BISHOP, Reginald (1913–1999)
Senator for South Australia, 1962–81 (Australian Labor Party)

Reginald (Reg) Bishop was born in Adelaide on 4 February 1913, ninth of ten surviving children of Enoch John Bishop, bootmaker, and Minnie, née Martlow. Reg was very proud of his status as a ‘west ender’, a term associated with the working-class area of central Adelaide where he grew up. He left school in 1927, having obtained what was then termed the qualifying certificate. A week later, he began clerical work as a ‘shop recorder’ at the Islington workshops of the South Australian Railways. Much later he told how this work brought him into contact with those familiar with the British Labour movement and socialism. Assisted, he said, ‘by many good men’, and wanting to extend his education, he joined the Workers’ Educational Association. On 24 October 1936 he married Adelaide Constance (Connie) Field at Our Lady of Dolours Catholic Church, Kingswood. [1]

On commencing work Reg quickly became an active member of the Australian Railways Union (ARU), and by 1934 was an ARU state councillor and delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia (UTLC). He was also the union’s delegate to the South Australian branch of the ALP. In February 1938 he became a full-time organiser for the South Australian branch of the ARU. This required him to travel on gravel and dirt roads around the rural areas of South Australia on a motorbike, including to the small towns situated along the narrow gauge railway of the Eyre Peninsula. He worked assiduously for closer cooperation between some eighteen different railway unions existing at that time. On 23 February 1943 Bishop enlisted in the RAAF. Working as a driver, he became a leading aircraftman and acting corporal, serving in Darwin and from April to December 1945 in Borneo. Discharged on 4 January 1946, Reg returned to his job as ARU organiser, from which he would resign in April 1956 following his failure to be elected as the ARU’s state secretary. He blamed his defeat on the activities of the anti-communist Industrial Groups.

His credentials as an anti-Grouper moderate were now well established, and in March 1956 he was elected state secretary of the UTLC, holding the position until 1962. Highly organised and energetic, with a cheerful personality, Bishop, a moderate in the Labor Party, initiated the development of ‘a common viewpoint’ among the various union affiliates, promoted the building of a new Trades Hall in Adelaide, and ensured that UTLC records and papers were collected and bound. His tenure as secretary saw an increase in the number of financial members and made the UTLC more representative of the South Australian trade union movement. On Bishop’s retirement from the position, the UTLC president, F. Quigley, declared that in his opinion ‘Mr. Bishop was the best Secretary that the Trades and Labor Council had ever had’. Senator Chris Schacht credited Bishop with being one of a handful of ALP men who revitalised the South Australian party in the 1950s and 1960s, stating that it was largely due to Bishop that the South Australian trade union movement came to work closely with the party in its state and federal election campaigns.[2]

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bishop filled a number of other positions: Commissioner of the South Australian Board of Industry (1956–62); member of the executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (1956–62), including, in 1958, being one of a delegation to visit China; and the UTLC representative on the South Australian Advisory Committee on Workmen’s Compensation (1959–61). In 1960 he was an adviser to an International Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva. Told by Clem Ridley that it was time for him to move from the trade union movement into the Senate, he was now well placed to gain preselection.[3]

At the federal election of December 1961, Bishop was elected in second place as a Labor senator for South Australia, re-elected in first place in 1967 and 1974, and in second place in 1975. In his first Senate speech, on 22 August 1962, he canvassed a range of South Australian issues. He expressed concern about the impact of the Government’s relaxation of import restrictions and the November 1960 credit squeeze on the South Australian manufacturing industry, particularly in textiles and motor vehicles, and the consequent increase in unemployment. He urged the Government to provide funding for the standardisation of railway gauges and for the upgrading of the railway system, in particular, an efficient link to Port Pirie to make the smelters there more competitive on world markets. His association with the labour movement was reflected in his call to the Menzies Government not to bring political influence to bear on arbitration tribunals by putting forward its own case, and in his support of a Department of Labour and National Service report on the need to encourage the employment of apprentices for skilled occupations.

Railway matters would remain on his political agenda, but he would also argue for the completion of the Chowilla Dam (and later the Dartmouth Dam) stating that the Government should not worry about the cost, because the longer the work was delayed, the more money would be needed in the future. Other issues included the weapons research establishment at the South Australian town of Woomera, and the export of South Australian wine to the United Kingdom, especially its promotion in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.[4]

His interest in foreign affairs and defence was combined with his commitment to social justice. Bishop probed the Government with questions about defence equipment and recruitment, with repatriation a constant issue. On 21 May 1965 he suggested a reconstruction training scheme for men whose employment was disrupted because of national service. He proposed that the normal and emergency services in the Department of Labour and National Service should be separated to make two departments, and raised the issue of the treatment of national servicemen in operational areas, whose benefits, under the Repatriation Act, were inconsistent with those in non-operational areas, who came under the Commonwealth Employees’ Compensation Act. On a number of occasions, he spoke in favour of the establishment of a select committee on repatriation benefits; this never occurred, nor did a 1970 motion for a joint committee of inquiry into the Australian defence forces, which was lost by one vote. In September 1965 he joined the growing clamour for equal pay in the Commonwealth Public Service, stating that the Government ‘should already have begun to give its own employees equal pay for work of equal value’. In 1967 he was narrowly beaten for the post of Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.[5]

With the election of the Whitlam Government in December 1972, Bishop became Minister for Repatriation, serving until June 1974, a bout of poor health in October 1973 having ended speculation that Bishop would replace Gordon Bryant as Minister for the Capital Territory. From December 1972 to June 1974 and from June to November 1975 Bishop also served as Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, and was Acting Minister for Labour in 1973. Under the repatriation portfolio, he implemented measures from the Labor Party’s 1972 election platform, designed to improve the situation of returned service pensioners, such as financial increases in pensions and allowances.

