Don Willesee

The Honourable
Don Willesee
Senator for Western Australia
In office
22 February 1950  11 November 1975
Personal details
Born (1916-04-14)14 April 1916
Derby, Western Australia
Died 9 September 2003(2003-09-09) (aged 87)
Joondalup, Western Australia
Nationality Australian
Political party Australian Labor Party
Spouse(s) Gwendoline Clark
Children Mike Willesee, Terry Willesee
Occupation Postal clerk

Donald Robert "Don" Willesee (14 April 1916  9 September 2003) was an Australian politician, a member of the Australian Senate for 25 years representing Western Australia, and a Cabinet minister in the Whitlam government.

Early life

Willesee was born in Derby, Western Australia, to Ethel May (née Flinders) and William Robert Willesee, who were originally from South Australia. His older brother, Bill Willesee, was a state parliamentarian. Willesee was educated at state and convent schools at Carnarvon in the same state. He left school at 14 (his father and brother had lost their jobs during the Great Depression), to work as a postal clerk in Carnarvon, and immediately joined the Australian Union of Postal Clerks and Telegraphists. He eventually became state secretary of this organisation. He later worked as a telegraphist in Perth. In 1940 he married Gwendoline Clarke.[1]

Political career

Willesee joined the Australian Labor Party when he was 21 and was elected as a senator for Western Australia in 1950 at the age of 33, the youngest Australian senator elected up to that time. He worked with Whitlam to reform the Labor Party prior to the 1972 election.[1][2] According to Kim Beazley he was a "... key assistant to Gough Whitlam as he set about the task of restructuring the Labor Party ... and made an intelligent, brilliant rabble fit for government."[3]

Following the 1972 election, Willesee was appointed as Special Minister of State, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister assisting the Prime Minister and Minister assisting the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the second Whitlam Ministry (which followed the "two-man Ministry" from 5 December to 19 December 1972). As Special Minister of State he endorsed the establishment of a computerised library information system to connect national, state and university libraries, which has continued to evolve.[4] Whitlam relinquished the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs to him on 30 November 1973. During this period he had major responsibility for implementing the Whitlam government's initiative in improving relations with Asia. He was opposed to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor and is quoted as having said in 1975:

There is no doubt that Gough felt East Timor should be incorporated within Indonesia. I just believed we should have left the decision to the East Timorese, without any suggestions or trying to lead them to Indonesia. That was the difference between myself and Gough.
Don Willesee[1]

He did not stand for re-election at the 1975 double dissolution election.


Willesee died in Joondalup Hospital, Joondalup, two weeks after a heart attack, survived by his wife Gwen, and their six children, Colleen, Mike, Terry, Geraldine, Don junior and Peter.[5] He was the last surviving member of the 1950-1955 Senate.

At his death, the Prime Minister said:

In my acquaintance with him—and I know I speak for those of my party and the National Party who dealt with him when he was a member of parliament—he was a friendly, decent, courteous and forthright man, whom we respected across the political divide.

According to the leader of the opposition at the time,

Don was a great human being, a man of immense integrity. He was much loved by his staff, a passionate Labor man who never forgot the effects of the Great Depression. He never walked past a homeless kid without digging deep into his pockets.


Political offices
New title Special Minister of State
Succeeded by
Lionel Bowen
Preceded by
Alan Hulme
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Frank Stewart
Preceded by
Gough Whitlam
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Andrew Peacock
Party political offices
Preceded by
Nick McKenna
Leader of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate
Succeeded by
Lionel Murphy
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