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Lemmon, Nelson (1908–1989)

by Ross McMullin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Nelson Lemmon (1908-1989), farmer and politician, was born on 22 March 1908 at Newport, Melbourne, second child of Victorian-born parents John Lemmon, member of parliament, and his wife Edith, née Rudduck.  Educated at North Williamstown Public School and Longerenong Agricultural College, Nelson preferred practical activities to book–learning.  At 16 he worked as a teamster in the Mallee before moving to the Werribee Agricultural Research Station where he harvested wheat and looked after the stud sheep.  In 1927 he obtained a farm at Ongerup, Western Australia.  Using modern scientific methods and toiling alone, including doing his own shearing, he turned what others saw as unproductive land into a viable wheat and sheep station.  He was captain-coach of the local Australian Rules football team.  On 21 January 1930 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Katanning, he married Ada Mary Moir (née Jaekel), a widow.

As one of the youngest shire presidents (1935-37) in the State, Lemmon instigated the building of a hospital and swimming pool before tiring of the meetings and travel.  Dissatisfied with the Country Party’s representation of farmers, he was twice narrowly defeated when standing as an Independent for the State seat of Katanning in the mid-1930s.  He was director (1941-43) of Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd and a member (1942-43) of the Wheat Stabilisation Board.  Invited to become the Australian Labor Party’s candidate for the Federal seat of Forrest in 1943--reputedly at the direction of Prime Minister John Curtin, a family friend—Lemmon acquiesced, aware that it was a dauntingly extensive CP stronghold.  Lemmon’s energetic campaign was rewarded.  His capture of Forrest contributed to the ALP’s landslide victory.  In 1942 he had joined the Volunteer Defence Corps.

Adjusting to Canberra proved difficult.  One boring Sunday Lemmon went out duck shooting; he was later told that he had infringed several local laws.  As a back-bencher, he overcame wartime transport obstacles to distribute the Western Australian wheat crop to the eastern States during the 1944-45 drought.  Elevated to cabinet after the 1946 general election, he served (1946-49) as minister for works and housing and assistant to the treasurer in the Chifley government.  The prime minister’s faith in his protégé was increasingly evident.  Lemmon initiated an ambitious national housing program and was president of the River Murray Commission; he introduced the Northern Territory (Administration) Act 1947 which gave limited self-government to the territory.  Supporting bank nationalisation, which he believed would help the government attain its full employment objective, he backed Australian membership of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

As the main progenitor of the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, Lemmon resorted to the defence power, using 'more energy than tact' to overcome opponents (notably J. J. Cahill).  He chose (Sir) William Hudson to manage it; when J. J. Dedman contended that cabinet protocol required three names to be submitted for consideration as the scheme’s manager, Lemmon proposed 'Hudson, Hudson and Hudson'.  The decision was to be splendidly vindicated.  Lemmon also foresaw the importance of environmental protection and sought to minimise ecological damage.  According to Leslie Haylen, he was 'an outstanding success' as a new minister.  Lemmon revered Curtin, admired J. B. (Ben) Chifley and liked Edward (Eddie) Ward, but disliked H. V. Evatt and distrusted John (Jack) Beasley and Arthur Calwell.

Defeated in the December 1949 general election, Lemmon returned to farming.  Chifley was dismayed that such a talented leadership prospect might be lost to politics and persuaded him to stand for the New South Wales seat of St George.  Having bought a farm near Molong, New South Wales, he was unsuccessful in 1951 but won the seat in 1954.  He declined an offer from the Victorian ALP power-brokers to stand against Evatt for the party leadership.  Unsuited to Opposition, he yearned for practical problems to solve and was alienated by caucus divisiveness.  After losing St George in the aftermath of Labor’s 1955 split, he moved happily to his dairy farm near Bowral.  'Politics was something I did, but farming is my life', he explained.  Later he retired to Port Macquarie where he bred and trained horses.

Lemmon’s personality combined a sharp intelligence with a down-to-earth approach.  Insightful, independent–minded and intimidated by nobody, he had a knack for devising solutions to rural problems.  He gained a reputation as an effective troubleshooter.  Described by a journalist as 'dark, unsmiling and inclined to ill-temper in debate', he adopted an aggressive style in politics as well as in football.  Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 19 March 1989 at Port Macquarie and was cremated after a state funeral in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Port Macquarie.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Haylen, Twenty Years’ Hard Labor, 1969
  • S. McHugh, The Snowy, 1989
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill, 1991
  • Parliamentary Debates, 4 April 1989, p 847
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 29 May 1949, p 9
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 16 October 1949, p 9
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 March 1989, p 13
  • M. Pratt, interview with N. Lemmon (ts, 1978, National Library of Australia)
  • R. Hurst, interview with N. Lemmon (ts, 1987, National Library of Australia)

Citation details

Ross McMullin, 'Lemmon, Nelson (1908–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lemmon-nelson-14168/text25180, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 October 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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