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Rosevear, John Solomon (1892–1953)

by Frank Bongiorno

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

John Solomon Rosevear (1892-1953), politician, was born on 4 January 1892 at Pyrmont, Sydney, seventh child of native-born parents William John Rosevear, carter, and his wife Maria, née McGuirk. Educated at a local public school, Sol began work in the timber industry. At St Bartholomew's Anglican Church, Pyrmont, on 23 September 1916 he married Clara May White, a machinist. A skilled tradesman and active unionist, he was involved in the timberworkers' strike of 1929; he found himself unemployed in its aftermath and scraped a living from relief work.

Rosevear became an energetic official in the Leichhardt branch of the Australian Labor Party and served as campaign organizer for E. G. Theodore in the 1929 Federal election. Two years later he contested the seat of Dalley against his former political associate and friend. Standing for the Lang Labor Party, he defeated Theodore and three other candidates. He sat in the House of Representatives with the 'Langites' led by J. A. Beasley until they reunited (1936) with the federal Labor Party. In 1936-37 Rosevear was an executive-member of federal caucus. When a further split occurred in 1940, he was elected deputy-leader of the A.L.P. (Non-Communist), again under Beasley, although he had agonized over whether or not to join this Langite splinter group.

In parliament Rosevear distinguished himself as a 'clear thinker, with a good financial brain, quick intelligence and strong personality', but he was 'more interested in the craft and the practice of politics than in any theories or principles'. If somewhat reserved, he was good-humoured and genial. He proved an effective and forceful, rather than a polished, debater, and was regarded by (Sir) Paul Hasluck as 'one of the ablest' performers in the House. Rosevear was a member of the Bankruptcy Legislation Committee (1932-36) and temporary chairman of committees (1934-43).

When the Beasley group was reconciled with the federal party in 1941 and Labor came to power under John Curtin, many observers believed that Rosevear was unlucky not to secure a post in cabinet. His omission was probably the result of continuing hostility in caucus to his having aligned himself with the Langites in 1940. Although he was a disgruntled and troublesome back-bencher in the early years of the Curtin government, he was appointed controller of leather and footwear in 1942, a position to which he clung tenaciously until 1945, even after he became Speaker on 22 June 1943. He was also chairman (1944-45) of the Post-war Planning Committee of Leather and Footwear Industries.

A controversial Speaker, Rosevear brought to his office 'a new strength and a new power', including many of the tactics perfected in the hurly-burly of New South Wales Labor politics between the wars. Not all of them were well suited to his new role as presiding officer. Symbolically refusing both wig and gown, he was quick to make up his mind and gained a reputation for inflexibility in upholding his rulings. Opposition members and journalists regularly accused him of partisanship. On one occasion in 1946, he left the Speaker's chair to launch a ferocious tirade against his former ally Lang. In the following year, in his capacity as a private member, he made several attacks on judges of the High Court of Australia from the floor of the House. E. H. Cox, a journalist in the Canberra press gallery, claimed that the Speaker was 'frequently quite drunk in the Chair', but had 'an amazing gift for concealing his condition'. Rosevear also allowed illegal gambling in the House, a pastime in which he was an enthusiastic participant.

While enjoying all of the perquisites to which his high office entitled him, and more, Rosevear continued to play an influential role in caucus. He won the favour of federal Labor members after World War II when he spearheaded a movement to increase parliamentary salaries and improved facilities for politicians. By 1947 some believed that he had grown tired of the speakership and was manoeuvring to succeed J. B. Chifley as party leader, but a number of back-benchers, while impressed by his intelligence and debating skill, regarded 'his taste for grog' as a disqualification. In 1948 he led the Australian delegation to the Empire Parliamentary Association conference, held in London. Following his return, he had to curtail his official activities due to illness. He was twice admitted to hospital in 1949, but remained in parliament and represented Dalley for the remainder of his life.

With the election of (Sir) Robert Menzies' government in December 1949, Rosevear lost the speakership on 21 February 1950. He died of a coronary occlusion on 21 March 1953 in Lewisham Private Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated; his wife, and their son and daughter survived him. According to Hasluck, when the clergyman at Rosevear's funeral described him as a 'great national leader and statesman', a 'devout Christian' and a 'highly moral character', Fred Daly remarked audibly, 'By God, we're burying the wrong man'. A portrait of Rosevear by Joshua Smith, which won the Archibald prize (1944), is held by Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, Acts of Parliament (Melb, 1988)
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill (Melb, 1991)
  • P. Hasluck, The Chance of Politics (Melb, 1997)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 24 Mar 1953, p 1494
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Mar 1953
  • E. H. Cox papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Bongiorno, 'Rosevear, John Solomon (1892–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rosevear-john-solomon-11565/text20641, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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