Death Of Robert Reginald Downing, A Former Minister Of The Crown

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SpeakersHannaford The Hon John; Johnson The Hon John; Egan The Hon Michael; Webster The Hon Robert; Kirkby The Hon Elisabeth; Nile Reverend The Hon Fred


The PRESIDENT: I regret to inform the House of the death on 9 September 1994 of Robert Reginald Downing, AC, QC, aged 89 years, a former member of this House.

The Hon. J. P. HANNAFORD (Attorney General, Minister for Justice, and Vice President of the Executive Council) [2.43]: I move:
      (1) That this House express and place on record its deep regret in the loss sustained to the State by the death on 9 September 1994 of Mr Robert Reginald Downing, AC, QC, former Attorney-General and Leader of the Government in this House.
      (2) That this resolution be communicated by the President to the family of the deceased.

I express my regret at the death of Reg Downing, Esq., a former Leader of the Government in this House and the State's longest-serving Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Reg Downing was
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born in Tumut in 1904. He was educated at Tumut Convent School and later at St Patrick's College, Goulburn. Honourable members would be interested to know that over the past 60 years St Patrick's College has produced four Attorneys General - Joseph Lamaro, from 1931 to 1932; Billy Sheahan, from 1953 to 1956; Reg Downing, from 1956 to 1965; and me. One might say that St Patrick's record is extraordinary. Later this month the school had planned to honour Reg Downing. It was proposed to give him the college's Age Quod Agis award in recognition of his living out the full meaning of the college motto: "Idealism in action and the reward for its pursuance". I know it will be a matter of great sorrow to both his family and his school that he did not live to have the honour conferred upon him.

After leaving school at the age of 15 Reg Downing's first job was sorting rabbit skins. He later came to Sydney and worked in a textile factory where he developed an interest in trade union affairs. Through hard work and an ability to totally represent the needs of the people he worked with he became President of the Australian Textile Workers Union in 1928. By that time Reg Downing was already a member of the Australian Labor Party. He stood for preselection, and in 1940 was duly elected a member of the Legislative Council. During this time Reg Downing was, quite remarkably, halfway through a four-year course in law, having matriculated in 1938 after putting in long hours of study while at the Australian Textile Workers Union. His dedication to hard work and his willingness to improve himself in order to better serve the people of this State is a mark of the type of man he was.

As a third-year law student Reg Downing became Minister of Justice and Vice-President of the Executive Council in the McKell Government when it came to office in 1941. He was admitted to the bar in March 1943. In 32 years as a member of the Legislative Council he served as Leader of the Government and Vice-President of the Executive Council for 24 of those years, Minister of Justice for 19 years, Attorney-General for nine years and Leader of the Opposition for seven years. This was a remarkable personal achievement. It was also an achievement for the serving Government to have found and to have held a man of such profound commitment. His singular contribution to the law included pioneering measures in consumer law, women's rights and uniform national companies legislation. He played a major role in establishing the Suitors Fund and law reform committees, which became the precursors of the Law Reform Commission, and he actively pursued the abolition of capital punishment in New South Wales.

As Minister of Justice, Reg Downing was extremely active. He travelled overseas to examine many aspects of prison systems in operation in other countries. He will be remembered for never losing sight of the humanitarian aspects of prison control. He implemented new training and educational opportunities for prisoners in New South Wales gaols that were the forerunners of the systems in place today. After his departure from government in 1965 Reg Downing returned to active practice at the bar, taking silk in 1973 and thereafter appearing in a number of celebrated High Court and Privy Council cases prior to his retirement. He was a Fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney for 18 years and received an honorary doctorate of laws from that university in 1972.

Reg Downing was also a foundation member of the New South Wales Cancer Council and was very active within the Australian Cancer Society. The naming of the Downing Centre in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, in 1991 honoured a man who devoted 32 years to making and practising law in New South Wales. On behalf of the New South Wales Government and this House I convey to members of his family, some of whom are close personal friends of mine, that our thoughts and prayers are with them at this time. I should like to note also the passing of the former New South Wales Minister of Justice and member of the Legislative Assembly from 1952 to 1971, Jack Mannix, who passed away on 17 June. To his wife, his children and grandchildren, I extend the condolences of this House.

