January 16, 2007 | Jeff Wall

Sir James Killen and the politician he admired most of all…

Of the numerous friendships Sir James Killen had during his long political career, the most interesting was that with the colleague he admired above all others, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies.
I have written elsewhere that my late friend lamented the almost total absence of any contact with Malcolm Fraser in his retirement. But he rejoiced in the fact that, during Sir Robert Menzies latter years, Jim was in many ways closer to him than any of Menzies former colleagues, with the possible exception of the same Malcolm Fraser.
It was not always thus. Jim served under the leadership of Menzies for the first 11 years of his parliamentary career. He did not receive any promotion to ministerial or other office in that time.
Though he had more contact with Prime Minister Menzies than many of his colleagues, it cannot be said they were close.
Indeed, Jim Killen MP was something of an irritant to Menzies, albeit a “tolerated” one.
It impressed Menzies that Jim read extensively, and, like the great man himself, could speak in Parliament without notes. Jim would often seek him out to talk over a major speech Menzies had given, or to enquire about a response he gave in question time – especially to questions from the more formidable Labor MPs such as Arthur Calwell, Eddie Ward, Leslie Haylen and Gough Whitlam.
But Jim incurred the concern, if not the wrath, of the PM because of his close friendship with rebel MP’s such as Billy Wentworth and Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes.
He also campaigned extensively throughout Great Britain against Britain’s entry into the European Common Market and he was a supporter of the Ian Smith regime in Zimbabwe. These were causes that created some discomfort in the Liberal Party in Canberra. And while Menzies allowed him to speak in a major debate on the Common Market, it did not improve his prospects of promotion.
But after Menzies retired in 1966, to be succeeded by Harold Holt, who Killen was reasonably close to, their friendship blossomed.
Even though it rated only a passing mention in Jim’s memoirs, Inside Canberra, I know from my own extensive conversations with him over the last 20 years that he treasured the latter day friendship he developed with Menzies.
Virtually every time he went to Melbourne he would call on Menzies either at his city office, or after Menzies’ health began to fail, at his Malvern residence.
Even after Menzies died in 1978 he kept in regular contact with Dame Pattie Menzies, and her daughter, Heather.
On one visit, Menzies enquired: “What brings you to Melbourne, Killen? A horse race I presume.” He was spot on as usual.
Jim was a friend of the finest jockey I have ever seen – and have entrusted my bets on – Roy Higgins. The day after he saw Menzies he told Higgins he had visited the former PM. Higgins said he had always wanted to meet Sir Robert.
Jim Killen duly arranged it. Menzies – who had absolutely no interest in horse racing, much to the chagrin of Killen and Holt who were avid racegoers – and Roy Higgins got on famously.
When Killen next visited Menzies, he was staggered to be told that he was gaining immense enjoyment out following the races- or at least the Roy Higgins rides, many of which were successful ones given that Higgins was the dominant jockey in Australia at the time.
The experience gave Jim immense pleasure – given that Harold Holt had told him that he tried for years to get Menzies to attend the Melbourne Cup without success!
My one regret is that ill health in recent years prevented Jim from completing a project that would have attracted immense interest from historians, politicians and students of politics.
Jim was not only an industrious letter and note writer. He assiduously kept virtually every letter and note of significance he sent or received over the last 50 years.
His excellent memory – and it was excellent to the end – together with his most extensive collection of letters and notes were to form the basis of a book on the politicians of note he had known…Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Fadden, McEwen, Barwick, Whitlam, Daly, Eddie Ward, among them. And he was a friend of George Herbert Walker Bush, Lord George Brown, the controversial UK Deputy Prime Minister, and the Duke of Edinburgh, among others.
He had planned to write extensively about each of them and more. But his recollections of his friendship with Menzies in the latter’s retirement alone would have been a significant addition to the history of Australian politics.
It was a friendship that was a long time developing – but the one he treasured above all.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:17 am | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Australian Politics

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Wall:
    Killen was indeed an excellent speaker, I’ll give him that ….. but as one of his former constituents and a returned serviceman, my view of him was, remains and shall ever be that of an ignoble and untrustworthy man. Good manners says that one should not speak ill of the dead. Indeed so …. but in Killen’s case I have no regrets whatsoever in making an exception …. nor will I ever forgive, never……

    Comment by Graham Bell — January 17, 2007 @ 11:40 pm

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