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Dedman, John Johnstone (1896–1973)

by Andrew Spaull

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

John Johnstone Dedman (1896-1973), by L. J. Dwyer

John Johnstone Dedman (1896-1973), by L. J. Dwyer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23616453

John Johnstone Dedman (1896-1973), politician, was born on 2 June 1896 at Knowe, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, son of James Baillie Dedman, schoolteacher, and his wife Mary, née Johnstone. John was taught by his father in village schools and imbued with the precept: 'whatever thy hands find to do, do it with all thy might'. After attending Ewart Boys' High School, Newton Stewart, he entered the faculty of science at the University of Edinburgh in 1914 and planned to study engineering.

On 19 March 1915 Dedman was commissioned in the British Army and posted to the 10th Battalion, Border Regiment. He fought at Gallipoli, in Egypt and in France where he was wounded in action in 1917. Transferring to the Indian Army that year, he saw active service in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1922 he resigned and joined a schoolboy friend Walter McEwen in Victoria; in April they purchased a dairy-farm near Launching Place. Dedman bought out his partner's share and on 24 June 1925 married McEwen's sister Jessie Lawson at the Presbyterian Church, Surrey Hills, Melbourne.

Dedman produced milk for the Melbourne market. In an attempt to break a wholesalers' cartel, he joined the Country Party and in 1927 stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Upper Yarra in the Legislative Assembly. When the Country Party helped to block the milk board bill (1927) in the Legislative Council, he became a member of the Australian Labor Party in 1928. Two years later he moved to a smaller property at Millgrove, but the Depression forced him to abandon farming and in 1934 he took local work with the Forests Commission of Victoria.

During the early 1930s Dedman read widely in economics and emerged as one of Labor's more radical voices on banking reform. In 1932-34 he contested one Federal and two State seats. He was more successful in local government polls and served on the Upper Yarra Shire Council from 1926 to 1939 (president 1931 and 1937). In 1938 he enrolled as a part-time student at the University of Melbourne, hoping to increase his understanding of Keynesian economics. Having won Corio in a crucial by-election in March 1940, he soon established himself in the House of Representatives as an unrelenting debater on financial affairs. His principles were, and remained, socialist, but were tinged with healthy pragmatism and robust Christianity.

With the formation of the Labor government on 7 October 1941, John Curtin helped to secure Dedman's elevation to cabinet. He was appointed minister in charge of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, minister for war organization of industry and chairman of the production executive of cabinet. In December 1941 he was also appointed to the War Cabinet. His main responsibilities were to co-ordinate the Commonwealth's production departments and to reorganize industry so that resources were diverted to military needs and essential services.

The general public saw Dedman as the minister for 'austerity', or even 'morbidity'. He not only ignored the controversies which his decisions created, but even enjoyed the lampooning that he received from cartoonists. In their zeal for imposing controls, Dedman and his department were identified—often mistakenly or unfairly—with limiting everything from bread to bungalows. He deprived men of their waistcoats and shirt tails (hence the nickname 'Lumbago Jack'), brides of pink icing on their wedding cakes (white was the mandatory colour) and children of Father Christmas (restrictions on seasonal advertising in 1942). Yet he also won admirers, among them vice-chancellors and university students who appreciated his introduction of means-tested scholarships. At the end of World War II his achievement was acknowledged, but his style was remembered. As one journalist observed, he had discharged his duties 'like a born dominie . . . with all the bleakness of the kirk'.

While retaining his C.S.I.R. portfolio, on 2 February 1945 Dedman succeeded J. B. Chifley as minister for postwar reconstruction. The department's principal concerns were to implement Labor's full-employment objective, to retrain ex-service personnel and to foster a balanced peacetime economy based on manufacturing, exports and a national works programme. Dedman had responsibility for the White Paper on Employment, the Commonwealth and State Housing Agreement and the Snowy Mountains' scheme, as well as for legislation to promote wool, and to establish the Joint Coal Board, the Universities Commission and the Australian National University.

He enjoyed shaping initiatives that removed the spectre of the hard times of the 1930s, but was frustrated when new programmes were transferred to other departments, or to the States, where they lost much of their vitality. Although sometimes at odds with Prime Minister Chifley, who increasingly urged financial caution, he remained his 'indispensable henchman' in national and international planning. Dedman, however, could be his own worst enemy, not least because of his rash remarks.

In forums abroad Dedman was more the statesman. A leading participant in the World Conference on International Trade and Employment, held in Cuba in 1947-48, he proved a tough but flexible negotiator. He insisted that his advisers leave an expensive Havana hotel for a rented house in the suburbs. In July 1949 he deputized for Chifley at the conference of British Commonwealth finance ministers in London.

From 1 November 1946 Dedman had also been minister for defence. Less committed to this portfolio, he nonetheless maintained strong ties with the British Commonwealth and helped to inaugurate the British-Australian Joint Guided-Weapons Project. As minister in charge of C.S.I.R., he encouraged the institution's expansion, though he insisted that, for reasons of public direction and internal security, its governing council be replaced by an executive. The renamed Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization was inaugurated in 1949.

After barely losing Corio in December 1949, Dedman narrowly failed to regain the seat in 1951 and 1954. Unable to find employment, he eventually acquired a small sheep-property at Apollo Bay. In 1955 he became Australian director of the resettlement of refugees department of the World Council of Churches. Retiring to Canberra in 1962, he was appointed to the council of the A.N.U. in 1966 and graduated (B.A.) that year. The university had awarded him an honorary doctorate of laws (1964) and decided in 1970 to name a building after him.

Dedman wrote about his ministerial experiences during the war and was a frequent visitor to Parliament House. He retained his membership of the A.L.P., served as an elder of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Forrest, and lived long enough to see the Whitlam government introduce some of the policies he had championed. Dedman died on 22 November 1973 in Canberra; he was accorded a state funeral and was cremated. His wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Spaull, 'John Johnstone Dedman: Australia's ''First Federal Minister for Education" (1941-1949)', History of Education Review, 21, no 1, 1992
  • Canberra Times, 23 Nov 1973
  • G. T. Peterson, The Honourable J. J. Dedman, Political Democrat and Economic Socialist (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales (Duntroon), 1980)
  • Dedman papers (National Library of Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. J. Dedman (transcript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Dedman, John Johnstone (1896–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dedman-john-johnstone-303/text17607, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 July 2016.

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

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