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Shirley Olga Burke: Solicitor and Councillor

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Shirley Burke with Doreen Bryant 1962. Courtesy Doreen Bryant.

Shirley Olga Burke came to the Mordialloc Council determined to introduce change. Personally frustrated by councillors who impeded the attempt of some members of the Parkdale community to establish a permanent kindergarten and other community services, she was advised by Gertrude McKenzie, the only female councillor at the time, to stand for Council.[1] This she ultimately did. She was successful being elected in 1958 when she joined two councillor colleagues representing the Ward of Parkdale in a Council of nine members. Once there she discovered ‘progress’ was not to be easily won. Her period of six years on the council was stormy but significant in the development of the municipality.

Born on May 21, 1921 to Bertha Olga (Bieri) and Alfred Dunn in Warragul, Shirley attended the small rural school at Lardner. It was there that her father, a returned soldier from World War I, conducted an exhibition dairy farm. From the Lardner school Shirley went to St Agnes, the convent in Warragul, but later transferred to Essendon High School when her father, due to illness, was forced to give up the farm, and return to live with his parents at Essendon.

At Essendon High, Shirley was highly successful academically and very involved in sport. After matriculating in 1937 she commenced work as a typist and completed studies in accountancy. It was while working for a firm of solicitors she was encouraged to undertake a law course. The firm gave her time off to facilitate her studies and allow her to complete her bachelor of law degree at Melbourne University. Whilst there she was awarded the John Chrisp Law Bursary and was co-winner of the Law Faculty Debating Award. On graduation she undertook her articles with the legal firm, Herring and Bathurst in Maryborough, in country Victoria, and was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria and the High Court of Australia in 1947. It was during this time in Maryborough that Shirley married Colin Burke and had the first two of her three daughters.

It was in the early 1950s that the Burke family moved to a residence in Bethel Avenue, Parkdale. This was at a time when Parkdale was starting to stir with new young families seeking to establish themselves in the district, but when many public services were either not well developed or non existent. Many roads were sand tracks, ti tree and gorse bushes grew in abundance and many paddocks were available for the agistment of horses. It was in this setting that Shirley established her legal practice, working on the kitchen table, and began her involvement with local organizations.

Shirley quickly immersed herself as a member in several clubs and groups working to establish community facilities. She became the first patron of the Parkmore pony club and was one of the group of individuals who saw the need for a specifically designed and permanent kindergarten building in Parkdale. [2] Members of this group approached the council seeking permission to use council owned land behind the shops in Como Parade West but without success. The council planned to use the land for a bowling club. Frustrated Shirley Burke rang Cr Gertrude McKenzie seeking advice on how the issue could be resolved and it was on that occasion that McKenzie suggested Burke should consider standing for council. [3]

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Cr Shirley Burke inspecting guard of honour at opening of 13 Mordialloc Scout Hall on the Mentone racecourse property, 1961. Courtesy Leader Collection.

In July 1958 Shirley Burke announced her intention to stand against Cr Stan Kelley who had served only one year after taking up the remaining term of Cr Harry Samuel who had resigned early from the position of councillor. She canvassed the district riding horseback to deliver her electoral material to residents on the eastern side of Nepean Highway. [4] At public meetings she detailed common concerns she had identified amongst residents and went on to discuss her priorities as a candidate. Residents’ concerns included low flying aeroplanes, permitting unauthorised buildings to remain, allocation of priorities for road building, inconsistencies in enforcing regulations and inefficiencies in the operation of council’s officers. [5] Shirley Burke based her campaign on the themes of good housekeeping, cooperative action and enterprise in community projects. She emphasised that the development of the municipality should be planned so that residential areas should be kept intact and free from nuisance, that municipal works should be based on a well thought out budget which should be published and a more practical approach was needed to resolving the problem of the sadly neglected beach facilities. She believed the council should give a lead to all community projects and should assist groups sponsoring community or cultural projects to a much greater degree than it had done in the past. [6]

Shirley Burke had to contend with several rumours about her affiliations and interests in the time leading up to the election. One was that she was a communist. This was at a time when there was considerable community foment and anxiety generated about the power and influence of the Communist Party in economic, industrial and political matters in Australia. Burke wrote a letter to The News specifically denying this rumour concerning herself. “This is completely untrue and I most indignantly deny that I am or ever have been or would ever want to become a Communist. I have always abhorred this doctrine and have never had any interest in or connection with this party, for any reasoning person can see what an evil thing Communism is." Earlier Eddie Trait had written in The News that the surest and most evil way to discredit someone is to say ‘He is a Comm’. He pointed out such labelling was a very easy way of silencing a competent critic or of stopping someone who is leading a badly needed social reform. The reality he thought was that most people were unable to identify a communist unless the person was waving a red flag. [7]

