at the Sydney Women's Hospital to Ellen Laura Halliday and William James Askin, a worker for New South Wales Railways. Askin grew up in Glebe, a working-class inner-city suburb of Sydney.[2] However, despite these humble beginnings, after primary education at Glebe Public School, Askin was able to attend Sydney Technical High School, where he sat in the same class as the future Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. At school he gained good marks, with a particular interest in Mathematics and History, and enjoyed swimming and Rugby league.[1]

In 1922 Askin joined the Savings Bank of NSW and developed an interest in writing, doing articles for Smith's Weekly and The Bulletin. However, when the Savings Bank closed due to the Great Depression, he joined the Rural Bank of New South Wales and later became President of the Rural Bank Officers Association.[2] On 5 February 1937, at the age of 30, Askin married Mollie Underhill at the Methodist Church in Manly. Askin began his interest in politics by assisting in Percy Spender's successful campaign for the federal seat of Warringah as an Independent candidate at the 1937 election.[1]

In 1942,during World War II, Askin enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force with the rank of Private. He served in the 2/31st Infantry Battalion and saw action in New Guinea and Borneo, reaching the rank of Sergeant.[2]

Early political career

In 1946, upon demobilisation, Askin returned to work at the Rural Bank. However, his interest in politics arose again when he assisted his former commanding officer, Colonel Murray Robson, in retaining his seat of Vaucluse at the 1947 state election for the newly-formed Liberal Party of Australia, which Askin then joined.[2]

Rapidly rising through the party ranks, Askin soon became President of the Liberals' Manly branch and supported William Wentworth's successful bid for the new seat of Mackellar at the 1949 election.[2]

Askin gained preselection for and won the seat of Collaroy from at the 1950 election, gaining the seat by 63 percent of the vote.[2] As the local member, a constituency covering most of the Northern Beaches from North Manly to Pittwater, Askin protested against the lack of government development and services in the area such as sewerage, education, and transport.[2]

Opposition Leader

In July 1954 Askin was elected as Deputy-Leader of the party and persuaded his friend, Murray Robson, to become leader, succeeding Vernon Treatt, who was deposed after losing his third election. However, Robson was defeated after 13 months as leader, and was replaced by Pat Morton. However, after Morton lost the 1956 election and the 1959 election, the State Liberal party grew uneasy with his leadership and a leadership ballot was called. On the 17 July 1959 Morton was defeated by 2 votes and stepped down. When potential-candidate Eric Willis, the Member for Earlwood, refused to run for the leadership, Askin stepped forward and was elected unanimously; Willis was then elected as Deputy-Leader. [1]

When the Labor Premier, Joseph Cahill, died on 22 October 1959, he was replaced by Askin's friend and parliamentary contemporary, Robert "Bob" Heffron, which tended to slow his aggression towards the government. Askin lost the state election of 1962 to Heffron, mainly due to the averse reactions of voters towards the November 1960 "horror budget" and credit squeeze made by the federal Liberal government of Robert Menzies, losing three seats. However, despite this, Askin gained the support of prominent media businessman, Sir Frank Packer, who helped project the image of Askin and the Liberal party as a viable alternative government.[1]

The 1962 campaign against the Labor Government, now lead by Jack Renshaw and a government widely perceived to be tired and devoid of ideas, was notable for being one of Australia's first "presidential-style" campaigns, with Askin being the major focus of campaigning and a main theme of "WITH ASKIN YOU'LL GET ACTION".[1] He received vigorous support from the newspapers and TV stations owned by Packer.

At the 1965 election, the Liberal/Country Coalition gained 49.8% of the vote to 43.3% to the ALP. While the Liberals only two seats from Labor, Askin got the support of two independent members which ensured his absolute majority. Askin became Premier of New South Wales, with Country Leader, Sir Charles Cutler, as his Deputy, on 1 May 1965, ending the 24-year government of the Australian Labor Party.[1]

Premier of New South Wales

As Premier, his government was marked by strong opposition to an increase in Commonwealth powers, a tough stance on "law and order" issues, laissez-faire economic policies, and aggressive support for industrial and commercial development. At the first Cabinet meeting made by his new government, Askin restored direct air services between Sydney and Dubbo, and required Joern Utzon, the Danish architect then working on the Sydney Opera House, to provide a final price and completion date for the Opera House. His Public Works Minister Davis Hughes began to assert control over the project and demanded that costs be reined in. This brought him into direct conflict with Utzon; and in February 1966, after a bitter standoff and the suspension of progress payments by Hughes, Utzon resigned, sparking a major public outcry.[1]

In working and Industrial relations, Askin passed several reforms, removing trading-hours restriction on small businesses, abolished juries for motor accident damage cases and extended the hours for liquor trading, bringing an end to the "Six o'clock swill". The Government also moved into legal and Local Government reforms, attacking pollution and restoring the previously abolished postal voting rights in state elections.[1]

