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Johnston, Edward Bertram (1880–1942)

by G. C. Bolton

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

Edward Bertram Johnston (1880-1942), politician, was born on 11 January 1880 at Geraldton, Western Australia, eldest son of Harry Frederick Johnston and his wife Maria Louisa (Minnie), née Butcher. H. F. Johnston had been born at Bunbury on 24 April 1853, a grandson of M. W. Clifton and son of a surveyor. Entering his father's profession he joined the Western Australian Lands and Surveys Department in 1883, conducting important surveys in the Kimberley in 1883-84 and 1901. He became surveyor-general in 1896 and, during a period of rapid expansion of land settlement, oversaw the mapping of most of Western Australia's goldfields and the opening of the agricultural south-west. He was first chairman of the Workers' Homes Board created in 1912. He died following a shooting accident at his home at Swan View on 14 June 1915, survived by his wife and six sons.

Bertie Johnston entered his father's department as a clerk in 1895 after education at the High School, Perth. In 1904-09 he was government land agent at Narrogin. He resigned, went to Kalgoorlie and, as honorary secretary of the Esperance Land and Railway League, gained experience as a lobbyist and land speculator. In 1911, flouting his family and class traditions, he was returned as Labor member for Williams-Narrogin. He first made his mark in 1912 by carrying a resolution that no fees should be charged for university or government school education in Western Australia. In 1914 he was returned with a much increased majority; he was the only Labor member ever to achieve this feat in a Western Australian farming electorate.

A genial bachelor with a taste for the good things of life, he was an indefatigable local member. 'Whenever any voter in his constituency wanted some shopping done in Perth Johnston was the man to do it; whenever any elector desired some service to be performed, their trusty member was only too willing to oblige.' He lobbied vigorously for local railways and developed remarkable foresight in anticipating the best locations for hotel properties alongside them. A restive back-bencher, he clashed with the premier, John Scaddan, over land policy and the management of a contract for the Wyndham meatworks. Failing to topple Scaddan in caucus, in December 1915 he resigned and was returned unopposed at a by-election as an Independent. This left the Scaddan government in a minority of one in the Legislative Assembly. In July 1916 Johnston combined with the Liberal and Country parties to oust the government.

In February 1917, anticipating Johnston's support, Labor moved a motion of no confidence in the new Liberal ministry; but when the Labor Speaker M. F. Troy resigned to support the motion, Johnston was elected in his place. His three weeks in the chair were uniquely turbulent. After summoning the editor of the West Australian to the bar of the House to apologize for casting aspersions on his negotiations for the Speakership, Johnston showed such zeal for suspending his former Labor colleagues that uncontrollably rowdy scenes ensued. He resigned in March and chose the unveiling of a war memorial at Darkan to regale his electors with such a provocative account of the manoeuvres over the Speakership that the government and Opposition combined to pass a resolution of strong censure on him in the Legislative Assembly. Undaunted, in June Johnston joined the Country Party, but at the October election he had to share the party's endorsement with another candidate. His rival's prospects looked promising until, just before the election, Johnston issued a well-publicized libel suit against him. This swung sympathy to Johnston, although after his return a jury assessed his damages at a farthing and the judge passed some caustic comments on him.

When the Country Party split in 1922 Johnston became deputy-leader of that section opposed to coalition with Sir James Mitchell. He resigned in 1928 to enter the Commonwealth Senate, where he remained from 1929 until his death. An uninhibited advocate of State-rights, during the Depression he pushed the sectional interests of wheatgrowers, at times annoying colleagues by his urging. In his last year he consistently broke party discipline to vote with John Curtin's Labor government; but for his vote at a critical stage, uniform tax legislation could not have passed the Senate. He was under stress because his substantial investments in hotels and real estate had attracted the unfavourable attention of the Federal taxation authorities. On 6 September 1942 he was found drowned near his brother's home at the Melbourne suburb of Black Rock. He was taken home to be buried in the Anglican cemetery at Guildford. A negotiated taxation settlement avoided bankruptcy proceedings against his estate. On 18 February 1931 he had married Hildelith Olymphe Lethbridge who survived him with three daughters.

A maverick politician who treated the decorous conventions of public life with adventurous disregard, Johnston never lost an election because voters responded to his gusto and his willingness to prime the parish pump. His younger brother Frederick Marshall Johnston (1885-1963) was Commonwealth surveyor-general in 1944-49.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • F. M. Johnston, Knights and Theodolites (Syd, 1962)
  • W. E. Greble, A Bold Yeomanry (Perth, 1979)
  • West Australian, 1 Dec 1917, 7 Sept 1942
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 June 1942
  • J. R. Robertson, The Scaddan Government and the Conscription Crisis 1911-17 (MA thesis, University of Western Australia, 1958).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Johnston, Edward Bertram (1880–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-edward-bertram-6860/text11883, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 August 2014.

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

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