The Hon. J. R. JOHNSON [2.48]: I speak on behalf of the Opposition. Robert Reginald Downing, Esq., AC, QC, died on 9 September 1994. He was the last of the original McKell Ministers. Today we pay honour to this great Australian. Reg Downing, inter alia, was the quintessential politician; indeed, the quintessential parliamentarian. We who knew him well were singularly honoured, for he could always be relied on. He loved his family; he loved his God; he loved this institution. He cherished his Irish ancestry. He loved his trade union; he had much love for his beloved Australian Labor Party. Above all, he loved his fellow men and, in turn, was loved by all who knew him. He was a man of singular virtue. In the almost 40 years that I knew him I never once heard an unkind remark or word made about him. In a parliamentary context, he was the original cedar of Lebanon. He was a giant of a man; he was a dedicated visionary.

Reg Downing entered the portals of this institution on 23 April 1940 and exited them on 4 February 1972 after 32 years of glorious service. From 1941 to 1956 he was the Leader of the Government in this Chamber, Minister of Justice, and Vice-President of the Executive Council. From 1956 to 1960 he was Attorney-General, Minister of Justice, and Vice-President of the Executive Council. From 1962 to 1965 he was Attorney General and Vice-President of the Executive Council, as well as being the Leader of the Opposition. Reg Downing had an extraordinary influence on people, particularly me. During the time in the 1950s when I was State President of Young Labor, Reg was always, and in all ways, prepared to open his door to me and the then Secretary of Young Labor, the Hon. Deirdre Grusovin. He attended our functions and conferences. He was always prepared to lend a willing ear to the young and was ever ready with sound practical advice. I try to emulate him by never closing my door to the young.

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This Chamber was fortunate in the extreme to have a man of such capacity as its leader of government or opposition for such a long period of great change. The 40-hour week, long service leave, up-to-date workers' compensation, update of the industrial laws, prison reform, protection for the rights of people entering hire-purchase contracts, lay-bys and cash order agreements were part of Reg Downing's glory. Prior to entering Parliament he was schooled at the convent at Tumut and, for one year, at St Patrick's in Goulburn. After leaving school at 15, he started, as the Attorney has said, sorting rabbit skins. He moved to Sydney and was employed in the lowest paid section of Bonds Limited: in the scouring room.

As with most young fellows who have Irish mothers and who leave home, Reg followed the great traditions of joining a union, joining the Labor Party, banking Commonwealth, attending mass on Sunday and marrying a Catholic. His union was the Textile Workers Union. He rose to every position that union could offer. He served on the Federal Executive of the Australian Labor Party. He served on the executive of the New South Wales branch of the Textile Workers Union. He was a trustee of the Labor Council, president of his union, and acting secretary of the State branch in 1934, and later in that year he became the general secretary. Some years ago he was honoured for his service to law and justice in this State when the Downing Centre was named after him.

His wife and daughter predeceased him and he is survived by two sons. He had a brother, Frank, who was a former member for Ryde. His cousin was Thomas O'Mara, who from 1882 to 1889 was the member for Tumut and then Monaro. Another two of his cousins became Attorneys General of this State: the Hon. Terry Sheahan and the Hon. Billy Sheahan. It was indeed a remarkable family. I can remember Reg telling me on one occasion how he came to do law. When he was elected as a trade union official he had an accident at Marrickville. During his long period of convalescence in hospital he was visited by his long-time friend W. J. McKell. McKell said to him, "Mate, you have got to matriculate". He matriculated in one year. He was not a good student but he put his head down.

