Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Bernard Sweeney (1911–1981)

by J. W. Shaw

This article was published:

John Bernard Sweeney (1911-1981), industrial advocate and judge, was born on 14 February 1911 in Wellington, New Zealand, younger child of Tasmanian-born Edward Ross Sweeney, contractor, and his New Zealand-born wife Rose, née Stewart.  The family moved to Sydney, where Jack was educated at Fort Street Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (LL.B, 1932).  Articled to Christian Jollie Smith, he was admitted as a solicitor on 4 May 1933.  He was associated with Jollie Smith’s firm intermittently until 1940.

Almost certainly a member of the Communist Party of Australia, Sweeney acted for the Communist Party interest in the case brought to the High Court of Australia in 1934 by Egon Kisch.  In 1942 Sweeney was a member of the central executive of the State Hughes-Evans Labor Party, in substance a united front between communist and militant members of the Australian Labor Party.  In 1949 he (unsuccessfully) challenged Lance Sharkey’s conviction on a charge of sedition in the High Court.  Subsequently Sweeney let his radical associations lapse, formed wider circles of support within the labour movement, appeared for unions of all political complexions, and ultimately joined the ALP.  He was active in the movement to intervene in the Victorian branch of the party to eliminate the monopoly of power held by the 'hard left'.  State secretary of the Melbourne-based Australian Council for Civil Liberties in 1939-40, he was one of the founders of a New South Wales-based council in 1963.

On 26 July 1946 Sweeney had been admitted to the Bar in New South Wales.  Described as the doyen of industrial advocates, he exhibited a quiet and methodical style that tended to disguise a willingness to use tough tactics in what he saw as the interest of the working class.  In 1962 he was appointed QC.

A deputy-president of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission from June 1973, in November Sweeney was appointed to the Australian Industrial Court, where he made a significant contribution to industrial jurisprudence, articulating a view that rank-and-file involvement in trade-union decision making was vital, but that decisive leadership was also to be respected.  He served as an additional judge for the Supreme courts of the Australian Capital Territory (1974-81) and the Northern Territory (1976-79).  In 1974 he investigated co-ordinated industrial organisations for the Commonwealth government and in 1974-76 was the royal commissioner inquiring into alleged payments to maritime unions.  He joined the new Federal Court of Australia, which subsumed the Australian Industrial Court, in February 1977.  In 1981 he was appointed AO.

On 26 July 1934 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, Sweeney had married Eva Mary Findlay, a bookseller; they divorced in 1937.  He married Amy Helena Mary Thomson, a New Zealand-born secretary, on 21 December 1939 at the district registrar’s office, Woollahra.  They divorced in March 1972.  On 30 March at the district registrar’s office, St Leonards, he married Kathleen Helen Cunningham, a book-keeper.  He owned racehorses and enjoyed music, art and the theatre.  Survived by his wife and the three sons of his second marriage, he died of myocardial infarction on 7 May 1981 in Perth and was cremated.  Neville Wran, his friend and former junior, organised a secular gathering at the University of Sydney law school to pay tribute to him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal, vol 47, no 7, 1973, p 412
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 55, no 8, 1981, p 607
  • J. W. Shaw, 'John (Jack) Bernard Sweeney: Trade Union Lawyer', Labour History, no 91, November 2006, p 169
  • A6119, item 170 reference copy (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. W. Shaw, 'Sweeney, John Bernard (1911–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 February, 1911
Wellington, New Zealand


7 May, 1981 (aged 70)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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