Following the simultaneous dissolution election of May 1974, Bishop became Postmaster-General, the most significant achievement of his parliamentary career. His implementation of the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Australian Post Office resulted in a radical change to the structure of the postal and telecommunications services as he piloted the relevant legislation through the Parliament, and oversaw the necessary administrative changes, which took effect on 1 July 1975. The Postmaster-General’s Department, as it had existed since Federation, was abolished, and two separate statutory commissions were established: the Australian Postal Commission and the Australian Telecommunications Commission.

Between 1974 and 1975, Bishop also represented in the Senate the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Labour and Immigration, while from June 1975 he represented the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Transport. Bishop also worked with the Minister for the Media, Senator Douglas McClelland, to introduce FM radio into Australia. According to historian Ann Moyal, Bishop was considered by one commission chairman to be ‘a most impressive Minister’, and of independent mind, especially in his defence of Telecom.[6]

The dismissal of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975 put an end to Bishop’s ministerial career. He did not allow that traumatic event to disturb his usual equanimity, though he likened it to a game of cricket at which the umpire declares the batsman ‘out’ during the lunch break. Bishop was not chosen to serve on Labor’s 1976 shadow ministry, but from the Opposition benches continued to ask questions and to contribute to debate on the issues that he had pursued previously in the Senate, notably those on South Australia. He continued his active membership of parliamentary committees, which included, from 1970, five of the new Senate estimates committees, and he argued that the executive government should heed the recommendations being made by these committees. A keen parliamentarian and interested, like so many of his time, in international relations, in 1964, 1970, 1974 and 1979 Bishop was away on parliamentary delegations to South-East Asia, as well as to the Middle East in 1977 and eastern Europe in 1978, and took part in a number of overseas visits and conferences.

Bishop did not contest the October 1980 election, leaving the Senate in 1981. In 1984 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service to politics and government. In his retirement, he kept in touch with old friends in the party, and encouraged younger ones. Bishop died on 3 July 1999 at the Repatriation General Hospital in Daw Park in Adelaide; he was given a state funeral at St Francis Xavier Cathedral and was buried at Centennial Park Cemetery. Connie had predeceased him, and he was survived by their two children.

Reflecting on his career in 1981 Bishop had said, ‘I am an ordinary railwayman who became a trades hall secretary. I never thought that I would become a Minister of the Crown’. On both sides of politics, he was regarded as a loyal, ‘hardworking, straight-talking bloke who served his country with distinction’, and a person who had ‘great pride in the Labor Party and the Labor movement’.[7]

Gwynneth Singleton

[1] CPD, 9 Aug. 1999, pp. 7014–15, 7018; Ken Bridges, ‘Reg Bishop’, in Chris Vevers (comp.), To Unite More Closely, United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, Adelaide, 1984, p. 56.

[2] Bridges, ‘Reg Bishop’, p. 56; Australian Railways’ Union (SA), Minutes, 1 Feb. 1938, E197/3/9, State Secretary’s Report, 3 May 1938, E197/4/9, Minutes, 20 Mar. 1956, Z359, box 184, NBAC, ANU; Bishop, Reginald—Defence Service Record, A9301, 122407, NAA; Railway Review (Adel.), May 1955, p. 7, Apr. 1956, p. 2; United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia (UTLC), Minutes, 16 Mar. 1956, SRG 1/1/18, 29 June 1962, SRG 1/1/21, 1 Aug. 1958, SRG 1/2/3, SLSA; Australian (Syd.), 14 July 1999, p. 16.

[3] South Australian Government Gazette, 12 Apr. 1956, p. 705; CPD, 2 Sept. 1965, p. 295; Advertiser (Adel.), 11 Dec. 1961, p. 7; UTLC, Minutes, 10 Apr. 1959, SRG 1/1/19, 15 Jan. 1960, SRG 1/1/20, SLSA; CPD, 12 June 1981, p. 3259.

[4] CPD, 22 Aug. 1962, pp. 360–4, 22 Aug. 1967, pp. 88–90, 4 June 1969, p. 1975, 4 Apr. 1967, p. 466, 8 Nov. 1962, p. 1285.

[5] CPD, 21 May 1965, pp. 1079–83, 3 Nov. 1970, pp. 1938–43, 2 Sept. 1965, p. 299, 9 Apr. 1964, pp. 544–6; Fred Daly, From Curtin to Kerr, Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1977, p. 178; Australian (Syd.), 9 Feb. 1967, p. 1.

[6] CT, 9 Oct. 1973, p. 1, 10 Oct. 1973, p. 1; CPP, 187/1974, 123/1974; Australian (Syd.), 14 July 1999, p. 16; Ann Moyal, Clear Across Australia: A History of Telecommunications, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1984, pp. 294–304.

[7] SMH, 12 July 1999, p. 38; Advertiser (Adel.), 10 July 1999, pp. 30, 68; CPD, 12 June 1981, pp. 3258–9, 9 Aug. 1999, p. 7013.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 225-229.

BISHOP, Reginald (1913–1999)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for South Australia, 1962–81

Minister for Repatriation, 1972–74

Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, 1972–74, 1975

Postmaster-General, 1974–75

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1964–73

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1965–69

Select Committee on the Container Method of Handling Cargoes, 1967–68

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1970–72

Estimates Committee C, 1970–73

Estimates Committee D, 1970–73

Estimates Committee F, 1976–78

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1976–80

Estimates Committee E, 1978–80

Estimates Committee A, 1981