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McEwen, Sir John (1900–1980)

by C. J. Lloyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John McEwen (1900-1980), by unknown photographer

John McEwen (1900-1980), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia

Sir John McEwen (1900-1980), prime minister and farmer, was born on 29 March 1900 at Chiltern, Victoria, elder child of David James McEwen (d.1907), a pharmacist from Ireland, and his second wife Amy Ellen, née Porter (d.1901), who was Victorian born. David also had two children from his former marriage and another from his third. After his parents' deaths, John and his younger sister were raised in frugal circumstances by their maternal grandmother who ran a boarding house at Wangaratta before moving to Dandenong. Educated at local state schools, he left at 13 to help support the household. He studied at night-school, qualified for clerical entry to the Commonwealth Public Service, and joined the crown solicitor's office, Melbourne, in 1916. One of his superiors was Harry Whitlam.

Although McEwen had hoped to enter the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 9 August 1918. World War I ended before he could join the army in France. His A.I.F. service, however, made him eligible for the soldier-settlement scheme, a crucial factor in his subsequent career. Without any farming background, he was drawn to a way of life which he saw as 'free of a boss'.

Working as a farmhand, McEwen picked up sufficient experience to obtain a qualifying certificate and apply for land near Stanhope. He astutely chose a larger block (86 acres, 35 ha) rather than one of the smaller holdings which beggared many of his colleagues. To obtain some capital he worked as a wharf labourer in Melbourne. He survived drought and a rabbit plague in 1919, improved his property by tenacity and unremitting hard work, and led what he recalled as a 'rough and ready' life, living in a humpy and spending solitary nights reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. At Ballavoca, Tongala, on 21 September 1921 he married with Anglican rites Annie Mills McLeod; they were to remain childless. She worked with him to develop the farm. They sold it and bought others, gradually building up a productive holding of 3000 acres (1214 ha), spread over three blocks in the Stanhope region.

At a time when many soldier settlers walked off their blocks, McEwen emerged as both a successful farmer and a leader of those who remained and those who joined them. He extended his activities through the Victorian Farmers' Union and other producers' groups. Rural activism drew him into politics. Annie was an able assistant, travelling with him constantly to meetings and functions. A member of the Country Party from the age of 19, McEwen stood unsuccessfully in 1932 for the seat of Waranga in the Legislative Assembly. At the Federal elections on 15 September 1934 he won the seat of Echuca in the House of Representatives. The Victorian Country Party had endorsed him while it was engaged in a bitter dispute with its federal parliamentary members. During the campaign McEwen clashed with (Sir) Earle Page, the party's federal leader. When McEwen arrived in Canberra he made peace with the federal party, thereby earning the hostility of his former colleagues in the State branch.

McEwen's maiden speech in November ranged over issues which were to preoccupy him in his parliamentary career: primary industry, commerce, trade, banking, employment and defence. It was the task of government, he said, to 'discover the basic facts upon which our national economy is founded, and search there for the root causes [of problems]'. His approach to politics and public-policy formulation was founded on this principle. He held the seat of Indi in 1937-49 and Murray in 1949-71. Harold Thorby defeated him for the deputy-leadership of the party in 1937. On 29 November that year McEwen was appointed minister for the interior in Joseph Lyons' United Australia Party-Country Party coalition government. The Victorian branch of the Country Party was opposed to its members participating in composite ministries and expelled McEwen. He was not readmitted to the Victorian party until 1943.

Spacious in its command of broad policy issues and diversity of administrative functions, McEwen's portfolio included Commonwealth public works, railways, immigration, the Northern and Australian Capital territories, Aborigines, electoral administration, mining, and oil exploration. He travelled widely in the Northern Territory and outback Australia, negotiated the basis of pioneering airline services in northern Australia, resumed assisted immigration from Britain and extended the policy to the Dutch, sponsored a white paper on Aboriginal policy in the Northern Territory, tried unsuccessfully to establish an all-States conference on Aboriginal welfare, and imposed an embargo on the export of iron ore which lasted until the late 1950s.

