'The Possum' a mellow conservative



11-7-1922 10-10-2012


PETER ROSS-EDWARDS, who was parliamentary leader of the Victorian Country/National Party for a record 18 consecutive years, has died in Shepparton aged 90.

He was born in the New South Wales town of Corowa where his father, Rupert, was the Anglican archdeacon. He was educated at local state schools and at Geelong Grammar, where he quipped he "was undistinguished in everything". His secondary schooling was unhappy as a result of being bullied because of a speech impediment. But later he became a strong supporter of Geelong Grammar and sent his own sons there.

After leaving school in 1940, he enrolled at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in a diploma of commerce. His studies were interrupted by World War II and he enlisted in the RAAF aged 19 in April 1942, giving his occupation as "clerk".

Trained as a wireless operator and gunner at Parkes and Somers, he arrived in Britain in April 1943 and was seconded to 8 Squadron RAF. When the young Ross-Edwards was posted to Oman and Yemen in the Middle East in May 1944 the squadron was flying the Vickers Wellington medium bomber.

He was promoted to flying officer in November 1944, discharged from the RAAF and assigned to 152 Squadron RAF and posted to Burma. He was discharged in April 1946.

Ross-Edwards was keen to resume his university studies but contracted tuberculosis in 1947 and spent more than

18 months in Heidelberg hospital. He returned to university in 1949 to study law and graduated in 1953. After a brief stint with Colonial Sugar, he joined the Shepparton law firm of PV Feltham, whose principal, Percy Feltham, was a Country Party member of the Legislative Council. As was typical in provincial cities, he practised across the law and became a partner in the firm.

In April 1953 he married Joy Elizabeth Perry. With a growing family, Ross-Edwards became active in the Shepparton community, notably in Rotary, Legacy, the Agricultural Society and tennis and golf clubs, serving as president of many of them. The family was shattered in 1966 when son John, aged six, died of cancer. They were to experience another severe blow when son Timothy was killed in a car crash in 1984 aged 28 and about to be married.

In 1965 an electoral redistribution re-created the Legislative Assembly seat of Shepparton, and Ross-Edwards won Country Party preselection. It was to be no easy path into Parliament because he was up against a strong field of five. After the distribution of preferences, he won the seat with 51.9 per cent of the vote in 1967. The 1970 election was an even tougher contest because the other parties denied him preferences and he beat the independent candidate by only 360 votes, but thereafter held the seat comfortably.

Ross-Edwards became party leader after only one term in Parliament. Erratic leadership and foolish preference flirtations with the Labor Party led to the Country Party losing four of its 12 Legislative Assembly seats in 1970. The next decade was a challenging one to be leading the party: it had to contest three state and five federal elections and two referendums. It also struggled to gain a profile because of Liberal premier Dick Hamer's landslide victories in 1973 and 1976. Ross-Edwards' leadership held the party together when many were

prepared to write its epitaph.

By his own admission, Ross-Edwards was a man of conservative views: he was opposed to the removal of capital punishment from Victoria's statutes, supported the Vietnam War, opposed economic sanctions against South Africa, was hesitant about Aboriginal land rights, opposed prostitution reform and said of homosexuality "I don't understand". Yet his was a mellow conservatism he was neither a populist nor a reactionary and successfully resisted attempts by the extremist League of Rights to infiltrate the party. He also altered his views. He reflected that when first elected to Parliament he was very right wing, but talking to the friends of his children over the years caused him to move away from "extreme conservatism".

Though he was well connected to the boardrooms of Melbourne, he once explained that "my Melbourne colleagues will have lunch at the Athenaeum or the Melbourne Club every day, they sit with the same fellas, they don't associate with the young. But in a country town you've got to associate with all walks of life."

Yet he was somewhat of an atypical Country/National Party leader, while interested in agriculture and a committed decentralist, he was a solicitor by profession and explained that if he had been born in the city he would have joined the Liberal Party. Relations between the two non-Labor parties remained difficult but were much better under Ross-Edwards' leadership than previously.

Because there was no coalition government in Victoria between 1948 and 1992 though it was a close-run thing in 1979 Ross-Edwards was denied the opportunity to be a minister. His intelligence and political acumen would have made him a good one.

The long run of Liberal governments came to an end in 1982 with the election of John Cain's Labor Party with the Nationals holding the balance of power in the upper house. Generally it sided with the Liberal Party, but not always such as when it voted for a bill to enlarge the Parliament and supported the construction of the Melbourne Tennis Centre. Ross-Edwards had an avuncular manner but he was angered at what he believed was the forced resignation in 1985 of the governor, his friend Sir Brian Murray, and said he had "lost a lot of respect for John Cain". They were later reconciled and combined to resist the Kennett government's changes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground Trust, of which they were members.

When the Bulletin magazine published an article on October 22, 1985, suggesting that Murray had been "sacked" for plotting with Ross-Edwards and others to block supply in the Legislative Council and bring down the ALP government, he launched an action for defamation and was awarded $47,000.

Ross-Edwards faced a leadership challenge after almost every election, but

easily survived them all. After the 1988 election he voluntarily relinquished the leadership and went to the backbench.

He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1989. In March 1991 he suffered a heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass operation. When he resigned from Parliament on August 19, 1991, the Legislative Assembly took the rare decision to pass a vote of thanks to him for his contribution to the state.

From 1991 until his death he lived in retirement with Joy in Shepparton. He was chief commissioner of the City of Greater Bendigo in 1994 and '95 and was the inaugural chairman of Goulburn Murray Water from 1995 to 2001.

Ross-Edwards was a man of integrity and high principle and was a significant figure in Victorian politics. His political astuteness was legendary he wasn't called "The Possum" for nothing.

He is survived by his wife Joy, daughter Sarah, sons David and Richard, and five grandchildren.

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