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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tonkin, John Tresize (1902–1995)

by John Cowdell

This article was published online in 2020

John Trezise Tonkin (1902–1995), teacher and premier, was born on 2 February 1902 at Boulder, Western Australia, eldest of three surviving children of Victorian-born John Trezise Tonkin, engine driver, and his South Australian-born wife Julia, née Carrigan. In young John’s childhood, the family moved to Victoria, on to South Australia, and back to Western Australia, where they lived at Gwalia before returning to Boulder. He was brought up in the Methodist faith of his father, although his mother was Catholic; his father was a strong unionist and a supporter of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and John became interested in politics from an early age. A studious boy, he attended Boulder City Central School (dux 1916) and Eastern Goldfields High School.

Tonkin left school at fifteen and worked briefly as an office boy at Kalgoorlie Electric Power Co. Ltd, before becoming a monitor (1918–19) at Brown Hill State School and then a teacher-on-supply at Edjudina. In 1921 he entered Claremont Teachers College, gaining a teaching certificate the next year, and then taught at a succession of schools, many of them single-teacher establishments, in the south-west of the State. On 29 December 1926 he married Rosalie Maud Cleghorn, also born at Boulder, at St Mary’s Church of England, West Perth. The couple moved to the metropolitan area when he gained positions, first at North Perth (1930), then at North Fremantle (1930–33) schools. During this period he studied by correspondence and qualified as an accountant.

In 1923 Tonkin had joined the ALP, starting a branch at Forest Grove. He contested the south-west State seats of Sussex (1927) and Murray-Wellington (1930); although unsuccessful, he was building a profile within the party. At the 1933 election he narrowly won endorsement to contest the marginal seat of North-East Fremantle, and went on to win, defeating his boss, the education minister, Hubert Parker. The ALP gained seven Legislative Assembly seats at the poll to form government under the leadership of Philip Collier.

With Frank Wise and Albert (Bert) Hawke, Tonkin was one of three future Labor premiers to be elected in 1933. All three had new ideas and showed leadership potential, becoming known as the ‘three musketeers’ (Tonkin 1976). Wise was elected to a ministerial vacancy in 1935, and Hawke in 1936, following the re-election of the Collier government. Tonkin had to wait more than a decade, partly because of his lack of either religious or union connections. He could also irritate his colleagues by speaking on a vast range of issues and by his tendency to lecture. At times he was truculent, cocky, and a bit of a loner. While he spoke often in parliament and chaired select committees, his only real advancement was to become secretary of the State Parliamentary Labor Party (1939–43) after the death of May Holman.

Concentrating on his electorate after nearly losing his seat in the 1936 poll, Tonkin developed his parliamentary skills, and adapted his style to be less of a ‘bull at a gate’ (Tonkin 1976). At the 1939 election, he was returned with an increased majority, as was the ALP government of John Willcock. On 30 August 1940, having been granted leave by parliament to serve in World War II, Tonkin enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). He trained as a signaller and served part time with local units, the 25th Light Horse (Machine-Gun) Regiment and, from May 1941, the 11th Battalion. The battalion was mobilised in December, but Tonkin spent most of the time on leave without pay.

During the 1930s Tonkin had developed a close working relationship with the Federal member for Fremantle, John Curtin, each assisting the other in their respective election campaigns. Tonkin utilised this relationship to bring home to Curtin, as prime minister, the increasing concern of Western Australians and the State government that the region was poorly defended. With the connivance of his superior officer, he travelled to Melbourne to meet Curtin and acquaint him with the situation. He believed that, as a result of his representations, the Commonwealth gave greater attention to the defence of the western seaboard. On 30 January 1942 he was discharged from the CMF as a sergeant. In late 1942 and early 1943 he supported Curtin in his successful endeavour to change ALP policy and require conscripts in the CMF to serve outside Australia and its territories, in a prescribed sector of the South-West Pacific.

After Labor’s fourth consecutive State election victory in 1943, Tonkin was elevated to the ministry with the portfolios of education and social services. He had contemplated a transfer to Federal politics, but he resisted standing for Fremantle after Curtin's death in 1945. With the elevation of Wise to the premiership at the end of July the same year, Tonkin continued in his existing portfolios, with additional responsibility for agriculture. He viewed his achievements in education as consolidating one-teacher establishments into larger regional schools, with complementary bus services; upgrading school buildings; reducing class sizes; and improving teacher training. At the same time, he rejected calls from the Opposition to introduce a system to segregate Aboriginal from white children, having observed from his teaching experience that Aboriginal children ‘learned just as well as the white children, and behaved just as well, in some cases even better’ (Tonkin 1976).