Having taken the Country Party out of the coalition on 26 April 1939, Page resigned his leadership in September. McEwen contested the position against A. G. Cameron and was defeated by two votes. The exclusion of four party members from the leadership ballot—by a single vote at the party meeting—had cost McEwen victory. On 14 March 1940 (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed him minister for external affairs in the re-established coalition government.

McEwen's principal initiative in his new portfolio was the planning of a coup which removed the Vichy French government from New Caledonia and replaced it with a Gaullist administration. According to McEwen, he foresaw the entry of Japan into World War II and acted to prevent the Japanese from using New Caledonia under Vichy control as a base against Australia. With Menzies' support, and without reference to cabinet, he organized a French 'voluntary expedition' (led by a Gaullist) to sail from the New Hebrides to New Caledonia in a chartered Norwegian ship. McEwen also claimed that it was he who arranged for the old Australian cruiser, Adelaide, to reach Noumea at this time. Describing the coup in later years as a 'matter of high security done between Menzies and myself', McEwen rated it as his finest political achievement, but historians have been sceptical about the extent of his involvement in the incident.

He was given the portfolios of air and of civil aviation on 28 October 1940. Earlier that month Cameron had resigned as Country Party leader. McEwen tied with Page in the vote to elect a successor. When a second ballot failed to resolve the deadlock, the deputy-leader (Sir) Arthur Fadden was appointed acting-leader. He was subsequently confirmed as leader. As minister for air, McEwen directed Australia's contribution to the crucial Empire Air Training Scheme. He also established the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force. After the coalition lost power in October 1941, Prime Minister John Curtin appointed him to the Advisory War Council, a post he was to hold until hostilities ended. McEwen became deputy-leader of the Country Party in September 1943.

In 1945 McEwen served as a consultant with the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco, United States of America. He recalled the office as giving him 'a wonderful opportunity to rub shoulders with leading men from all over the world'. He was closely involved with Fadden in rebuilding the Country Party, developing its policies, and preparing it for office in partnership with Menzies' rejuvenated Liberal Party.

Following the Federal elections on 10 December 1949, McEwen was appointed minister for commerce and agriculture, ranking fifth in cabinet. He retained this ministry, shaping and extending its policies, until its functions were split on 11 January 1956. From that date he was minister for trade (trade and industry from 18 December 1963). The rural-policy elements of his previous portfolio went initially to (Sir) William McMahon who, as a junior minister, had worked amicably with McEwen. According to newspaper reports, McEwen intervened with Menzies to prevent McMahon's removal from the ministry.

McEwen succeeded Fadden as leader of the Country Party and as deputy prime minister on 26 March 1958. As party leader, he was 'revered and unchallenged'. Fadden left parliament in December and Harold Holt received the treasurership. Although McEwen's supporters, among them (Sir) William Gunn, later claimed that he had rejected the Treasury, Menzies probably never offered it to him. It is possible that McEwen may have felt uncomfortable at the prospect of becoming treasurer, as he had often expressed bitterness about the department's negative role in policy-making. It is more likely that Menzies preferred to give the post to a member of the Liberal Party.

With an uninterrupted tenure of twenty-one years as minister for commerce and for trade, McEwen had a rare opportunity to command and develop a decisive sphere of national policy. There is neither precedent nor parallel in Federal politics for the dominion he exercised. In a memorable partnership with two notable public servants (Sir) John Crawford and (Sir) Alan Westerman, McEwen transformed trade policy from its crudeness in the immediate postwar years to its diversity and relative sophistication in the early 1970s.

At the beginning of his ministry McEwen did much to rejuvenate the administration of primary industry and the marketing of primary products. Bringing that sector into closer contact with government, he urged its leaders to raise their standards. He initiated schemes to stabilize export markets and to equalize returns to individual farmers from differential pricing at home and abroad.

