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Earle, John (1865–1932)

by Marilyn Lake

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

John Earle (1865-1932), by Alice Mills

John Earle (1865-1932), by Alice Mills

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23609844

John Earle (1865-1932), union organizer and premier, was born on 15 November 1865 at Bridgewater, Tasmania, son of Charles Staples Earle, a farmer of Cornish descent, and his Irish Catholic wife Ann Teresa, née McShane. Jack (as he was familiarly known) attended Bridgewater State School but, a determined self-improver, moved to Hobart where he became a blacksmith's apprentice in 1882 and enrolled in engineering and science classes. He also attended lectures on economics, rationalism, evolution, natural science and socialism at the Hobart Mechanics' Institute; he formed friendships with people such as the liberal-minded Hobart city librarian A. J. Taylor and joined the Hobart Debating Club.

Towards the end of the decade Earle left Hobart for the new mining communities, moving from the Mathinna goldfield to Zeehan and then to the Corinna goldfield. He was a miners' representative at a government mining conference in Hobart in 1893. Returning to Zeehan in 1898 he assumed such leading positions as the chairmanship of the hospital board and presidency of the local branch of the Amalgamated Miners' Association. Concentrating on union affairs, he became an active organizer in spite of bitter opposition from the powerful Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Co. In 1903 when employed as a blacksmith in the South Lyell mine he headed a list, compiled by the Mt Lyell manager, of twenty-eight 'disloyal and treacherous men'. His 'disloyalty' was probably highlighted by his action in denouncing Britain's 'unjustifiable' Imperialistic involvement in the South African War.

As his frustration in union activities mounted, Earle took a more practical interest in parliamentary politics. Tasmania now had manhood suffrage and the time seemed ripe to follow mainland States in organizing a Labor party. In September 1901 Earle chaired a meeting at Zeehan to draw up a platform for the proposed Workers' Political League of which he became the first president. Their demands—adult suffrage, adequate payment of members of parliament, the eight-hour day, a graduated land tax, free education—were moderate. Their aim, to ensure fair and equitable legislation for all sections of the community, would be pursued by Earle at every opportunity and encouraged by contact with such Labor leaders as J. C. Watson, who attended the 1903 Hobart conference to establish a State-wide organization.

Earle became first president of the Tasmanian Workers' Political League at this conference, having recently been only narrowly defeated in the State elections. In 1906 he won the west coast seat of Waratah, and formed an Opposition of seven in the House of Assembly. In 1909 he campaigned successfully for the rural seat of Franklin, defining the purpose of the Labor party as the implementation of 'true progressive liberalism' rather than socialism. In October Earle led the first Tasmanian Labor government into office but, a minority ministry, it lasted only a week. During the pre-war years he was conducting a bookshop and was chairman of directors of the Labor Daily Post. The Anglican bishop, J. E. Mercer was a close friend.

Earle's return to office on 6 April 1914 as premier and attorney-general was controversial. Labor had won a no confidence motion against A. E. Solomon and Earle was commissioned by the governor to form a government on the understanding that he would immediately call a dissolution. Having formed his ministry Earle rejected these conditions, appealing successfully to the Colonial Office. In the House of Assembly Labor was hampered by its dependence on the capricious Independent J. T. H. Whitsitt, and the Legislative Council was dominated by conservatives. The government was able to increase bursaries for the children of the poor and extend secondary education; it established the first national park at Mount Field and completed the transfer of the Great Lake hydro-electricity scheme to state ownership.

Earle imported vast quantities of wheat to keep bread prices down in the drought year of 1914 and similarly made large investments in public works to alleviate war-caused unemployment. These measures earned him some popularity, but increasingly he alienated some of the more vocal and radical trade unionists in his party. He also advocated a 'party truce' during wartime, refused to adopt a policy of preference to unionists, and told the unemployed to enlist, thereby confirming for his opponents in the Labor movement his identity as a collaborator with the capitalists and Imperialists. His government was defeated in the election of April 1916 and when he finally resigned from his party over conscription in November, he was merely formalizing a division of many years.

Of his resignation, Earle remarked that it had been the most 'painful trial of his life'. Vilified as a 'time-server, a seeker after place and pay, a traitor to his class', he branded his former party as a 'worse enemy than the Hun' and embraced his old foes in W. M. Hughes's hastily formed National Party. In rapid behind-the-scenes manoeuvres he resigned from the House of Assembly in March 1917 to fill a Senate vacancy caused by the sudden retirement of Labor Senator R. K. Ready: Labor thus lost its Senate majority. On the crest of the wave of jingoism which swept Hughes's government into office, in May, Earle topped the Senate poll in his State. He entered Hughes's ministry as vice-president of the Executive Council in 1921 but was defeated in the 1922 election. Three years later, repelled by the anti-union measures of the Bruce-Page government, Earle stood for the Senate as an Independent, but was again defeated. He was also unsuccessful in 1928 when as an Independent he contested Franklin in the House of Assembly elections.

On 30 April 1914 at St Andrew's Church of England, Nugent, Earle had married Susanna Jane Blackmore, an ardent member of the Labor party. At the 1916 State conference, before Earle had committed himself to conscription, she had declared: 'In a fight like this it should be “one out all out”', and she was arguably of some influence in persuading her husband to adopt the liberal principle of 'equality of sacrifice'. After 1922 the Earles retired to live at Oyster Cove. They had no children but took pleasure in country pursuits and drew spiritual comfort from the teachings of theosophy. Earle died of cancer on 6 February 1932 at Oyster Cove, and was cremated in Melbourne. His estate was sworn for probate at £3963. He became, in the memory of the Labor movement, a 'rat'. But in so many ways—in his background, education, union organizing, in his nationalism and liberalism—Earle was in fact the archetypal Labor man of his time.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1967)
  • M. Lake, A Divided Society (Melb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Tasmanian Public Service Association, Service, Feb 1954
  • Labour History, Nov 1977, no 33, p 29
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 23 (1976), no 4, p 149
  • Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 27 Sept 1901
  • Mercury (Hobart), 27 Feb 1909, 8 Feb 1932
  • Daily Post (Hobart), 28 July, 17 Oct 1916, 8 Sept 1917
  • P. Fagan, The Earle Labor Government 1914-16 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1975).

Citation details

Marilyn Lake, 'Earle, John (1865–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/earle-john-6077/text10405, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 November 2014.

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

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