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Tuesday, 8 February 2011
Page: 3

Senator ABETZ (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:39 PM) —Charles Ronald ‘Ron’ Maunsell served as a senator for Queensland from 1968 to 1981, representing the Country Party and later the National Country Party. He served as Deputy President and Chairman of Committees and in the positions of both whip and then deputy Senate leader of his party. Ron Maunsell came from pioneering stock. The story of his family’s life in Far North Queensland is like something out of the film Australia but totally authentic, and the story of Ron Maunsell’s life provides a link to Northern Australia’s early settlement. The life of his mother, Evelyn Evans, was recorded by Hector Holthouse in S’pose I Die. She was described as ‘an English rose on a world tour as a companion for a wealthy matron’ but met Ron’s father, Charles Maunsell, who was on a brief visit to Sydney before taking up a position as manager at Mount Mulgrave Station on the Mitchell River near Mareeba. They decided to marry within a week and, after five months waiting for her father’s permission, they married in Cairns and began life together in a tin shed with a concrete floor, where Evelyn learned to cope with flood, snakes, sickness and isolation. Evelyn ran a small school for Aboriginal children on the property, but once, when Charles was away mustering, she had to hide under a bed to elude hostile Aboriginals while an Aboriginal woman saved her life by telling them she was away.

Ron was born in Cairns in 1922. Evelyn had already lost two babies in the bush and was determined not to go back, especially in the wet season, to get malaria again and have another miscarriage. Five weeks later, Evelyn took Ron home to Wrotham Park, where Charles was now manager—first to Chillagoe by train, then by buggy with Charlie, with the bassinet hanging at the back of the buggy seat due to the heat. At night, Charlie and Evelyn camped outside on a bed of branches and long grass, their clothes rolled up to make pillows, their new baby between them, and thanked God for His blessings. When they arrived home, the Aboriginal women, who had never seen a white baby before, were fascinated and kept saying over and over ‘Missus bringem back white piccaninny’. That night, the Aboriginals asked Evelyn and Charlie to come to the creek to see the big new corroboree about the arrival of the first white baby at Wrotham Park.

Later the family cleared a small dairy block near Malanda on the Atherton Tableland. Ron Maunsell attended the local state school before boarding at Charters Towers. Describing himself as a dairy hand, Ron enlisted in the RAAF as soon as he was old enough and served as a pilot in Australia until 1945, then went with 77 Squadron to Morotai Island and with the occupation forces to Japan until 1947, rising to the rank of flight lieutenant. After his discharge from the RAAF, Ron went dam sinking and then in 1951 went into partnership with his parents in the purchase of Rio, a 10,000-acre sheep station near Longreach. Ron became involved in local community organisations and the United Graziers Association and was active in the Country Party. As president of the division of Kennedy, he helped Bob Katter Sr win the seat and after eight years on the Country Party central council, including several years as the party’s vice-president, in 1967 he won preselection for the Senate.

In 1969 Evelyn and Charlie, together with Ron’s wife, Joan, and their three daughters, came to Canberra to see him take his seat. They must have been immensely proud. In his time in the Senate, Senator Maunsell raised issues which concerned people living in remote areas, including access to medicine, transport and communications, taxation concessions, decentralisation and support for pastoral industries. His maiden speech dealt with the fact that 85 per cent of the continent did not have television. He opposed death duties, concerned at the impact they had on the estates of primary producers. No doubt if he were still here he would be amazed that at least one party in this place still retains this policy. He took up defence and veterans issues. He served on the landmark Senate Select Committee on Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse in Australia and was a member of the 1973 Australian delegation which visited the Soviet Union.

Ron’s genial and laid-back exterior, as evidenced by his well-known friendly chuckle, belied a sharp political mind. He had a great sense of humour, painting an old rabbit trap with words to this effect: ‘The Maunsell patented reps trap to keep our staff intact.’ This was to protect the Country Party senator’s female staff from receiving too much attention from male House of Representatives staffers whom he had noticed hovering in the vicinity of his office. He was very good with his hands, making his own cruet set from miniature Dimple Haig bottles, the contents of which had refreshed him on many trips between Cairns and Canberra. Needless to say, he made a leather case to go with it. I have both these artefacts in my office for anyone who would like to inspect them.

However, Ron Maunsell is perhaps best remembered for his role in the night of the long prawns, the best account of which is in Paul Davey’s very recent book Ninety not out. Frustrated by its position in the Senate in 1974, the Whitlam government enticed Queensland DLP senator Vince Gair to accept an appointment as ambassador to Ireland. The aim was to have the Senate vacancy contested at the upcoming half-Senate election rather than by a vote of the Queensland parliament, giving Labor the chance of increasing its representation. The catch, as Doug Anthony realised, was that Gair had to give his resignation to the President of the Senate, Magnus Cormack, before Queensland issued writs for the half-Senate election which Whitlam had called. Ron Maunsell volunteered to keep Gair occupied until after Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had writs issued for the half-Senate election in Queensland. In what became immortalised as ‘the night of the long prawns’, Maunsell invited Gair to his office to partake in some scotch, beer and prawns, which Maunsell was renowned for bringing to Canberra from Cairns. As Ninety not out states:

According to Maunsell, Cormack had known what was going on and ‘kept disappearing on the verandah all the time … I’m pretty sure he—

that is, Gair—

twigged as to what was going on, but he didn’t want to move. The scotch bottle interested him more than anything else.’

Maunsell steered Gair to the chamber for a vote just before 10 pm, stymieing government attempts to argue Gair had effectively resigned when the Governor-General had approved his appointment. According to Davey, Maunsell stuck to Gair like glue, leaving no opportunity for Murphy or any other Labor senator to get close enough to haul him before Cormack. He then spirited Gair back to his office, where the two remained ensconced until an hour or so after Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced to the Queensland parliament at 1.40 am a special gazette for the election of only five senators at a half-Senate election.

The end to Maunsell’s career came not uniquely as a result of internecine Queensland politics. Following the Liberal Party’s decision to run a separate Senate ticket in Queensland, Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson arranged for his wife, Florence, to seek the top position on the National Country Party Senate ticket. By one account:

This caused some heartburn in the party: it meant dumping Ron Maunsell, hero of the Night of the Long Prawns … but Lyons stitched up the numbers for Florence … in a tight race at the party conference. The Joh & Flo Show was an instant media success; Bjelke-Petersen was perceived to have executed another political masterstroke.

Maunsell made a further bid for preselection in 1983 but was unsuccessful. In 1984 he and his wife, Joan, retired from Cairns to a property on the Sunshine Coast hinterland where he became an orchardist. In 1981 he was made an honorary life member of his party.

Ron Maunsell passed away in Cairns, the town where his parents were married and where he was born, on 17 December 2010. With his departure, we lose yet another of our living links with Australia’s pioneering past. Our heartfelt condolences and respect go to his wife, Joan, his children, Joanne, Margaret and Barbara, and his entire family, together with our gratitude for Ron Maunsell’s public life and service to the Senate, the Country Party and regional Australia.