Despite the moves through rumour to discredit her, she was elected to council defeating the sitting councillor and another candidate. With the record number of votes recorded, more than 600 than the previous total, Burke received 1585 votes, three votes more than the combined score of the two other candidates. Kelley’s total was 1001 while Simmons received 581 votes. Burke saw her victory as support for progressive civic development and a trend favouring more positive council action. [8]

At the end of her first term as a councillor, Shirley Burke detailed in a letter to The News achievements of the previous three years while stressing that much still had to done. On the foreshore new dressing sheds had been erected and council buildings repaired and repainted. Road construction specifications had been tightened and contracts more strictly enforced. Annual junk collections were implemented and the home help service was extended. During this time the first elderly citizens’ club was established and financial assistance was given to kindergartens.

Despite these successes the three years had not been easy for her as she often found herself at odds with her colleagues and being frustrated in achieving the changes or developments in the municipality she saw as necessary. She supported the idea of a community centre at Parkdale but both council officers and councillors from the Parkdale Ward did not agree with her. Nevertheless she persisted with the notion of a Youth centre being built on the restored Council tip in Warren Road. The establishment of a library at Parkdale was another area of contention. The Free Library Service Board had recommended that the site of the first Mordialloc municipal library should be in Parkdale but most councillors thought otherwise. While agreeing that a library was necessary, councillors as a group could not concur on a single location. On another issue Cr Burke was the sole councillor who opposed the motion calling for a letter from the council to the Parkdale Yacht Club asking them to curb the ‘unruly behaviour’ of some of their members.

The situation significantly changed in 1961 and 1962 when new elections brought to council several new members who shared some of the views held by Shirley Burke. Roy Ward was elected in the Mentone Ward winning a council place very convincingly in August 1961. John Beesley was similarly successful when elected as a representative of the Parkdale Ward in 1962. Shaw had won a position in the Mentone Ward. With these elections the balance of power moved to favour the ‘reformers’, as Ward, Burke, Beesley, Shaw and Spooner were often referred to. Shirley Burke herself was returned as a Parkdale Ward representative with the very large majority of 2195 votes. Her opponent polled only a third of her vote.

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Cr Roy Ward, Cr Shirley Burke, Ray Meagher MLA, and Doreen Bryant at a naturalization ceremony in City of Mordialloc, 1962. Courtesy Doreen Bryant.

With the return of the new council, Shirley Burke was elected as mayor, the second female in the history of the Mordialloc Council. Almost immediately she was caught in a conflict of views with the Lord Mayor of Melbourne who traditionally invited all the new municipal mayors to a dinner at the Town Hall. [9] Shirley received her invitation and accepted only to discover a mistake had been made. The Melbourne authorities missed that Shirley was female and the dinner was an all male affair. The solution to the dilemma was for Shirley to nominate a former male mayor of Mordialloc to attend in her place. But to Shirley this was unsatisfactory. She was Mayor of Mordialloc and if anyone was to go to represent the municipality it must be her. The invitation was withdrawn but the fuss generated in the local and daily press ensured that this discriminating behaviour was not repeated in subsequent years. [10]

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Cr Shirley Burke, Mayor of City of Mordialloc, 1961. Courtesy Leader Collection.

The ruckus surrounding the withdrawal of the mayor’s invitation to the Lord Mayor’s Dinner was a mere squib in relation to the explosion that occurred a few months later when the town clerk for the City of Mordialloc was suspended from duty. This was a controversial decision reached on the basis of a 5-4 vote amongst the councillors. [11]

Jack Grut had been employed by the council for over 37 years; first in 1925 as a nineteen year old to assist the then town clerk, Frank Jenkins, but prior to that he had assisted his father who was the valuer for the Borough of Mentone and Mordialloc. After qualifying as a town clerk he was appointed assistant town clerk in 1936 and town clerk thirteen years later after returning from war service in the Royal Australian Air Force. Over these years he had accumulated an immense amount of information about the municipality and was an active member of numerous community sporting and welfare organizations, including the RSL and the Mentone Bowling Club.

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Jack Grut, Town Clerk, City of Mordialloc, 1962. Courtesy Leader Collection.

His administration had come under criticism, on at least several occasions, but the complaints were usually dismissed. As Cr Thomson said on one such occasion, “It is preposterous that a man who has served the municipality for 32 years should receive such criticism". [12].

