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John William Knight (1943–1981)

by John Farquharson

This article was published:

John William Knight (1943-1981), politician and diplomat, was born on 20 November 1943 at Armidale, New South Wales, son of Jack Albert Knight, grocer, and his wife Myrene Ruth, née Porter, both New South Wales born. Educated at Armidale Demonstration and High schools, John was captain of both. He proceeded on a teacher’s scholarship to the University of New England (BA Hons, 1965), where he majored in modern history and shared the Shell prize for arts. On 9 May 1964 at All Saints Church of England, Kempsey, he married his childhood sweetheart, Jennifer Major, a schoolteacher; they were to separate in 1968 and to be divorced in October 1971. In 1965 he was one of fifteen selected from more than four hundred applicants to join the Department of External Affairs. After training he spent two years in New Delhi as third secretary at the Australian High Commission.

In 1968 Knight won a Fulbright scholarship to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii (MA, 1969), where he studied modern Asian history. Returning to External Affairs in 1969, he was posted to Suva. There on 8 November 1971 he married with Anglican rites Karla Havholm, an American-born hairdresser. Back in Australia in 1973, he was appointed senior private secretary to the leader of the Opposition (Sir) Billy Snedden, who stirred his interest in politics. After six months as a visiting fellow in the department of international relations at the Australian National University, he rejoined the Department of Foreign Affairs in May 1975 and in August was posted as counsellor to the Australian Embassy in Saudi Arabia. He returned to Canberra in November and next month stood for the Senate, becoming the first Liberal senator for the Australian Capital Territory.

Re-elected in 1977 and again in 1980, Knight was appointed the Senate’s government deputy-whip in 1978 and government whip in 1980. He was chairman (from 1976) of the joint parliamentary committee on the Australian Capital Territory, and a member of the Senate standing committees on foreign affairs and defence (from 1976), library (from 1978) and standing orders (from 1980), and the Senate select committee on parliamentary appropriations and staffing (from 1980). He also served on government committees on health and welfare, foreign affairs and defence, the arts and government tactics.

Knight was heavily involved in the International Year of Disabled Persons and had just finished the manuscript for a book on the role of a back-bencher in foreign policy when he suffered a heart attack on 28 February 1981 after water-skiing on Lake Jindabyne, New South Wales. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 4 March in Canberra and was cremated. Politicians from both sides mourned the death of the `small-l’ Liberal, who was respected for his sincerity, dedication, sense of fair play, love of home and family, and his devotion to his adopted city. His Liberal colleague John Haslem recalled him as an `interesting and thoughtful person’ with `a fresh, confident, energetic air’, who `mixed easily’ and was `thoroughly good company’. Knight was posthumously named Canberran of the Year in 1981.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 4 Mar 1981, p 303
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 4 Mar 1981, p 403
  • Canberra Times, 15 Nov 1975, p 6, 7 Dec 1977, p 21, 1 Mar 1981, p 1, 5 Mar 1981, pp 1, 2, 14, 7 Mar 1981, pp 1, 13, 27 Nov 1982, p 12
  • Australian, 5 Mar 1981, p 11
  • private information.

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Knight, John William (1943–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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