20/03/2007 - 22:00

Much criticised, not forgotten

20/03/2007 - 22:00


Save articles for future reference.

It’s common for those living in parliamentary democracies to forget most of their accomplished figures.

Much criticised, not forgotten

It’s common for those living in parliamentary democracies to forget most of their accomplished figures.

Most Western Australians would find it difficult to name just three pre-eminent home-grown state MPs from before the 1950s, after inaugural premier John Forrest.

Of those who could perhaps be remembered, Bertie Johnston (1880-1942) would probably not be among them, which is a pity.

Fortunate then, that his family – the Wordsworths – commissioned a comprehensive biography, researched and written over more than a decade by Perth historian, John Rice (Senator Bertie Johnston, Hesparian Press, Perth, 2007).

Mr Rice’s last foray into WA’s past was a history of Wyalkatchem, a town Mr Johnston played a significant role in, and where I spent most of my childhood and all my teenage years.

Mr Johnston was a WA Country (now National) Party senator from 1929 until his death in 1942, when he drowned at Black Rock on Port Phillip Bay, which is about 20 kilometres south-east of Melbourne’s CBD.

Between 1911 and 1928, he was firstly a Labor MLA (1911-1916), then an Independent (1916-17), followed by time as a Country Party MLA, before opting for Canberra in 1928; all the time representing Williams-Narrogin.

His lifetime of 62 years, therefore, splits evenly outside and inside politics, with 17 of his 31 political years in state parliament and the remaining 14 in Canberra.

Geraldton-born Bertie was son of Harry Frederick Johnston who, before becoming surveyor-general – a post John Forrest once held – in 1896, the peak of the gold rushes, had surveyed the Kimberley and later mapped the Goldfields and much of WA’s agricultural Great Southern.

“Harry Johnston worked as a contract surveyor around Geraldton until 1882 when he joined a government expedition led by John Forrest to map the Gascoyne River system,” Mr Rice writes.

“Harry laid out the town of Carnarvon in 1883…Harry also laid out the town of Derby in 1885.”

Since Mr Johnston joined his father’s department in 1895 and worked as government land agent in Katanning, Wagin and Narrogin between 1904 and 1909, he was intricately involved in the settlement of these recently opened Great Southern wheat growing districts.

And during his time there, he was also electoral registrar and clerk of courts.

Mr Johnston spent the two years between leaving government employment and entering parliament in 1911 in the Goldfields and was also secretary of the Esperance Land and Railway League, emerging soon after as an ongoing investor in rural, and later city, hotels.

Although agitating against Perth’s powerful political and commercial interests for the Goldfields to gain access to the sea via Esperance, this didn’t eventuate until much later.

However, the ever electorally popular Mr Johnston had laid the basis of a political career in other ways, since he was a “foundation member of the Narrogin Branch of the Australian Labour Federation (ALF) when it was formed on 24 February 1904”.

His previous involvement in the Narrogin area and support from the ALF meant he entered parliament with John ‘Happy Jack’ Scaddan’s government in 1911.

In parliament, Mr Johnston was to spark the toppling of that government’s scandal involving Wyndham’s meat works, during which mystery financial adventurer, SV Nevanas, firstly gained the construction contract without tenders and was then compensated when the government got cold feet and cancelled the deal.

Mr Johnston reacted by resigning from the Labor Party and parliament and recontesting his seat, later being elected as an independent

Labor’s Westralian Worker, reported: “It is well known in Harvest Terrace that Bertie Johnston will go to any trouble to oblige a constituent.

“This is partly the explanation for his powerful hold on Williams-Narrogin.”

Earlier that newspaper wrote: “No member has held a seat more assiduously.”

By 1940, he and family members had interests in 19 hotels, including Wyalkatchem’s, the Captain Stirling and the Inglewood – in Cape-Dutch style – most of which he’d built.

It’s worth stressing that, until the late 1950s, country hotels, as well as offering a drinking venue for workers also had a saloon bar, a beer garden for more salubrious occasions, and a dining room that easily doubled as the town restaurant.

