Born at Beechworth, Victoria on
14 February 1881, the son of Timothy Keane a police constable. After his
education at Christian Brothers’ College, St. Kilda he joined the Victorian
Railways as a clerk (1897-1925). By 1918, Keane was on the rise and held
office with the 20,000 strong Victorian Railways Union and later the
national body, serving as general secretary (1925-29). He oversaw the
application of federal award coverage, but it was against Prime Minister
Stanley Bruce’s (1883-1967) attempt to dismantle the Commonwealth
Arbitration Court with the introduction of the Maritime Industries Bill
in August 1929 that marked Keane’s graduation from the hard school of union
office to the corridors of power. In 1925 he unsuccessfully attempted to
gain election to the Senate and later the Victorian Legislative Council seat
of Melbourne South, but at the October 1929 general election that saw the
defeat of Bruce’s government, he won the Federal seat of Bendigo (1929-31).
By 1931, the economy was in tatters and (James) Scullin’s (Melbourne
General Cemetery) Labor Party was swept aside in a landslide; Keane had no
chance and resumed his involvement with the Australian Railways Union. In
1934 he again unsuccessfully re-contested the seat before his election to
the Senate (1937-46). Six feet tall (183 cm) and over twenty stone (127
kg), Keane was described as “one of the most picturesque personalities in
the Senate, a big man in his breadth of vision as he was in statue…and a
fairly fluent speaker with a deep penetrating voice” he was regarded as one
of the shrewdest parliamentarians, fair to an opponent and a straight
talker; in 1943 Keane was quoted as describing (Sir) Keith Murdoch
(1885-1952) as “a damn scoundrel”. Deputy leader of the Opposition
(1938-41), on the election of the (John) Curtin (Karrakatta Cemetery)
Labor government in 1941, he became Minister for Trade and Customs
(1941-46); his ministerial career was described as “arduous but not
particularly noteworthy”. As minister, he was charged with the heavy task
of administering rationing and price control to an unsympathetic nation
which did not always make him popular nor did his straight talking help,
describing restrictions on beer and clothing as “minor inconveniences”.
Described as the life of every diplomatic party (“robust, laughing voice and
rollicking songs”), he collapsed suddenly on 26 April 1946 while in
Washington, U.S.A attending to trade matters. Prime Minister (Joseph) Ben
Chifley (1885-1951), a pallbearer at his state funeral officiated by
Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) on 31 May, on hearing of his death
while in London attending a Prime Ministers’ Conference said - “I have lost
a valued colleague”. Residing at 56 Wanda Road Caulfield, he was survived
by his second wife Millicent née Dunn (d 1973) their daughter and his
children from his first marriage to Ruby née Thorne (d 1923) who are
both interred with Keane.
(above) Richard Keane
(Image courtesy of the
Australian War Memorial,
ADB Volume 14 1940-80 (Di-Kel).
Stargardt, A., "Things Worth Fighting For.
Speeches by Joseph Benedict Chifley" (1953).
The Herald 27 April 1946 & 18 September 1946.
The Argus 29 April 1946 & 1 June 1946.
The Age 29 April 1946.
“Who’s Who in Australia” (1938 & 1944).
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