Fred Chaney interview, 11 September 2014 and 12 September 2014

Dublin Core


Fred Chaney interview, 11 September 2014 and 12 September 2014




Fred Chaney was born in Perth in 1941. He practised law in New Guinea and Western Australia, including time in-house with the Hancock-Wright prospecting partnership, and subsequent private practice with emphasis on mining related work until he entered the Senate in 1974. Fred was involved in the Aboriginal Legal Service in a voluntary capacity in the early 1970’s. He was in the Senate until 1990 and was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1983 to 1990. He was Member for Pearce in the House of Representatives from 1990 to 1993. Among his Ministerial appointments were Aboriginal Affairs, Social Security and Minister Assisting the Minister for National Development and Energy. After leaving Parliament he undertook research into Aboriginal Affairs policy and administration as a Research Fellow with the Graduate School of Management at the University of Western Australia from 1993 to April 1995. He was appointed Chancellor of Murdoch University in 1995 and continued in that capacity until 2003.
He is involved in Aboriginal education through the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation which he established at the request of Graham Farmer in 1995.
In 1994 he was appointed as a part-time Member of the National Native Title Tribunal, a full-time Member in April 1995 and a Deputy President in April 2000 until 2007.
He served as Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia Ltd from 2000 to 2005 and continues as a Director on the Board.
Mr Chaney was appointed Chair of Desert Knowledge Australia in 2005.
In 2008 he was awarded the inaugural Sir Ronald Wilson Award for “exceptional leadership in the fields of social justice, human rights, equality and anti racism.”


Chaney, Fred


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Fred Chaney


Interview 1: 1 hour, 18 minutes, 5 seconds
Interview 2: 1 hour 26 minutes, 27 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 44 minutes, 32 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Frederick Michael Chaney born on 28 October 1941. Second child in a family of 7 children. Father, Sir Frederick Charles Chaney KBE AFC (20 October 1914-17 December 2001) fought in the Second World War. Grew up in South Perth and attended local schools. When they were living in North Perth, he attended Sacred Heart Convent aged 4 years old as he did not want to be separated from his older sister. This meant that he finished school relatively young. Father, Fred, brought up as a Baptist. Mother, Mavis, from large Australian Irish Catholic family. Parents met in primary school. Father became a teacher. They married and went to live near Corrigin.
04:44 When the Second World War broke out, his father joined the Australian Air Force and worked for some time as a flying instructor at Cunderdin. Later became a reconnaissance pilot for Z-Force. His father airlifted from Borneo the famous anthropologist, Tom Harrison. Fred Chaney Snr returned to teaching after the War. He became President of the RSL and helped returned soldiers to find housing. He was sporty and popular and was approached by the Liberal Party and was elected to the Australia House of Representatives for the Member for Perth in 1955. In1964, he was sworn in as Minister for the Navy in Robert Menzies’ Ministry (which was the last term of the Menzies government). He was dropped by Prime Minister Harold Holt by telegram.

