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The family took an intense interest in politics: 'Religion and Labor was all we got — father used to eat and sleep the Labor Party. Spartan and morally upright, the Burke family weathered the Depression. But at times it must have appeared to them that the democratic system might buckle under the weight of the hard times. Fear was aroused by several protest rallies. One held in the centre of Perth turned ugly when conflict erupted between the several thousand protestors and the police. As a Labor family, the Burkes were more than likely to closely follow these events. At the intersection of politics and economics lay the family's other abiding loyalty, the Catholic Church.

It could not have escaped the Burkes' attention that communists were thought to be stirring the pot of protest among the unemployed.

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The Catholic Church was growing ever more alarmed at the appeal of communism among its working-class flock. As the seeds of a struggle for the soul of the ALP were being sown, Tom Burke started to make his way in the world, and into Labor politics. Fired by his father's enthusiasm, Tom joined a debating society and practised speaking in front of a mirror, and upon the completion of his commercial qualifications he threw himself into Labor activism.

He had joined the party some time after Labor's victory at the federal elections in under leader James Scullin. Soon afterwards the Burke family participated in its first election, a state election which was lost by the Collier Labor government.

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Described as 'an earnest man of high attainment', Tom had a role in forming the Perth branch of the ALP. This raised his profile and helped him win endorsement to contest the Federal election, which he lost. Events over the next few years kept Burke from renominating. Regarded as a young man of potential, and amid the darkening clouds of World War II, Burke maintained his involvement in the administrative affairs of the ALP until , when he became the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Perth.

This time he won, earning the affection and support of his intensely political wider family. Tom's sister Mary lived in the country and regularly sent him her thoughts on rural politics. In fact, when she had the telephone connected in the mid s, the first bill created an almighty commotion because almost all of it had been incurred talking politics with her brother.


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Chifley, in particular, took a shine to him as Tom stood out among his colleagues for his grasp of financial matters. Loyal and charitable and sympathetic to battlers, he was regarded as a devoted Labor man. He carried into parliament many of the values of old working-class Australia. In his maiden speech he made a heartfelt declaration that Labor would never again allow a 'man-made depression to ravage the life of the nation'.

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And he argued that good wages were crucial to addressing the pressing problem of lifting the nation's birthrate. He was an enthusiast for the White Australia policy, too.


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  • In one speech, he robustly declared that Australia should not apologise for the White Australia policy, explaining: 'Racial superiority is not involved. The White Australia policy had to be introduced because unlimited immigration from Eastern countries would submerge the comparatively small white population here; and the whole of Australia's living and working standards.

    Two years after Tom entered parliament, and in the dying days of the war, a tired and worn-out John Curtin died in office. The by-election for his seat of Fremantle was won by Kim Beazley Sr, and Tom and the new member of parliament quickly became firm friends. They shared much in common. Both were deeply religious Beazley belonged to the religious movement called Moral Rearmament and fiercely anti-communist. Tom was best man at Kim's wedding and later on their families enjoyed social occasions together. Their two sons, Kim Jr and Brian, spent a lot of time in their early years together, and were almost like cousins.

    Both men nurtured their political ambitions — Tom dreamed of one day serving as the federal treasurer in a government led by his good friend.

    At this time Labor had several fights on its hands which occupied Tom's energies, none bigger than the one over Labor's plans to nationalise the banks. Burke became one of the frontline defenders of the plan after Chifley dropped the bombshell following the 16 August Cabinet meeting. Emerging from the meeting with a wide grin to announce the government's intention, Chifley seemed unprepared for the predictable backlash. While the plan caused outrage in the financial sector, and sent shivers down the backs of many Australians, Labor members of parliament with bitter memories of the Great Depression were resolute.

    Tom could remember the attitude of the banks during his father's failed farming venture in the lead up to the Depression. With his characteristic manner of speaking at the dispatch box with one of his hands tucked in the back of his trouser belt, Tom told parliament that the development of the country was being impeded by the 'huge burden of capital indebtedness' endured by farmers embroiling them in 'a never ending struggle to make ends meet'. With the nationalisation of the banks, farmers along with home builders and home purchasers would be provided with 'the money they require at a reasonable rate of interest'.

    Labor members were flooded with letters of protest as the measures passed though both houses of parliament only to be struck down by the High Court in August Against this stormy background Tom's wife Madeline had given birth to Brian on 25 February He was the couple's third child. Terry was the eldest child, followed by Anne. The family home was in the solidly middleclass suburb of Wembley, notable for its strong Catholic population and the presence of nuns on the street walking back and forth to the Brigidine Convent.

    A year and a half after Brian was born, a fourth child came along, Frankie, who was soon found to have Down's syndrome. Frankie grew up to be a much-loved member of the family, a focus for the affections of not just his brothers and sister but of the wider Burke clan. Brian Burke, in particular, was very supportive of his brother and in later years he publicly expressed his love for Frankie. But Frankie's first few years were difficult. He was a sickly baby, in part because of the problem he had in swallowing. Madeline, joined by Tom when he was home from Canberra, would sit up all night and feed Frankie with an eye-dropper.

    For much of the time in his earliest years Brian had to fend for himself as his parents were occupied by Frankie's special needs.

    This must have been a source of some anxiety for young Brian, even though his mother said that he was a happy, independent little boy. Before the advent of air travel, the life of a Western Australian federal member of parliament was a grinding one. Away for six weeks at a time and having to face long train journeys across the endless expanse of the Nullarbor, only the most committed could endure the strain. The California-style red brick bungalow, set on a quarter acre block replete with spacious back lawn, vegetable patch and garden shed, displayed the family's solid but unpretentious circumstances.

    There was no flashiness about the Burkes' life: furniture was conventional and the car was an older model. He was forever ducking off up or down the street to be found by caring neighbours who would escort him home.

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    Tom loved to chew the fat with anyone who cared to talk about the issues of the day. He also appears to have shaped Brian's life in one very interesting way as the source of his son's life-long fascination with stamp collecting, a hobby which, almost unbelievably, helped to send Burke to prison many years later. As a federal politician, Tom received lots of mail and, presumably, from all parts of the world.

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    Collecting was part of the family tradition. Other adult family members kept stamp and coin collections. Starting him at a young age, Tom began interesting his son in the stamps that came through the letterbox as a way of furthering his education, encouraging him to investigate the people and places whose images adorned the stamps. Advanced Search. Privacy Copyright. Skip to main content. ECU Publications Pre. Comments Originally published as: Beresford, Q. ISBN Abstract Once touted as a future prime minister of Australia, former WA premier Brian Burke has had a rollercoaster political career.

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