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Conlon, Alfred Austin Joseph (Alf) (1908–1961)

by Peter Ryan

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

Alfred Austin Joseph (Alf) Conlon (1908-1961), army officer and medical practitioner, was born on 7 October 1908 in East Sydney, son of native-born parents Arthur George Conlon, tram conductor, and his wife Esther Mary, née Hayes. Educated at Fort Street Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1931), Alf helped to found the National Union of Australian University Students.

From youth, Conlon moved with precocious ease among his intellectual elders, made acceptable to them by his wide learning, unobtrusive manner and sardonic wit. It was his métier to operate outside the formal apparatus and hierarchy of power. This characteristic rendered him elusive and mysterious—impressions he did nothing to discourage; he was, and consciously desired to be, an exemplar of Dr Johnson's dictum that 'the mystery of Junius increases his importance'.

After studying medicine in 1932 at the University of Sydney, Conlon worked as a law clerk. On 24 January 1936 at the district registrar's office, Waverley, he married a hairdresser Willna Georgina Catherine Macpherson; they were to have two sons. Returning to the university in 1937, he represented undergraduates on the senate in 1939-43. He also served as the university's manpower officer in 1940-41, processing the selection of students for, or their exemption from, military training. Although this experience was his first taste of power, and he liked the flavour, he rarely used his influence for personal advantage.

From 1942 he chaired the prime minister's committee on national morale, which carried some vestige of the authority of John Curtin, whom Conlon knew. On 7 April he was appointed major in the research section of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, Land Headquarters, Melbourne. The intelligence attachment was short-lived, but it created a spurious 'cloak-and-dagger' aura which clung to him. In February 1943 he assumed charge of L.H.Q.'s new research section which in October became a directorate (later retitled the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs). Promoted temporary lieutenant colonel on 1 January 1944, he was to be elevated to temporary colonel in September 1945.

At D.O.R.C.A. Conlon assembled around him an exceptional group of talented people, among them (Sir) John Kerr, (Sir) James Plimsoll, James McAuley, Harold Stewart, Camilla Wedgwood, Herbert Hogbin, W. E. H. Stanner and Ida Leeson. Conlon reported direct to the commander-in-chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey. The directorate prepared studies which Blamey had ordered and provided reports on a broad range of topics which Conlon judged to be of national importance. His staff dealt with such subjects as army health and nutrition, the study of terrain, dietary standards for Papuans and New Guineans employed by the army, trends in allied, Imperial and international relations, and a host of other matters great and small.

One of D.O.R.C.A.'s chief roles was to provide policy advice on the military government of Papua and New Guinea. Conlon's imaginative enterprise extended far beyond the needs of day-to-day military exigency and anticipated the country's independence. Work of enduring value was performed: the Territories were placed under one administration; their laws were consolidated and codified; and the L.H.Q. School of Civil Affairs, established in Canberra in 1945 to train service personnel to be colonial administrators, became in peacetime the Sydney-based Australian School of Pacific Administration.

Blamey sought his advice in handling the intricate political relationship between the high command and the Federal government. Conlon's propensity for informal contacts, deliberate avoidance of regular channels of communication and command, and neglect of proper administrative procedures and records led to his activities and his directorate being suspected by some official bodies. Members of the Opposition—notably (Sir) Thomas White and Archie Cameron—attacked D.O.R.C.A. in parliament. On the other hand, Sir Paul Hasluck and Gavin Long underrated Conlon's influence and achievement in their official histories of Australia in the war of 1939-45.

Conlon's judgement was on occasions seriously flawed, as in his hare-brained scheme for Australia to take over British Borneo after its recapture from the Japanese. The devious methods he used to delay the arrival of British civil affairs officers in the colony caused further distrust and he was increasingly denied access to top-level government material. People of irreproachable good faith denounced him as a charlatan. Yet, he remained Blamey's confidant. The creation of the Australian National University drew impetus from Conlon's vision and he persuaded Blamey to support the concept of a national centre of learning. Among senior A.N.U. scholars, (Sir) Keith Hancock held Conlon in deepest detestation, but (Sir) Mark Oliphant maintained cordial relations with him.

Relinquishing his appointment on 8 October 1945, Conlon spent 1948-49 as an unsuccessful and unhappy principal of A.S.O.P.A. He resumed his medical degree at the University of Sydney and qualified (M.B., B.S., 1951) with difficulty, and despite opposition from members of the faculty. Having worked at Newcastle (1952) and in Melbourne (1953-54), he conducted a chiefly psychiatric practice from his North Sydney home. In his last years his prestige dwindled, though he tried hard to maintain contact with scholarship, with affairs and with the counsels of influence.

Conlon was rather tall and of bulky build. Beneath dark hair, worn stiffly en brosse, his face was pallid and fleshy. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles, from behind which his grey eyes gazed unblinking for disconcertingly long periods. His smile had the power to charm. He spoke softly, using his pipe in conversational gestures. Quite unconcerned by personal appearance, when he put on uniform he cut a most unmilitary figure.

Johnsonian in the range of his discourse, Conlon at times demonstrated superficial knowledge, but withal knew more than most of his peers. He was a patriotic man who, when he had power, tried to use it for his country's good; he never expected or wanted public recognition. His acts of private kindness were countless and he served as a board-member (from 1956) of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. He smoked, drank and ate liberally, avoided fresh air and shunned exercise; he declared that he was not interested in a long life, and he did not have one. Survived by his wife and one son, Conlon died of cardiovascular disease on 21 September 1961 in Sydney and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Alfred Conlon (Syd, 1963)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • J. Thompson, Five to Remember (Melb, 1964)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • R. Hall, The Real John Kerr (Syd, 1978)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Ryan, 'Conlon, Alfred Austin Joseph (Alf) (1908–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/conlon-alfred-austin-joseph-alf-9804/text17331, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 October 2014.

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

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