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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Turnbull, Keith Hector (1907–1978)

by Charles Fahey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Keith Hector Turnbull (1907-1978), farmer and politician, was born on 28 December 1907 at Bendigo, Victoria, youngest of ten children of Walter Turnbull, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Gunning, both Victorian born. Educated at Wedderburn State School, Keith worked on his father's nearby property. On 24 July 1940 he married Olive Jean Mellis at Bendigo with Presbyterian forms; she was a saleswoman. He enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces on 20 January 1942, served in Victoria and Western Australia as a gunner and cook, and was promoted acting corporal. Discharged from the army on 13 October 1944, he joined two of his brothers in establishing at Wedderburn a Corriedale stud, said to be one of the best in Victoria.

On 13 May 1950 Turnbull won the Legislative Assembly seat of Korong for the Liberal and Country Party. He held it until 1955. Following an electoral redistribution, he was returned for Kara Kara in 1955, 1958 and 1961. In (Sir) Henry Bolte's government he served as commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, president of the Board of Land and Works, and minister of soldier settlement (June 1955-July 1964), and as minister for conservation (July 1961-July 1964), roles in which he fostered rural development.

In 1946-55 the Victorian government had acquired 1,010,967 acres (409,128 ha) of freehold land for the soldier-settlement scheme. A further 195,693 acres (79,195 ha) was purchased in the first four years of Turnbull's term as minister. By 1959 the scheme had placed some six thousand returned servicemen on the land. When the number of war veterans seeking assistance declined, Turnbull established a general settlement scheme which extended similar benefits to civilians. Under the Land Settlement Act (1959), the Soldier Settlement Commission was empowered to purchase and subdivide land for sale to any male British subject, over the age of 21, provided he had sufficient experience and prospects of success. The project aroused strong interest. By 1963 nearly seven thousand applications had been received for the designated 197 farms.

Turnbull had introduced the Vermin and Noxious Weeds Act (1957) which gave the Department of Crown Lands and Survey wide powers to compel landholders to destroy pests. This legislation aimed to eradicate rabbits by the myxoma virus, by poisoning and by the fumigation and destruction of burrows. The Act also required landholders to exterminate noxious weeds. In addition to providing staff to destroy weeds on crown land, the department helped private landowners by charging moderate rates for the hire of its plant and equipment.

At places such as Ballarat and Bendigo, extensive work was undertaken during Turnbull's term as minister to rehabilitate abandoned mining sites. In 1962 he sponsored legislation which encouraged rural landholders to nominate their combined properties as group conservation areas, in each of which measures would be taken to control erosion. Two years earlier, with his support, the co-operative Eppalock Catchment Project had begun. Involving the government and farmers throughout an 800-sq.-mile (2072 km²) region, the project aimed not only to conserve soil, but to protect the catchment area of Victoria's fourth largest reservoir.

Although Turnbull was defeated by William Phelan, the Country Party candidate, at the general election on 27 June 1964, the Bolte government continued to make use of his knowledge of rural industries. In 1965 he was appointed chairman of the Grain Elevators Board: responsible for the bulk-handling of the State's wheat and barley harvests, he was to retain that office until 1977. He was a trustee (1960-78) of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. As a young man, he had raced a pacer, Brandy Scott, without success. As an older one, he served (1969-78) on the Trotting Control Board, and represented it on the committee of the Victoria Trotting Club and the Totalizator Agency Board.

In his retirement Turnbull maintained a keen interest in the affairs of the Rural Finance and Settlement Commission. He was remembered in parliament for his friendliness and sense of fun, and for the wise counsel he had offered young back-benchers. Turnbull was gifted with a fine singing voice, and played the piano at social, sporting and even some political occasions. Predeceased by his wife, and survived by his son and four daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 4 September 1978 at Ascot Vale, Melbourne; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in the New Cheltenham cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $269,620.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Smallwood, Hard to Go Bung (Melb, 1992)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 12 Sept 1978, p 3501
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 July 1964
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1978.

Citation details

Charles Fahey, 'Turnbull, Keith Hector (1907–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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