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Johnson, William Dartnell (1870–1948)

by J. R. Robertson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Dartnell Johnson (1870-1948), carpenter and politician, was born on 9 October 1870 at Wanganui, New Zealand, son of George Groheim Johnson (Johnston), plumber, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née McCormish. He was educated at Turakina State School until, aged 13, he began three years work at the local post office. He then became a carpenter. He migrated to Western Australia in 1894, and next year went to the goldfields. He founded and was first president of the Kalgoorlie branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and for two years was secretary of the Kalgoorlie, Boulder and District Trades and Labor Council, whose establishment owed much to his efforts. He was the Westralian Worker's first business manager. On 27 November 1901 he married Jessie Elizabeth Stewart, née McCallum, a widow.

In 1901 Johnson won for Labor the Kalgoorlie seat in the Legislative Assembly. He continued his trade, going as far afield as the North-West, and soon became a leading speaker in the assembly, mainly on industrial issues. He sat on a select committee which recommended the construction of railway workshops at Midland Junction.

In August 1904 Johnson joined the State's first Labor cabinet as minister for works. He later became minister for mines and railways. He was involved in the controversial proposal to buy the Midland Railway Co., which caused the Daglish government's fall in August 1905. Johnson became party leader, only to lose his seat in October.

Next July Johnson won the Guildford seat. From August he sat on a select committee which recommended measures to reduce sweating in Perth industries. In October 1911 he became minister for works in John Scaddan's cabinet, and from November 1914 was minister for lands and agriculture. He was now a farmer, and seemed more interested in developing the State's resources than in working-class issues. His proposals for a standing parliamentary committee to report on significant, planned public works, and to build a railway line north from Esperance, were defeated in the Legislative Council. In January 1915 he had passed legislation to help settlers who had been hurt by the severe drought, the Industries Assistance Act.

Johnson also shared credit for the government's vigorous establishment of state enterprises, which he saw as helping to protect the 'masses' from the 'exploiters'. But he admitted that cabinet had made a bad appointment as manager of the State Agricultural Implement Works, and he pleaded with employees of the enterprises to do a fair day's work. Johnson's involvement with one state instrumentality harmed his career. In 1914 cabinet reversed an earlier decision and announced it would build a meatworks at Wyndham, as many people had long urged. Scaddan and Johnson awarded the contract to S. V. Nevanas, a London-based financier, without calling tenders, and against the advice of Johnson's department that Nevanas could not build the works for the price quoted. This prediction proved correct. The contract was cancelled and Nevanas received compensation. In 1915 a select committee investigated the fiasco. The Nevanas case was the occasion, if not the cause, of one Labor man (E. B. Johnston) switching sides. This, and a working arrangement between the Liberal and Country parties, resulted in the government being voted out of office in July 1916.

Johnson was one of the first State parliamentarians to oppose conscription and consequently lost his seat at the 1917 elections. Though he regained Guildford in 1924, he never again held ministerial rank. Of the anti-conscriptionists who had been ministers under Scaddan, he had the least successful subsequent career.

In 1924 Johnson was appointed to a royal commission which recommended improvements in the administration of the Group Settlement Scheme in the south-west. He was Speaker from August 1938 to August 1939, remained a leading Labor spokesman, and was chairman of the parliamentary party in 1924-48. He was still a 'state socialist', for example welcoming governmental entry into the insurance field, but his main concern was with developmental politics. He was worried at eastern Australia's domination of the State's commercial and mining life, but he opposed secession as impractical. In 1933 he clashed with Premier Collier over the appointment of Sir James Mitchell as lieutenant-governor; Johnson later criticized Collier for allowing a delegation to go to London to seek support for secession.

Johnson remained a member of parliament until his death on 26 January 1948. He was cremated after an Anglican ceremony at Karrakatta cemetery. His wife, a son and three daughters survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £963. Johnson had seen sound economic management of the State as the basis for improvements in the lot of ordinary people, but had not always been a judicious administrator. He had a long association with the co-operative movement and had been a Freemason.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 1905, p 779, 1917, p 1485, 1929, p 682, 1933, p 1401, 1934, p 243
  • Western Mail (Perth), 8 May, 26 June 1914
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 11 Aug 1901
  • Westralian Worker, 6 Oct 1905
  • West Australian, 9 Oct 1911
  • J. R. Robertson, The Scaddan Government and the Conscription Crisis 1911-1917 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1958).

Citation details

J. R. Robertson, 'Johnson, William Dartnell (1870–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnson-william-dartnell-6857/text11877, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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