Today's Birthday 14/4


Today's Birthday: Labor politician Ralph Willis (1938 - )

Ralph Willis was a constant member of cabinet in the Hawke-Keating era and is widely still remembered as a decent man - a trait that proved his Achilles heel in the ego-driven world of politics.

Willis was born in Melbourne on April 14, 1938, to a self-educated father who was both a boilermaker and union official.

Despite dreaming of representing his country in cricket, a football injury wiped out Willis' chances and he turned instead to study, taking a commerce degree from Melbourne University.

After graduation, Willis joined the ACTU where he worked as a research officer and advocate and fostered a firm friendship with future prime minister Bob Hawke.

In the same election that saw Gough Whitlam sweep into power, Willis stood for the seat of Gellibrand.

Willis was largely seen as the government's most expert economist and with a fierce ambition to become Australia's treasurer, his hopes seemed secure four years later as opposition treasury spokesman.

But as the chances of Labor being elected became more likely he lost his spot to Paul Keating as Billy Hayden desperately tried to fend off a leadership challenge from Bob Hawke.

The move failed and when the next election was called it was Hawke who led Labor to victory, then giving the coveted treasury post to Keating rather than his old friend.

Willis went on to hold a series of plum spots in cabinet and kept busy pursuing improvements like a third runway at Sydney Airport, but he was left disappointed when he was again overlooked for treasurer after the 1990 election.

Hawke eventually turned to his old friend and gave him the coveted spot in the final days of his reign, with Willis serving as treasurer for just 18 days until Keating became prime minister and took it away again.

Keating would eventually bestow the treasury spot back on Willis for three years before Labor went on to lose to the Howard coalition in the 1996 election.