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Allan, John (1866–1936)

by J. B. Paul

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Allan (1866-1936), premier, was born on 27 March 1866 at Chintin near Lancefield, Victoria, seventh child of Andrew Allan, farmer, and his wife Jane, née Kirkpatrick, who were married in 1855 at Galston, Ayrshire, Scotland, before migrating to Australia. In 1873 Andrew selected land to the west of what is now Kyabram. From the late 1870s he led one of the strongest of the early farmers' unions. In 1878 fifty-six Goulburn valley settlers marched down Collins Street, Melbourne, demonstrating for a railway; it was granted in 1883 and Andrew Allan drove the last spike at Kyabram in March 1887. During the 1880s he was president of the North Eastern and Goulburn Valley and Pastoral Society, a water commissioner and prominent in establishing the breakaway Rodney Shire. He was also an active Presbyterian layman.

John Allan successfully established a wheat and dairy farm north of Kyabram at Wyuna South. As a young man he was an enthusiastic cricketer, and was active in the local Caledonian and debating societies: he had a striking, resonant voice and a pleasant bass singing tone. On 10 February 1892 he married Annie Stewart, daughter of a Kyabram farmer.

Allan was a Deakin shire-councillor for many years and president in 1914-15. As a commissioner of the Rodney Irrigation Trust he supported local irrigators, and he was a founding director and later chairman of the Kyabram Butter Factory. During World War I he was prominent in forming the Victorian Farmers' Union and in 1917 was its successful candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Rodney; he became the acknowledged leader of the five V.F.U. members.

When Allan entered parliament, politics were volatile, but from March 1918 the (Sir Harry) Lawson ministry was to last for five and a half years. The V.F.U. was faction-ridden: it had been formed from three distinct rural movements with differing political orientations, ranging from the conservatism with which Allan was identified to a radical rural populism characteristic of the Mallee settlers. It needed to capture seats from the Labor Party as well as from the Nationalists, and from the outset resisted close identification with conservative interests. In parliament V.F.U. members rarely sat as a bloc; and even when the party's increase to thirteen members in the 1920 election gave it the balance of power, the lack of cohesion persisted.

By August 1923 Lawson was threatened both by the V.F.U. and a Nationalist faction. On 5 September he submitted his resignation to the governor and, when asked to form another government, made places available for five V.F.U. members and for (Sir) Stanley Argyle. John Allan became deputy premier and chose his group's five ministers. He himself became president of the Board of Land and Works, commissioner for crown lands and survey and minister for immigration.

In choosing to join Lawson, Allan and his team placed themselves at odds with powerful forces within their own party organization and also on an equivocal footing with their cabinet colleagues. The ministry was formed on the basis of an electoral pact between Nationalists and the V.F.U. Although Allan kept a copy of the memorandum setting out this agreement, he never made its contents known beyond, presumably, his V.F.U. colleagues in the ministry, for the very good reason that it would have been repudiated. Lawson left Allan in no doubt that the continuance of the composite ministry depended on strict observance of their agreement. Bitter opposition within the V.F.U. to participation in the government came to a head at its party conference of March 1924, and a split was avoided only by the adoption of a compromise agreement that the composite ministry should end with the parliamentary session. Lawson then acted swiftly: he resigned on 14 March and was commissioned to form an all-Nationalist ministry. However, exhausted, he resigned the premiership in April in favour of Sir Alexander Peacock on the understanding that he would become Speaker; the V.F.U. successfully nominated (Sir) John Bowser against him.

The June 1924 election still left the V.F.U. holding the balance of power. On 16 July the Peacock government was defeated on a Labor no-confidence motion carried by V.F.U. support. They kept a Labor ministry led by G. M. Prendergast in office until November, then reached agreement with the Nationalists on the terms for another composite government. When Prendergast was defeated on 12 November, the governor commissioned Allan as premier.

Allan's accession to the premiership after only seven years as a member of the assembly says much for the political skills he developed in that cockpit of uncertain loyalties. That he had ambition is beyond doubt. One of the Nationalists who held office under him believed that the Lawson-Allan ministry had been almost aborted by Allan's ambition to become premier himself and take office without any form of alliance between Nationalists and V.F.U. He certainly negotiated a tough deal with Peacock in November 1924, for his party was given a disproportionate share of the spoils of office. A contemporary profile of Allan attributed to him 'an astuteness in negotiation that his appearance belies … A dull-looking, heavy man, with the lumbering walk of a born rustic, he has deceived many into a belief that he is politically negligible'.

