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Punch, Leon Ashton (1928–1991)

by Paul Davey

This article was published online in 2014

Leon Punch, by Jack Hickson, 1981

Leon Punch, by Jack Hickson, 1981

State Library of New South Wales, 44534

Leon Ashton Punch (1928-1991), farmer, grazier, and politician, was born on 21 April 1928 in North Sydney, second son of Sydney-born parents Thomas Sydney Punch, medical practitioner, and his wife Neta Linette, née Wood. Educated at Inverell High School and The King’s School, Parramatta, from 1947 Leon worked on his father’s dairy farm at Jerrys Plains. Having managed that business from 1952, he moved in 1959 to the family’s grazing property at Barraba.

Spurning his father’s hope that he would enter the medical profession, Punch developed a love of the land and, during his time at Barraba, of politics. He was elected to the Barraba Shire Council in 1956 and served until 1959, when he won the seat of Upper Hunter in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in a spirited dual-endorsement contest with a fellow Country Party (CP) candidate and the incumbent member since 1939, D’Arcy Rose. The same year he met Suzette Meyers, a physiotherapist and later interior designer, from Sydney. The couple married on 15 September 1960 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney.

Following an electoral redistribution in 1962, Punch moved to the seat of Gloucester, which he was to hold until his resignation from parliament on 2 July 1985. His rural interests developed alongside his political career, and in 1963 he acquired a property, Glen Martin, at Dungog.

Punch’s first years in parliament were spent on the opposition benches, as the Australian Labor Party had been in office since 1941. It was not until May 1965 that the Liberal and Country parties under (Sir) Robert Askin and (Sir) Charles Cutler won an election and formed a coalition government. Punch was variously chairman of committees, acting Speaker, minister for public works and for ports, and acting minister for local government and for decentralisation and development. He became deputy leader of the CP in January 1973. As minister for public works, he oversaw the completion and opening by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1973 of the Sydney Opera House, and supervised the planning and tendering for a major redevelopment of Parliament House in Macquarie Street.

Cutler supported Punch to replace him as party leader and deputy premier when he retired from parliament on 16 December 1975. As leader, he maintained the public works and ports portfolios. At the 1976 election, however, the coalition narrowly lost office to the Labor Party under Neville Wran. For the first time in New South Wales the Country and Liberal parties maintained a formal coalition in opposition. Instability in the Liberal Party resulted in the ‘Wranslide’ elections in October 1978, at which the Liberals lost eleven seats to be returned with only eighteen members, of a possible ninety-nine, one more than the CP. Three by-elections in September 1980 saw the CP holding one more Assembly seat than the Liberals, prompting Punch to consider demanding the Opposition leadership. He went so far as to obtain a legal opinion on the matter. His plans were thwarted by some of his own colleagues, notably his former deputy, James ‘Tim’ Bruxner, who threatened to sit as an Independent, believing that the Liberals would soon have the dominant numbers once more and that insisting on the Opposition leadership in the interim would cause irreparable damage to already strained coalition relations.

An excitable character, Punch had sandy red hair that matched his temperament. He stormed through the corridors of Parliament House, waving papers around, staff trailing behind him, always itching to go face to face with Wran. The clashes between the two became legendary, and their relationship was one of mutual dislike. Punch relentlessly attacked Wran over corruption and played a part in exposing scandals in the New South Wales Police Force that enveloped the deputy commissioner, Bill Allen; dishonest administration of the prisoner early release scheme by the corrective services minister, Rex Jackson; and perversion of the course of justice by the State’s chief stipendiary magistrate, Murray Farquhar. On one occasion, Wran demanded that Punch should ‘get out of the gutter’, to which Punch shot back: ‘It’s the only place I can find you!’ (Davey 2006, 280). For his part, Wran instructed his deputy, Jack Ferguson, that if he, Wran, died in office and the parliament moved the usual condolence motion, Ferguson was to gag the debate the moment Punch rose to his feet.

The New South Wales CP changed its name to National Country Party (NCP) in 1977, and then to National Party (NP) in 1982. Initially unenthusiastic about the latter change, Punch became an ardent supporter prior to the Wagga Wagga conference that decided the matter. He was partly influenced by the success of the party in Queensland, which was making inroads in outer metropolitan Brisbane seats following its name change. Of greater significance were the Wran government’s electoral reforms. Part of these abolished smaller electoral quotas for country seats and introduced a system of one vote one value, meaning a wholesale redistribution and the abolition of six seats held by the NCP. They also replaced compulsory preferential voting with optional preferential for the Legislative Assembly, jeopardising the Coalition’s ability to manage a tight exchange of preferences in three-cornered contests. Punch perceived that, to combat these changes, the NCP must modernise and broaden its electoral appeal. He also realised the need for better relations between the non-Labor parties, and worked to minimise three-cornered contests and laid much of the ground work that resulted in the Coalition’s return to office under Nick Greiner and Wal Murray in 1988.

At the NP’s annual general conference in June 1985, Punch announced he would stand down as leader and retire from parliament. Giving his farewell speech, he argued for the merger of the CP with the Liberal Party, a proposal he had previously opposed; the conference rejected the idea. Survived by his wife and two sons, and with a history of heart problems, he died of myocardial infarction on 29 December 1991 at Lovett Bay, Sydney, and was cremated. He was accorded a State memorial service at St James’s Church, Sydney.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Dale, Brian. Ascent to Power: Wran and the Media. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985
  • Davey, Paul. The Nationals: The Progressive, Country and National Party in New South Wales 1919 to 2006. Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006
  • Gardiner, Jenny. Interview by the author, 8 October 2011
  • Hogan, Michael, and David Clune, eds. The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales, vol. 3, 1968 to 1999. Sydney: Parliament of New South Wales and University of Sydney, 2001
  • Parliament of New South Wales. ‘The Hon. Leon Ashton PUNCH (1928-1991).’ 2009. http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/members.nsf/ec78138918334ce3ca256ea200077f5d/773483970067409fca256e510080d7fa?OpenDocument. Copy held on ADB file
  • Parliament of New South Wales. Parliamentary Debates, 25 February 1992, 47-61
  •  Parliament of New South Wales. Parliamentary Record, Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly 1824-2003, vol 7. Sydney: Parliament of New South Wales, 2003
  • Punch, Justin. Personal communication
  • Punch, Thomas. Personal communication
  •  Richardson, Nick. ‘Leon Leaves Politics with a Little Less Punch.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1991, 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Battling Parliamentary Leader Gave No Quarter.’ 30 December 1991, 2.

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Citation details

Paul Davey, 'Punch, Leon Ashton (1928–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/punch-leon-ashton-14646/text25778, published online 2014, accessed online 22 March 2019.

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