Despite its lack of ministerial experience, Askin’s cabinet made impressive reforms. Many of his government’s reforms were due to John Maddison, Minister for Justice and Sir Kenneth McCaw, Attorney General, who initiated a law reform commission, the introduction of consumer laws, an ombudsman, legal aid, health labels on cigarette packs, breath-testing of drivers, limits on vehicle emissions, the liberalisation of liquor laws, and compensation for victims of violent crime. There was also a new National Parks and Wildlife Service and a boost to transport and secondary industry. Yet the government countenanced a brutal prison regime that culminated in the 1974 Bathurst jail riots.[3]

Askin oversaw a rapid escalation of building development in inner-city Sydney and the central business district, which followed in the wake of his controversial 1967 abolition of Sydney City Council and a redistribution of municipal electoral boundaries that was aimed at reducing the power of the rival Australian Labor Party. Among his most controversial schemes were a massive freeway system that was planned to be driven through the hearts of historic inner-city suburbs including Glebe and Newtown, and an equally ambitious scheme of "slum clearance" that would have brought about the wholescale destruction of the historic areas of Woolloomooloo and The Rocks. Under Askin's administration, new developments in central Sydney rose to their highest levels ever.[3]

At the next election, in 1968, the Liberal/Country Coalition campaigned to victory against Labor's Renshaw, gaining 5 seats and an overall majority of twelve over the Labor Party and the two Independents.He was re-elected in 1971 against the Labor party's Pat Hills.[1]

Askin became embroiled in a media scandal over several words spoken to the United States Chamber of Commerce lunch in sydney in October 1968, in which he spoke of the October 1966 state visit by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson.[1] As Johnson's motorcade drove through Sydney, several anti-Vietnam War protesters, notably Graeme Dunstan, threw themselves in front of the car carrying Askin and Johnson, and when his driver asked for instructions, Askin supposedly told him to: "Run over the bastards!".[1]

Askin's Premiership was also marked by a significant increase in the activities of organised crime groups in NSW. Askin was known to be extremely fond of betting on horse racing, was often seen at the track, and was reputed to have been a "runner" for illegal SP bookmaking operations in his youth, in the Rural Bank and in the Army.[3]

Arantz Scandal

Towards the end of his career, with rumours of corruption on the increase, Askin became embroiled in another major political controversy. In 1971, while working on a computerisation program, police computer expert Phillip Arantz discovered that the NSW police service had been systematically under-reporting crime statistics for years. The obvious implication of this finding was that police were trying to conceal corruption, which allegedly extended up to the Commissioner himself, and the widespread police involvement in organised crime.[4]

Arantz took his allegations to senior police, who dismissed them out of hand. Eventually Arantz, now recognised as one of Australia's pioneer "whistle-blowers", realised that Allan was at least aware of the scheme, if not directly involved in it, and that he wanted to suppress Arantz's revelations.[4]

The frustrated Arantz eventually leaked his information to the press, so an enraged Allan began a vicious campaign to destroy Arantz's credibility. As a result, Arantz was suspended, forced to undergo a psychiatric assessment and dishonourably discharged from the force; it took him years to clear his name. In the meantime both Allan and Askin had retired, avoiding the taint from the scandal, and by the time Arantz's claims were finally vindicated, Askin and Allan were long since dead.[4]

Federal relations

As treasurer, Askin focused on the State budget and on Commonwealth-State financial relations. His attitude to the Commonwealth was shaped by his first premiers’ conference in 1965 when Sir Robert Menzies had negotiated with the Victorian premier Sir Henry Bolte at Askin’s expense, and by the strong states' rights position of the Sydney Morning Herald. At subsequent premiers’ conferences he opposed the `centralising’ tendencies of Canberra and became a strong advocate of the rights of the States.[1]

In 1968, with Bolte, he forced Prime Minister Sir John Gorton to open the conference to the press; later, he and Bolte organised an `emergency’ premiers' conference, without Gorton, to publicise the disadvantages of the States, a move that was partly responsible for the party deposition of Gorton in 1971.[3]

Askin had a dislike for Gorton's successor, William McMahon, and received financial support from McMahon when Askin threatened to open with a NSW "horror budget" that could damage Federal Liberal voting intentions. However, when McMahon lost the 1972 election to Labor Leader Gough Whitlam, relations between Sydney and Canberra got worse. Whitlam's economic centralising and decision to end legal appeals to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom drew criticism from Askin.[1]

End of Premiership

Throughout his time as Premier, he was assisted by Charles Cutler as Deputy Premier and Leader of the Country Party. Cutler served as Acting Premier at times when Askin was suffering from illness, having suffered two heart attacks in 1969 and 1973.[3]