The pubs also offered short and longer term residential quarters at a time housing was often in short supply.

A country hotel was, therefore, a major venue in any country or outback town.

Mr Rice says an appreciation of Mr Johnston’s intense pro-WA loyalty is crucial to understanding his 14 years in Canberra.

“Johnston saw himself as a champion of WA, especially its primary producers,” Mr Rice says.

WA in the depressed 1930s only had a tiny industrial or manufacturing base, a factor that prompted Mr Johnston to vehemently oppose high tariffs, which he rightly saw as working against WA’s economic interests.

It should be noted that Victorian MHR James Scullin, as Labor PM during 1929-32, drastically boosted tariffs to WA’s immediate and long-term detriment.

Mr Johnston railed against this over and over, since it made the depressed state of primary production in WA even less competitive internationally.

He also doggedly opposed Canberra’s moves to subsidise Queensland’s sugar industry – something that put him offside with his banana bender Country Party senate colleagues.

Mr Rice points out that one reason for this stance was the fact that WA’s, and Australia’s for that matter, housewives of pre-war years were big users of sugar for domestic canning and fruit preserving.

Both practices ensured households had cheap and diversified diets of fruit and jams all year round.

Mr Johnston’s stance on tariffs and sugar subsidising wasn’t only recognised, and widely so, but was also appreciated in an era when real incomes were low and not rising. These were the days when every penny counted for struggling families.

The flip side of those stances was that he backed, with several other prominent politicians, the adoption and retention of the gold bounty.

WA’s most notable and controversial gold industry investor, Claude de Bernales, builder of London Court in Perth’s CBD and palatial Cottesloe Civic Centre, was another.

Mr Rice writes: “Johnston believed that a gold bounty would stimulate prospecting and would also bring about an economic revival”, and he saw it as being of importance in underpinning Australia’s currency.

Here it’s worth noting the little-appreciated fact that WA emerged from the Great Depression of the Scullin years well ahead of all other states.

And it is now agreed by economic historians that this came about because of WA’s then vibrant and export-oriented gold sector. Mr Johnston’s role here is therefore not without tangible achievements statewide.

His great senatorial ally for much of the time was Sir Hal Colebatch, briefly a WA premier, and also an ardent and exceptionally insightful federalist, something Howard-following and centralising Liberal ministers like Julie Bishop and Chris Ellison could and should note.

Mr Rice writes: “Sir Hal Colebatch also supported the [gold bounty] bill, although he was somewhat uneasy over its violation of economic reason.

“However, he thought that ‘partial justice’ could only be done to the gold mining industry by the payment of a gold bounty, because high tariffs and bounties in other industries had raised the cost of production in the primary industries.”

Ever watchful of eastern political encroachment that may have economically disadvantaged WA, Mr Johnston regularly teamed-up with Sir Hal, whose ongoing critique of Sydney and Melbourne-inspired centralism meant WA had a formidable but now unfortunately forgotten and dynamic team in Canberra.

Although the wartime uniform taxation move dramatically boosted Canberra’s powers, we can safely say that without the Johnston-Colebatch team this would have come a decade earlier.

Mr Johnston’s intense loyalty to WA and its citizenry went far beyond trade and financial concerns. For instance, Mr Rice points out that he keenly backed the Port Augusta to Red Hill Railway Bill in December 1930, “which authorised the construction of a railway to shorten the distance from Sydney to Fremantle by 71 miles and also to avoid two brakes of gauge between Melbourne and Fremantle.

“Johnston finished the speech with a call for the government to convert the railway from Kalgoorlie to Fremantle to standard gauge.”

That was more than 30 years before trans-national rail standardisation was realised.

Mr Rice says the ever-controversial Mr Johnston’s epitaph comprised 38 words he uttered of himself: “I have had more criticism than most people, I have injured no-one but I have helped many people and I have done a little good in the world, but I have not had much credit for it.”



Subscription Options