Track 3
00:00 In 1969, there was a big swing against the Liberal Party and they lost Perth, Swan and Forrest. Fred Chaney Snr was appointed by John Gorton to be the administrator for the Northern Territory, a post he held from 1970 to 1973. During this time, he met Dame Margot Fonteyn . When Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972, he returned to Perth and was later made Lord Mayor (‘78-‘82).
02:28 Fred Chaney Snr did not try and influence the lives of his children even though Fred followed him into politics. His father inspired him to help other people. Fred got involved in politics at UWA at the age of 16 to try and change things. Fred had done well at school in his final years and won an Exhibition which meant that UWA allowed him to attend full-time. Fred enrolled in Economics but changed to Law when told by Terry O’Connor that the Law School was much more fun.
09:06 University broadened his horizons. He was active in the Liberal Club and the Blackstone Society. He was membership secretary of the Liberal Party and increased membership by enrolling attractive girls (including his future wife Angela). He was seeking a partner for the graduation ball and asked Angela to go as she hadn’t then been invited! He lived at home in Mt Lawley, while attending UWA.
11:18 The Law School was situated in very old buildings. There were only about 100 students. It was intimate and everyone knew each other very well. Professor Beasley encouraged the students to dress smartly in coats, ties and gowns. Some of the teachers were excellent; one was not. In his last year (1962), Fred set up the Education Committee of the Blackstone Society and reported into the standard of education at the Law School. In those days, you could approach the Dean and the Head of the Law School. The Law School was very social and heavily connected to the Guild Council. Traditionally Guild Presidents were from the Law School but the medical students did a big push to wrest it from them and in 1962, Richard Lugg became President. Fred opted to assist him as Vice President. Richard was the Chairman of the Legal & Constitutional Affairs Commission on the Guild and would have made an able lawyer! Fred was Acting President quite a lot when Richard was away. There were lots of university formal functions – faculty dinners and so on. His social activities meant that his academic results were not as good as they could have been.
16:04 Angela was studying for an Arts degree. There was rivalry between the other faculties – particularly with Engineering. The engineers threw Fred into the pond several times. He enjoyed Max Beerbohm’s novel about Oxford, Zuleika Dobson , and felt that he also enjoyed quite a frivolous time at UWA. Despite this, he was elected to be part of the University Moots Team in his final year. While debating in Melbourne he met Ron Castan , a member of the Melbourne team, and struck up a friendship with him. Ron became a human rights’ lawyer. They continued to meet through their mutual interest in the Aboriginal Legal Service. Ron Castan did 10 years work pro bono on the Mabo case (1982).
19:06 He feels enriched by the people he has met during his life. Mr Chaney presented the Toohey lecture at UWA on 4 September 2014 and talked about the critical role that lawyers played in getting Australia to recognise Aboriginal Native Title and led to various pieces of Aboriginal Land Rights Legislation. John Toohey , one of Fred Chaney’s first year lecturer’s, was appointed as the Land Commissioner. Fred believes that a university education should equip you to deal with all manner of people in the pursuit of good things.
22:31 People wanted to be Guild President to try and influence things. Fred was against the National Union of Australian Students adopting a political position. Learning how to listen, debate and argue is essential in learning to communicate with people who might not have the same views. The Western Australian Liberal Party has not been tolerant of Fred’s views on Aboriginal issues. You need to be able to reason with people and recognise different points of view.
24:37 Fred took Arts subjects as part of his undergraduate degree. He found History 2D (Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian History) one of the most influential subjects in his degree. He thought about giving law up. Fred did his Articles at Northmore Hale Davey & Leake. Eric Edwards managed to get him an appointment there. He found actually doing legal work for people to be very satisfying instead of studying law in isolation. He was very honest at recognising his limits in his knowledge of the law.
29:12 UWA Law students took an active interest in Aboriginal Land Rights. The Liberal Club worked with fringe dwellers in the Swan Valley. In 1961, they wrote a submission to the Parliamentary committee that was looking at Aboriginal voting rights. The penny dropped for Fred on Aboriginal issues with the publication of the Milirrpum judgment (known as the Gove land rights case) (1971). His father, who was living in Darwin at the time, sent him down the judgment. The Western Australian Mining industry was very anti-Aboriginal land rights. He believes that a good university graduate should be able to think independently. Part One of the Atlas of Australia’s War’s by ex UWA graduate, John Coates discusses the colonial era and the military operations against Aboriginal people. Fred has also had points of conflict where he has had to stand up for his own views.
34:36 There were only 3,000 students (including part-timers) when Fred was an undergraduate. There were a few Asian students. Most of the students were middle class. Fred had respect through his family connections. Religion was hotly debated within the student body. Fred was fiercely Catholic at the time and was a member of the Newman Society in first year. Protestants were in the ascendancy at the time. Fred was very involved with PROSH.
41:10 Fred remembers little of his graduation ceremony. He went straight into 2 year Articles at Northmore Hale. He enjoyed working with clients. He was admitted in about December 1963. His goal was to marry Angela and they married in April 1964. They wanted to do good works overseas in a Peace Corps type role and considered Africa. They were dismayed by the racist comments that were made by white ex residents who had migrated to Australia. The Director of Education in New Guinea was a friend of his father and organised for them to be able to stay with them consequently Fred became Crown Prosecutor in PNG from 1964-1965.
47:11 Before he left Fred for PNG, he was briefed at the School of Pacific Education in Sydney on the public service and cultural awareness. He did prosecuting work - there were lots of pay-back killings in PNG. He also did some constitutional work at the House of Assembly. He did not enjoy the political corruption and their colonial status and it was becoming violent. They had had their first child in PNG and decided to return to Australian to change things rather than try and do that in PNG.

