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Spicer, Sir John Armstrong (1899–1978)

by Geoff Browne

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

Sir John Armstrong Spicer (1899-1978), barrister, politician and judge, was born on 5 March 1899 at Prahran, Melbourne, son of Henry Spicer, a photographer from England, and his Victorian-born wife Helen Jane, née Armstrong. The family travelled to England in 1905 and returned in 1911. John was educated at Chelston School, Torquay, England, and at Hawksburn State School, Melbourne. A course at a business college was to follow, but in 1913—through the agency of Leonard Townsend, vicar of Christ Church, South Yarra—he secured a job as office-boy with the legal firm of (Sir) Arthur Robinson & Co. He took an articled clerk's course at the University of Melbourne in 1916-18. Admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1921, he signed the Bar roll on 5 May 1922. At Christ Church, South Yarra, on 27 June 1924 he married Lavinia May Webster with Anglican rites.

While Spicer was establishing a solid practice at the Bar, his friendship with (Sir) Robert Menzies stimulated his political activity. According to Spicer, they 'grew up in politics together'. A member (president 1939) of the 'Constitutional Club', Spicer was a founder in 1930 of the Young Nationalist Organisation (Victorian president 1933 and 1937) and a regular and effective platform speaker during election campaigns. In 1940, as a United Australia Party candidate, he was elected to the Senate. There his quick, logical mind and well-developed debating skills brought him to notice. He chaired the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances in 1940-43.

Spicer appeared to be the epitome of Victorian right-wing conservatism. He emphasized patriotism, joined the Round Table in 1943, and characterized the Australian Labor Party as aiming to impose a 'dictatorship of the Trades Hall' which would create a 'monster State'. As a senator much concerned with 'sound and honest finance', he spoke frequently on tax matters.

At the general election in August 1943 Spicer was defeated. His term concluded in June 1944. He returned to the Bar, and took silk in 1948. Bitterly opposed to bank nationalization, he acted as a junior counsel for the English banks in the ensuing court action. In December 1949 he was re-elected to the Senate and appointed attorney-general in Menzies' coalition government. One of his first tasks was to draft a bill banning the Communist Party of Australia. The legislation was subsequently declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Australia. In 1952 Spicer drafted an official secrets bill which provided the option of the death penalty for spying, and permitted wide powers of search and arrest without warrant. Cabinet rejected it. Spicer was also involved in planning for the internment of thousands of communist 'associates' in the event of war with the Soviet bloc. In this instance, however, he was more mindful of civil liberties. Anxious that the 'blanket approach' favoured by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization might lead to wrongful incarceration, he insisted that a separate file be kept for each potential internee, a decision which consumed 'huge amounts of ASIO time'.

In 1956 Spicer was offered the post of chief judge of the newly founded Commonwealth Industrial Court. He accepted after some hesitation, later writing to Menzies (who had been overseas at the time) that 'quite frankly I would have welcomed your advice and guidance in reaching a decision'. In 1963 he was knighted. He also presided over inquiries into naval and air disasters, most notably the royal commission in 1964 into the sinking of H.M.A.S. Voyager. Spicer found that officers in both the Voyager and the Melbourne had been at fault. A second royal commission in 1967-68 heard fresh evidence and absolved the Melbourne's officers of any blame.

Tall, bespectacled and quiet in manner, Sir John named reading and walking as his principal recreations. In 1976 he retired from the Industrial Court. He died on 3 January 1978 at Armadale, Melbourne; he was accorded a state funeral and was cremated. His wife and their son survived him. Sir Paul Hasluck (a severe judge of character) wrote that Spicer had 'a quiet authority on any constitutional question or legal argument' and that Menzies valued anything he said 'whether on the law or on politics'. Hasluck was impressed by Spicer's readiness to listen to reasoned argument. Spicer 'never minded being in a minority'. He was a man of professional probity who thought that 'sound practice and good law were more important than political advantage'. Despite these qualities, his record as attorney-general was not outstanding. When he attempted to deal with communism and related security questions, his political views sat uneasily with his professional instincts.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Whitington, The Rulers (Melb, 1964)
  • D. McKnight, Australia's Spies and Their Secrets (Syd, 1994)
  • P. Hasluck, The Chance of Politics (Melb, 1997)
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1942, 4 Jan 1978
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Feb 1948, 27 Sept 1969, 28 Oct 1976, 4 Jan 1983
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Jan 1978
  • Sir Robert Menzies papers, MS 4936/1/234 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Spicer, Sir John Armstrong (1899–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spicer-sir-john-armstrong-11744/text20999, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 August 2014.

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

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