DEVLIN, John Joseph (1898–1957)
Senator for Victoria, 1946–57 (Australian Labor Party)

John Joseph Devlin, farmer, was born on 6 June 1898 at Violet Town, in north‑eastern Victoria, son of John Devlin, an Irish Catholic farmer and pioneer of the Benalla district, and Bidelia, née Fitzgerald. Young Jack attended Tamleugh and Tamleugh North state schools, and was introduced to farming at a young age. He was a keen sportsman, participating in, and later officiating for, many local sporting bodies, including the district tennis association. He also became president of the north-eastern district rifle union.

Devlin’s interest in politics also began at an early age. Reputedly a member of the Labor Party since the days of the conscription campaign, he joined the Tamleugh branch of the ALP at its inception in 1919, and was a delegate to the Victorian state conference of the party as early as 1921. He also became a local agent for the Australian Workers’ Union. In 1924 he was elected to the Victorian ALP’s central executive, serving continuously until 1952. He was state president of the party during 1937 and 1938. During his presidential address in 1938 he identified Labor’s mission: ‘It is to abolish poverty from a world of plenty and bring at least a little happiness and comfort into the homes of the struggling masses’. He called for the extension of democracy into industry through the ‘social ownership, at least, of all industries carried on under large scale capitalist conditions’, the alleviation of unemployment through shorter working hours and the reform of the banking system. ‘Finance’, he argued, ‘is the lifeblood of industry and should never be controlled for private gain or profit’. He also urged ‘working class solidarity’ as the precondition for world peace. In February 1944 he gave evidence on behalf of the central executive before the Rural Reconstruction Commission, a body set up by the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction, Ben Chifley, to plan for the rehabilitation of rural industries and the improvement of life in rural areas.[1]

Devlin’s election to the Violet Town Shire Council in 1927 marked the beginning of his long association with local government. He served three terms as shire president (1933–34, 1939–40, 1948–49). During his final term, in 1949, he presided over Violet Town’s centenary, securing the attendances of the Postmaster‑General, Senator Don Cameron, and Senators Sheehan and Hendrickson at the ‘Back to Violet Town’ celebrations. A life governor of the Wangaratta District Hospital, for several years prior to entering the Senate he represented country shires as a member of the Public Health Commission of Victoria. He was also a member of the Victorian Wheat and Woolgrowers’ Association.[2]

In 1937 Devlin attempted to enter the Victorian Legislative Assembly as a candidate for the rural seat of Benalla. He polled well but was unsuccessful. Three years later he failed to win the federal seat of Indi. Finally, at the general election of September 1946 he secured a seat in the Senate, succeeding the Liberal Party’s A. J. Fraser to the casual vacancy caused by the death of Labor’s R. V. Keane. Devlin was subsequently returned at the general elections of 1949 and 1951, and the Senate election of 1953.

Devlin’s Senate career was from the outset frustrated by illness, as a series of small strokes gradually took their toll. In his first—and only—speech to the Senate, on 7 November 1946, he stressed the importance of ‘the man on the land’ for the prosperity of the nation, declaring: ‘Nobody has a greater claim to be described as a worker than the man who tills the soil’. He advocated a range of rural proposals, including reafforestation, the decentralization of industry, the establishment of additional water supply schemes, the provision of good roads, particularly cross-country roads, and improved post and telephone services. Thereafter, his contributions to debate were confined to occasional questions, the last, in November 1951, concerning the refund of wool tax.[3]

Devlin’s Roman Catholic loyalties placed his career in further jeopardy. He had close ties to Australia’s Irish and Catholic communities, for example as a member of the Melbourne Celtic Club. On 7 April 1955, following the split in the Labor Party, he only narrowly escaped expulsion from the party at a stormy  meeting of the recently appointed central executive. Pledging his loyalty to the new executive, Devlin said that he had attended a meeting of the previous executive in the mistaken belief that it was an ‘ordinary Labour meeting’. Seven members of the House of Representatives, and many others, were expelled.[4] The stress of this period took its toll. In early 1956 Devlin suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed and unable to carry out his duties. From July his inability to attend the Senate also had political implications. As a result of the 1955 election the Senate was evenly divided between the Government on the one hand and the ALP and the Anti-Communist Labor Party on the other. In August the Government decided not to grant Devlin a pair, thus providing itself with an overall majority of one.[5]

Jack Devlin died on 26 May 1957 at his home at Tamleugh. He was survived by his wife, Jane Gregory, née Dixon, whom he had married at the Sacred Heart Church, Preston, on 17 November 1934, and their three daughters, Josephine, Delia and Pauline. Following Requiem Mass at the Catholic Church, Violet Town, he was buried at Violet Town Cemetery. The funeral, attended by Arthur Calwell and Senators Sheehan and Kennelly, was, according to the Benalla Ensign, ‘the largest . . . ever witnessed in the district’. Devlin was not only a popular man, but also respected by both electors and parliamentary colleagues. The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator O’Sullivan, remembered him as a man of ‘great generosity and kindness’. H. V. Evatt, in a parliamentary tribute, claimed that his illness in his last years ‘was contributed to or caused by his devotion to duty in the public interests’. Devlin was remembered chiefly for the work done in ‘the heyday of his life’, the part he played in the Labor organisation and his role in local government. In the Senate his record was less impressive: for the last seven years of his term there is no record in Hansard of his speaking at all.[6]

Helen Doyle

[1] Shepparton News, 27 May 1957, p. 2; Labor Call (Melb.), 1 Apr. 1937, p. 13, 22 Aug. 1946, p. 8, 10 Mar. 1938, p. 13, 7 Apr. 1938, p. 8, 21 Apr. 1938, pp. 12-13; Rural Reconstruction Commission, Transcripts of Evidence, 10 Feb. 1944, A6182/90, NAA; Labor Call (Melb.), 27 Apr. 1944, p. 4.

[2] Labor Call (Melb.), 22 Aug. 1946, p. 8; Benalla Ensign, 29 Apr. 1949, p. 6; Violet Town Centenary Celebrations: Official Souvenir Publication and Programme, Matthews Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1949, pp. 1–2.

[3] CPD, 7 Nov. 1946, pp. 30-2, 29 & 30 Nov. 1951, p. 3047.

[4] SMH, 8 Apr. 1955, p. 1; Age (Melb.), 9 Apr. 1955, p. 1; Gil Duthie, I Had 50,000 Bosses: Memoirs of a Labor Backbencher, 19461975, A & R, Sydney, 1984, p. 144; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 234-40.

[5] SMH, 29 Aug. 1956, p. 4, 28 May 1957, p. 1.

[6] Age (Melb.), 27 May 1957, pp. 1, 2; Shepparton News, 27 May 1957, p. 2; Labor (Melb.), June 1957, p. 1; Benalla Ensign, 30 May 1957, p. 6; CPD, 27 Aug. 1957, pp. 3-5, 27 Aug. 1957 (R), pp. 8-9.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 163-165.

DEVLIN, John Joseph (1898-1957)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1946–57

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1946–49