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Eric Reece

Eric Reece taking the salute from marching girls at the opening of the Australian championships, Devonport, 1960 (AOT, PH30/1/3605)

Eric Elliott Reece AC (1909–99), politician, was a member of parliament 1946–1975, and Premier of Tasmania 1958–1969, and 1972–1975. Born at the gold-mining town of Mathinna, Reece was educated at Mathinna, Queenstown and Invermay state schools and Launceston Technical College. In 1923 he moved with his parents and brothers to the west coast where he found his first job – sorting ore on a conveyor belt at the Magnet tin mine. The family returned to Mathinna in 1924. Reece had odd jobs at the mine and around the north-east district until early 1929. Returning to Launceston he found short-term work at the railways and, after the 1929 flood, assisting an upholsterer making mattresses and repairing flood-damaged furniture. He was unemployed during the Great Depression from late 1929 to late 1933.

In 1934 Reece found work at Mount Lyell copper mine. He joined the Australian Workers' Union (AWU) and in 1935 was appointed Union Organiser for the West Coast District and worked in that capacity until 1946. He helped establish a branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) at Queenstown and attended ALP state conferences as an AWU delegate.

In 1936 Reece married Alice Lucy Hanigan and between 1937 and 1941 the couple had four children. As a Labor candidate at the 1946 state election he won the House of Assembly seat of Darwin (later Braddon, now part of Lyons). On entering parliament, he was appointed Honorary Minister for Housing. In 1947 he became Minister for Mines – a portfolio that he was to hold for the rest of his time in government – and Minister for Lands and Works. He was state ALP president and member of the federal executive from 1948 to 1959, and ALP federal president in 1952–53 and in 1954–55 during the time of the 'Split'.

Eric Reece (Parliament of Tasmania)

As Premier from 1958 to 1969, Reece oversaw a period of economic growth and state development including legislation for the first legal casino in Australia. His championing of the Hydro-Electric Commission and the expansion of hydro-electricity schemes earned him the nickname 'Electric Eric'. After Labor lost the 1969 election, Reece led the party in Opposition until 1972 when Labor was overwhelmingly re-elected to government. Although Reece was electorally very popular, his increasingly autocratic style caused antagonism within the government and the ALP. In a move aimed at Reece, the 1975 state ALP conference passed a motion requiring ALP parliamentarians to retire at age 65. Angry, Reece, now 64, remained in the premiership just long enough to arrange the successor of his choice before retiring from government in March 1975.

Further reading: R Davis, Eighty years' Labor, Hobart 1983; J Koshin, 'Eric Reece, society, Labor and developmentalism in Tasmania ', PhD thesis, Deakin University, 2002; and Electric Eric, forthcoming publication.

Jillian Koshin