In 1972 Askin changed his name from the supposedly effeminate "Robin" to "Robert" by a deed poll and was later appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG).[2] Later that year, taking advantage over the unease of the increasingly erratic Labor government of Gough Whitlam and the increasing economic problems seen to caused by the Federal government, Askin called an early election for 1973. However, a setback arose in the northern Sydney seat of Gordon, when the Liberal member Harry Jago failed to nominate his candidacy, thereby losing the seat to the Democratic Labor Party before the election took place.[1]

However, despite this the Coalition went to a record fourth win against the ALP of Pat Hills, increasing the Liberal/Country majority by four seats, and making Askin the only Premier to win four consecutive terms. Askin contested the election in his new seat of Pittwater, replacing his former seat of Collaroy.[2]

His last term in office was marked by conflicts between the NSW and Victorian Governments and a view that Askin was getting out of touch with the voters. Askin's last intervention was to support his Minister for Lands, Thomas Lewis, in his bid to be Askin's successor instead of the Deputy-Leader and Minister for Education, Sir Eric Willis. It was reported that Lewis had offered to upgrade Askin's Knighthood from KCMG to a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG), while Willis was uncommitted. Askin retired from politics in January 1975 and was succeeded by Lewis as Premier.[5]

His health declined still further after 1975, and he died of heart failure on 9 September 1981 in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. He left an estate valued at just under AU$2 million - a very substantial sum for the time - to his widow, Lady Askin.

The next day, an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald, credited him as "one of the ablest, most industrious and colourful political leaders of Australia's post-war era".[6] He was granted a state funeral on the 14 September that was attended by over 1000 mourners including Prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Premier Neville Wran, Mervyn Wood, Justice Lionel Murphy and Sir William McKell.[7]

Allegations of corruption

Since his death there have been persistent unproven allegations that Askin, allegedly assisted by then Police Commissioner Norman Allan, oversaw the creation of a lucrative network of corruption and bribery that involved politicians, public servants and police and the nascent Sydney organised crime syndicates.[8]

When questioned about his wealth, Askin always attributed it to the salary from his high public office, his frugal lifestyle, good investments and canny punting. After his death the Australian Taxation Office audited his estate, and although it made no finding of criminality, it determined that a substantial part of it came from undisclosed income from sources other than shares or gambling.[8]

With Askin's death, investigative journalists were freed from the threat of legal action under Australia's punitive defamation laws—unlike the United States, Australia has no constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and there is no precedent like that in U.S. law that makes truth an absolute defence. As a result, stories about his reputed corruption were circulated by the press almost immediately.[8]

Honours

  • On 14 June 1975 he was further elevated to Knight Grand Cross (GCMG), for his service as Premier.[10]

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Federation Press, The Premiers of New South Wales 1856-2005 - Volume 2, 1901-2005 (Syd, 2005),D. Clune & K. Turner.pg 347-372
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Sir Robert (Robin William) Askin (1907 - 1981)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/members.nsf/1fb6ebed995667c2ca256ea100825164/c368e12b9118be24ca256c800018902f?OpenDocument. Retrieved 8 February 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Askin, Sir Robert William (Bob) (1907 - 1981)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A170037b.htm. Retrieved 8 February 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c Sydney Morning Herald, December 22 1989, Page 8 - A year of shifts and reversals
  5. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 1999, pg 8
  6. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 1981,pg 14
  7. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1981,pg 3
  8. ^ a b c "Robert Askin: the legacy that dare not speak its name". Norman Abjorensen. Crikey.com.au. http://www.crikey.com.au/2007/04/23/robert-askin-the-legacy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name/. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  9. ^ "ASKIN, Robert William". It's an Honour: KCMG. Australian Government. http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/honour_roll/search.cfm?aus_award_id=1082616&search_type=quick&showInd=true. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 
  10. ^ "ASKIN, Robert William". It's an Honour: GCMG. Australian Government. http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/honour_roll/search.cfm?aus_award_id=1073799&search_type=quick&showInd=true. Retrieved 2009-02-23. 

Further reading

  • Hickie, David (1985). The Prince and The Premier. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. pp. 536. ISBN 0207151539. 
  • Federation Press, The Premiers of New South Wales 1856-2005 (Syd, 2005), David Clune and Ken Turner.
Parliament of New South Wales
New district Member for Collaroy
1950 – 1973
District abolished
New district Member for Pittwater
1973 – 1975
Succeeded by
Bruce Webster
Party political offices
Preceded by
Walter Howarth
Deputy Leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party
1954 – 1959
Succeeded by
Eric Willis
Preceded by
Pat Morton
Leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party
1959 – 1975
Succeeded by
Thomas Lewis
Political offices
Preceded by
Pat Morton
Leader of the Opposition of New South Wales
1959 – 1965
Succeeded by
Jack Renshaw
Preceded by
Jack Renshaw
Premier of New South Wales
1965 – 1975
Succeeded by
Tom Lewis
Treasurer of New South Wales
1965 – 1975

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