McKell then said to him, "Do law". He did law. He rose to the highest position offered by the law in New South Wales. McKell nurtured him. On one occasion he suggested that he should nominate for the Legislative Council. McKell said to him, "I haven't got the numbers. So-and-so will win if you don't nominate, but if you nominate, you will win". Downing won with McKell's support. As I said, he first entered this institution on 23 April 1940. By 1941 he was a Minister. For more than 25 years he served as a Minister, and he served well. McKell and Downing were a unique couple. They knew all the greats of the Australian Labor Party. They had a very close association with Curtin and Chifley.

Indeed, when the seat of Werriwa was about to become vacant it was proposed that Reg Downing take the seat of Hubert Peter Lazzarini, the then member for Werriwa. However, that was not to be so. Reg decided to continue here, and Edward Gough Whitlam filled that position. Reg Downing did not get the proposal through this House that a referendum be held to abolish the Legislative Council, which was in accordance with then Labor policy. Following the constitutional requirements being fulfilled, the question was subsequently put to the people and was defeated, one of the only defeats he ever suffered. He had one other defeat, and that was in relation to the appointment of the Chief Justice of New South Wales, the former leader of the Australian Labor Party in the national Parliament, H. V. Evatt. Under no circumstances did McKell want him, but he was rolled in Cabinet and H. V. Evatt became the Chief Justice of New South Wales.

I am sure a considerable number of honourable members will recall that some years ago I had a young man named Tim Mitchell working for me. One day I said to him, "I want you to have lunch with me and one of the greats of the Australian Labor movement, Reg Downing". At the time Tim was a little aimless and did not know where he was going. Downing poked his finger at him and said to him, "Son, do law". Tim graduated earlier this year and is now working at Freehills. He has a lot to thank Reg Downing for. Reg Downing had a unique habit in which he often indulged in this House and up until a short time ago when I visited him in hospital. He would remove his glasses, clasp them in his hand and wave them at the person to whom he was speaking. At times one would see his staff take his glasses from him, and Reg would wonder what had happened. There was so much hand grease on the glasses that it was almost impossible to see through them.

Reg Downing was one of those unique beings who do not cross our paths often. This nation is the poorer for his passing. The Australian Labor Party will be forever grateful to him, for there is no doubt that he and Archbishop James Carroll, during the split in the Australian Labor Party, played the greatest part in keeping it together in this State. There is no doubt that in the annals of Labor history Reg Downing is, indeed, one of the cedars of Lebanon. I have expressed these remarks with deep regret, but he is worthy of them all. He was a great man. May he rest in peace.

The Hon. M. R. EGAN (Leader of the Opposition) [3.01]: It was appropriate that the Hon. J. R. Johnson, a former President of this House and a man who knew the late Reg Downing very well, should have led for the Opposition in this condolence motion this afternoon. I do, however, want to be associated personally with the tributes that have been paid to the late Reg Downing. In 1991, when I was elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party in this House, amongst the people who contacted me to congratulate me were four very eminent persons. One of them was the late Jack Mannix, a personal friend of mine and a former Minister of Justice whom I was
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very glad the Minister mentioned in his earlier remarks. The other three were Pat Hills, a former Leader of the Opposition in the other place, and two former Labor Party leaders in this House, Barrie Unsworth and Neville Wran. What struck me was that all four of them said exactly the same thing, "Son, you have now got Reg Downing's job". It was a tribute to Reg Downing that, 20 years after his departure from this Parliament, these eminent former members of Parliament still regarded the party leadership in this place as being Reg Downing's job. It was a recognition of the pre-eminent role that Reg Downing had played in this House for so many years.

Reg was not merely a great figure in this Parliament; he was also a great figure in the Australian Labor movement. As the Hon. J. R. Johnson has pointed out, he was a loyal son of the Australian Labor Party and a very loyal son of the trade union movement. An occasional scan of past editions of Hansard will often produce contributions made to debate by the Hon. Reg Downing. Any contribution by him was noteworthy for its brevity, for the conciseness of its logic and clarity and for the elegance of its language. From all that I know about him, have heard about him and have read about him Reg Downing was, without doubt, the major figure in this Chamber during this century. I am very pleased to join with the Leader of the Government and with the Hon. J. R. Johnson in extending my condolences to his children and to his grandchildren, and in congratulating them on the great life that Reg Downing had.

