Nicklin was born in Murwillumbah, New South Wales on 6 August 1895, the son of a newspaper proprietor. In 1910 the family moved to Beerwah in Queensland, where Nicklin’s father took up banana farming. Nicklin enrolled in the army in 1916 served with distinction during World War I, where he was promoted to corporal and was awarded the Military Medal. On his return to Queensland he bought a small pineapple farm at Palmwoods, 100 kilometres north of Brisbane, through a soldier-settler scheme. Nicklin saved wisely and put his farming experience to good use, and his farm succeeded where many others failed. He led many fruit-growers’ organizations, and then became involved in Country Party politics.
When the Member for the solid Country Party seat of Murrumba retired in 1932, Nicklin became the new candidate. He won the seat, although the National Progressive Country Party Government of A. E. Moore was heavily defeated. Nicklin, therefore, entered Parliament as a humble opposition backbencher.
Nicklin was a popular and hardworking local member, and he managed to hold his seat throughout very difficult times for the Country Party in Queensland. The opposition was fractured and weak, and the Government of William Forgan Smith very secure. Nicklin’s preferred area was agriculture, and he made many speeches on the subject.
In 1941 the opposition suffered another severe defeat, with Labor winning forty-one seats to the Country Party’s fourteen and the United Australia Party’s four. After the election, the two non-Labor parties decided to merge. Opposition leader E. B. Maher stood down, and Nicklin was elected as a new leader for the new party. The merger failed after only a few months, but Nicklin remained as head of a Country Party-UAP coalition.
Nicklin was leader of the opposition for sixteen years, losing five elections in a row. In 1942 Labor abolished optional preferential voting, meaning that the Country Party and UAP could no longer rely on each other’s preferences in seats that they both contested. Even more damaging to the coalition’s chances was the introduction of a zonal electoral system in 1949, in which seats in the traditional Labor north and west of the state required fewer members than the Country-Party dominated south-east or the Queensland People’s Party (formerly UAP, soon to be the Liberals) dominated metropolitan areas.
Despite these setbacks, Nicklin was never challenged for the leadership, which is remarkable by Australian standards. Many coalition members appeared to have given up on the idea of forming Government and were content to simply represent their constituencies. As such, Nicklin was left to handle most of the business of opposition. He acknowledged to the Country Party conference in 1955 that their chances of ever being seated to the right of the speaker were slim, but he continued on. He considered retirement after the 1956 election, in which he lost spectacularly to Vince Gair. However, his fortunes would soon change.
The late 1950s saw increasing fear of communism in Australia, and increasing tensions between the Parliamentary Labor Party and the Central Executive (QCE) in Queensland. Many people were suspicious of the left-wing non-elected union leaders who operated behind the scenes of the Government, and Premier Gair built a reputation as a hardline anti-communist. These tensions boiled over in 1957, when the QCE pushed the Government to introduce three weeks’ paid leave for public servants. Gair refused, and Nicklin backed him, arguing that a non-elected and possibly communist-sympathizing body should not dictate to the people’s representatives.
On 24 April Vince Gair was expelled from the ALP, and he and his supporters formed the Queensland Labor Party (QLP). This body would later join the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP) which had arisen out of a split in the ALP in Victoria. Nicklin and Gair held some talks over possible deals, but these came to nothing, and Administrator Chief Justice Mansfield ordered Parliament to reassemble.
Shortly after 10:30 pm on 12 July 1957 Treasurer Ted Walsh moved that supply be granted to the Gair QLP Government. The remnants of the ALP, now led by Jack Duggan, crossed the floor and voted against the Government. Gair no longer had the support of Parliament, and an election was called. It had been the shortest session of Parliament in Queensland’s history.
Nicklin’s time had come. In the 3 August elections the divided Labor forces were defeated and the Country Party-Liberal coalition came to power - the first non-Labor Government since 1932.
Nicklin’s first priority was to reverse the zonal electoral system in favour of his Government. Nicklin’s redistribution was fairer than Hanlon’s, but it still favoured the Country Party. The far west went down from five seats to three, and the Labor-voting provincial cities were separated from their hinterlands, in which new Country Party seats were created. The Liberals gained new seats in Brisbane, and in return they agreed not to contest the zonal electoral system, despite the fact that it allowed the Country Party to be the senior coalition partner even if it won less votes (which it did after 1966). Other electoral reform in the form of compulsory preferential voting was introduced in 1960, when it became clear that the QLP no longer posed a threat and that QLP voters were likely to favour the coalition over the ALP anyway.
