Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Renshaw, John Brophy (Jack) (1909–1987)

by David Clune

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

John Brophy Renshaw (1909-1987), farmer and premier, was born on 8 August 1909 at Wellington, New South Wales, eldest of eight children of locally born parents John Ignatius Renshaw, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Reidy.  Jack was 11 when his father died as a result of an accident on his farm at Binnaway.  Staying with a relative in Orange, he continued his education at the local Patrician Brothers’ school, having previously attended Binnaway Public School.  He progressed to Holy Cross College, Ryde, Sydney, but left at 14.  Problems with his eyesight cut short his education and frustrated his ambition to become a teacher.  He returned to Binnaway, becoming involved in farming and business ventures with his brothers.  The family soon operated a butchery, a fuel depot and a stock and station agency.  A well-known sportsman as well as a successful businessman, Renshaw was prominent in local affairs.  He was a member of Coonabarabran Shire Council in 1937-41 (president 1939-40).  At the time he was believed to be the youngest shire president in New South Wales.  He was also a member of the northern executive of the Wheatgrowers Union of N.S.W.

Like many small farmers at the time, Renshaw was attracted to the Australian Labor Party.  Joining it in 1930, he was subsequently a member of the local State and Federal electorate councils and campaign director on a number of occasions.  During the Depression the assault on a communist tenant of the Renshaws by a group of right-wing vigilantes was a radicalising experience.  Renshaw became a strong supporter of Jack Lang.  By the end of the 1930s, however, Renshaw had become disillusioned with Lang and joined the breakaway party led by Robert James Heffron.

Lang’s successor as Opposition leader, (Sir) William McKell, believed Labor could make big gains in rural areas at the 1941 State election.  Part of McKell’s strategy was to endorse strong local candidates.  Renshaw was an obvious choice for Castlereagh, the electorate in which Binnaway was located.  The sitting Country Party member, A. W. Yeo, did not recontest the seat and Renshaw won easily; he held it until he retired in 1980.  The group of talented rural members of the Legislative Assembly elected in 1941 was to be a significant force in the ALP governments that held office until 1965.  Renshaw became the epitome of the good country member, always accessible, constantly attentive to the needs of his electorate, at home in the local pub or strolling down the main street greeting his constituents (and even their dogs) by name.  In 1945-51 he represented caucus on the ALP State executive.

With his keen natural intelligence, near photographic memory and debating skill, Renshaw soon made an impression in the House.  Promotion did not come quickly enough and, like other ambitious back-benchers, he became associated with the rebel group in caucus.  Infuriating McKell, in 1945 he was part of an unsuccessful plot to create four assistant ministers.  After the 1950 election, when Labor narrowly retained office under James McGirr, in the ballot for the ministry Renshaw tied with the minister for housing Clive Evatt for the last position.  McGirr broke the deadlock by creating an additional portfolio.  Renshaw was named secretary for lands.  He proved to be a capable, diligent and loyal minister.  Likeable and easy-going, Renshaw was adept at handling political controversy.  Impressed by his ability, the new premier Joseph Cahill promoted Renshaw to public works in April 1952 and added local government to his responsibilities in early 1953.  Cahill had previously held both portfolios.

Renshaw played an important role in restoring order to the sprawling, over-extended public works program.  Continuing Cahill’s work of centralising control of electricity generation and supply, he also pursued a policy of locating new power stations in the coalfields, which greatly reduced generating costs.  The extension of electrification to much of rural New South Wales was an achievement in which he took particular pride.  Renshaw became minister for local government and highways in March 1956.  They were diverse and demanding portfolios, which encompassed electricity, the perennially important roads and bridges, always controversial changes to local government boundaries, the scandal-prone Sydney City Council and town planning in a period of rapid population growth.

When Cahill died suddenly in October 1959 Heffron became premier.  Renshaw was the candidate of the dominant right faction for the deputy leadership.  Another prominent member of the right, William Sheahan, was aggrieved at being passed over and stood against Renshaw with support from the left; he came within one vote of victory.  Renshaw became treasurer as well as deputy-premier.  According to a Sydney Morning Herald commentator, senior Treasury officials were 'at first apprehensive at his appointment' but soon became 'deeply impressed by his ability to grasp quickly a complex situation and evolve solutions'.  Renshaw’s responsibilities were made more onerous by the fact that the ageing Heffron relied heavily on his deputy for support.  When Heffron finally retired Renshaw was unanimously elected as his successor, being sworn in as premier on 30 April 1964.  His wife, Hilda May Wall, whom he had married on 12 November 1942 at St Canice’s Catholic Church, Elizabeth Bay, had died earlier, in April.

