Obituary: Sir Robert Southey

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.

Suggested Topics
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy