King O'Malley: Australian politician (1858 - 1953)
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King O'Malley
Australian politician

King O'Malley

King O'Malley
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Australian politician
Was Politician Financial professional Insurance broker
From Australia United Kingdom Canada United States of America
Field Business Finance Politics
Gender male
Birth 2 July 1858, Valley Falls, USA; Quebec, Canada
Death 20 December 1953, Albert Park, Australia (aged 95 years)
Star sign Cancer
Politics Australian Labor Party,
The details (from wikipedia)


King O'Malley (2 July 1858? – 20 December 1953) was an Australian politician who served in the House of Representatives from 1901 to 1917, and served two terms as Minister for Home Affairs (1910–1913; 1915–16). He is remembered for his role in the development of the national capital Canberra, as well as his advocacy for the creation of a national bank.

O'Malley was of American origin and arrived in Australia in 1888. He worked as an insurance salesman before entering politics, in both professions making use of his knack for oratory and publicity stunts. He served a single term in the South Australian House of Assembly (1896–1899), before moving to Tasmania and winning election to the House of Representatives at the inaugural 1901 federal election. O'Malley was a political radical, and joined the Labor Party upon its creation despite his status as one of the wealthiest members of parliament. He was a keen proponent of banking reform, especially the creation of a national bank, and successfully lobbied for its inclusion in the Labor platform. He was dissatisfied with the initial form of the Commonwealth Bank, but later proclaimed himself as its "father"; the amount of credit he deserves for its creation has been debated.

After Labor won the 1910 federal election, O'Malley was elected to cabinet by the party caucus over the objections of Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. As home affairs minister, he oversaw the construction of the Trans-Australian Railway and the early development of the new national capital, including the design competition won by Walter Burley Griffin. He banned alcohol in the Australian Capital Territory. O'Malley's second term as home affairs minister was troublesome, marked by conflict with Prime Minister Billy Hughes among others. He remained loyal to the ALP during the 1916 party split, but lost his seat at the 1917 election. O'Malley was the last surviving member of the first federal parliament and spent his retirement defending his legacy. His political views combined with his personal background and personality traits made him a controversial figure during his career, and his life has continued to attract public interest.

Early life

Birth and parentage

Uncertainty exists about the details of O'Malley's birth and upbringing, largely due to the inconsistent accounts he provided throughout his life. He was probably born on 2 July 1858 in the American state of Kansas. Numerous sources during his lifetime recorded his year of birth as 1858, but after about 1940 he began to exaggerate his age, claiming a birth year of 1854. At some point, he also began to celebrate his birthday on 4 July, coinciding with Independence Day in the United States. His private diaries record that he personally celebrated his birthday on 2 July until 1947, but then apparently shifted the date by two days to emphasise his American origins. As a result, O'Malley's obituaries listed his date of birth as 4 July 1854.

During his political career, O'Malley claimed to have been born in Quebec, at a location called "Stanford Farm" close to the U.S. border. He stated that no birth certificate existed, as registration of births was not yet standard in frontier regions. This account of his birth differed from those he related at other periods of his life. In an 1893 letter to the editor of the Adelaide Advertiser, he proclaimed himself "a humble sovereign citizen of that supreme nation, the United States". Towards the end of his life he wrote "I am an American [...] that is the truth". O’Malley's place of birth had implications for his status as a member of parliament. If he was born in Canada, as he claimed, he was a British subject and faced no eligibility restrictions. If he was born in the United States, his election to federal parliament was in violation of section 44(i) of the constitution; similar provisions applied in South Australia and Tasmania, where he also ran for parliament. O’Malley's claim of Canadian birth was received with skepticism during his lifetime, and has generally been regarded as unreliable. Although he was unable to provide any proof beyond a sworn affidavit, political opponents were also unable to conclusively prove that he was born an American.

On his 1910 marriage certificate, O’Malley listed his parents as Ellen (née King) and William O’Malley, and his father's occupation as rancher. His unusual given name was supposedly taken from his mother's family name, a common practice in the United States. His parents’ identities have not been corroborated, and other information that he gave on the certificate was of dubious accuracy. In 1913, O’Malley stated that his father was born in Ballymena, in the north of Ireland. The following year, he said that his parents were British subjects born in the United Kingdom (which included Ireland at the time). However, in old age he referred to his “American-born parents”. O'Malley claimed to have a brother and sister, and apparently stayed with his brother Walter in the small community of Kelly, Kansas, when he returned to the U.S. in 1917.