Track 4
00:00 The practice of law in the 1960s and 70s was very different to now. Northmore Hale had a small number of partners and a wide range of clients. Fred Chaney was made a partner. There was a large local government element. There was a bit of commercial and litigation work. He did some criminal cases for Legal Aid. He moved to strike out one of the indictments and his address was heard by Ken Hatfield QC who asked him to come and work for him as his junior. It was mainly personal injury work and he spent a lot of time in court. Then he was called by Peter Wright of Hancock & Wright Prospecting and he offered Fred a job as their in-house lawyer (1966-1974). He mainly did taxation work. Their social attitudes did not marry with Fred’s.
04:20 He returned to Northmore Hale because they were in financial strife. People thought he was an expert in mining law. He developed a busy practice in the obtaining of mining tenements. There was a huge speculative boom going on during the mid-70s. Some were on Crown land and some on Stations. He had prevailed upon the State Government Minister for Mines in about 1968 to amend the Mining Act in order to give the farmers more protection.
07:40 Environment issues were not at the forefront in those days. There was great degradation done in the desert where parts were bulldozed through. The oil companies like Shell and Caltex started doing site avoidance in discussion with Aboriginal people in the late 1960s.

Interview 2

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 In the 1960s there were opportunities to represent Aboriginal people. One case was an Aboriginal mother who was accused of neglecting her children. Fred won the case. The prosecution had stemmed from complaints that there were too many Aboriginals in East Perth. He kept doing work for Aboriginal people and there were other people who volunteered their time. It became a more organised legal service in the late 60s and became the Aboriginal Legal Service and Advice Bureau in 1972. This move was led by Robert French AM, current Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.
04:30 Fred, Ian Temby QC and Peter Dowding SC agreed that there was a need for a shop front legal service and they recruited enough volunteer lawyers to operate a 5 day service in Forrest Place giving legal advice for $2. This was supported by the Law Society. Now most of the major Australian law firms have large pro bono practices. The relationship between lawyers and Aboriginal advancement has been very important.
07:13 The Aboriginal Legal Service mainly dealt with criminal cases. One example was a man who was locked up in Moora for 6 weeks on the charge of stealing by finding. Aboriginal incarceration is a big problem in Australia. The mining industry and the conservative Government in WA were both opposed to Aboriginal Land Rights.
11:18 Fred decided that he should enter politics. He felt he was effective in his political work and enjoyed policy and finding solutions to problems. He was continuously elected Senior Vice President of the Liberal Party from 1969-1973. He worked closely with Bob French within the Liberal Party and on the National Native Title Tribunal. At that time, the Liberal Party was a broad church. His views on Aboriginal matters were considered eccentric but his views were tolerated because he was a good operator and adhered to the party line on social and economic matters. From 1989 to 1990 he was the public face of the Federal Liberal Party in WA.
16:53 The State Liberal Party differs across Australia. Victoria was the most liberal when it came to Aboriginal affairs and Queensland and WA the most illiberal. Fred easily made the transition from State to Federal politics. He recalled that Sir Charles Court (Premier of Western Australia from 1974 to 1982) had disputes with the Commonwealth on several matters. Fred was quite politically astute as his family had been involved in politics for some time. As there were no seats in the House of Representatives, Fred ran for the Senate in an unwinnable seat. However, there was a Double Dissolution a few months later and he found himself in Parliament.