Following the loss of government at the 1947 election, Tonkin adapted well to opposition, using parliament effectively to question the Liberal Party and Country and Democratic League coalition government of (Sir) Ross McLarty. After losing again in 1950, Wise became administrator of the Northern Territory, and in July the next year Hawke was elected parliamentary leader with Tonkin as his deputy. Reinvigorated, the ALP went on to win the 1953 election narrowly.

As deputy leader and then deputy premier, Tonkin was invited to nominate his own portfolio and he chose the ‘big spending department’ of works and water supply because it presented ‘the greatest opportunity … where one can achieve most’ (Tonkin 1976). He was also persuaded to take the education portfolio for the first fifteen months of the new government. The government supported a strong public sector, including State trading enterprises in banking, insurance, transport, and shipping. Although it increased its majority at the 1956 election, its legislative program was frustrated by a hostile Upper House. It encountered stiff resistance over measures such as the anti-profiteering Unfair Trading and Profit Control Act 1958, which energised the Opposition. Nevertheless, Tonkin proved to be a committed industrial development advocate for the government and, in 1958, led a trade and investment mission to the United States of America and Great Britain.

With the defeat of the Hawke government at the 1959 election, Tonkin resumed his role as deputy leader of the Opposition. The new government, led by (Sir) David Brand, immediately established a royal commission on betting that was seen to target Tonkin, an avid racegoer and strident opponent of credit betting, who offered to resign if any impropriety was found. The report of the commission made no findings against him. Labor came within one seat of overturning the coalition government in 1962, but lost ground at the 1965 poll. Hawke retired at the end of 1966 and Tonkin assumed the leadership in January the next year. Tackling the government on a range of issues, he attracted unlikely support from the mining entrepreneurs Lang Hancock and Peter Wright, who had a bitter falling out with the minister for industrial development, (Sir) Charles Court.

The issue that brought Tonkin to national prominence was State aid to non-government schools. Many in the ALP, including the Federal deputy leader Gough Whitlam, believed that as long as the party opposed State aid it would never be elected to government. Tonkin argued that in Western Australia funding to independent and particularly Catholic schools had increased choice and reduced the pressure on the government system. He contended that the ALP should retain existing grants to non-government schools and extend them throughout the Commonwealth. Tonkin was instrumental in overturning the party’s opposition to State aid at the 1966 ALP National Conference.

At the 1968 State election the ALP reduced the coalition majority but remained in opposition. In January the next year Tonkin’s wife Rosalie died of cancer, and he seriously considered retirement. With the slogan ‘It's Time for a Change,’ he nevertheless led his party to victory at the 1971 election by a single seat. On 12 June the same year he married Winifred Joan West, a divorcee and honorary secretary of the State branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society, at Wesley Church, Perth.

Holding a precarious majority and facing a hostile Upper House, the Tonkin government had continual problems passing legislation; over its term twenty-one bills were to be rejected by the Legislative Council. Within eight months his government faced a by-election after the death of the Speaker, Merv Toms, but it retained the seat with a reduced majority. Tonkin suffered a decline in popular support, and a group of younger members both in caucus and the party manoeuvred to engineer generational change in the leadership. But Tonkin was in no hurry to agree, particularly if it meant handing over to his deputy, Herb Graham, who had ambitions to become leader but was regarded by Tonkin as impetuous.

Against this background of a narrow majority and declining public support, the Tonkin government was able to achieve some notable reforms. For public sector employees, it enacted provisions for four weeks of annual leave, equal pay for equal work, and workers’ compensation. In 1971 it appointed the first parliamentary ombudsman in Australia and established a consumer protection bureau. The next year it created an independent Environmental Protection Authority and substantially increased the area of national parks and reserves. Tonkin instigated a free school textbook scheme, introduced free pensioner travel on public transport, and extended the criminal injury compensation scheme. The State's first Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation was also passed in 1972, and the Community Welfare Act 1972 provided for a new agency to take over the functions of the former departments for native welfare and child welfare. After the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972, greater access to specific purpose Commonwealth grants increased funding for primary and secondary education, public housing, transport, and urban renewal.

Aspiring to stability, predictability, and moderate reformism, Tonkin sought to emulate the style of the previous ALP governments of Collier, Wise, and Hawke. Although his support for State aid and social conservatism sometimes pitted him against the long-serving State secretary of the ALP, Joe Chamberlain, he still had a radical streak. As premier he led moratorium marches against the Vietnam War through Perth streets, and he was vocal in his opposition to racism in sport. Having lost his wife, a daughter, his father, and his father-in-law to cancer, he championed radical alternative therapies, including the Tronado machine, which utilised microwave transmissions to treat cancerous tissues, against the advice of medical authorities. Similarly, against widespread scientific opinion, he never supported fluoridation of the State’s water supply.

