LYNDON MEGARRITY. Rex Patterson and the Whitlam Government

Jul 24, 2016


Dr Rex Patterson entered politics in 1966 by winning a by-election for the seat of Dawson as an ALP candidate on the platform of Northern Development. During Whitlam’s time as Opposition leader (1967-72), Patterson and Whitlam worked closely together on Northern Australia policies; Patterson also developed a media and parliamentary profile as Labor’s spokesman for rural affairs and Northern Development. As a federal public servant in the 1950s and 1960s, Patterson had developed expertise in sugar, pastoralism and other primary industries and was therefore well qualified to be Labor’s spokesman for these issues.

After the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, Rex Patterson was appointed Minister for Northern Development. Subsequently, in October 1973, Patterson was given the Northern Territory portfolio as well. As Minister for the Northern Territory, Patterson notably assisted with the Commonwealth’s emergency response to Cyclone Tracy and the reconstruction of Darwin which followed. In June 1975, Patterson’s two portfolios were amalgamated to form the Department of Northern Australia: very shortly before the Labor Government was dismissed from office, Whitlam transferred Patterson to Agriculture and put a young Paul Keating in his place.[1]

Patterson found his time as Minister for Northern Development to be a frustrating experience. One of his key problems was that there was a sense of uncertainty about the Department of Northern Development’s role and jurisdiction. At the time of its establishment, the party leaders declared that Patterson’s Department was ‘responsible for all matters concerned with the specialised development and utilisation of the natural resources of land, water and minerals’ north of 26° latitude.[2] As Northern Development Minister, Patterson therefore expected to be given substantial Government authority for development in northern areas. He was especially eager to gain primary responsibility for northern minerals, as ‘There can be no doubt that the main determinant of growth in northern Australia will be investment in mining for export.’ Patterson was nevertheless prepared to give responsibility for Northern Australia’s uranium, natural gas and petroleum to Minerals and Energy Minister, Rex Connor, possibly in deference to the latter’s personal interests.[3] However, by the time Patterson had made an abortive cabinet submission in early 1973 on the roles and functions of the Department of Northern Development, it was becoming clear that Patterson’s power to influence the direction of Government policy on northern matters would be inhibited by the formidable Connor.

On 31 January 1973, Connor announced that the Cabinet had decided to impose price controls on Australian mineral exports. As the Brisbane Courier-Mail explained, ‘The Federal Government in effect will set a minimum price and the maximum tonnage for minerals to be exported.’[4] Connor was partially motivated to introduce export controls by his conviction that Queensland’s cheaper coal prices gave it an unfair advantage over New South Wales coal. Patterson went public with his dissent:

The facts are that if northern coal producers had demanded the relatively high U.S. coal prices, or the average world price … it is likely that the central and north Queensland coalfields would not have been developed at all.[5]

The Prime Minister and many members of the Cabinet were in no mood to tolerate Patterson’s public criticisms of an announced Government decision. Whitlam successfully moved a motion at the ALP’s federal executive meeting (5 February) congratulating ‘Federal cabinet on the … steps it has taken to carry out the party’s programme with respect to ownership, control and development of Australia’s natural resources.’[6] This motion received unanimous support, and appears to have been a deliberate attempt to demonstrate that the Northern Development Minister did not have strong internal support for his views. Several ‘off the record’ comments by anonymous Labor figures criticising Patterson’s ‘breach of Cabinet solidarity’ were reported in the press.[7] This also served to underline the limited political authority of the Northern Development Minister compared to the popular Minister for Minerals and Energy.

Patterson’s powers as a Minister for Northern Development were limited, as other Ministers with national responsibilities such as transport, mines and primary industry were not prepared to relinquish any of their power to a regionally-focussed Minister. The only major sector over which Patterson had clear jurisdiction was sugar. Patterson subsequently became something of a rural ‘outsider’ within the Whitlam Government.[8]

Whitlam’s decision not to appoint Patterson as his Minister for Primary Industry until October 1975 must also account for Patterson’s inability to shape rural policy in favour of his northern objectives. He reacted strongly against the Prime Minister’s lack of political understanding of rural matters, shown in Whitlam’s drastic decisions to cut special assistance schemes which had long been taken for granted in the bush. These budget savings, including petrol subsidies to country areas and the superphosphate bounty, helped contribute to a disastrous result for Labor in the 1974 Queensland state election.[9]

Ironically, by December 1975, Patterson and Whitlam could look back on a number of achievements in Northern Development, especially in Queensland. Patterson secured bilateral agreements with countries such as China and Singapore to purchase Australian sugar, benefiting Queensland farmers. The Whitlam Government also provided several millions of dollars in grants and loans to facilitate the building of Queensland water projects, including the Ross River Dam (Townsville). Further, the Whitlam Government continued the former Coalition Government’s financial support for beef roads in Queensland and Western Australia.[10]

Dr Lyndon Megarrity is a Research Associate of the TJ Ryan Foundation and a sessional teacher in history at James Cook University. This article first appeared in a research report by the T J Ryan Foundation.  See link:


[1] Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975, Viking, Ringwood, 1985, p. 752. A full discussion of Patterson’s role as Northern Territory Minister is not attempted here. Describing Patterson’s specific contribution to the Commonwealth’s NT policies and administration (as opposed to the collective contribution by the Whitlam Government) cannot be achieved without large-scale archival research. See Alistair Heatley, Almost Australians: The Politics of Northern Territory Self-Government, Australian National University, Darwin, 1990, chapter 2.

[2] Rex Patterson, ‘The Role of the Department of Northern Development’, 22 February 1973, Cabinet Submission No. 151 (Withdrawn), A5915 151, NAA.

[3] Patterson, ‘Role of the Department of Northern Development’.

[4] ‘QLD May Put Coal Law to High Court: Exports Control’, Courier-Mail (CM), 1 February 1973, p. 1.

[5] ‘Patterson Stands by Sales of Cheap Coal’, Australian, 3 February 1973, p. 1.

[6] ‘Labor Closes Ranks Over Mineral Policy’, Australian, 6 February 1973, p. 1.

[7] ‘Labor Closes Ranks’, p. 1. See also Chris Anderson, ‘Fed Ministers Snub Colleague’, Sun-Herald (Sydney), 4 February 1973, p. 25; Brian Johns, ‘Cabinet Endorses Patterson Censure’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1973, p. 3; ‘Whitlam May Axe Patterson’, Melbourne Observer, 4 February 1973, p. 3.

[8] ‘Minerals Gag on Patterson’, CM, 7 February 1973, p. 10.

[9] Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p. 350.

[10] Whitlam, Whitlam Government, pp. 235-7; Speech by the Hon. E.G. Whitlam … to the Labor-in-Politics Convention, Brisbane, 19 January 1977, held at WI; Denise Conroy, ‘Federal-State Relations’, in Allan Patience (ed.), The Bjelke-Petersen Premiership 1968-1983: Issues in Public Policy, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1985, p. 255.

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