HARRIS, John (1890–1974)
Senator for Western Australia, 1947–51, 1953–59 (Australian Labor Party)

John Harris, blacksmith and union official, was born at Granville, New South Wales, on 3 December 1890. His father, also John Harris, hailed from south Wales in the United Kingdom, and his mother, Amy Florence, née Ellis, was born in Adelaide, South Australia. When John was about ten years old the Harris family moved to Perth, where he completed his primary education at Cottesloe Public School. On 24 January 1916 Harris, who had served for twelve months in the militia, enlisted in the AIF giving his occupation as ‘blacksmith’. On 26 February he married, in accordance with the forms of the Presbyterian Church, Mabel, the daughter of a farmer, William Norton, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Shiring. On 1 June he embarked from Fremantle on the Warilda for overseas service. Harris served in France with the 3rd Tunnelling Company. In April 1918 he attained the rank of sergeant and was wounded (gassed) in action, but by August had rejoined his unit. He returned to Australia on the Mahana in October 1919 and was discharged in December. Later, in Parliament, Harris spoke of servicemen in World War I returning to ‘a miserable gratuity’ and no job, or having to work for five shillings a week.[1]

At some time Harris joined the Australasian Society of Engineers (ASE), becoming a member, then vice-president, of its state executive. By 1931 he was president of the Western Australian branch. As branch secretary from about 1936 until 1946, he had a successful career as a popular and effective union official. Interested in people, he travelled around the state, viewing conditions of work and gingering up, or helping to form, local branches. Enjoying the respect of his union colleagues, he became the ASE’s chief advocate on arbitration in Western Australia, sometimes making representations on behalf of the blacksmiths. In particular he addressed issues relating to the basic wage, including, in 1941, war loading rates. He was a delegate to the ASE’s triennial conferences and to the Iron Trades Council, and was honorary secretary of the Metal Trades Council of Western Australia (1939–44). In 1938 he was a member of Perth’s procession committee for Labor Day, and in 1946 was credited with obtaining substantial increases in women’s rates of pay through organising a visit to Western Australia of the Women’s Employment Board. Also active in local ALP politics, Harris was a member of the industrial committee of the party’s Western Australian executive. During World War II he was a member of the Automotive Industry War Advisory Committee, and of the Western Australian Local Dilution Committee, concerned with manpower issues, including the employment of women in skilled trades.

In 1945 he won second place on the Western Australian Labor ticket for the Senate, Dorothy Tangney being placed first. Harris campaigned vigorously, the Australasian Engineer describing him as ‘Senate Candidate Bro. J. Harris’. He was elected at the general election of September 1946, taking up his seat in July 1947. He had served less than four years of his six-year term when he was defeated at the poll following the simultaneous dissolution of April 1951. He was re-elected at the half-Senate election of 1953 and served one further term. He did not contest the federal election of November 1958.[2]

Harris delivered his first speech in the Senate on 16 October 1947, when he spoke in support of the budget. He praised the record of Labor administrations, mentioning postwar reconstruction, social services and unemployment, and the need to further improve employment conditions, education and other facilities for working people. He would frequently quote from articles that he had read in the press, and then relate the historical background of the situation. Like many Western Australians of his time, he recognised the state’s huge potential for development. ‘This’, he said, with true Western Australian pride, ‘is first-class country’. He spoke particularly of the Kimberleys and the production of tropical fruits, the ‘big rivers’ and their potential for attracting immigrants: ‘If we do not develop [the north-west] in the near future, somebody else may step in and develop it for us’. Needless to say, he supported the immigration policy of Arthur Calwell.

