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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Coyne, John Harry (1865–1926)

by John Brian Armstrong

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Harry Coyne (1865-1926), bushworker, unionist and politician, was born on 16 January 1865 in a tent about six miles (9.6 km) from Melbourne, son of John Henry Coyne, teacher, and his wife Margaret, née Ryan. Leaving school before he was 16 he became a fencer, slab-splitter, drover, shearer, rouseabout, woolpresser, station-hand, miner and sawmiller. Searching for work, he humped his swag hundreds of miles and settled eventually at Eulo, Queensland, in 1890. He married a widow Mary Elizabeth Gordon, née Heath, at Cunnamulla on 22 March 1894; they had six children.

A member of the Australian Workers' Union from its inception, Coyne joined in the 1891 and 1894 shearing strikes. From 1901 when, for the first time, he became a delegate to the union convention, he was much more prominent in the Queensland labour movement. In 1902-08 he was an organizer for the union and also for the Political Labor Party; he exemplified the orthodox view that the political wing should be based on sound union organization.

In February 1908 Coyne stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of Warrego; he beat the sitting government member P. J. Leahy, secretary for public works and mines, and held the seat until 1923. He was a convention delegate for the Australian Workers' Union in 1910, 1913 and 1916 and went to its federal conference in 1912. He was a member of the central political executive of the Labor Party in 1910-16. Elected president of the Queensland provincial council of the Australian Labor Federation in 1910, he guided it through a temporary revival, but it died in 1913. In the sugar-workers' strike of 1911 he went to the southern States seeking finance and deterring scabs. He presided at the meeting of unions in January 1912 which decided to turn the tramway dispute into a general strike, and chaired the combined unions' defence committee, but his moderate advice throughout the dispute was frequently overridden by the militants. In 1915 he joined the board of the Worker.

Coyne was chairman of committees of the Legislative Assembly in 1915-16, then became minister for railways until April 1918. Because of his efforts in 1912, railway strikers in 1917 trusted him sufficiently to accept conciliation by E. G. Theodore, T. J. Ryan and himself. In 1917-18 Coyne chaired the land settlement and the Anzac committees of the Queensland War Council. His influence with fellow unionists facilitated house-building. With a son on active service, he was at most lukewarm in his opposition to conscription but loyally followed the party decision. In the Theodore cabinet, Coyne was minister without portfolio in 1920 and secretary for public lands in 1920-23. His development of forestry projects and his attempts to convince the public and the government of the need to conserve timber resources were his most important works.

Coyne resigned from parliament in 1923 and was appointed to the Queensland Land Court bench from 1 August. He died on 12 June 1926 at Townsville from injuries received in a car accident and was buried in Toowong cemetery, Brisbane, with Presbyterian forms, after a state funeral—the attendance by people from all walks of life indicated the popularity of, and respect for, this bluff, direct and hard-working Labor stalwart.

Select Bibliography

  • The Labour Government of Queensland (Brisb, 1915)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975), and T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), and Daily Standard (Brisbane), 14 June 1926
  • Worker (Brisbane), 31 Mar 1906, 4 Jan 1908, 19 Feb 1910, 16 June 1926.

Citation details

John Brian Armstrong, 'Coyne, John Harry (1865–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 10 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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