King O’Malley (c.1858-1953) was a flamboyant character in early twentieth century Australian politics. He is best remembered for his role in the establishment of a national bank (Commonwealth Bank) and for his involvement in the planning and development of the national capital in Canberra.

Details of King O’Malley’s early life are uncertain. Confusion abounds, but it is probable that he was born in 1858 in the United States of America where he received his early education, despite his claim that he was born in Canada.

Portrait of King O’Malley, c.1885

As a young man, O’Malley gained experience in banking and in insurance and land sales. It was also then that he became interested in politics. Working his way across the country, at the age of 29 years, O’Malley left the United States of America for Australia. He settled in Tasmania, quickly establishing himself as a successful insurance agent. Toward the end of 1892, O’Malley left Tasmania to spend a brief period in Western Australia, primarily in Kalgoorlie, which was at that time experiencing a gold rush. It was there that he laid the foundations for his considerable estate. With his wealth he began developing an extensive property portfolio in metropolitan and country Victoria.

O’Malley later settled in Adelaide where his strong interest in politics led to him gaining a seat in the South Australian Parliament. He soon became widely known, not only for his flamboyant manner, but also for promoting social reform, demanding justice for low-income earners and supporting the rights of women.

In 1901 O’Malley was elected to the first Australian Parliament in the House of Representatives as a Member for Tasmania. After a short time away from Federal politics, O’Malley re-entered the political arena to become a key figure as Minister for Home Affairs from 1910 to 1913 in the Fisher Government. During this period as Minister, O’Malley introduced the Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta Railway Act of 1911 and had funding approved for the construction of this line. He also held the Home Affairs portfolio in the Hughes Government from 1915 to 1916. He was described as a charismatic and imposing man, a man of the people, a great wit, picturesque in speech and appearance and an astute politician.

Australian Federal Labor party MPs elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate at the inaugural 1901 election

During O’Malley’s dynamic and sometimes controversial political career, he demonstrated a number of significant attributes.

He was a:

  1. visionary: his vision for Australia included his role in the establishment of a bank for the people that was government owned and run (the Commonwealth Bank), the Trans-Australian Railway, planning the city of Canberra and originating the idea of establishing Australia House in London

  2. leader: in church activities, having a major role in the development of the national capital Canberra, as an Independent government minister and later as the Minister for Home Affairs
  3. social reformer: believing strongly in women’s causes and women’s rights, fighting for the introduction of old-age pensions, his belief in a free education system, expressing concern about the negative influences of alcohol on home and family life
  4. strategist: presenting detailed and carefully thought-out plans for a range of possible outcomes, believing that obstacles were made to be surmounted.

King O'Malley

Dudley Drew's portrait of King O'Malley, aged about ninety-five, was entered for the Archibald Prize in 1953