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John Gunn (1884–1959)

by Neal Blewett

This article was published:

John Gunn (1884-1959), premier, was born on 16 December 1884, at Rheola, near Bendigo, Victoria, second of nine children of William Gunn, a Scottish miner, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Ann, née Wayman. When his father died he began work as a butcher's boy before moving to Melbourne in 1901 to take jobs as a tea-packer and trolley-driver. He then worked briefly in Western Australian timber-mills. He was devoted to self-education, particularly in public speaking and economics, and was influenced and encouraged by Tom Mann. On 8 September 1908 Gunn married Labor co-worker Haidee Smith at Collingwood, Melbourne. John's sister Ethel married Frank Hyett in 1910.

The Gunns moved to Adelaide where he worked as a horse-lorry driver and became president of the State branch of the Federated Carters and Drivers' Union in 1909. Next year, as union secretary, he led the drivers' strike which won reduced working hours. Gunn was president of the United Trades and Labor Council in 1911 and in 1914-16 was on the Adelaide City Council. In 1916 he became federal president of his union.

A pale, thin, serious young man, he had entered the House of Assembly as one of the United Labor Party representatives for Adelaide in March 1915 when the Vaughan Labor government took office. Soon he was embroiled in the bitter conscription debate that wracked and wrecked the party for a time. Reflecting the view of the extra-parliamentary wing, Gunn was fervently anti-conscriptionist, but caucus was not. He resigned to contest unsuccessfully the Federal seat of Boothby as an anti-conscriptionist in the election of 1917. However, he regained an Adelaide seat in the 1918 State election.

The State parliamentary party had lost its entire leadership following the split and the untried Gunn was elected leader in the new parliament. With tact and perseverance he rebuilt the shattered party by restoring its majority in metropolitan Adelaide by 1921 and, for the next three years, by wooing country voters. He presented the Labor and Country parties, the producers, as sharing a community interest against exploitative middlemen—the Liberals. In 1924 Gunn received a sympathetic coverage in the rural press, while Liberal and Country party antagonisms, which he had exacerbated, led to split non-Labor votes in many rural seats. As a result, Labor won seven country seats, giving it an Assembly majority of eight. He became premier and treasurer on 16 April, at 39. He was also minister for irrigation and repatriation, although he relinquished these portfolios next year on taking over as minister for railways.

Gunn accepted phlegmatically the predictable defeat of his government's constitutional proposals—a redrawing of Assembly electorate boundaries, a proportional representation electoral system, and adult franchise for the Upper House—by the conservative-dominated Legislative Council. But he was piqued by its rejection of a measure to establish a State government insurance commission, and sought to outflank his opponents by administrative fiat. And he succeeded with another allegedly 'Socialist proposal'—establishing a state bank, mainly to provide rural credit, with whose help he built his own Hawthorn home. He was closely involved in the imaginative but controversial project to provide 1000 homes a year for needy families: one of the first fully planned suburbs in an Australian city, Colonel Light Gardens. Expenditure on education was increased markedly, particularly on teachers' salary rises, expanded medical support for schools, more scholarships and the establishment of new junior technical schools. He also reformed public service working conditions.

Gunn embarked on an ambitious road programme, completed the dilatory negotiations with the Commonwealth on the northern railway, and carried out massive afforestation. His government inquired into rural settlement and the pastoral industry and expanded access to bore water; it strengthened the agricultural departments' scientific resources and set up the model Urrbrae Agricultural High School. Although Gunn delegated responsibility in a cabinet which remained harmonious, he developed the main lines of government policy and actively defended his ministers when they were entangled in controversy. He won his colleagues' affection, his opponents' respect, the grudging commendation of the press, and a public popularity rarely achieved before or since by a Labor leader in South Australia.

It came then as a shock when, on 9 August 1926, he announced his impending resignation to join the Commonwealth Development and Migration Commission. At 41 he was apparently at the height of his political power and influence. The decision was puzzling and, for Gunn, fateful. It was alleged that the Nationalist prime minister (Viscount) S. M. Bruce, had engineered the appointment to lure a skilled opponent from the South Australian political scene. The £2500 offered was double Gunn's salary as premier; his wife urged acceptance. Political reasons doubtless added their weight. Gunn's authority within the Labor movement had recently been undermined because of his lack of sympathy for 44-hour week proposals and his attitude to the Bruce-Page attempt by referendum to establish effective Commonwealth control over industrial legislation. Gunn followed the Federal Labor Party's support for the referendum, whereas the local party was moving towards opposition. Whatever the mixture of motives, Gunn resigned on 28 August and left for Melbourne.

The Development and Migration Commission failed to realize its potential and was terminated by the Scullin government in June 1930. Gunn was transferred to the Prime Minister's Department as director of development at £1800 a year but the Lyons government put his job under scrutiny. Much of his time in it was spent on the royal commission on mineral oils and petrol and other products, which reported in 1935. In May that year the government decided not to renew his contract. Gunn's life disintegrated. He was separated from his wife, two sons and two daughters, who had remained in Adelaide; he had a nervous breakdown and there is a hint of financial trouble. His pathetic letter to the prime minister requesting re-employment was ignored. At 50 his career had ended. He disappeared from public sight and died in poverty in hospital at Waterfall, New South Wales, on 27 June 1959; he was cremated. His death was so obscure that no obituary was published in the South Australian press until a fortnight later.

Gunn was short and slightly built but was 'well set-up and as straight-backed as a military man who wore corsets'. He was a lucid and forceful speaker although he lacked eloquence and colourful phrasing. He developed rapidly from a rather embittered young radical to a political moderate who as premier impressed all by his courtesy and patience. His political rise was as fortunate as it was meteoric. The one election in modern South Australian history in which the non-Labor forces were seriously split gave him the premiership in 1924. A booming economy helped it to be productive but his talents, courage, and vision in government enabled him to capitalize on his good fortune. Political leadership would have been more demanding for Gunn after 1926 with the erosion of his own authority and the comparative unity of the non-Labor forces. Whether flaws in character would have ruined him, or his enemies destroyed him had he remained in active political life, is unknowable. In 1917-18 he had taken the flood which led on to fortune; in 1926, after taking the less obviously hazardous choice, the remaining voyage of his life was 'bound in shallows and in miseries'.

Select Bibliography

  • Labor's Thirty Years' Record in South Australia: A Short History of the Labor Movement in South Australia, Including Biographical Sketches of Leading Members, 1893-1923 (Adel, 1923)
  • T. Sadler, Some Annals of Adelaide (Adel, 1933)
  • S. McHugh, My Life and Work (priv print, Adel, 1950)
  • A. Wildavsky and D. Carboch, Studies in Australian Politics (Melb, 1958)
  • Labour History, 1969, no 17, 1976, no 31
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 15, 16 Apr 1924, 11 Aug 1926, 20 Oct 1928
  • D. Hopgood, A Psephological Examination of the South Australian Labor Party from World War One to the Depression (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 1974)
  • Gunn papers, CP314/3 item 14 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Neal Blewett, 'Gunn, John (1884–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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