In 1951 McEwen secured a fifteen-year agreement with Britain on meat. Over the following two decades he emerged as a conspicuous figure in numerous bilateral and multilateral trade discussions, earning international respect for his toughness and persistence. Fundamental to his achievement was the conclusion of a trade deal with Britain in 1956 to supersede the 1932 Ottawa Agreement which had begun to advantage Britain unduly. The settlement enabled Australia to relax tariff barriers against Japanese goods, a significant factor in negotiations (led by McEwen) which established the Agreement on Commerce between Australia and Japan in July 1957. In terms of detailed bargaining, much of the credit for the agreement lay with Crawford and Westerman, but it was McEwen who accepted the abundant political risks: memories of Japanese atrocities in World War II were still strong in the Australian community. In public McEwen made himself appear personally responsible for the treaty, so that he alone would fall if it proved unpopular. He dryly commented that he had 'carried the can quite consciously and no one wanted to have a share in carrying it as I remember'.

Britain's protracted negotiations for entry to the European Economic Community in the early 1960s placed pressure on Australian trade. McEwen recognized Britain's right to seek membership of the E.E.C., but criticized the timing and the manner in which entry was sought. His involvement with international trade issues and his increasing responsibility for secondary industry brought him into the area of tariff policy. At conferences under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, such as the 'Kennedy Round' in the mid-1960s, he confronted external pressures to reduce tariff barriers.

At home, McEwen had to reconcile his unequivocal support for protection with the free-trade inclinations of his rural constituency, a task he performed with consummate political skill. He exploited the coalition's narrow parliamentary majorities in the early 1960s to obtain benefits and concessions for farmers, but he failed to make Prime Minister Holt devalue the Australian dollar in 1967 in line with Britain's devaluation of the pound. Holt responded with what amounted to a firm public rebuff of his deputy prime minister. Even in the final years of his ministry, however, McEwen remained a formidable political manipulator, one who obtained the establishment of the Australian Industry Development Corporation in 1971, despite two years of infuriated resistance from McMahon and the Treasury. The new corporation became known in administrative parlance as the 'McEwen Bank'.

McEwen's attitudes had been profoundly influenced by his experience of the Depression, which compelled him to place an overriding emphasis on creating and safeguarding employment. He dismissed as impracticable any notion that jobs lost by lowering the protection of Australian secondary industries could be replaced by new ones in the service sector. Foremost in his mind were the growth and economic health of the 'basic wealth-producing industries'—agriculture, mining and manufacturing. In addition, McEwen had been greatly affected by Australia's vulnerability early in World War II when deficiencies in its manufacturing industry left it unprepared for armed conflict. Thus, he was not prepared to condone policies which stripped away from existing industries a degree of protection which he considered necessary to sustain employment and contribute to national defence.

By the late 1950s McEwen was the indisputable champion of the traditional Australian view that high protection of local industry was a principal tool of economic and social policy. In the next decade he remained obdurate as this outlook crumbled and his approach was branded 'McEwenism'. More and more he found himself in conflict with the Tariff Board which, under the leadership of Sir Leslie Melville and his successor G. A. Rattigan, gradually moved the fulcrum of economic and industrial policy away from protectionism towards lower tariffs and free trade. McEwen showed characteristic resourcefulness in resisting the gathering momentum, particularly by his use of a special advisory authority to grant emergency tariff-assistance to industries and circumvent the prolonged processes of the Tariff Board. Despite his consistent and sturdy advocacy, the battle for protectionism was largely lost by the time he resigned from parliament on 1 February 1971.

McEwen had been sustained by his political intimacy with Menzies. He later recalled that in the early 1950s Menzies had hinted to him to 'get into line' for leadership of the Liberal Party and, ultimately, the prime ministership. McEwen, however, rejected any suggestion of leaving his party to gain preferment. He served as acting prime minister on ten occasions during Menzies' absences abroad. The alliance with Menzies was jeopardized only once. McEwen 'stood up' to his prime minister and threatened to end the coalition in 1962 over an electoral redistribution which would have abolished two Country Party seats and endangered another. The redistribution was cancelled.