The situation that Renshaw inherited was not a happy one.  Cabinet was dominated by older veterans, a number of whom had long ceased to perform effectively.  Inept handling of sensitive issues, particularly retail trading hours, had given the government an image of being arrogant and out of touch.  Key groups in the community such as teachers, police and public servants were disenchanted with Labor.  Many voters had lost faith in the government’s ability to deliver core services such as public transport.  The Opposition under Robin (Sir) Robert Askin had a newfound unity and credibility.  Askin cultivated groups alienated from Labor and attacked the government as autocratic and old-fashioned.  He astutely projected an image of the Liberals as progressive and vigorous, encapsulated in the slogan 'With Askin you’ll get action'.

Renshaw initially showed some signs of moving decisively as premier.  Quarterly adjustment of the basic wage, a constant source of budgetary uncertainty, was abolished.  The union movement was placated by an increase in the basic wage and a package of concessions, including improved holiday pay and liberalised workers’ compensation provisions.  The penal clauses in industrial legislation were watered down, going some way to meeting a long-standing union grievance.  Renshaw also performed impressively at the premiers’ conference in April 1965.  In the final analysis, however, Renshaw lacked the drive and imagination necessary to rejuvenate the government.  No young blood was injected into the ministry, no general shake-up took place and no new policies were developed.  At the May 1965 election the government’s accumulated problems and Askin’s shrewd exploitation of them proved too much for Renshaw.  Although he campaigned well, Labor was defeated.

Renshaw stayed on as Opposition leader.  The Askin government at this stage displayed freshness and energy and Renshaw’s attacks made little impression.  Labor lost the February 1968 election by a larger margin.  Although Renshaw survived a post-election challenge from Harry Jensen by twenty-two votes to seventeen, he was increasingly seen as yesterday’s man.  In July 1968 he stepped down in favour of his deputy, Pat Hills.  Renshaw had married Marjorie Mackay, née Nolan, a widow with three sons, on 11 April 1966 at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Woollahra.

Although Renshaw remained in parliament, he seemed likely to spend the rest of his career in relative obscurity but, following the ALP win in the May 1976 election, found himself back at the treasurer’s desk, this time in Neville Wran’s government.  The Wran era saw the centralisation of power around the premier.  Economic policy was increasingly driven by Wran and his close advisers, a situation that Renshaw accepted without demur.  He did, nonetheless, strongly support his bureaucrats in resisting attempts at public sector reform.  These years as treasurer were an aptly successful coda to his long career.  His old ability to master a brief and his political astuteness were still in evidence.  Renshaw could boast of having delivered four successive budgets without a tax rise.  Appointed AC in 1979, he resigned from parliament on 29 January 1980 to become agent-general for New South Wales in London, a position that he held for two and a half years.

With his 'slow drawling manner of speech, his broad Australian accent, his earthy sense of humour and his big, slightly lumbering six-foot figure', Renshaw was a typical countryman.  Always interested in sport, he played cricket and football in his youth and later enjoyed the races, billiards and lawn bowls.  He was a member of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust in 1952-78 (chairman 1972-77), a responsibility that he took very seriously.  Survived by his wife and his two sons, one from each marriage, he died on 28 July 1987 at Chatswood and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery after a state funeral, held at St Mary’s Catholic Church, North Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Clune and K. Turner (eds), The Premiers of New South Wales, 1856-2005, vol 2, 2005
  • D. Clune, 'Decline and Fall of the Labor Government in New South Wales, 1959-1965', Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 39, no 3, 1993, p 330
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 6 January 1954, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1964, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1987, p 12
  • Australian, 6 January 1965, p 9
  • North West Magazine, 14 October 1974, p 2
  • Bulletin, 9 December 1982, p 34

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Clune, 'Renshaw, John Brophy (Jack) (1909–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/renshaw-john-brophy-jack-14438/text25522, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 February 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

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018