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Armstrong, John Ignatius (1908–1977)

by Edmund Campion

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

John Ignatius Armstrong (1908-1977), politician, was born on 10 July 1908 at Ultimo, Sydney, the seventh son of a seventh son, to William Armstrong, hotelkeeper, and his wife Ellen, née Hannan, both from Ireland. Educated at St Bede's School, Pyrmont, and Marist Brothers' High School, Darlinghurst, John was lightweight boxing champion of the metropolitan Catholic colleges. He lived and worked in the family hotel (the Butcher's Arms, later the Dunkirk) and joined the labour movement. Teamed with Jack Beasley, in the early 1930s he won a Labor Daily debating competition. Elizabeth Healey, a local Labor matriarch, urged Armstrong to stand for the Sydney Municipal Council. In 1934 he was elected an alderman for Phillip Ward, which he was to represent until 1948.

As leader of the shareholders' committee of the troubled Greater Union Theatres Ltd, he helped (Sir) Norman Rydge to become chairman of the company. Armstrong's political ambitions were boosted in 1937 by his inclusion in Labor's 'Four A's' team of Senate candidates, selected partly because their names would be at the top of the ballot paper. In July 1938 he entered Federal parliament. On 25 October 1945 in the Church of the Holy Family, Lindfield, Sydney, he married a 27-year-old secretary Joan Therese Josephine Curran. Appointed minister for munitions in 1946, Armstrong was chosen in March 1948 by Prime Minister Ben Chifley to take charge of arrangements for the proposed Australian visit of King George VI, but the King's failing health forced the tour to be cancelled. Next month Armstrong accepted the supply and development portfolio. In 1949 the Opposition focussed on his powers as a means of attacking government policy. From 1951 to 1956 he was deputy-leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

In 1952 he had visited South-East Asia, calling on anti-communist leaders in the region. Although he was not a member of B. A. Santamaria's Catholic Social Studies Movement, in the mid-1950s Armstrong's right-wing views and Catholicism led to accusations of his involvement with the industrial groups. Labor's left-wing faction disliked his denunciations of communism and his business connexions: he was chairman of Metropolitan Theatres & Investment Co. Ltd, and a director of Amalgamated Pictures Ltd and other companies. His speeches advocating wage cuts were used against him by forces gathering around Lionel Murphy. The 1960 pre-selection ballot for the next Senate election relegated Armstrong to an unwinnable fourth position on the Labor ticket, and he passed from Federal politics in 1962.

He had never lost interest in local government and announced his intention that year to run against Harry Jensen, the Labor lord mayor of Sydney; the party averted the threat to its unity by making Armstrong chairman of Sydney County Council in 1963. Succeeding Jensen as lord mayor in 1965, Armstrong had his term abbreviated when the government of Premier (Sir) Robert Askin replaced the city council by three commissioners in November 1967. Managerial inefficiency was the nominal reason, the inordinate cost of rebuilding the Domain baths being one instance cited. In reality, the government wanted to take the council out of Labor's hands and did so by contracting its electoral boundaries.

The return to private life enabled Armstrong to pursue business interests and to exercise his talent for helping others. Nicknamed 'the Golden Barman', he had a large clientele seeking his assistance and advice. His wife remarked that he was unable to sit down to a meal without being called to the telephone. His expanding art collection included works by Sir William Dobell, Sir Russell Drysdale, (Sir) Sidney Nolan, Clifton Pugh, Fred Williams and Brett Whiteley; John Olsen painted a ceiling of Armstrong's home at Collaroy. In Labor circles Armstrong let it be known that he was interested in the post of Australian high commissioner in London. The appointment was one of the earliest which the Whitlam government made in December 1972. Before Armstrong left Sydney, he provoked controversy by stating that Australia must one day become a republic. His two years in London were distinguished by the patronage he offered to Australian artists, many of whom were making their names in Britain.

An enthusiast for a non-Imperial system of Australian honours, Armstrong was appointed A.C. in 1977. He died of myocardial infarction on 10 March 1977 at Batemans Bay, New South Wales. Accorded a state funeral, he was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery, Sydney; his wife, son and four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales 1906 to the Present (Syd, 1978)
  • M. R. Matthews, Pyrmont and Ultimo (Syd, 1982)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1967-68, pp 1325, 1374, 1455
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 17 Dec 1972
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1 Mar 1975, 12 Mar 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Sept 1969, 24 Mar 1973, 22 Feb 1975, 12 Mar 1977
  • M. Pratt, interview with J. I. Armstrong (transcript, 1975, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Edmund Campion, 'Armstrong, John Ignatius (1908–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armstrong-john-ignatius-9384/text16487, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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