O'Malley grew up in Kansas, possibly in Pawnee County. He likely had little formal education, as his writing was "usually deficient in style, grammar and spelling". According to O'Malley's own account, his father was killed in the American Civil War when he was a young boy. He was then sent to live in New York City with his aunt and uncle, Edward and Caroline O'Malley, where his uncle ran a small bank near Wall Street. He began working there at the age of 14, and was promoted to teller at 16 and handling loans by 19. After a disagreement with his uncle, he left the bank at the age of 22 and took a job selling insurance. Hoyle (1981) regards the basic facts of O'Malley's account to be accurate, as he had a detailed knowledge of American banking practices and of New York City. However, he expresses doubt over the details. Henderson (2011) describes it as "at least partially true", but notes "there is no evidence to suggest that he ever lived in New York".

Adult life in the United States

Before he moved to Australia, O'Malley lived a transient lifestyle as an insurance salesman and real estate agent on the west coast of the United States. There are contemporary references to him in California, Oregon, and Washington Territory, as well as in his presumptive home state of Kansas. At various times O'Malley sold policies for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, the Home Life Insurance Company of New York, and the Equitable Life Insurance Company. In April 1887, the Chicago Inter Ocean reported that he had forwarded policies amounting to $200,000 from Oregon, an immense sum at the time. He may have also made money engaging in land speculation, as he was wealthy enough to invest in property in Seattle which he retained for several decades. Surviving records indicate that he had "somewhat dubious" business practices – in 1887 he made a series of large deposits at a bank in Corvallis, Oregon, then abruptly withdrew his entire account.

As a young man, O'Malley became a devotee of the temperance movement; his apparent home state of Kansas had been one of the first to enact statewide prohibition. He gave fiery public speeches in the towns where he sold insurance, warning against the dangers of what he called "stagger juice". O'Malley supported the pro-temperance Republican Party, and in 1884 stumped for the presidential campaign of James Blaine. He later claimed that he would have been appointed ambassador to Chile if Blaine won.

While in Texas O'Malley founded a church, taking the title of "First Bishop of the Waterlily Rock Bound Church, the Red Skin Temple of the Cayuse Nation" in order to take advantage of a government land grant then being offered to churches. In 1881 O'Malley married Rosy Wilmot, who died from tuberculosis shortly before she was due to give birth in 1886. O'Malley claimed he had contracted the disease from her and in 1888, having been given six months to live, he sailed for Queensland, Australia.

Move to Australia

Photo of O'Malley from the official album of the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition, 1888

In April 1888, the Oregon City Courier published an article titled "King O’Malley Exposed". The newspaper reported that he and a partner had "placed policies to the amount of tens of thousands of dollars by misrepresentation", and that the Home Life Insurance Company was actively warning customers not to take any money from him. O'Malley left for Australia a few months later, arriving in Sydney in late July 1888. He travelled from San Francisco via Hawaii aboard the SS Mariposa. He then went south to attend the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition; his photograph appears in the exhibition's official albums, where he is listed as a representative of an American glass manufacturer.

O'Malley had a different version of his arrival in Australia. According to his account, he moved to Australia for health reasons, as he was suffering from tuberculosis. He supposedly arrived in the country at Port Alma, Queensland, then took up residence in a cave at Emu Park where an Aboriginal man named Coowonga nursed him back to health. He subsequently walked overland to Sydney and Melbourne before eventually reaching Adelaide. Of this account, Hoyle (1981) states "whatever its merits as a story, it has absolutely none as a statement of fact". O'Malley fabricated a dramatic arrival story to hide his real reason for leaving the United States – to escape embezzlement allegations. Given the documentary evidence placing him in Sydney and Melbourne in 1888, it would have required a rapid recovery from tuberculosis followed by a walking journey of hundreds of miles, conducted within a timespan of several months.

South Australian politics

Undated photo

In 1895 he settled in Gawler, South Australia, and at the 1896 election he was elected as a member for Encounter Bay in the South Australian House of Assembly as a radical democrat, opposed to the wealthy landowners who then dominated colonial politics. Calling himself a follower of Christian Socialism, his most popular platform among conservatives was to rid hotels of barmaids "hired for their physical attributes rather than their prowess in drawing ale". Although O'Malley was unsuccessful at the time, laws were passed in 1909 to require registration of barmaids, who had to be a member of the owner's family.

O'Malley's narrow win in 1896 has been credited to his popularity among religious leaders and conservatives for his extreme puritan views, but it seems his popularity with women voters was a bigger factor. Women were much taken by his appearance and O'Malley's "oratorial buffoonery" was the popular topic of discussion throughout South Australia. He called hotels "drunkeries", alcohol was "stagger juice", opponents were "diabolical rapscallions" and he referred to himself as the "bald headed Eagle from the Rocky Mountains".