Harris’ experience as a soldier influenced him in advocating reforms for the armed services and repatriation benefits for ex-service personnel. He praised such Chifley Government initiatives as postwar defence, including upgrading the Royal Australian Navy. In 1948 he supported the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Bill and the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Bill. He outlined the benefits available to war widows, especially those with children. Somewhat artlessly he referred to Labor’s intention to increase the maternity allowance: ‘Can anybody imagine a Liberal Government making such increases? Of course not!’[3]

A fervent advocate of nationalisation, during debate on the Commonwealth Bank Bill 1947 he claimed that bank officials had collected signatures of people opposed to bank nationalisation by sitting at tables on the footpath and asking women to sign as they walked past. In Parramatta, Harris said, he had asked three women whether they knew what they were signing and they stated that they did not! Commenting on the 1911 debates on an earlier Commonwealth Bank Bill, he observed: ‘The Opposition had all the bankers behind them [then], just as they have now’.

After the Liberal–National Party coalition took office in December 1949, Harris set out to demonstrate the Government’s inadequacy. Pension increases, he said ‘would be worth more to the pensioners if the Government honoured its promise to restore value to the £1’. He would like to see senators try to live on £2.10 a week. In one of his last speeches in the Senate, in October 1956, he suggested that the £30 million spent on the Colombo Plan would be better spent on an ‘Australian plan’ for the aged and infirm. He supported the banning of the Communist Party, but attacked certain sections of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, such as the onus of proof clause. Accusing the Government of holding up the proposed legislation, thus giving the communists ‘an opportunity to go underground’, he asked:

If the Minister for Fuel, Shipping and Transport [Senator McLeay] sincerely believes that yesterday’s Commonwealth-wide strike on the waterfront was inspired by the Communist Secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, Mr Healy, why did he not invoke the Crimes Act? He is as spineless as the rest of his colleagues.

Despite his infrequent contribution to debate (between February and July 1949 he spoke on only three occasions, and during his last two years in Parliament did not speak at all), he was well regarded in the Senate. He served on three committees, including the Select Committee on National Service in the Defence Force, which numbered only Opposition senators, and which submitted two reports on accountability issues raised by the Government not allowing defence heads and officials to be called as witnesses. In July and August 1958 he was a member of the Australian delegation to the forty-seventh conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). With Frank Crean, MHR, he represented the reduction of armaments committee at a conference session, and was chosen as one of the two Australian representatives on the IPU’s inter-parliamentary council for the year ahead.

In his retirement Harris continued to enjoy the simple life he had led always, with cycling and running as his recreations. He died on 5 October 1974, and his ashes were interred in the Garden of Remembrance at Karrakatta, with Anglican rites. Mabel had predeceased him, but their son, John, and John’s two daughters, Maureen and Jacqueline, survived him. The President of the Senate, Justin O’Byrne, remembered him as ‘a gallant person with a gentle nature who was always full of the milk of human kindness’. Speaking on behalf of Liberal senators, Senator Wood concurred, describing Harris as very dignified and ‘not the hurly-burly type of senator’. [4]

Bobbie Oliver

[1] West Australian (Perth), 30 Sept. 1946, p. 9, 7 Oct. 1974, p. 28; Harris, J.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; CPD, 16 Oct. 1947, p. 856.

[2] Australasian Engineer (Syd.), 1930–1946; West Australian (Perth), 26 Sept. 1946, p. 8.

[3] CPD, 16 Oct. 1947, pp. 854–60, 9 Sept. 1948, p. 297, 16 June 1948, pp. 2004–5, 21 Oct. 1948, pp. 1967–9, 9 June 1949, pp. 762, 764–6, 14 Oct. 1948, p. 1636.

[4] CPD, 24 Nov. 1947, pp. 2553–7, 15 Nov. 1950, pp. 2420–2, 23 Oct. 1956, p. 820, 19 Oct. 1950, pp. 1060–3; CPP, Select Committee on National Service in the Defence Force, reports, 1951, Report of the Australian delegation to the 47th conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1958; CPD, 22 Oct. 1974, p. 1855.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 71-74.

HARRIS, John (1890–1974)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1947–51, 1953–59

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1947–49

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1947–51

Select Committee on National Service in the Defence Force, 1950–51