In 1973 a crisis engulfed the government when Graham, tired of waiting for the top job, resigned from parliament. Labor scraped home in a previously safe seat in the resulting Balcatta by-election. The close result led Court, the leader of the Opposition, to call for the Upper House to block supply to force an early election. While the State governor, Sir Douglas Kendrew, seemed prepared to support Court by dismissing Tonkin and inviting Court to form a government (Bolton 2014, 448), the plan did not proceed when the Upper House refused to countenance it.

Campaigning under the slogan ‘Trust Tonkin’ in the March 1974 election, the ALP emphasised the premier's reputation for personal integrity, stability, and trustworthy leadership. The Liberals campaigned against the policies of the Federal ALP, arguing that the State was subject to undue Commonwealth interference. The growing unpopularity of the Whitlam government in Western Australia contributed to Tonkin’s eventual defeat. The ALP primary vote declined marginally, the two-party preferred vote giving the party just under 50 per cent across the State. Labor lost four seats, sufficient for Court to form government.

Tonkin continued as Opposition leader for another two years, retiring in 1976 after deciding not to recontest his seat at the 1977 poll. He had served forty-three years, ten months and eleven days and as late as 2020 remained the longest-serving Western Australian parliamentarian. In 1977 he was appointed AC. He had started his parliamentary career criticising what he saw as the staid and ageing leadership of the parliamentary Labor party. By the end of his career he was seen by some of his colleagues to be that staid and ageing leadership. While he was increasingly out of step with his party on social issues (such as abortion and homosexual law reform) and was seen to be not as vigorous on issues such as electoral reform as he might be, he remained a revered figure in the party, the State ALP celebrating the centenary of its foundation on the occasion of his eighty-ninth birthday in 1991.

Known widely as ‘Honest John’ and ‘Supertonk,’ Tonkin was celebrated for his integrity, his dedication to hard work, and his commitment to fighting for the underdog and, in some cases, for famously lost causes. A confident speaker with a ‘dry sense of humour,’ he was ‘as much at home on the back of a truck … as he was orating to the Legislative Assembly’ (Cowdell 1995, 57). His home phone number remained publicly listed, even when he was premier. In retirement he lived contentedly at East Fremantle and then South Perth, and was renowned for his magnificent rose garden and a willingness to give gardening tips. He died on 20 October 1995 at South Perth and, having been honoured with a state funeral, was cremated; his wife, and the son and daughter from his first marriage survived him. His contribution to Western Australia was recognised by the naming of a major eastern suburbs highway for him in 1980, the John Tonkin Water Centre (1980), and a senior State college at Mandurah (2011). A reserve at East Fremantle also bears his name.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Black, David, ed. The Western Australian Parliamentary Handbook. 23rd ed. Perth: Parliament of Western Australia, 2014
  • Black, David, and Geoffrey Bolton. Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia. Vol. 2. Perth: Parliament of Western Australia, 2010
  • Bolton, Geoffrey. Paul Hasluck: A Life. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2014
  • Chamberlain, F. E. ‘Joe.’ My Life and Times. North Beach, WA: Harold Chamberlain, 1998
  • Cowdell, John. ‘Labor of Love for Former Premier.’ Australian, 25 October 1995, 57
  • Graham, Duncan. ‘A Conspicuously Decent Man: A Biography of Australia's Longest Serving Politician and Former Premier of Western Australia.’ Unpublished manuscript, 1977. State Library of Western Australia
  • Kennedy, Peter. Tales from Boom Town: Western Australian Premiers from Brand to McGowan. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2019
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, W1890, Tonkin, John Tregise (sic)
  • Oliver, Bobbie. Unity Is Strength: A History of the Australian Labor Party and the Trades and Labor Council in Western Australia, 1899–1999. Perth: API Network, 2003
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Poprzeczny, Joe. ‘Tonkin Declined Honors.’ Sunday Times (Perth), 22 October 1995, 2
  • Reid, G. S. ed. The Western Australian Elections—1974. Nedlands, WA: Politics Department, University of Western Australia, 1976
  • Tonkin, John. Interview by Phillip Pendal, 1972–73. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Tonkin, John Trezise. Interview by Duncan Graham, 1976. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • West Australian. ‘An Era Ends as Tonkin Dies.’ 21 October 1995, 7.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Cowdell, 'Tonkin, John Tresize (1902–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tonkin-john-tresize-29935/text37062, published online 2020, accessed online 2 October 2020.

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