The Hon. R. J. WEBSTER (Minister for Planning, and Minister for Housing) [3.03]: On behalf of the National Party in this House, I wish to express my condolences to the family of the former Labor Attorney-General and member of this House Reg Downing. In occupying the office of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General for a total of 24 years, he held the distinction of being the longest serving Minister in the history of the New South Wales Parliament. His career spanned an often tumultuous period in the political history of New South Wales and Australia, a period in which he played a prominent role. He was regarded by many in his day as an ALP fixer and king-maker. At the time of his resignation from this House in 1972 he was described as the grey eminence of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party. He was involved in the removal of the former New South Wales Premier, Jack Lang, from the leadership of the party.

The Hon. Reg Downing served under five Labor Premiers during and after the war and in the 1950s he was a key player, as the Hon. J. R. Johnson has said, in the factional troubles of the ALP, helping to keep the split from damaging the New South Wales branch. He was a pallbearer at the funeral of perhaps Australia's best-loved Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Reg Downing represented the type of Labor politician rarely seen these days. From a poor family, he left school at 15 to start his first job, sorting rabbit skins. He later became involved in the union movement through his direct experience as a textile worker, then went on to lead the Textile Workers Union before entering politics in 1940 as a member of this House, beginning his long and distinguished career in New South Wales political life.

I had the pleasure of knowing Reg Downing personally. He was a constituent of mine during the time I was the member for Goulburn. Whenever I saw Reg Downing, as the Hon. J. R. Johnson has said, he was unfailingly friendly, and, indeed, gave me quite a lot of support and encouragement - which is not to say that he gave me his vote. His sons Bob and Frank are also well known to me. I still see them regularly manning polling booths in the far-flung reaches of the Hume and Burrinjuck electorates. Reg Downing did not lose his touch. When it was proposed, indeed by the last Labor Government in New South Wales, to build the Goulburn bypass, with possible affect upon land he owned, he took the Government to court and compelled it to conduct an environmental impact study. This somewhat delayed the construction of that bypass. It was the talent he had. On behalf of the National Party, I offer my sincere commiserations to the family of Reg Downing. He was, indeed, a great Australian.

The Hon. ELISABETH KIRKBY [3.06]: On behalf of the Australian Democrats I pay tribute to Mr Reginald Downing, AC, QC, a member of this Chamber for 32 years from 1940 to 1972. As has already been pointed out by previous speakers, 24 of those years were spent as a Cabinet Minister. From what I have read and from what I have heard today it is obvious that Reg Downing leaves us a shining example of how a man or a woman can rise from humble beginnings to very great heights. He left school at the age of 15. His first job was as a sorter of rabbit skins, but he then went on to work in the textile industry and became a member of the trade union movement. He achieved an award for knitwear workers, rights for pieceworkers, proportion of juniors to adults in the industry and the inclusion of annual holidays in the textile workers' awards. My father and my grandfather were in the textile industry in Lancashire and I know how important those awards must have been to textile workers in New South Wales. Certainly, prior to World War II the working conditions for textile workers in the Lancashire textile mills were no matter for pride.

As has been explained already, Mr Downing also showed remarkable determination and ability, completing his education while working as a union secretary. He then became a member of this Chamber and finally, Minister of Justice. Mr Downing's achievements as Minister of Justice and also as Attorney-General are very dear to my heart. He was known for keeping the humanitarian aspects of prison control firmly in his sights. He promoted schemes for the rehabilitation of prisoners during their term of imprisonment and after their release. It was Mr Downing who introduced education programs to gaols, allowing prisoners to sit for the intermediate and leaving certificate examinations. I believe that it must have been as unheard of for him to introduce that legislation then as it is difficult for us today to achieve proper training for prisoners in gaols.