Despite the support council gave to Jack Grut in the fifties, Shirley Burke and her ‘reforming’ colleagues were frustrated by what they saw as incompetent administration. Too many of their proposed improvements and developments of services were frustrated by what they perceived as bureaucratic hurdles. They wanted a town clerk with a passion for change, a ‘can do attitude’ whereas the town clerk they had was much more cautious in his approach to issues and very aware of the constraints imposed by regulations and perhaps too conscious of the past. Shirley Burke and some of her colleagues wanted to streamline council procedures so that more time could be devoted to major policy matters. Discussions of applications for street stalls and raffles stretching into the early hours of the morning were seen as inappropriate, particularly as councillors had to resume their normal occupations that day. Cr Spooner prepared a report for council recommending that the general administrative arrangements be changed to ensure the increasing volume of council work receive the attention it deserved. In addition, he observed that the office routine should be changed to conform to modern office practices. Nevertheless, others saw change as unnecessary as the council had been operating successfully this way for many years. For them the need for change was not convincing. Jack Grut’s response to the Spooner report was seen as being ‘negative’.

With his suspension from duty as town clerk, Mr Grut sought and was granted the right for an enquiry into the circumstances surrounding his sidelining. A retired stipendiary magistrate, Mr T Hammond was appointed by the government to conduct the enquiry. This he did over several weeks of public hearings with separate Queen’s Counsellors representing Mr Grut and the council. Councillors Burke, Beesley, Ward, Shaw and Spooner were questioned at length by both lawyers, defending and justifying their actions while Councillors Arthur Burke, Sambell and Denyer spoke in support of Grut’s ability as an administrator. At times the questions from the lawyers and responses from the witnesses were very acrimonious. Cr Arthur Burke told the enquiry that the suspension of the town clerk was premeditated and culminated in the Spooner Report. This Councillor Shirley Burke vehemently denied. [13]

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T W Hammond SM. Courtesy Leader Collection.

The findings of the enquiry were less than satisfactory to Cr Shirley Burke and some of her colleagues. The presiding magistrate felt that many of the charges brought against Jack Grut were frivolous and there were a number which he said he could identify strong evidence in the town clerk’s favour. [14] Hammond went on to say that Grut showed a remarkable knowledge of municipal affairs and impressed him as an intelligent and industrious officer. He recommended that the town clerk be reinstated to his position, and paid his full salary for the period of his suspension. In addition, he awarded the town clerk costs of £4530. [15]

Councillors Ward, Beesley and Shaw indicated they accepted the recommendations of the report but their personal opinion had not changed. [16] Shirley Burke said she was still firmly convinced that the decision to suspend Mr Grut was properly made. [17] In contrast was Councillor Arthur Burke’s comment, “I feel that if councillors cannot work with Mr Grut they should resign and make way for someone who will."

This animosity between the two groups of councillors, pro Grut and anti Grut, was strong and destroyed harmonious working relationships within the council chamber and beyond. At the conclusion of Cr Shirley Burke’s term as mayor Cr Beesley congratulated her on a dynamic year and Cr Ward said she has put up with a lot during the year, suffering it graciously but had done a wonderful job. Cr Arthur Burke agreed it had been a difficult year but the less said about it the better. Cr Sambell hoped she was happy with her record as mayor while Cr Denyer a little more graciously acknowledged the differences in view between councillors but congratulated Cr Burke on her term as mayor. Shirley Burke herself thanked those who had been gracious in their disagreements and made special mention of excellent assistance she received from Doreen Bryant who had undertaken the role of mayoress. [18]

When the time came for councillors to face the ratepayers in elections Cr Spooner was the first of the ‘reformers’ to lose his place. In 1963 Mal Buxton, a solicitor, was elected replacing John Spooner as a representative of the Mentone Ward. Cr John Beesley’s term of office ended in 1963 and he offered himself again to the ratepayers but the majority of voters preferred to turn to a new candidate Stan McGregor. (2764 votes to 1551) At the same election Tom Shaw who had represented the Mentone Ward was defeated by Stan Hawken a former councillor and mayor of the city. Cr Burke once again found herself as part of a minority group in council and often found herself at odds with her colleagues on a range of issues. The Mordialloc City News said the voters had taken drastic action to end the rupture that had continued in council for the previous two years by voting out the ‘team’ which had the majority when Cr Shirley Burke was mayor. [19] The only remaining members of the ‘team’ were Roy Ward and Shirley Burke herself.

Within a short time the newly formed council found itself embroiled in a debate as to whether to increase the municipal rate by half a penny. [20] This raised the question as to whether the administration had been appropriately monitoring council’s budget and expenditure and presented an opportunity to reflect back on the statements of former councillor, John Spooner, on the need for tighter financial planning and management. Crs Roy Ward and Shirley Burke opposed the increase as did Cr Mal Buxton. But the numbers were on the side of the mayor, Cr Cliff Sambell who moved that the increased rate be approved. He was supported by Crs McLean, Denyer, Hawken and A Burke so the increase was implemented.

