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Henry Basil Turner (1905–1988)

by Graeme Starr

This article was published:

Henry Basil Turner (1905-1988), barrister and politician, was born on 8 July 1905 at Woolwich, Sydney, eldest of three children of Sydney-born parents Basil William Turner, metallurgist, and his wife Mabel Lilly, née Breillat. Educated at Malvern School, Hunters Hill, Harry graduated from the University of Sydney (BA, 1927). In England he studied law at Queen’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1930; MA, 1935). He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London, in 1930, and on 7 May 1931 he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. On 4 July that year at St Luke’s Church of England, Mosman, Sydney, he married Mildred Mary Raymond, an artist.

Active in the United Australia Party, at a by-election on 7 August 1937 Turner was elected to represent Gordon in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. In his maiden speech he lectured members on the need for parliamentary reform, notwithstanding that his own party was in government. Concerned about the growing power of cabinet, he suggested the establishment of a system of standing committees.

Having enlisted in the Militia in 1938, Turner was appointed as a lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, on 6 May 1940 and posted to the 2/3rd Battalion. The unit fought in Greece and Syria in 1941. Turner served on the staff of the 16th Brigade in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Papua in 1942, then with the 2/1st Battalion in Australia. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 12 January 1944. Throughout his war service he had continued as the member for Gordon.

With the death of W. M. Hughes in 1952, Turner won preselection for the Liberal Party of Australia, from a field of thirty-three candidates, for the House of Representatives seat of Bradfield; he won at the by-election on 20 December. In 1954 and 1955 he was re-elected unopposed and was subsequently returned with large majorities. Still advocating an effective committee system, Turner was chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1964-66 and 1971-72. In Australian Outlook (volume 20, April 1966) he nevertheless concluded that ministerial responsibility for policy made the joint committee merely a ‘useful study group’, and that foreign policy was the ‘close preserve of Ministers and officials while Parliament beats the air in benighted ignorance’.

Much had been expected from Turner as an able and experienced member under Menzies and his successors, but he failed to advance to a front bench role. The explanation lies in his voting record against his own government; he was well known as a ‘back bench rebel’, who took defiant stands within the party room. As he himself said, ‘It’s because I am so bloody independent’. In the 1960s he sought three new parliamentary committees—on tariffs (to which he was opposed), Aborigines and social questions (hanging, abortion and homosexuality)—and wished to see them publicly debated.

In March 1974 Turner’s disappointment with parliament was poignantly demonstrated. Offended by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s inference that he had failed to attend a parliamentary luncheon for President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania because of ‘racial prejudice’, Turner sought to explain, and demanded redress. When the Speaker, James Cope, repeatedly told him to resume his seat and threatened to name him, Turner left the House with the parting comment: ‘I am leaving this thing that you call a Parliament’. He did not contest the 1974 election, and retired to Killara, Sydney.

While advocating the theory of representation that acknowledged the importance of party loyalty, Turner had not placed it ahead of personal conscience or constituency. In 1963 a journalist described him as a quiet, patrician, scholarly and urbane motorbike rider, ‘addicted to poetry’. Survived by his wife and their son and three daughters, he died on 19 September 1988 at Wahroonga and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, NSW), 16 Nov 1937, p 1672
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 20 Mar 1974, p 630
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1963, p 13, 21 Sept 1988, p 11
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 June 1967, p 22
  • B883, item NX12461 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Graeme Starr, 'Turner, Henry Basil (1905–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 4 March 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

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