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Fenton, James Edward (1864–1950)

by J. R. Robertson

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

James Edward Fenton (1864-1950), by unknown photographer

James Edward Fenton (1864-1950), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23638677

James Edward Fenton (1864-1950), printer, journalist and politician, was born on 4 February 1864 at Nette Yallock, near Avoca, Victoria, son of John Philip Fenton, a publican originally from Suffolk, and his Scottish wife Catharine, née Taylor. Fenton was educated at a state school and at 13 became a printer's apprentice with the Avoca Mail. When 21 he moved to Melbourne and, after a brief period in Sydney, became a compositor in the Government Printing Office, losing his job in the depression in 1893. He was on the board of management of the Melbourne Typographical Society in 1888-89 and 1891-94. From 1894 until 1903 he was editor and printer of the Broadford Courier and in 1904-10, when he travelled the State for the Victorian Butter Factories Co-operative Co., manager-editor of the Co-operative Dairyman. On 5 April 1887 at West Melbourne he married Elizabeth Jane Harvey. He was a Methodist lay preacher, and for a time was a member of the Australian Natives' Association.

Fenton failed in three attempts from 1897, as a Liberal, to obtain election to the Victorian Parliament. In 1908 he stood as a Labor candidate, then in 1910 won the Federal seat of Maribyrnong. He soon became well known for his loquacity in the House, as he spoke on a wide range of topics; Melbourne Punch in 1911 made much of this 'fault'. Fenton retained his seat easily at succeeding elections, except in 1917 and 1919; he lost votes because he opposed conscription, though he agreed on holding a referendum on the issue. In 1921 he became party whip in the Lower House and was elected to caucus executive, holding both posts until the Scullin ministry was formed. For some years he was a member of the Parliamentary Committees of Public Works and of Public Accounts.

When Labor won the general election of October 1929 Fenton was an obvious choice for cabinet. A champion of the claims of Australian industry, he became minister for trade and customs. With Scullin, his long-standing friend, he was responsible for greatly increasing the scale of protective tariffs through a sequence of new schedules, beginning in November. In December Fenton left Australia to attend the London Naval Conference of January-April 1930. Though he supported the limiting of naval armaments he had little impact on the conference; indeed, like Scullin, he viewed his journey, which extended to North America, as an exercise in trade promotion as much as one in disarmament diplomacy.

Fenton returned just as the immensity of the problems facing the government, including steeply rising unemployment and a growing budgetary deficit, was becoming apparent. In July the cabinet was weakened by the resignation of the treasurer, Edward Theodore, following allegations of corruption while he had been Queensland premier. So in August it was Fenton, not Theodore, who became acting prime minister during Scullin's nineteen-weeks absence attending the Imperial conference in London.

Scullin had not intended parliament to meet while he was overseas. However, Fenton and Joseph Lyons, the acting treasurer, soon had to recall parliament to consider further cuts in government expenditure so as to reduce the budget deficit. These sittings caused fierce, widely publicized dissension between radical and conservative groups in caucus over anti-Depression policy. Fenton could not quell the argument. 'I find it a way of thorns', he said in September. His stand was conservative. He often spoke to Scullin by telephone, and felt he was defending his views against radical critics. Scullin, on his return, reinstated Theodore as treasurer; he had been active amongst the radical critics in recent months. This apparent act of ingratitude, and the fear that Scullin was about to adopt radical and inflationary financial policies, caused Fenton—and Lyons—to resign their portfolios on 4 February 1931.

Fenton remained in caucus until, in mid-March he voted against the government on an unsuccessful no-confidence motion. Early in May he joined the newly created United Australia Party led by Lyons, and in November he helped to bring down the Scullin government. The opening of his local election campaign, in the Moonee Ponds town hall, was rowdy, but he held his seat, narrowly. In January he became postmaster-general, ranking fourth in Lyons's ministry. He introduced into parliament in March the legislation which set up the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In June he campaigned in southern and central New South Wales in the State election caused by Jack Lang's dismissal from office. Four months later he ended several weeks of speculation by resigning his portfolio in protest at cabinet's acceptance of the Ottawa Agreement which he believed threatened Australia's high protectionist policy. He voted against the bill ratifying the agreement.

In 1933 Fenton was still quite prominent in debate, though his range of interests narrowed and he tended to concentrate on the tariff. He lost his seat to Labor's Arthur Drakeford next year. Fenton then lived on his farm near Frankston and for about ten years was a director of Commonwealth Oil Refineries. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1938. He died at Frankston on 2 December 1950 and, after a state funeral, was buried in the Methodist section of Mornington cemetery. His wife had died over twenty-five years earlier; a daughter, also, had predeceased him. He was survived by a son and a daughter.

A burly man, Fenton looked to one newspaper reporter rather as if he ought to have been a senior army officer. In 1911 he was termed a 'wowser'. Socially, he was conservative, politically he was no radical. Though a Labor renegade he was a man of some principle who twice resigned from a cabinet post. He was stolid, an undistinguished if talkative debater, hard-working but of limited talent; he had a weak grasp of parliamentary procedure. He was thrown into a national prominence his abilities did not warrant because of a series of unfortunate accidents which plagued the Labor Party, and because of its shortage of parliamentary talent.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Robertson, J. H. Scullin (Perth, 1974)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1893, 1 (8), p 25
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Oct 1900, 18 Dec 1908
  • Punch (Melbourne), 21 Sept 1911
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Jan, 5 Dec 1931, 6, 7 Oct 1932.

Citation details

J. R. Robertson, 'Fenton, James Edward (1864–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fenton-james-edward-6155/text10571, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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