21:23 At that time, there was a generation of politicians in Canberra who were policy orientated on both sides of Parliament. They worked well together and formulated some good policy – e.g. no fault divorce. There was a reforming zeal in the Government. Fred believed the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) to be very important and it was supported by both parties. The Woodward enquiry into land rights was another milestone. Bob Ellicott , former Chairman of the Gove Land case was also in Parliament and was Chairman of the Back Bench Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. There was across party support on Aboriginal Land Rights. Unfortunately, Western Australia was still unsupportive of land rights. It was believed to be a Communist plot. The Communist party had supported the walk-off from Wave Hill Station and the Gurindji strike.
26:28 Western Australia was behind even Queensland on Aboriginal land rights legislation. The Labor Party tried to force national land rights into WA. An ugly confrontation over exploration took place on Noonkanbah Station in 1980. From 1972-1983/4, there was a bipartisan approach on Aboriginal Land Rights. Western Mining and the Chamber of Mines led the opposition to Aboriginal Land Rights in WA. Aboriginal people now switched back to pursuing their rights through the courts from the mid-80s. Mabo (1989 and 1992) switched the balance of power and in 1993, the Native Title Act was passed. In 1995, Leon Davis, the CEO of CRA/Rio Tinto made some speeches proclaiming that the company would no longer fight against this. This led to a cultural and behavioral shift.
36:44 Fred was Whip at the time of the Whitlam dismissal and was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from 1978-1980. He had a change of role every couple of years. Fred was very impressed with the calibre of the departmental staff. Fred was Minister of Social Security during a recession which was a very unpleasant experience. It was a period of intense debate about economic policy and it became quite bitter and personal. The Liberal Party came to the conclusion that economic reform was necessary and this enabled Bob Hawke to progress his agenda without much opposition. Fred believed that Prime Minister Bob Hawke was the right man for the right time.
48:08 In his one term in the House of Representatives, Fred was Shadow Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development from 1990 to 1993. Environment was quite fashionable then. Fred attended the Rio Convention in 1992 but there seemed to be little will to find answers. An excellent environmental report was “Our Common Future”, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development that was published in 1987. Environmental issues and economic issues go hand in hand.
54:01 The Aboriginal problem is not just economic. It is very complex. Economics and education will help and we can close the gap but how do Aboriginal people retain their Aboriginality and their unique culture. Noel Pearson believes that Aboriginal people must be bi-cultural. What is Aboriginality? There is a view in certain sections of society that Aboriginals should be assimilated and eventually bred out.

Track 3
00:00 After his political career ended, Fred became a Research Fellow at the Graduate School of Management at UWA from 1993 to 1995. Fred was very disappointed that there was not more inter-Faculty co operation at UWA during this time. He discovered that he wasn’t an academic and prefers to do things. He was offered a part-time and then full-time position on the National Native Title Tribunal (1994-2000) .
05:27 He worries that PhD studies focus on a unique project that by nature are often narrow and of little value. He was a researcher at the School of Sciences at the ANU and was buoyed by their company and their collaborations. He believes that there are many different types of intelligence.
09:23 Fred’s study at UWA allowed him to grow and mature. It exposed him to many different ideas. He recognises the support of his wife Angela during his life and enjoyed immersing himself in university life. His education at Aquinas College was also significant to his future.
13:15 UWA has been an important institution for his children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews. He hopes that the university will continue to live up to its motto of “Seek Wisdom”.



Chaney, Fred, “Fred Chaney interview, 11 September 2014 and 12 September 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,