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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lawson, John Norman (1897–1956)

by David Lee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Norman Lawson (1897-1956), by Elliott & Fry, 1935

John Norman Lawson (1897-1956), by Elliott & Fry, 1935

National Library of Australia

John Norman Lawson (1897-1956), politician, was born on 24 March 1897 in Sydney, third son of James Lawson, a native-born contractor (general carrier), and his wife Eleanor, née Day, who came from England. Educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.V.Sc., 1920), John worked as a veterinarian in New Zealand until 1926 when he took up Kidgery, a small sheep station near Nyngan, New South Wales. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 21 November 1925 he married Jessie Alicia, daughter of R. B. Orchard. In 1930 Lawson stood unsuccessfully as the Nationalist candidate for the seat of Cobar in the Legislative Assembly.

The United Australia Party endorsed him to contest the House of Representatives seat of Macquarie, held by J. B. Chifley, minister for defence in J. H. Scullin's Australian Labor Party government. Macquarie contained the towns of Penrith, Katoomba, Lithgow and Bathurst, and encompassed a diverse region of farming, grazing, coalmining and manufacturing. At the general elections in December 1931, Lawson fought a tough but fair campaign against Chifley, whom he later praised as 'one of the ablest men in the Commonwealth'. Lawson was helped by the A.L.P. vote being divided between Chifley and A. S. Luchetti, a member of the Labor splinter group led by J. T. Lang; after Luchetti was eliminated from the count, Lawson defeated Chifley by 456 votes in a poll of 41,086.

The new back-bencher expressed his opinions forcefully in parliament. Among other matters, he supported the proposal to establish a shale-oil undertaking at Newnes, north of Lithgow, and advocated measures to improve conditions on the land. At the elections in 1934 he increased his margin to 3263. He was appointed temporary chairman of committees in November. In the following year he visited England—as a member of the Commonwealth delegation, Empire Parliamentary Association—for King George V's silver jubilee. Retaining Macquarie in 1937, Lawson was appointed a parliamentary secretary in July 1938; he assisted the treasurer R. G. (Baron) Casey and (from November) the minister for industry (Sir) Robert Menzies.

Dissatisfaction in the U.A.P. with the performance of J. A. Lyons as prime minister was brought to a head in March 1939 when Menzies resigned his portfolios in protest at the prime minister's refusal to proceed with a scheme for national insurance. A fervent supporter of Menzies, Lawson relinquished his parliamentary secretaryships. Following Lyons's death in April, Menzies became prime minister. The Country Party decided against joining his government, and he took the opportunity to reward Lawson's loyalty by appointing him minister for trade and customs on 26 April.

With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the government assumed sweeping new powers under the National Security Act. Lawson's responsibilities included import licensing, price control and censorship. He also implemented minor reforms on the waterfront, and reached a gentleman's agreement with Japan whereby that country would limit its export of piece-goods to Australia and take two-thirds of its imported wool from Australia. Lawson was appointed to the Economic Cabinet in December.

The government planned to establish a motorcar industry in Australia and authorized Lawson to negotiate an agreement with Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd which gave that company a virtual monopoly. This proposal incurred strong criticism, particularly from the Country Party. The ministry was embarrassed when it was revealed that Lawson had leased a racehorse from W. J. Smith, managing director of A.C.I. Menzies reprimanded Lawson for making a 'foolish blunder', but did not ask him to resign. Lawson, however, convinced himself that the government would be jeopardized if he retained his portfolio. He drove from Sydney to Melbourne and tendered his resignation to Menzies on 23 February 1940.

At the Federal elections in September, Lawson lost his seat to Chifley. During his remaining years Lawson owned and managed Arrowfield, a stud-farm at Jerrys Plains, New South Wales. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of myocardial infarction on 14 August 1956 in Singleton District Hospital and was cremated. Friends and opponents alike respected him as a man of ability and fairness.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 30 Aug 1956, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Dec 1931, 26 Apr 1932, 15 July, 11 Nov 1938, 21, 25 Feb, 17 Mar, 15, 20, 28 June 1939, 9, 13 Jan, 15, 24 Feb 1940, 16 Aug 1956
  • Lawson papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Lee, 'Lawson, John Norman (1897–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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