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Robert James Heffron (1890–1978)

by Robert Carr

This article was published:

Robert James Heffron (1890-1978), premier, was born on 10 September 1890 at Thames, New Zealand, and registered as James, fifth of eight children of Irish-born parents Michael Heffron, blacksmith, and his wife Ellen, née Heath. Leaving school at 15, James worked by day at a gold-treating plant and studied metallurgy by night at the local school of mines. By the age of 19 he had saved enough money to follow an elder brother to California, United States of America, where he was variously employed as a builder's labourer, carpenter and mule driver. Having failed to find a fortune on the Yukon, Alaska, he returned to New Zealand in 1912. Heffron joined the New Zealand Socialist Party and in the following year was prominent in the eight-month miners' strike at Waihi. He was appointed an organizer for the Auckland General Labourers' Union and studied law part time at Auckland University College. Giving his occupation as shearer, on 29 December 1917 at the registrar's office, Raetihi, he married Jessie Bjornstad (d.1978), daughter of a Norwegian engineer. To evade military service, he left with his wife for Melbourne.

There, in 1919, Heffron was appointed organizer for the Federated Clothing Trades of the Commonwealth of Australia and joined the Marxist-oriented Victorian Socialist Party. About this time he added Robert to his name. He moved to Sydney in 1921 as secretary of the New South Wales branch of the militant Federated Marine Stewards' and Pantrymen's Association of Australasia, a post he was to hold for ten years. In 1925, at the instigation of Sir George Fuller's Nationalist government, he was charged with conspiracy in connexion with the Port Lyttelton (New Zealand) seamen's strike, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. In these years he abandoned the Catholic faith in which he was raised, became a leading member of the Rationalist Association of New South Wales and later described himself as a 'proselytising rationalist'.

Supporting the official Australian Labor Party headed by Premier John Thomas Lang, in October 1927 Heffron unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Botany against Thomas Mutch, minister for education, who led a breakaway group in protest against Lang's dictatorial methods in cabinet and caucus. Heffron won Botany in the Lang landslide of 25 October 1930 and retained the seat until 1950 when he was elected for Maroubra. After Labor's defeats in the 1932 and 1935 State elections, Heffron became the key member of a small group in caucus, and of a large and growing group associated with the Labor Council of New South Wales and its secretary Robert King, both of which determined that 'Lang must go'. Heffron's anti-Lang strategy was based on his personal stronghold in his Botany-Maroubra branches and on left-wing trade union rebellion against Lang's autocracy. In turn, Lang based his counter-strategy on his control of the party machine through a small inner group, his domination of a cowed caucus, his majority holding of the newspaper, Labor Daily, and the passionate loyalty of most metropolitan branches. Lang's bases of power were seriously eroded by 1938.

As a former member of the Victorian Socialist Party, Heffron was an obvious target of Lang's anti-communist campaign. In a show of left-wing union strength against Lang, King organized a conference of dissident unions on 1 August 1936, attended by Heffron and three other caucus members. In response, Lang summoned a special State A.L.P. conference on 22 August which anathematized and expelled Heffron, King and fourteen trade-union leaders who had attended the industrial conference. They formed the nucleus of the breakaway Industrial Labor Party, commonly called the Heffron Labor Party.

Following the re-election of the Stevens-Bruxner United Australia Party-Country Party coalition in March 1938, the I.L.P. organized a 'unity' conference for 25 June which called upon the A.L.P. federal executive to recognize it as the official Labor Party. When Heffron's party won two by-elections (Hurstville and Waverley) in March and April 1939, the federal executive (under pressure from the Federal parliamentary leader John Curtin) sponsored a unity conference at the Majestic Theatre, Newtown, on 26 August. Lang lost the crucial vote (166-205) which restored to caucus the right to elect the parliamentary leader. On 5 September, two days after Britain and Australia declared war against Germany, Heffron, (Sir) William McKell and Lang contested the leadership; McKell won in the second ballot.

McKell's chief strategist R. R. Downing later claimed that Heffron refused to contest the deputy-leadership, partly at the urging of his wife who said: 'Bob, if you can't be Number One, why settle for Number Two?' J. M. Baddeley retained the deputy-leadership until 1949. McKell led Labor to victory on 10 May 1941. Heffron ranked third in the ministry and was appointed minister for national emergency services, an increasingly important portfolio with Japan's entry into the war in December 1941. He played a key role in marshalling the State's manpower and material resources in support of the national war effort. From June 1944 he was minister for education.

In February 1946 McKell told an increasingly fractious caucus that he intended to resign before the 1947 election. To help Heffron secure the succession, McKell remained a member of caucus—after Prime Minister Chifley had announced his appointment as governor-general—expressly in order to vote for Heffron. On 5 February 1947, however, Heffron lost by two votes to James McGirr who led Labor to its third successive win on 3 May, with a reduced but comfortable majority. The next three years were marked by widespread industrial turbulence, a damaging coal-strike in 1949, the rising power within the Labor Party of the industrial groups (originally formed to combat communism in the trade unions), and tensions between the State executive and the parliamentary party.

