Obituary: Sir Robert Southey

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The Independent Culture
ROBERT SOUTHEY was a gentleman in the rough and tough world of Australian politics. As president of the Australian Liberal (Conservative) Party, he helped to unify the party after the disastrous leadership struggle that followed Gough Whitlam's sweep to power as Labor Prime Minister in 1972.

Labor Party opponents sneeringly called him "Establishment Man". And Southey, a skilled orator whose accent betrayed his days at Oxford University and as a Captain in the Coldstream Guards during the Second World War, laughed when he proudly admitted to being "slightly Pommified".

The current Liberal Party president, Tony Staley, said of his predecessor: "Bob Southey ennobled our politics by his involvement in it. He had a sense of service to the public. That is what the best of politics is all about, and he exemplified it."

Southey was born in Melbourne in 1922, son of Allen Southey LLM. Dux of a brilliant final year at the "Australian Eton" - Geelong Grammar School - he was studying Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, when war broke out. Enrolling in the British army, Southey was sent to Sandhurst and gained a commission in the Second Battalion, Coldstream Guards, as it was posted to North Africa to battle with crack German and Italian forces. Promoted to Captain, he was soon a company commander leading his men into some of the war's fiercest battles.

After victory in North Africa came the Italian campaign; a wartime friend of Southey's says: "He lost so many great friends in those battles that it changed his life. Back home in Australia he would say, `Every day I live is a bonus.' "

After the war Southey returned to Oxford to take his "modern greats" in the honours school of philosophy, politics and economics, graduating as Master of Arts in 1948 with a First. He also rowed for Oxford with enough success to be elected to the Leander Club - which allowed him to wear the same distinctive tie as the Australian prime minister and ex- fighter pilot John Gorton. Opposing MPs would mock the famous tie featuring pink hippopotamuses.

Back home in Australia Southey joined the company William Haughton and was soon travelling to country centres as a junior wool buyer. At this time he joined the Malvern Branch of the Liberal Party and married Valerie Clarke, daughter of Frank Clarke, resident of the Victorian Legislative Council.

By the Sixties Southey was deeply involved in politics. In 1970 he had become Federal President of the Liberal Party and was determined to beef up its performance to match the days of Sir Robert Menzies. He was dismayed to find a leadership struggle tearing the Liberals apart as Labor's Gough Whitlam severed many links with Britain and scorned old traditions.

By 1975 Southey seemed assured of an easy entry to parliament, with the possibility of becoming Prime Minister. However, confidential memos he had sent to the former Prime Minister William McMahon, warning McMahon that anti-Liberal sections of the Australian press would have to be "straightened out" and naming some editors as the enemy, were revealed in a book. Following an anti-Southey backlash in the party, Southey stepped down from the lead in 1975.

While advancing through Liberal Party ranks, Southey also made his mark in the business world. By 1975 he had become managing director of William Haughton and was also a director or chairman of an array of banking, industrial and insurance companies.

A benefactor of his old school, Southey acted as President of the Geelong Grammar Foundation (1975-88) and was a member of the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee (1973-76) and Nuffield Foundation Committee (1970- 81). He was also an active supporter of the Guards Association.

It was not all work and no play for the Southeys and their five sons. Southey was always a keen angler, river or ocean. He was a pioneer of big game fishing in Australia and at the time of his death was still vice- president of the Waterfall Farm Fly Fisher Club and a member of the Swordfish and Tunny Club of Australia.

But it was a love of ballet that dominated Southey's crowded life. His uncle, the Melbourne eye specialist Ringland Anderson, and his wife had helped to look after members of the Ballets Russes when they made repeat visits to Melbourne in the 1930s with a cast of beautiful "baby ballerinas". At Sunday barbecues at the Andersons' home the young Southey got to know the dancers and developed a life-long love of the dance, reinforced by watching the legendary Anna Pavlova dance the dying swan.

Southey was invited to join the Australian Ballet in 1978, and in 1980, during an angry dispute that led to a dancers' strike, was appointed Chairman. Noel Pelly, the former administrator, and still director of the Australian Ballet, recalls:

Only Bob Southey, with his knowledge of ballet and skilful diplomacy, could have solved the situation. It involved a Herculean effort on his part and even so we lost 23 performances. It was a horrid time, but, eventually he ended the strike and had the responsibility of appointing our new Artistic Director, Maina Gielgud, in January 1983.

Bob Southey enabled us to rebuild the company after all the bad notices. He was a working chairman. He was fantastic. That was one of the most fruitful eras of the Australian Ballet. Actually the fact that the company still exists today is due to Bob Southey. Without him the ballet could have disbanded.

Following the death in 1977 of his wife Valerie, in 1982 Southey married Marigold Shelmerdine and together they toured the world in support of the Australian Ballet, following the company to China, Japan, Russia, Britain and the United States.

Maina Gielgud, now Director of the Royal Danish Ballet, says:

Robert and Marigold entertained and looked after the company wherever we went. They knew everyone in the company from dancer to technician. Sir Robert was a great "people person". His kindness and friendship to us all continued long after he retired. Just a few months ago we had lunch in London with Robert and Marigold and Irma Baronova, one of those Russian dancers Robert had known when he was young.

Noel Pelly last saw Southey just a few days before his death and says, "He told me during our last chat, `You know, I do really believe in a life hereafter.' "

John Monks

Robert John Southey, politician: born Melbourne, Australia 20 March 1922; Federal President, Liberal Party of Australia 1970-75; Kt 1976; Chairman, Australian Ballet 1980-90, Chairman, National Council 1991-95; married 1946 Valerie Clarke (died 1977; five sons), 1982 Marigold Shelmerdine (nee Myer); died Melbourne 29 September 1998.