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Makin, Norman John (1889–1982)

by David Lowe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Norman John Oswald Makin (1889-1982), politician, Methodist lay preacher and diplomat, was born on 31 March 1889 at Petersham, Sydney, elder son of John Hulme Makin, pattern-maker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Yates, both born in Lancashire, England.  After emigrating, his father had found work at the Eveleigh railway workshops.

Moving with his family to Melbourne in 1891 and then to Broken Hill (1898), Norman spent his childhood in the straitened circumstances of economic depression.  He attended Broken Hill Superior Public School, leaving at 13 to work as a draper’s 'parcel-boy', and then in a bookstore.  Largely self-educated, he later recalled discovering literary 'greats' such as John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle.  A witness to the 1908-09 miners’ strike and the militant industrial action of Thomas Mann, he joined the Shop Assistants’ Union of New South Wales.  When he later became a pattern-maker, he joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.  In 1911 he moved to South Australia—primarily to follow Ruby Florence Jennings, whom he married on 10 August 1912 at Brompton Methodist Church.  From 1912 he worked in a foundry at Kapunda and with the Gawler engineering firm, James Martin & Co., which made locomotives.

Unsuccessfully contesting the South Australian State seat of Barossa (1915) and the Federal seat of Wakefield (1917) for the Australian Labor Party, Makin was State ALP president (1918-19; 1929-30).  He had won admiration within Labor ranks for his outspoken opposition to Prime Minister W. M. Hughes’s efforts in 1916 and 1917 to introduce conscription.  In 1918 he wrote A Progressive Democracy, which outlined the policies of the South Australian Labor Party.

Elected in 1919 to the safe Federal Labor seat of Hindmarsh, Makin was ALP secretary (1928-29; 1934-41).  As Speaker of the House of Representatives (1929-31) during the short-lived Scullin government, he noted parliamentarians’ intolerance and impatience, and observed that there was 'an absence of the spirit of God in Parliament'.  He followed the precedent of the former Speaker, Charles McDonald, to shun the gown and wig.  Federal president (1936-38) of the ALP, he represented his party at the 1937 coronation of King George VI.  A member of the Standing Orders Committee (1932-46; 1956-63), and of the Advisory War Council (1940-45), he served as minister for the navy and for munitions (1941-46) and minister for aircraft production (1945-46) in the Curtin and Chifley governments.

In 1946 Makin was leader of the Australian delegation to the London meeting of the newly formed General Assembly of the United Nations; by virtue of Australia’s alphabetical advantage, he was the first president (1946) of the UN Security Council.  He resigned from parliament that year to represent Australia in Washington, DC, and became the first Australian ambassador to the United States of America when the legation was upgraded to an embassy.  His time in Washington coincided with an escalation of the Cold War.  He was a member of the Far Eastern Commission, which considered the future of postwar Japan, and he was a governor of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Described by (Sir) Laurence McIntyre as 'out of his depth in the Washington environment', Makin was not an expert in the details of foreign policy but he took advice, made shrewd observations and showed common sense.  A teetotaller and non-smoker, he eschewed the Washington cocktail circuit; some people mocked him when, to save money on flowers, the Makins installed a mechanical fountain as the centrepiece of the embassy dining table.  He was skilled at reading 'grass roots' opinion, however, and was the only member of the Australian Embassy to predict Harry Truman’s 1948 election as president.  As a lay preacher he gave sermons at Foundry Methodist Church, Washington.

Returning to Australia in 1951, Makin won the Federal seat of Sturt in 1954, defeating (Sir) Keith Wilson.  After a redistribution in 1955, he was the member for Bonython until his retirement in 1963.  In 1980 he was appointed AO, and the Methodist Church gave him a certificate in recognition of his seventy-five years of lay ministry.  He had written Federal Labour Leaders (1961) and an unpublished manual for the Speakers of the House.

Short and slim, Makin was dignified, courteous and considerate.  He was hard-working and sincere, consistently representing the causes of the working classes, particularly their fight against poverty; and he spoke of the need to protect them from the ravages of commercialism and finance.  Widowed in 1979, he died on 20 July 1982 at Glenelg and was cremated.  Later that year his two sons published The Memoirs of Norman John Oswald Makin.  In 1984 a new Federal electorate in South Australia was named after him.  His portrait by John Rowell is held by Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, Diplomatic Witness, 1980
  • J. Beaumont et al, Ministers, Mandarins and Diplomats, 2003
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 20 August 1920, p 3743
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 17 August 1982, p 1
  • Canberra Times, 23 July 1982, p 12
  • S. Walker, interview with N. Makin (ts, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • Makin papers, MS 7325 (National Library of Australia)

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Lowe, 'Makin, Norman John (1889–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 30 July 2021.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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