At the elections on 17 June 1950 McGirr's temporizing leadership produced a Legislative Assembly evenly divided between the Labor and Liberal-Country parties (46 members each), and the government relied on the support of two Independent Labor members. On 2 April 1952 McGirr's deputy John Joseph Cahill was elected leader, with Heffron achieving, at the age of 62, the deputy-leadership which he had refused to contest in 1939. Their seven-year partnership gave the Labor government a renewed period of ascendancy in New South Wales, securing its re-election in 1953, 1956 and 1959. The memory of Heffron's former left-wing associations contributed to the ability of the parliamentary Labor Party to remain publicly united in the face of the turmoil which split the Labor movement in 1955. In New South Wales the split was relatively limited.

As deputy-premier, Heffron remained minister for education; the fact that he was no longer a Catholic was deemed a desirable, if not an essential, qualification for that portfolio. He had set out a comprehensive plan in a book entitled Tomorrow is Theirs: The Present and Future of Education in New South Wales (1946). In the crucial postwar years he promoted scientific and technical training, and presided over an era of educational expansion and experiment, in close collaboration for much of the period with his forceful director-general (Sir) Harold Wyndham. Primary school enrolments increased from 330,000 to 570,000, secondary school enrolments from 119,000 to 210,000, and technical college enrolments from 42,000 to 108,000. Heffron carried legislation to establish the New South Wales University of Technology, the University of New England and university colleges at Newcastle and Wollongong; university enrolments rose from 5000 to 22,000. He was also secretary for mines from February to September 1953.

On 28 October 1959, six days after Cahill's sudden death, Heffron was elected leader unopposed. The radical of the 1920s and the rebel of the 1930s had become a grandfatherly figure, even a figurehead, presiding sedately over an ageing cabinet and an often turbulent caucus. The octogenarian Lang, through his weekly newspaper, Century, revenged himself by lampooning Heffron as 'Mr Magoo', after the short-sighted, accident-prone, American cartoon character. A contemporary journalist noted in the Bulletin that 'in the House he tends to ramble on . . . although occasionally the old radical has shown his teeth, flashed into anger, and for a few minutes reminded us that this was the great mob-orator who led many bitter strikes'. From being a firebrand in his youth, Heffron had become a 'Homburg-hatted, benign, slow and plummy spoken gentleman'.

In January 1960 he persuaded Downing, his attorney-general, to appoint H. V. Evatt chief justice of New South Wales. Heffron's pedestrian campaign led to the loss of a referendum (29 April 1961) to implement a resolution by the 1958 State Labor conference to abolish the Legislative Council; the vote was 882,512 to 1,089,193. Nevertheless, he was able to exploit the electoral misfortunes of the Menzies Federal government flowing from a credit squeeze which produced 3 per cent unemployment, unacceptable to a community conditioned since the war to full employment. Despite a revived Opposition under (Sir) Robert Askin, Labor increased its majority at the State elections on 3 March 1962.

During the 1962 campaign Heffron had undertaken to hold a royal commission into off-course betting. A bitter dispute arose between Downing, who favoured the concept of totalizator-agency betting, and the chief secretary Christopher Augustus Kelly, who wanted to legalize existing starting-price operators. Downing procured a State-executive demand on Heffron to introduce legislation to set up the Totalisator Agency Board. Outside intervention produced an even greater and far-reaching humiliation in 1963. On 30 September the federal executive declared two measures in the New South Wales budget that provided state aid for non-government schools—funding for science laboratories and a means-tested allowance of £21 a year to the parents of children enrolled from third year at Catholic and other independent secondary schools—to be contrary to Labor policy and instructed the State government to withdraw the proposals. At a time when Menzies had made the Labor Party's alleged control by outside 'faceless men' a dominant political issue, Heffron's failure to resist the federal diktat contributed to increasing discontent with his leadership. He resigned in J. B. Renshaw's favour on 28 April 1964, insisting that 'nobody is throwing me out'. Heffron retained his seat of Maroubra in the 1965 elections, which ended Labor's twenty-four-year rule, and retired in January 1968.

Heffron was granted honorary doctorates of letters by the universities of Sydney (1952) and New England (1956), and of science by the New South Wales University of Technology (1955). He listed golf as his only recreation. In 1947 he had been elected an honorary member of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Survived by his two daughters, he died on 27 July 1978 at Kirribilli and was cremated. At his funeral service in St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, James Carroll, the Catholic auxiliary archbishop, paid tribute to Heffron's contribution to the New South Wales education system and to his indirect contribution to the eventual settlement of the historically divisive issue of state aid to Catholic schools.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Freudenberg, Cause for Power (Syd, 1991)
  • D. Clune, The Legislative Assembly of New South Wales (Syd, 1993)
  • D. Clune, Parliamentary and Extra-Parliamentary Labor (Syd, 1995)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New Zealand), H-19K, 1917
  • A.L.P. Journal, Feb 1962
  • Labour History, no 62, May 1992
  • Nation (Sydney), 6 May 1961
  • Bulletin, 3 Mar 1962, 15 Feb, 9 May 1964
  • Bert Roth collection (National Library of New Zealand).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Carr, 'Heffron, Robert James (1890–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Heffron, 1960

Robert Heffron, 1960

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L33971

Life Summary [details]


10 September, 1890
Thames, New Zealand


27 July, 1978 (aged 87)
Kirribilli, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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