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Kane, John Thomas (Jack) (1908–1988)

by David Clune

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Thomas (Jack) Kane (1908-1988), politician, was born on 23 July 1908 at Burraga, New South Wales, eldest of three children of Australian-born parents Cornelius Kane, engine driver, and his wife Kate, née Williams. In 1911 the family moved to Lithgow, where Jack attended St Patrick’s convent school and in 1921 found work as a shop assistant. With the death of his father three years later, he became a miner to earn enough to support the family. On 24 March 1928 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Lithgow, he married Rose Emily Martin. Forced onto the dole during the Depression, he began selling produce door-to-door and eventually ran a greengrocer’s shop. After the venture failed, he was a self-employed truck driver from 1937 to 1952. He left Lithgow in 1942 to pursue work for his trucking business and in 1947 settled at Haberfield, Sydney.

Having grown up in a family steeped in unionism and Labor politics, Kane joined the Miners’ Federation and in 1929 the Australian Labor Party. A fellow miner tried to recruit him to the Communist Party of Australia but, although something of a militant, he refused the offer. He was a strong supporter of Jack Lang. Kane became increasingly active in the labour movement and in the 1946 Federal election was deputy campaign director in Ben Chifley's electorate of Macquarie. He was also active in the Transport Workers’ Union, becoming vice-president of the New South Wales branch.

The growing influence of the Communist Party in the unions and the constant industrial disruption of the late 1940s led Kane to join the ALP industrial groups. His considerable organising ability meant that he rose rapidly, becoming New South Wales secretary of the groups in 1950. A strong Catholic, he was approached to join B.A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement. His involvement with `the Movement’ grew, particularly after meeting Santamaria in 1947. Kane, a good platform orator, toured the coalfields during the 1949 miners’ strike, arguing the government’s case at mass meetings. A `blunt reforming zealot’, he was part of a rebel group which in the early 1950s challenged the existing leadership of the TWU, alleging that it was corrupt. In 1952 the industrial groups and their allies took control of the New South Wales branch of the ALP, and Kane joined the executive. A year later he was assistant State secretary.

When the 1955 federal conference in Hobart withdrew recognition of the industrial groups, their supporters in New South Wales split into two factions. One, which included the State Labor government and the Sydney Catholic hierarchy, took the approach that a compromise could be negotiated with the federal authorities and that it was better to `stay in and fight’ than split the party. Kane strongly supported the opposing view that federal intervention should be resisted at all costs. His inflexibility and single-mindedness reinforced his intransigence. In any event, his skills as a political operator and central role in the groups made him a marked man. A compromise, hammered out in June 1956, left the executive in the control of a group of moderates around the party officers. Part of the deal was the removal of Kane, accomplished at an executive meeting on 29 June. Premier Joe Cahill had earlier offered him a job as chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners. He rejected it, stating characteristically: `I am better at lighting fires than putting the bastards out’.

After the banning of the groups a similar body, the Industrial Labor Organisation, was set up, with Kane as full-time secretary from July 1956. The federal executive responded by proscribing the new organisation, putting Kane out of a job again. On 29 September the Democratic Labor Party was formed in New South Wales with Kane as its secretary. The Catholic hierarchy’s injunction to `stay in and fight’ meant that the DLP attracted relatively little support in New South Wales. Its base was further diminished when Kane broke with the first president, Alan Manning, who resigned in 1958. The DLP in New South Wales became a Catholic, strongly anti-communist splinter group controlled by Kane and his supporters and dedicated to keeping Labor out of office until it accepted the new party’s hard right policies.

Kane was also federal secretary of the DLP from 1957. When both positions became honorary, in 1966 he was appointed secretary to the Queensland DLP senator Vince Gair to provide him with a salary while he carried out his party duties. In November 1970 Kane himself was elected to the Senate for the DLP—assisted by a flow of ALP preferences. As a senator, he spoke against political strikes and mergers between left-wing unions. He pushed a hard anti-communist line on defence and foreign policy, arguing that Australia should develop a nuclear capability. Kane also campaigned against the foreign takeover of Australian firms and for the abolition of death duties. He took a strong stand against `permissive’ attitudes to social questions, attacking moves to liberalise censorship by the minister for customs and excise Don Chipp. Like all other DLP senators, he was defeated at the election after the May 1974 double dissolution.

Continuing his party activities, he served as a member of the executive of Santamaria’s National Civic Council and worked as an industrial relations consultant. He returned briefly to the headlines late in 1974 when a defamation action was brought against him by the left-wing journalist Wilfred Burchett over allegations in the DLP’s journal Focus that Burchett had been a spy and collaborator with the Chinese and Soviet governments. Kane won the case and a subsequent appeal.

In 1970 a newspaper article described Kane as `a surprisingly shy and diffident man behind his gruff exterior and the look and manner of the seasoned political pro’. Six feet (183 cm) tall, he moved ponderously. `The hair above his thick-set face is streaked with grey and his big miner’s fingers are lightly browned with nicotine. His voice is unexpectedly soft and deep’. He expressed a `cheerful contempt’ for the notion that he had time for any recreation other than politics. Survived by his wife, their daughter and younger son, he died on 27 October 1988 at Darlinghurst and was buried in Botany cemetery. His political memoirs, Exploding the Myths, were published in 1989.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (1970)
  • B. Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? (2001)
  • Canberra Times, 24 Nov 1970, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1970, p 2, 2 Nov 1974, p 1, 1 Feb 1975, p 9, 3 Dec 1975, p 7
  • Bulletin, 19 Dec 1970, p 25
  • V. Keraitis, interview with J. T. Kane (transcript, 1980, National Library of Australia)
  • R. Hurst and R. Raxworthy, interviews with J. T. Kane (transcripts, 1985, National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Clune, 'Kane, John Thomas (Jack) (1908–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kane-john-thomas-jack-12713/text22923, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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