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Mr Downing was also responsible for introducing legislation to protect the rights of persons entering into hire-purchase, lay-by and cash order agreements - again, well before his time - to protect ordinary people from being disadvantaged. During his term in public office, Reg Downing was actively involved in the community. He was a trustee of Taronga Park from 1942 to 1972. He was an honorary member of the New South Wales State Cancer Council and he was also, eventually, president of the Australian Cancer Society from 1969 to 1972. He was a Fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney from 1949 to 1967 - a singular honour for a man who matriculated later in life and who took his law degree late in life when he was already engaged in full-time work. From all this and from all that we have heard today it is very clear that Reg Downing served the people of New South Wales well by his compassion, diligence and determination to succeed. He certainly set an example from which we should all be able to learn. On behalf of my party, the Australian Democrats, I extend condolences and sympathy to his family and close associates, who will now mourn his passing.

Reverend the Hon. F. J. NILE [3.10]: It gives me great pleasure on behalf of the Call to Australia party to support the condolence motion moved by the Attorney General, Minister for Justice, and Leader of the Government in this House, supported by the Hon. J. R. Johnson on behalf of the Opposition. As other honourable members have said, the late Reginald Downing, AC, QC, was a great Australian achiever. It is no mean achievement for someone to commence his working life at the age of 15 having just left school, to be involved in odd jobs sorting rabbit skins at Tumut and from that very humble and harsh beginning to rise to the positions which he held as a member of this House from April 1940 to February 1972 when he resigned: Attorney-General of this State from March 1956 to May 1965, Minister of Justice from May 1941 to May 1960, Vice-President of the Executive Council from May 1941 to May 1965 and Leader of the Opposition in this House from 1965 to 1972. As I said, he certainly deserves the title of great Australian achiever.

Next I refer to his history of achievement. After several years of employment, he returned to university, matriculated and achieved his Bachelor of Laws. That was a great achievement. In 1941, while doing that law course and still in his third year of studies, he was appointed Minister of Justice and Vice-President of the Executive Council under the McKell Government. In 1956 he was appointed Attorney-General and completed a record term of 19 years and five days as Minister of Justice. He again held this post after the change of government in 1965. For four years he held two law ministries.

His achievements included prison reform and protection of the rights of people entering into hire-purchase, lay-by and cash order agreements. On the day of his retirement from the Legislative Council, aged 67, he said that the greatest achievement of Labor during his term, one in which he played a major role, had been the improvement in working conditions, including the 40-hour week, long service leave and workers compensation. It is with great pleasure that Call to Australia supports the condolence motion and expresses sympathy to his children and other family members. They must be very proud of the achievements of Robert Reginald Downing.

The PRESIDENT: I take the opportunity to be associated with this motion. I am the only member of this House who was a fellow member of Reg Downing from 1970 until the time of his retirement in 1972. During that period he was the Leader of the Opposition. I was a very young member and his performance in that role made a very significant impression upon me. He was an absolute gentleman in his dealings with members on both sides of the House and on the crossbenches, they then being the people who had brought him undone over the referendum for the abolition of this House.

He was a giant of a parliamentarian. It was at the end of his parliamentary career that I saw him in practice, after he had acquired many years of accumulated knowledge as a politician, parliamentarian and Minister of the Crown. Since then I have not heard any member perform in this Parliament with the depth of knowledge of the law, of legislation, and of the practice and procedure of Parliament, as I was privileged to hear from Reg Downing in that short period. I count it a singular honour to have been able to serve in this place in his company for at least that short time.

Out there in the wide world I disagreed on only one occasion with what he did in this House. At the first referendum in which I ever voted I voted against the abolition of this House. Even at that age I had the embryonic idea of coming into this place. I told him that on one occasion. He said to me with a wry smile, "Well, Max, self-interest is always the ultimate interest". I join with honourable members in extending to his sons and to other members of his family my sympathy in his passing after a great and long life of service to this State and to this nation. I count it a singular and very special honour to have known this great man and to have been with him a member of this distinguished and honourable House.

Members and officers of the House standing in their places,

Motion agreed to.