Shirley Burke felt so strongly about the rate rise that she announced her intention to retire from Council. She said the rate rise was wrong given the three farthings rise that had occurred the previous year. “I feel that to continue sitting in council run on the present lines condones its deficiencies, which I believe are only there because councillors permit them." She hit out at the five councillors who supported the rate rise wondering whether “to laugh or weep at the complacency of the five in their efforts to explain and justify the rate increase" and went on to praise her former councillor colleagues, Spooner, Beesley and Shaw and Cr Ward as men who contributed so much positive thought and action, and expressing the hope that men of such calibre would once again become councillors. [21]

Shirley Burke’s resignation from council was delayed until the New Year . If she had proceeded with the resignation when she first revealed her intention late in 1963 an election would have been called early in January causing an interruption to council staff Christmas holidays, as a council vacancy must be filled within 28 days. Rather than allowing this to happen Cr Burke delayed submitting her resignation until February 10, 1964. Her letter of resignation was presented to council by Cr McGregor a fellow Parkdale Ward councillor, Cr Burke was not present. It was a long letter in which Shirley Burke set out her reasons for her action. Basically she expressed her dissatisfaction with council policies and her belief that the council was indifferent to the need of ratepayers. Earlier she had said that council was run on a hit or miss system of accounting that should be brought up to date. Too many councils, she believed, accepted inefficient accounting methods because they had been used “since the year dot, and they are used to it." [22]

The mayor, Cr Sambell, without interruption and without comment from himself or his colleagues, read the letter. He then announced that the resignation would entail a by-election in the Parkdale Ward and the date was fixed as a day in March. No further reference was made to the resignation until the meeting was about to close. Cr McGregor then queried whether any further remarks were to be made about Cr Burke’s resignation and was informed by the mayor that it was inappropriate. Perhaps taken aback by the mayor’s response McGregor said he was thinking along the lines of a letter to thanks for her services. He was then informed the matter would be taken care of under ‘standing orders’. [23]

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Cr C Sambell, 1965. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Shirley Burke, who had been suffering from osteomyelitis in the right leg for several years, forcing her to undergo hospital treatment, resumed her legal practice in Parkdale. [24] It was a little more than ten years after her resignation from council that Shirley Burke died in hospital in March 1975. She was almost 54 years of age. A memorial service preceding her funeral was held in the Davies Memorial Church, Mentone and attended by representatives of council, parliament, local organizations and friends. Speakers reflected on her concern for others and her enthusiastic contribution to many local community projects including the Parkdale kindergarten, the beach pavilion and the Parkdale library. It was acknowledged that her six years in council were often stormy but many of the things she struggled for later became a reality. The local paper said, “The bitter arguments that shook the municipality were seen later, in retrospect, to have been of great benefit." [25] Her contribution was recognised by council shortly before her death with the naming of the former Lincoln Building in her honor.

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Shirley Burke Hall, Parkers Road, Parkdale, 2005. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. At that time there was a kindergarten being conducted in the hall of the Anglican church in Parkers Road. The facilities were not good so community members saw the need for a specifically designed and permanent building.
  2. Mordialloc City News, July 30, 1959.
  3. Whitehead, G, Interview with Doreen Bryant, February 2005.
  4. Whitehead, G., Interview with Doreen Bryant, February 2005.
  5. Mordialloc City News, August 28, 1958.
  6. Mordialloc City News, August 17, 1958.
  7. Mordialloc City News, March 26, 1953.
  8. Mordialloc City News, September 4, 1958.
  9. See Whitehead, G., “Forcefully Put Madam Mayor,” Kingston Historical Website, Article No 309.[http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au]
  10. Mordialloc City News, November 16, 1961.
  11. Mordialloc City News, May 17, 1962.
  12. Mordialloc City News, October 25, 1956.
  13. Mordialloc City News, August 16, 1962.
  14. Mordialloc City News, September 6, 1962.
  15. Mordialloc City News, September 27, 1962.
  16. Mordialloc City News, September 27, 1962.
  17. Mordialloc City News, August 16, 1962.
  18. Mordialloc City News, August 29, 1963.
  19. The Sun, September 25, 1962.
  20. Mordialloc City News, November 7, 1963.
  21. Mordialloc City News, November 28, 1963.
  22. The Sun, November 18, 1963.
  23. Mordialloc City News, February 13, 1964.
  24. Mordialloc City News, June 13, 1963.
  25. Mordialloc Chelsea News, March 26, 1975.

Category: People
Reference Number: 345
Date Created:
Date Revised:

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