During the Allan-Peacock government, which lasted for two and a half years, both parties to the coalition were torn by internal dissension deriving from decisions of earlier ministries. In May 1924 Peacock had introduced a redistribution bill designed to adjust the city-country ratio to 100:44 and to increase the assembly by three city members. It was opposed by some Nationalists as not going far enough, and by some V.F.U. members as giving too much power to the city, and was defeated. The Prendergast ministry had attempted to catch the farmers' vote and drive a wedge between the V.F.U. and the Nationalists, particularly through a proposed compulsory wheat pool. Labor now attempted to revive the scheme and, as in the past, a handful of V.F.U. members led by (Sir) Albert Dunstan voted with Labor against their colleagues. During the 1925 session the Allan-Peacock government had to sacrifice much of its programme through its dedication to redistribution — a scheme which it had to allow to lapse against Labor's blocking tactics. In 1926, however, the electoral boundaries were redrawn, setting a city-country ratio of 100:47. During the 1926 session alone the government survived eleven defeats, and was saved five times by the Speaker's vote. In September Dunstan launched the breakaway Country Progressive Party, and the V.F.U. became known as the Victorian Country Party at this time.

At the election of 9 April 1927 the Labor Party numbers were unaltered while those of the Nationalists and Country Party were reduced; Dunstan's group won four seats. Various proposals for replacing the coalition with an alternative non-Labor administration came to nothing. Eventually Allan resigned on 13 May and on 20 May the Labor leader E. J. Hogan became premier. In addition to his office as premier, Allan had held the water-supply portfolio, and from 24 August 1926 the responsibilities of minister for railways and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works.

Allan did not sit again on the government front bench until May 1932, and then not as premier. The Hogan ministry had been replaced in November 1928 by the Nationalists led by Sir William McPherson who ignored Allan's offer of a coalition. Hogan led Labor back to office in December 1929. The Victorian Country Party and the Country Progressive Party now settled their differences and, after prolonged negotiations, formed the United Country Party under Allan's leadership but with Dunstan as his deputy. Following an election in May 1932 Argyle formed a United Australia Party ministry which included three Country Party members: Allan, Dunstan and George Goudie. Allan was appointed minister for agriculture and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works, retaining these positions until 20 March 1935, when the Country Party withdrew from the government. Having been displaced from the party leadership in 1933, Allan was by then a waning influence in Country Party counsels, so his bitter opposition to his party's withdrawal counted for little. An all-Country Party ministry led by Dunstan and relying on Labor support took office, but Allan was excluded. He remained on the back-benches until his death from subacute bacterial endocarditis at Wyuna South on 22 February 1936. He was survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters and, after a state funeral, was buried in Kyabram cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £22,628.

John Allan stood out as the main conservative influence in the Victorian Country Party. In his eyes the Labor Party was suitable only for being kept out of office, unless Nationalist leaders were proving intractable. Then Labor had its uses as a countervailing force to demonstrate the strength the Country Party could wield through holding the balance of power. Tactics of this kind did not make Allan a popular figure in parliamentary circles, yet he had personal qualities which saved him from the obloquy which was to be Dunstan's portion. 'Honest John' was regarded as a hard fighter but a fair opponent, with a genial, imperturbable disposition and great physical vigour; he was scrupulous in matters of personal honour. He gave the impression of homeliness, but had a shrewdness that his appearance and speech belied. His death was the occasion for a most impressive demonstration of affection by the people of his district.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Bossence, Kyabram (Melb, 1963)
  • H. W. Forster, Waranga 1865-1965 (Melb, 1965)
  • L. G. Houston, Ministers of Water Supply in Victoria (Melb, 1965)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • F. Howard, Kent Hughes (Melb, 1972)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Feb 1926
  • Table Talk, 1 Apr 1926
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Feb 1936
  • Australian Worker, 4 Mar 1936
  • Eggleston papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. B. Paul, 'Allan, John (1866–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/allan-john-4995/text8301, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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