The coalition enjoyed a harmonious relationship, with Nicklin and Liberal leader Ken Morris being personal friends as well as colleagues. The parties had some disputes over seat allocation in the mid 1960s, and Morris was not always an easy man to work with, but on the whole the Nicklin Government saw a period of very good relations between the Nationals and Liberals, especially compared with the strife of later years. Morris was replaced by the arguably more successful Gordon Chalk in 1965, who was a very staunch coalitionist.
The 1960s were a fairly quiet period in Queensland, with focus being placed chiefly on industrial relations and state development. In general, Nicklin saw little reason to lose electoral capital by passing tough industrial relations laws during times of prosperity. However, the most serious crises of the Nicklin Premiership were based in poor handling of unions.
In 1961, at Morris’ insistence, the old Industrial Court was replaced by the Industrial Relations and Arbitration Commission, which had less power. It could not raise award payments, although it could decrease them. At the time, the miners of Mount Isa Mines (MIM) were lodging a claim for a wage rise, which could not go through the new commission. This resulted in a strike which only ended with an uneasy truce. The dispute broke out again in 1964, and again the mine needed to be closed down. Here, Nicklin acted erratically. First he did nothing for months, then passed a harsh order-in-council expanding police powers to deal with the strike. This came just as the issues behind the strike were being resolved, and caused the negotiations to break down again. While the mines could eventually reopen, Nicklin was condemned for poor handling of the crisis.
As he was leading a Government that lacked experience, Nicklin knew that he would be relying heavily on the public service. As such, he treated the public service union with care, restoring the privilege of a half-day’s leave to visit the annual exhibition.
Nicklin viewed his own achievements as Premier in terms of state development. Like most Queensland Premiers, he believed in building and capital works. Under Nicklin, road mileage doubled, irrigated land doubled, and a number of projects such as the Moogerah Dam were undertaken. Mining boomed – total mining output almost trebled, and Weipa became the largest bauxite mine in the world. The Nicklin Government, especially through effective Treasurers such as Tom Hiley, was good at attracting foreign customers for Queensland’s minerals and other produce.
Nicklin is probably best remembered for his probity, which earned him the nickname ‘Honest Frank’. It is not recorded who first coined the term, but it spread quickly and was widely accepted, even by Nicklin’s opponents, as being accurate. Nicklin was not widely known when he became Premier, and while he was too modest a man to indulge in self-aggrandising publicity he was skilled enough a politician to let the honest label stick.
Nicklin held his Cabinet to high standards. He was only forced to dismiss ministers on two occasions, once for tax evasion and once for a sexual harassment scandal, and in both cases he lied to cover the real reasons for the ministers’ departure. Arguably, such stories are the only deliberate lies he ever told to the public while in office. Nicklin’s hold over his cabinet was firm, and there was no question that ministers who could not live up to Nicklin’s standards needed to go.
In the late 1960s Nicklin suffered from a series of illnesses, and at the end of 1967 he retired from the Premiership and Parliament. He had served thirty-five years as Member for Murrumba, and his ten years and five months as Premier was then a Queensland record. In 1968 he was knighted, and in a rare concession to formality chose to be dubbed ‘Sir Francis’. He died peacefully on 29 January 1978, aged 82. At his own choice, he was not given the pomp and ceremony of a state funeral.
In many ways, Nicklin broke the mould of Queensland Premiers. He stands out for not being an authoritarian, a populist or an autocrat. He was willing to share power that he was forced to wait many years for, and he was willing to defer to those whom he knew had greater knowledge or talent than he. Both of these traits made his Government successful. Possibly, his greatest achievement was the fact that his Premiership was such a quiet an uneventful time. He was friendly and well-liked by the people of Queensland, and was known as ‘the gentleman Premier’.
Still, there is some debate over whether Nicklin’s geniality was entirely genuine or whether it concealed an iron fist. There were rumours that he inspired fear in his cabinet, although this is common among successful Premiers and Prime Ministers. He remains something of a paradox – cunning and powerful yet open, honest and outwardly benevolent. Not the wisest or most talented of Queensland Premiers, he must nonetheless have been a consummate politician to have been able to achieve so much in the harsh political environment of Queensland without open and outward displays of power and authoritarianism. He was lucky to have been in office during a time of stability and prosperity, but even so his Premiership is generally considered by commentators to have been a success.
B. Stevenson (2003) ‘George Francis Reuben Nicklin - The Gentleman Premier’ in ‘The Premiers of Queensland’ (Eds. Denis Murphy, Roger Joyce, Margaret Cribb and Rae Wear) U.Q. Press, St. Lucia.