Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dillon, Sir John Vincent (Jack) (1908–1992)

by Renn Wortley

This article was published online in 2018

Sir John Vincent Dillon (1908–1992), public servant, was born on 6 August 1908 at Charlton, Victoria, third of four children of Roger Dillon, hotel-keeper, and his wife Ellen, née Egan, both Victorian born. By 1916 the family had moved to Melbourne and Jack was educated at Christian Brothers’ College, South Melbourne. What he saw in the pubs his father managed turned him into a teetotaller (Forbes 1974, 9). In 1925 he joined the Victorian Public Service and was employed as a messenger before being appointed as a clerk in the Law Department. For a time he was attached to the relieving staff and worked in courts across the State. He was clerk of courts at Swan Hill from 1930, and at Beechworth from 1934. That year he passed the police magistrates’ qualifying examination, with honours.

On 8 January 1935 at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Armadale, Melbourne, Dillon married Sheila Lorraine Darcy. They lived at Beechworth until 1938, when he was transferred to Melbourne as clerk of courts at Northcote and Preston. In 1939 he was voted president of the Clerks of Court Association. Two years later he was elected as the general service representative on the newly constituted State Public Service Board. Comprising a chairman, a government member, and employee members, the board oversaw the classification, recruitment, promotion, and general terms and conditions of Victorian public servants. He would remain in the role until 1954.

After several years of part-time study, in 1945 Dillon qualified as an accountant. In 1947 he was appointed a stipendiary magistrate, based at the busy city court in Russell Street. His youngest son recalled that when he and his siblings appealed to their father to settle a squabble, Dillon approached the task as if he was in a courtroom, instructing them to ‘let the witness tell the story’ (Braniff 2015, 7). From 1961 he was under secretary and permanent head of the Chief Secretary’s Department. As one of the highest-ranked public servants in the State, he had diverse administrative responsibilities, including prisons, police, emergency services, and the licensing of liquor, racing, professional sport, gambling, and betting. With his minister, Chief Secretary (Sir) Arthur Rylah, Dillon was closely identified with strict enforcement of censorship laws.

On 9 October 1973 Dillon was appointed as Victoria’s first ombudsman. Responsible to parliament, he was charged with receiving and investigating complaints from citizens about the administrative actions of government and its agencies. His was a controversial selection, many considering him a ‘tame cat’ (Ellingsen 1975, 11) because of his long service as a senior bureaucrat. It soon became evident that he was determined to have the new office accepted by both the public and the administration. Former critics readily recanted their allegations that he lacked impartiality and integrity, when told that the highest number of complaints he upheld in his first year was against his old department. Described as a ‘hot line’ to authority (Ombudsman 1979, 24), his office investigated a range of grievances from poor prison conditions to poultry farmers’ licensing disputes.

Hard-working and energetic, Dillon was accustomed to putting in regular night and weekend hours to meet his responsibilities. He also had an innate sense of fairness and a meticulous approach to fact finding. On Saturdays and during his lunch hour he made time for recreation, chief among them being attending horse races, and playing snooker, bowls, and golf. He was appointed CMG in 1974, knighted in 1980, and two years later awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Melbourne. As a prominent Catholic layman he was wary of being tagged a ‘devout Catholic’ in his public life, always expecting a pointed qualification or adverse criticism to follow. By the time he retired in August 1980, Sir John had investigated almost thirteen thousand written complaints, and made more than 120 recommendations to the government, the vast majority of which were implemented. Having battled bouts of cancer since the early 1970s, he died on 20 November 1992 in East Melbourne and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His wife, and their daughter and three sons survived him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Braniff, Pauline. ‘Father Kevin Dillon: A Life Less Ordinary.’ Weekly Review (Geelong), 26 March 2015, 6–7
  • Ellingsen, Peter. ‘“Tame Cat” Ombudsman with a Tiger’s Bite.’ Australian, 15 April 1975, 11
  • Forbes, Cameron. ‘The Ombudsman, and His Own Case.’ Age (Melbourne), 19 February 1974, 9
  • Maslen, Geoff. ‘The Big O Signs Off.’ Age (Melbourne), 1 August 1980, 11
  • Sunday Age (Melbourne), ‘State’s First Ombudsman Proved the Critics Wrong.’ 22 November 1992, 5
  • Victoria. Ombudsman. Annual Report. [Melbourne]: Victorian Government Printer, 1974–81, 1998, 2003
  • Wilkins, Sally. ‘A Man Who’ll Always Lend You His Ear.’ Age (Melbourne), 21 December 1976, 8

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Citation details

Renn Wortley, 'Dillon, Sir John Vincent (Jack) (1908–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dillon-sir-john-vincent-jack-27623/text35044, published online 2018, accessed online 23 May 2019.

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