CANT, Hartley Gordon James (1907–1977)
Senator for Western Australia, 1959–74 (Australian Labor Party)

Hartley Gordon James Cant, miner, union official and industrial advocate, was born at Mount Magnet, Western Australia, on 19 November 1907, the beginning of a long association with remote areas of the state, which became central to his working life. Known as Harry to his friends and colleagues, he was one of nine surviving children of Arthur Edward Cant, a labourer, and Bridget, née Bone. By 1914 the family had moved to Geraldton. Educated at state schools, Harry later attended the School of Mines at Kalgoorlie.

Cant’s loyal membership of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) began in his mid-teens when he first appears on the union lists as a labourer (between 1922 and 1923). He was then living and working at Day Dawn, near Cue. Before long he was a shed hand at Meekatharra, and around 1928 joined the Australian Labor Party. With the onset of the Depression he developed a reputation as ‘a hard, tough, vigorous fighter’ in the AWU. Years later he was remembered for having ‘suffered many vicissitudes’ during this period. On 7 February 1931 he married Thelma Christina Christensen, at Christ Church Anglican Church, Geraldton.

The late 1940s saw Cant working on the goldmines at Kalgoorlie and Boulder. It was around this time that he began his rise in the union movement and in July 1949 he was nominated as a full-time temporary organiser of the AWU by C. T. (‘Charlie’) Oliver, the Western Australian MLA who had recently been elected to the goldfields seat of Boulder. Oliver, soon to become a dominant influence in the AWU nationally, ‘testified to Mr Cant’s ability to do the job’. In 1942 Cant was divorced from his first wife and on 9 April 1945 he married Florence Miriam (Bebe) Newton at Kalgoorlie.

Cant moved to Perth where his abilities caught the attention of Labor Party luminaries and by 1950 he was a member of the state executive of the party, a role he would fill for over twenty years. By 1951 he was AWU industrial officer. He and Bebe lived in the working class suburb of Rivervale, later moving to the Wandana public housing estate in Subiaco.[1]

From 1952 Cant’s reputation as an advocate grew, and he appeared often before the Court of Arbitration of Western Australia, representing construction and maintenance workers, wheat handlers, and dredge, lead mine, oil refinery and port construction workers. He also appeared to argue for lower rents for government-provided housing for men employed on the construction of Wellington Dam in the south-west.

Cant was the force behind a 1955 campaign by the AWU seeking access for union officials to check safety on mine sites. The following year, at the biannual meeting of the AWU executive, he was one of four members appointed to suggest amendments to the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act. In 1958 he was an executive officer of the West Australian Trade Union Industrial Council. He also served on the Library Board of Western Australia from 1957 to 1958.[2]

Elected to the Senate in November 1958, Cant was sworn on 11 August 1959. In his first speech, on 25 August 1959, he disregarded the convention of the non-partisan first speech, suggesting that the ‘arrogance’ of the Menzies Government bore comparison with tsarist Russia and the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Subsequent contributions were less inflammatory. Re-elected in 1964 and 1970, Cant spoke on many topics over the next fifteen years, including housing, conciliation and arbitration, primary industries and resources—especially gold and petroleum—air services, freight rates, Aboriginal advancement, health, customs duties and taxation. His speeches relied on substance rather than rhetoric, and were often built on a solid foundation of facts and figures. In March 1962 he moved an unsuccessful amendment to the Income Tax and Social Services Contribution (Rebate) Bill, seeking more equitable measures of relief, including restoring the value of child endowment and establishing a graduated tax rebate system.[3]

On 5 October 1967 Cant brought the controversy over the use of VIP flights to a head when he moved an amendment to the motion by the Leader of the Government, Senator Henty, that the Senate take note of the statement on the subject by the Prime Minister, Harold Holt. Cant’s amendment called on the Government to table all data relating to the use by ministers and others of VIP aircraft since 1 July 1966. With Democratic Labor Party senators, Liberal senators Ian Wood, Reg Wright and Alexander Lillico and the Tasmanian independent Reginald Turnbull voting with Labor, Cant’s amendment was carried by ten votes, bringing about the Liberal–Country Party Coalition Government’s ‘most substantial defeat in the Senate since taking office in 1949’.

Years of working in tough environments ensured that Cant bowed to nobody. In 1971 he hit the headlines for what was described as a ‘vicious attack’ on certain public servants who had accused MPs of enjoying better living conditions at Commonwealth-owned hotels and hostels in Canberra than public servants staying in those establishments. Cant remarked that ‘there are public servants who stay at the Hotel Kurrajong … who receive very much more in salary than I … I say quite confidently that they are rats’.

Cant was an assiduous committee man. A member of a number of parliamentary committees, he was ‘always one who had read his submissions … and who questioned with great skill’. In 1974, when chairing the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, he asserted that Senate committees had always tried to keep politics out of their inquiries. If this was a naive proposition, it also reflected the seriousness with which Cant took his committee tasks. His working life as a miner and his long experience as an industrial advocate combined to make him a formidable member of the Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources between 1967 and 1971. After Cant’s death, one of his political opponents, Senator Reg Withers, recalled that there were many witnesses who expected to ‘wipe the floor with the Senate Committee’, but Cant’s deep knowledge of the subject ensured that those witnesses wished that they ‘had never started on that tack’. He was actively involved in the Caucus discussions over the establishment of its own committee system, in 1973.[4]

Cant was a parliamentary representative on the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies from 1964 to 1967. He served as a member of the executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association from 1970 to 1972.

