William Wentworth

Maverick of Australian politics

William Charles Wentworth, politician: born Sydney, New South Wales 8 September 1907; Member of the Australian Parliament 1949-77; Minister of Social Services and Aboriginal Affairs 1968-72; married 1935 Barbara Chisholm; died Sydney 15 June 2003.

William Wentworth, who in 1968 became Australia's first Aboriginal Affairs Minister, was a politician entrenched in a bygone area yet - particularly on matters of race - decades ahead of his time. One of the great political characters of the post-war era in Australia, Wentworth was the great-grandson of the pioneering explorer William Charles Wentworth, who led the first party of settlers across the Blue Mountains in the 19th century.

A maverick Liberal MP for 28 years, Wentworth was a minister for only three, under John Gorton as Prime Minister. But as his nephew Mungo MacCallum, a former political journalist, wrote: "Few of his contemporaries made a comparable impact or left a comparable legacy."

Astonishing though it seems, Australia's Aborigines were not counted as part of the population until 1967. Wentworth introduced a private member's bill that paved the way for a referendum on whether to include them in the census. Australians voted overwhelmingly in support, opening the way for laws to be made on behalf of Aborigines. It was a seminal moment in the nation's history.

Subsequently appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister by Gorton, Wentworth - unlike many of his successors - paid more than lip service to the job. He visited remote indigenous communities, got to know many Aborigines and learnt two of their languages. He was interested in Aboriginal history and culture, and detested racial discrimination.

But while he was far-sighted and progressive in this field, he was almost comically old-fashioned in others. A virulent anti-Communist, even by the standards of that era, he was notorious for his diatribes. On one occasion, a Labor opponent popped up next to him wearing a white coat and offered to escort him out of parliament.

Named after his famous ancestor, William Charles Wentworth was born into a wealthy family in 1907. He studied at New College, Oxford and, in the Second World War years, became a captain in the Army Reserve. Famously, he exposed the weakness of Sydney's wartime defences by simulating an invasion from a city beach, capturing the local battalion headquarters and arresting the colonel in his pyjamas.

After entering parliament in 1949, Wentworth had high hopes of a glittering career, but was left on the back benches by Robert Menzies. He threw himself into committee work and was the driving force behind standardisation of the rail gauge between Sydney and Melbourne. Until then, passengers had had to change trains in the middle of the night. He was not, however, invited to the ceremony when the new line opened. His wife, Barbara, appeared on the platform, brandishing a placard that read: "Where's Wentworth?"

Wentworth acquired the reputation of being eccentric and argumentative, but also a man of great intellect and integrity. After resigning from the Liberal Party in 1977 in protest at the government's economic policies, he retired from politics, but continued to play an active part in public life.

In 1995, aged 87, he launched another failed parliamentary bid as an independent. A rail buff, he continued to travel widely in his old age.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, described Wentworth as "a colourful, passionate and highly intelligent member of parliament, with a bit of a rebellious streak".

He is survived by his wife and four children.

Kathy Marks

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