essay: John Muir Anderson obituary

Sir John Muir (“Bill”) Anderson

Combative Victorian Liberal Party President

14.9.14 – 26.9.02

Rod Anderson

Born in Brighton and schooled at Brighton Grammar, Bill Anderson stood out with early leadership of schoolyard gangs and a penchant for fighting, later as a school prefect and a strong footballer, with a few games for St Kilda pre-war. He went on to study Commerce at Melbourne University during the Depression and spoke sadly of the soup kitchens and lines of hungry people.

When war broke out in 1939 he was keen to enlist with all his friends, but worried that the history of haemorrhage from an ulcer might see him rejected as medically unfit.  So he went to Bjelke-Petersen’s gym and built up some impressive muscle under ex-boxer Bonnie Muir.  When he came to enlist in the commandos at Melbourne Town Hall the examining doctor took one look and waved him through.

His war experience began with very hard commando training and seemed full of humour, horror, great hardship and great camaraderie.  It proceeded to bruising brawls with Americans on leave in Townsville, military executions, clearing and burning brothels on the Townsville wharves – all before leaving for the war in PNG.  Many of the details of his Kokoda Campaign and the Battle of Buna, as told in his biography, defy classification and indeed belief, were it not for his reputation for veracity.  He was partially deafened when his tent hospital was bombed and many of the patients around him killed. He gained his officer’s commission in the field, but his war ended with a near-fatal parachuting accident while training for an operation to rescue Australian POWs on Borneo.  A “thrown line” caused his chute to open late, and the result was 14 fractures, two years in hospital, and a lifelong legacy of increasing pain and joint replacement surgery.  But in other ways the war helped set him on the path to come, a path that borrowed heavily on his military leadership skills.  And from the dreadful experience came also loyal and lifelong friendships.

Convalescing at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital he read a copy of Das Kapital that he’d been given by communist ‘visitors’, and became fiercely anti-communist.  He had met Audrey Jamieson earlier in the war, and she also came to visit him during his later convalescence at the old mansion Kurneh in South Yarra.  They married and settled in Brighton, where four children were born.  Sadly the second died soon after birth, and in a greater family tragedy the third child Peter died of a rare illness at age seventeen.  The partnership with Audrey was to last fifty-four years until the end of his life.  It was a loving and devoted marriage in which Audrey played a traditional and highly supporting role.

He joined the Liberal Party in 1951 and was at once struck by what he saw as a lack of unity, discipline and organization among the state liberals, and poor dissemination of information. In 1952 he was elected to the presidency of the Victorian branch – at thirty-seven the youngest president on record, and set about reorganizing and reforming the branch, and drafting a new constitution.  There was much conflict over the relationship with the then Country Party, and over the type of party discipline that Bill Anderson imposed – against party members being publicly critical of party policy.  A group of seven state liberal MPs around Tom Hollway, the state parliamentary leader, were expelled at a State Council meeting of five hundred and forty delegates.  The Hollway faction hammered on the doors but were not allowed in, having refused an earlier invitation to attend the State Executive.

The Victorian Liberal Party under his leadership was building its membership, finding new and capable candidates like Lindsay Thompson and submitting, at times reluctantly, to his firm belief in party discipline.  He was a strong speaker with a booming voice and liked the (at times physical) rough and tumble of street meetings.  He worked very closely with Arthur Rylah and Henry Bolte, who became state parliamentary leader, and in 1955 the liberals defeated the Cain Labour Government in a landslide victory, despite the ‘Hollway Liberals’.  He put much effort into improving party finances to fight elections, developing close relationships with big business.  Although the close friendship and frequent meetings with Bolte and attorney-general Rylah continued for many years, he also worked closely with Menzies.  Their relationship was prickly at first, with heated arguments over strategy, but developed into a strong friendship lasting until the end of Menzies’ life.  He also worked closely with Malcolm Fraser in the latter’s early career, but the two eventually fell out – perhaps not surprisingly given Anderson’s clear position (that of the old style ‘dry’ liberal) on most issues.  He remained staunchly anti-socialist, and had a strong friendship and affiliation with Bob Santamaria of the National Civic Council and DLP.  He retired from the state presidency in 1956, but was asked to return as treasurer in two later periods to get party finances in order.

In addition to the second world war and post-war politics, establishing his own business was the other big challenge in Bill’s life.  In 1949 after recovering from war injuries and using grocery trade contacts made while working in his fathers company Preservene Soap, he established

John M Anderson & Co – importers, indenters and manufacturers’ agents.  This became a successful medium-sized business, and his understanding of business and finance was important to his work in the Liberal Party.  The nexus of business and politics led to positions on the boards of the Melbourne Exhibition, the Melbourne Harbour Trust, two insurance companies and chairmanship of the State Bank.  He retired from business at seventy-five and remained actively interested in politics and current affairs until the last year of his life.  He is survived by his wife Audrey, son Rod, daughter Kim and four grandchildren.

Dr Rod Anderson is Sir John Anderson’s son.


Grandad,  Sep 2012

It was the 10th anniversary of Grandad’s death recently, also the month of his birth (14/9/14) – despite being badly injured in WW2, he lived to be 88, in pretty good health for most of his life. So I was reflecting on what his legacy was to me, on what he meant to me – other than the obvious things. Maybe it’s because I’m about to take over the title of ‘Grandad’! He had a reputation for being scrupulously honest, though I’m not sure that always extended to the way he argued with me; in politics you are ‘fair game’ if you are on the other side. Considering the several important positions he occupied over a successful career in business and politics, that reputation for probity was very important. He used to say that your reputation is the most important thing you have; once you lose it through deceit, dishonesty, whatever, it’s gone forever. He made this abundantly clear – beat it into me on one occasion when I was seven and pinched a highly desirable fluoro green double barrelled pencil sharpener at school. My memory of this object is so clear I could be holding it in my hand now! There is no particular reason why I need to say these things to you. I’m just reflecting on Grandad’s legacy to me ten years from his death. Granny has been dead four years and I think her legacy is the unconditional love of her children. Neither of them were perfect – of course nobody is, but as the years go by those are the things that resonate for me. Keep watching the emails – I’ll get bored on Nhulunbuy weekends and share my usual observations. Lots of love, moi




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