Cant’s parliamentary career ended suddenly with the double dissolution in April 1974. In Western Australia, ALP candidates who were aged sixty-five or older at the end of their nominated term could not be preselected unless approved by two-thirds of the state executive. Cant sought the required approval, but failed by two votes to achieve re-endorsement. Despite this he ‘remained a loyal and dedicated supporter’ of the ALP. Cant died at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth on 3 March 1977, shortly after the death of his wife, and was cremated at Karrakatta Cemetery. He was survived by three children from his first marriage and two stepchildren from his second.

Cant was a personable individual who, through his Labor principles, was able to maintain strong cross-party friendships with MPs with very different views, including Liberal senator Ivor Greenwood. His opinions were respected because of the sincerity with which he held them. According to Senator Lionel Murphy, Cant possessed ‘a great sense of the institution of Parliament and the way in which it should work’. Senator John Wheeldon, describing Cant as ‘one of the old school of working class trade union Labor activists’, said that the ALP had lost ‘one of its traditional members, one of the people who represented a very important strand in Australian society’.[5]

Phillip Pendal

[1] The editor is indebted to the late William S. Latter and Liane Satie; Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), WA branch, Membership rolls, 1922–25, 1948–52, N117/1117, 1119, 1143–4, 1146, NBAC, ANU; WA (Perth), 24 Nov. 1958, p. 15; CPD, 9 Mar. 1977, p. 8; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 12 Aug. 1949, p. 9; AWU, WA branch, Executive minutes, 19 July 1949, M47/2, NBAC, ANU; ALP, WA branch, State executive minutes, Feb. 1950, Feb. 1970, MN 300, ACC 1198A/3, ACC 3212A/8, SLWA.

[2] AWU, WA branch, Executive minutes, 8 Jan. 1958, M47/2, NBAC, ANU; Western Australian Industrial Gazette, Dec. 1952, pp. 472–4, June 1953, p. 218, Dec. 1954, pp. 426–7, Sept. 1955, pp. 498–9, Dec. 1958, pp. 684–92, June 1952, pp. 216–17; AWU, WA branch, Executive minutes, 4 Jan. 1955, 5 Jan. 1956, M47/2, NBAC, ANU; WA (Perth), 24 Nov. 1958, p. 15; Library Board of Western Australia, Annual reports, 1958–59.

[3] CPD, 25 Aug. 1959, pp. 276–9, 26 Aug. 1959, pp. 290–2, 2 May 1967, pp. 1036–42, 13 May 1965, pp. 834–8, 17 June 1970, pp. 2537–41, 2545–6; Senate, Journals, 17 June 1970, pp. 218–19; CPD, 17 May 1962, pp. 1456–7, 3 June 1969, pp. 1932–7, 1965–71, 20 Oct. 1966, pp. 1339–40, 6 Apr. 1967, pp. 592–6, 28 Nov. 1968, pp. 2572–4, 2578–9, 20 May 1970, pp. 1633–6, 21 May 1970, pp. 1703–4, 1720–2, 27 Mar. 1962, pp. 611–18, 627–8; Senate, Journals, 27 Mar. 1962, p. 42.

[4] CPD, 5 Oct. 1967, pp. 1254, 1258–9, 1266; Senate, Journals, 5 Oct. 1967, pp. 240–1; CT, 6 Oct. 1967, p. 1; Ian Hancock, John Gorton: He Did It His Way, Hodder, Sydney, 2002, p. 127; Canberra Sunday Post, 12 Sept. 1971, p. 2; CPD, 8 Sept. 1971, p. 571, 9 Mar. 1977, p. 8; CT, 9 Feb. 1974, p. 14; CPP, 278/1974; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, p. 110; National Times (Syd.), 9 Apr. 1973, p. 7.

[5] Senate, Journals, 22 Oct. 1964, p. 165; CPP, 111/1968; Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Commonwealth of Australia branch, Annual report, 1970–71; WA (Perth), 9 Apr. 1974, p. 1; ALP, WA branch, State executive minutes, 8 Apr. 1974, MN 300, ACC 3212A/14, SLWA; CPD, 9 Mar. 1977, pp. 7–8; WA (Perth), 8 Mar. 1977, p. 3; CPD, 10 Apr. 1974, p. 930.

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. 501-504.

CANT, Hartley Gordon James (1907–1977)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1959–74

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television, 1962–63

Library Committee, 1962–67

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1962–69

Printing Committee, 1967–69

Committee of Privileges, 1967–69, 1973–74

Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources, 1967–71

Estimates Committee D, 1970–73

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1971–72

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1972–74

Estimates Committee C, 1973–74

Estimates Committee F, 1973–74

Publications Committee, 1973–74Standing Orders Committee, 1973–74