From 1956 there had been ill-concealed animosity between McEwen and McMahon, who became treasurer in 1966 after Menzies retired and was replaced by Holt. Apart from his deep-seated antipathy to the Treasury, McEwen had long suspected that McMahon had not only leaked cabinet material unfavourable to him, but had also stirred up resentment among Liberal members over McEwen's influence in the government and the strength of the Country Party in the ministry. Following Holt's death, McEwen was appointed caretaker prime minister on 19 December 1967. McMahon was a leading aspirant for the Liberal Party leadership and therefore the prime ministership, but McEwen told him bluntly: 'Bill, I won't serve under you . . . because I don't trust you'. McMahon withdrew, and (Sir) John Gorton succeeded McEwen as prime minister on 10 January 1968.

After the coalition's near defeat in the Federal elections of October 1969, Gorton faced a leadership challenge. Convinced that most of Gorton's potential successors were a 'motley' lot, and that the Liberal Party should not be denied the candidacy of its most senior minister, McEwen lifted his veto on McMahon.

Arduous negotiations and extensive travel weakened McEwen's resilience and led to a serious 'neuro-dermatitis' condition; at times he walked around Parliament House with his feet 'bleeding and bandaged'. The stress of further arguments with the Tariff Board meant that by February 1971 he had taken as much of politics as he wanted to take. By leaving then, he felt that he would prevent anyone from saying, 'Why doesn't old McEwen get out?' He was appointed a privy counsellor in 1953, C.H. in 1969 and G.C.M.G. in 1971; the Japanese appointed him to the Order of the Rising Sun in 1973.

After a long illness Dame Ann McEwen (D.B.E. 1966) had died on 10 February 1967. At Wesley Church, Melbourne, on 26 July 1968 McEwen married Mary Eileen Byrne, his personal secretary; he was aged 68, she was 46. Throughout his political career he had found relaxation in hard physical work on his cherished farm, Chilgala. He finally sold it in 1975 and moved to Toorak. In retirement he distanced himself from politics, undertook some consulting work, and travelled to Japan and South Africa. Survived by his wife, he died on 20 November 1980 at Toorak and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $2,180,479. At the time of his death he was receiving a small pension from the Department of Social Security.

McEwen was about six feet (183 cm) tall and ramrod-like in bearing. His formidable public persona was complemented by the sombre suits he wore. Grimly resolute and sometimes choleric in temper, he was nicknamed 'Black Jack'. (Menzies jocularly rendered the nickname in French as Le Noir.) Although awesome in presence and reputation, McEwen was generally accessible and, on occasions, jovial. His jutting jaw mingled determination with a milder, questing quality. He was an adept conversationalist who moved about the electorate with calm authority, untiring in pursuing relevant facts, but willing to listen, consult, joke, and yarn at length. A fluent, forceful and often passionate speaker, McEwen in full flight at the parliamentary dispatch box was a grand spectacle.

Although the latter years of his long political career were clouded by an increasingly bitter controversy over protectionism, a significant residue of achievement remained, particularly in the organizing and stabilizing of Australian primary industry, and the decisive shaping of international trade policies in the crucial 1950s and early 1960s. More than any other Australian political leader of his time he embodied the ethos of the traditional Australian farming community—its dogged endurance, its longing for betterment, and its aspiration for ultimate prosperity. Menzies thought that McEwen had the cast of mind of a great barrister: 'analytical, clear . . . quite admirable!' Crawford, who worked closely with both leaders, concluded that while Menzies had the quicker mind, McEwen's was the surer.

Select Bibliography

  • John McEwen, R. V. Jackson ed (priv pub, Melb, 1983)
  • P. Golding, Black Jack McEwen (Melb, 1996)
  • Canberra Times, 22 Nov 1980
  • Sir John McEwen interviews (transcript, National Library of Australia)
  • Sir John McEwen papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Sir John McEwen personal records (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'McEwen, Sir John (1900–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcewen-sir-john-10948/text19455, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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