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King O’Malley

King O’Malley was a prominent politician in Australia in the first couple of decades after Federation. He is well-known for his involvement in the early ALP, the significant role he played in the building of Canberra, and his strongly teetotaling politics.

O’Malley was born in Kansas, probably on 2 July 1858, although there is some doubt (at some point he started celebrating his birthday on July 4 to hype up his American origins, and as he aged he started claiming to have been born in 1854 cos he thought it seemed cooler to be that bit older or something 🤷🏻‍♀️). He made his fortune selling insurance on the US West Coast, and moved to Australia in 1888 to escape charges of embezzlement. Within a decade he was a sitting MP in the South Australian colonial parliament, where he took up causes like the legitimisation of illegitimate children whose parents later married, and greater regulation of barmaids, the existence of which he felt was a great social evil. He lost his seat after one term in the 1899 election.

He moved to Tasmania and was elected to federal parliament in the inaugural 1901 election. By the standards of the era he was on the radical side of politics, and so he joined the Labor Party caucus when Parliament began to sit in Melbourne. Indeed, the spelling of Australian Labor Party – without the U that Australian English uses in the word “labour” – is often attributed to O’Malley’s American influence. (He was said to be an advocate of spelling reform, although he was also reportedly awful at spelling, himself.) There’s no real evidence that this is true; at the time, there was no standard at all for whether Australians put a U into -o(u)r words or not and up until 1918 the Labor Party’s own documents dropped it and re-added it all the time, seemingly at the whim of whoever was typing up the minutes that day. At any rate, whether or not King O’Malley had any influence on the spelling of the party’s name, he was a major figure within the party. In 1910 he became Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs (reportedly because several members of the Labor Party caucus owed him money), a position he held between 1910–13 and 1915–16.

In his capacity as Home Affairs Minister he was enormously influential in the development of Canberra, choosing the site where the future national capital would be and selecting Walter Burley Griffin as the architect who would draw up the plans for the city. Because he was a committed teetotaler, he was also responsible for alcohol being banned in Canberra up until a referendum overturned the ban in 1928. Another of his favoured causes during this era was the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia – at the time a state-owned bank – although it did not become the easy source of credit for farmers and small business owners that he had wanted.

O’Malley eventually lost his seat in Parliament during the huge schism in the Labor Party over conscription during WW1. He was not actively on the anti-conscriptionist side but I guess he was affiliated closely enough to it that the people of his largely-rural seat swung to the Nationalist Party in droves. He ran for parliament twice more after his defeat, but never got back in.

He ended up retiring to Melbourne, and lived out the last three decades of his life dabbling in polemical journalism and telling stories about himself to build up his personal legend. He was the last surviving member of Australia’s first parliament, and died in 1953 when it is thought he was 95 (with that caveat mentioned in paragraph #2).