Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Andrew Tonkin (1900–1952)

by Lloyd Brodrick

This article was published:

John Andrew Tonkin (1900-1952), public servant, was born on 3 February 1900 at Maryborough, Victoria, fourth child of Richard Edwards Tonkin, blacksmith, and his wife Nora, née O'Brien, both Victorian born. Educated at the local Brigidine convent school, John began work as a clerk in the Commonwealth Auditor-General's Office, Melbourne, in 1916. At St Francis's Catholic Church, Lonsdale Street, on 26 November 1921 he married Janet Glenleith Nesbitt, a saleswoman. He studied accountancy part time before enrolling at the University of Melbourne (B.Com., 1931).

In 1930 Tonkin transferred to the Department of Markets (Department of Commerce from 1932, Department of Commerce and Agriculture from 1942), beginning an involvement with trade policy that was to last for the rest of his career. He developed a specialized interest in extending Australia's economic links with Asia, and became officer-in-charge of the department's Eastern trade section. In 1933 he went on a promotional tour through the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya to Hong Kong, where he represented the Commonwealth government at the British Empire Fair. Posted to Japan in 1935 as assistant trade commissioner, he returned in 1938 and joined the external trade section.

World War II created huge challenges for the Department of Commerce. Its staff played an important part in ensuring that, despite chronic problems with manpower and transport, agriculture provided maximum support for the war effort. In pursuing this objective, Tonkin showed an extraordinary capacity for hard work. Based in Canberra, he held the substantive position of chief investigation officer (from 1939) in the department's trade section. He was also chairman of the Australian Tobacco Board, secretary of both the Australian Agricultural Council and the Wheat Industry Stabilization Board, and Commonwealth representative on the Australian Wine Board and the Federal Citrus Council.

Late in 1942 Tonkin was made controller of meat supplies and chairman of the Meat Industry Commission (Meat Industry Advisory Committee from March 1943). With demand exceeding supply, he was responsible for planning and co-ordinating the production and distribution of meat for the armed forces and the civilian population, as well as for American service personnel and the traditional British market. Following the introduction of meat rationing and guaranteed prices early in 1944, he concentrated on improving the movement of stock to abattoirs.

Appointed an assistant secretary of the department in 1946, Tonkin returned to work in external trade and took part in discussions with representatives of foreign countries. In October 1948 he attended the Commonwealth prime ministers' conference in London, helping to negotiate long-term, fixed-price contracts for the export of primary products to Britain. He cautiously opposed granting Japan the status of most favoured nation. Tonkin played a leading role in Australia's activities as a contracting party (from 1947) to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, led successive Australian delegations to G.A.T.T. sessions and served as vice-chairman (from April 1951) of G.A.T.T. He was also chairman of the Federal Export Advisory Committee and a member of the Commonwealth Film Board.

Tonkin was promoted first assistant secretary in 1949 and director of marketing in 1950. He acted as secretary for extended periods, and was doing so at the time of his death. A gifted administrator and planner, he enjoyed the confidence and respect of primary producers and of ministers from both sides of politics. Although mild mannered and softly spoken, he proved a tenacious and effective advocate of Australia's interests. He pioneered the organized promotion of Australian exports, appreciating the potential importance of Asia as a market. For recreation, he swam and played golf. He died of a coronary occlusion on 17 December 1952 in his home at Forrest and was buried in Canberra cemetery. His wife and their three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-45 (Canb, 1977)
  • P. Dorling (ed), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol 11 (Canb, 1994)
  • The Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce, 1957 (Canb, 1997)
  • P. Andre (ed), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49, vol 14 (Canb, 1998)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5, 8 June 1935, 23 Dec 1946, 1 Apr 1950, 8 Apr 1951, 18 Dec 1952
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 3 April 1943
  • Canberra Times, 18-20 Dec 1952.

Citation details

Lloyd Brodrick, 'Tonkin, John Andrew (1900–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 February, 1900
Maryborough, Victoria, Australia


17 December, 1952 (aged 52)
Forrest, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

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