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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnson, Herbert Victor (1889–1962)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Herbert Victor Johnson (1889-1962), trade unionist and politician, was born on 25 October 1889 at Northampton, Western Australia, son of Arthur Johnson, an ex-convict farmer and miner, and his wife Catherine, née Hartigan. Vic attended the local convent school, then worked as a shearer in the Murchison, Gascoyne and north-western districts of the State. When the Australian Workers' Union organized the shearers in Western Australia in 1908, he took the No.1 membership ticket and was to retain it until the end of his life. On 29 January 1913 at the Catholic Church, Geraldton, he married Ethel May Lucas. Tall and broad shouldered, he reputedly 'sheared 3761 sheep in 17½ days in 1914 - a world record at that time'.

In his early years as a unionist Johnson was prominent in opposing the use of Asian and unpaid Aboriginal shearers. He was one of the leaders in the agitation for better living-quarters which led to the Shearers' Accommodation Act (1912). In 1916 he became organizing secretary of the pastoral division of the Western Australian branch of the A.W.U. Energetic and straightforward, he won widespread respect during the difficult times of the 1920s and 1930s by upholding standards and conditions for pastoral workers. He also secured a 44-hour week for the lead miners of Northampton and Ajana. His secretaryship (1920-34) of the Geraldton branch of the Australian Labor Party brought him close to the local member J. C. Willcock, premier in 1936-45.

Having withstood several offers to contest pre-selection for parliamentary seats, Johnson was elected State secretary of the A.W.U. in 1936 and moved from Geraldton to Highgate, an inner suburb of Perth. He was a director of the Labor newspaper, Westralian Worker, and of 6KY, the party's radio station (established 1941). But he retained his links with Geraldton, which formed part of Australia's largest Federal constituency, Kalgoorlie. When the sitting member A. E. Green died in 1940, Johnson easily secured endorsement for the by-election in November and held the seat without difficulty until his retirement in 1958. In Canberra he spoke sparingly and sensibly; one of his favourite themes was the need to diversify Western Australia's narrow industrial base.

On John Curtin's death in July 1945, Johnson became the senior Western Australian Labor member and was elected by caucus to the vacant place in cabinet. In the Chifley administration of 1945-49, Johnson was appointed minister for the interior, partly in recognition of his enthusiasm for northern development. He was also assistant-minister for works and housing (1945-46). Although he proved a loyal and competent member of the team, he was responsible for few striking initiatives. His political opponents criticized him for retaining the federal general presidency (1943-47) of the A.W.U. while a member of cabinet. As chairman (1945-49) of the Australian War Memorial's board of management, he gained government approval to enlarge the premises to take account of World War II.

After Labor was defeated in 1949 and Chifley died in 1951, Johnson grew increasingly unhappy about the direction taken by the party under H. V. Evatt. Johnson remained in the A.L.P. following the 1955 split, but in 1957 was one of a handful of party veterans who publicly voiced their concerns. He deplored Evatt's 'raising of the sectarian issue' and lamented Labor's 'lack of humanity' and loss of idealism under his leadership. The State executive responded by voting to withhold Johnson's re-endorsement in future elections, knowing that he had already decided to retire. Survived by his wife, two of his three sons and three of his four daughters, he died on 10 July 1962 at Royal Perth Hospital. He was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Respected by most of his opponents and colleagues alike, Vic Johnson was a sterling example of a Labor tradition now virtually extinct.

Select Bibliography

  • Westralian Worker, 25 Oct 1940
  • West Australian, 11 July 1962
  • C. Menagh, Westralian Worker and the A.W.U. (manuscript, State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Johnson, Herbert Victor (1889–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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