Federal politics

O'Malley in 1908

O'Malley was defeated at the 1899 election, and the following year he moved to Tasmania, the smallest of the Australian colonies. There, a tall, fashionably-dressed American preaching the Gospel and radical democracy drew immediate attention, and he was elected at the 1901 federal election as a member for Tasmania, along with four others. In 1903 he was elected as the member for Darwin. Although there was no Labour Party in Tasmania at this time, he joined the Labour Party Caucus when the Parliament assembled in Melbourne.

Historian Gavin Souter describes O'Malley at this time:

O'Malley's monstrously overgrown persona seemed to be inhabited simultaneously by a spruiker from Barnum's three-ring circus, a hell-and-tarnation revivalist, and a four-flushing Yankee Congressman. He was a moderately big man, auburn-haired with watchful grey eyes and a red-brown beard, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, blue-grey suit with huge lapels and a low-cut vest, loose cravat with a diamond collar stud, and in the centre of his cream silk shirt-front a fiery opal.

O'Malley was clearly one of the more prominent and colourful members of the Parliament, but his radical ideas were not widely accepted, and many regarded him as a charlatan. He became a prominent advocate of a national bank as a means of providing cheap credit for farmers and small businessmen.

He was not a member of Chris Watson's first Labour ministry in 1904, or of Andrew Fisher's first ministry in 1908. But in April 1910 the Caucus elected him to the ministry of Fisher's second government. Ross McMullin, who wrote an official history of the ALP, suggested "his election as minister was probably attributable in part to the fact that several caucus colleagues owed him money".

O'Malley at the naming of Canberra ceremony


O'Malley became Minister for Home Affairs, and played a prominent role in selecting the site of the future capital of Australia, Canberra. He declared American architect Walter Burley Griffin winner of the town planning competition. On 20 February 1913, O'Malley drove in the first peg marking the start of the development of the city. He was also present at the ceremony for the naming of Canberra on 12 March 1913.

As a teetotaler he was responsible for the highly unpopular ban on alcohol in the Australian Capital Territory. He could also claim credit for beginning the building of the Trans-Australian Railway from Port Augusta to Perth.

Commonwealth Bank

O'Malley also agitated for the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, a state-owned savings and investment bank although, contrary to his later claims, he was not the bank's sole creator. He later wrote that he had led a "torpedo squad" in Caucus to force a reluctant Cabinet to establish the bank, but historians do not accept this. Prime Minister Fisher was the bank's principal architect. Partly to allay fears of "funny money" aroused by O'Malley's populist rhetoric, Fisher ensured that the bank would be run on firmly "sound money" principles, and the bank as established did not provide the easy credit for farmers that the radicals desired.

Final years in parliament

Caricature of O'Malley by Will Dyson

Labor was defeated at the 1913 federal election, and when it returned to office at the 1914 federal election, O'Malley was not re-elected to the Cabinet. In October 1915, however, Fisher retired and O'Malley returned to office in the first ministry of Billy Hughes, again as Minister for Home Affairs. But a year later the government split over the determination of Hughes to introduce conscription to fill the ranks of Australia's armed forces in World War I. Although he was not an active anti-conscriptionist, O'Malley was pressured by Hughes to resign his portfolio but he refused to do so. He finally lost office on 13 November 1916 when Hughes and twenty-four other Labor members walked out of the Caucus and formed the National Labor ministry.

Hughes called the 1917 federal election, and O'Malley was heavily defeated in his northern Tasmanian seat of Darwin by former Labor colleague Charles Howroyd, a conscriptionist who was running for Hughes' Nationalist Party. O'Malley suffered a swing of almost 15 percent, and was one of many Labor figures swept out in that year's massive Nationalist landslide. He stood unsuccessfully in the seat of Denison in 1919, and in Bass in 1922, but he was never again returned to elected office.

Later life

Although he was only 63 at the time of his defeat, he retired to Melbourne and devoted his time to building up his own legend, particularly in relation to the Commonwealth Bank, and to polemical journalism on a variety of pet causes. He lived to be 99, outliving his nemesis Hughes by 14 months. At the time of his death he was the last surviving member of the first Australian Parliament and last surviving MP who served when Edmund Barton was Prime Minister. Furthermore, he was the last surviving member of Andrew Fisher's second Cabinet.


O'Malley's importance in developing the national capital is remembered in Canberra with the suburb of O'Malley being named after him. A pub in Canberra, King O'Malley's Irish Pub in Civic, is also named after him – a tongue-in-cheek reference to his sponsorship of the unpopular alcohol ban in the Australian Capital Territory during Canberra's early years.

O'Malley is the subject of a 1970 musical play The Legend of King O'Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 19 Apr 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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