JESSOP, Donald Scott (1927–2018)
Senator for South Australia, 1971–87 (Liberal Party of Australia; Independent)

Donald Scott Jessop was born at Unley Park, South Australia, on 21 June 1927 to Lindsay Newton Rennie Jessop and his wife Margaret Ada, née Scott. The first of three sons, Donald attended Mitcham Primary School and Unley High School. Colour blindness prevented him from pursuing studies in his chosen fields, medicine or pharmacy. On the advice of the school’s vocational officer, Jessop decided on optometry and began a course at the University of Adelaide. While studying part-time, he was apprenticed to the long-established optometry firm, Laubman and Pank. On 2 April 1949, at Malvern Methodist Church, Adelaide, Jessop married Barbara Maughan; they would have two daughters and a son.

Qualifying as an optometrist in 1949, Jessop worked in country areas, including Port Pirie and Jamestown. In October 1953 he became manager of Laubman and Pank’s practice at Broken Hill, NSW, moving to Port Augusta in July 1955 to start his own practice. Jessop, who was the first resident optometrist in the working-class township and surrounding districts, also established the first Royal Flying Doctor Optical Clinic, which he serviced from Port Augusta.

Jessop was an inaugural member and vice-president of the Port Augusta Apex Club. He was also active in the city’s choral group, and served as a trustee of the local Methodist Church and on the board of the Port Augusta Hospital. Elected to the Port Augusta City Council in 1960, he served until 1969. Jessop joined the Liberal Party during his first year at Port Augusta, and became a committee member of the local branch. He described himself as ‘always a Liberal of course in background and preference’: his parents had been members of the Liberal Federation prior to the formation of the Liberal Country League in South Australia in 1932.

In 1966 Jessop accepted an invitation by the Liberal Party to be its candidate for the federal seat of Grey, which encompassed Port Augusta. There were no rivals for pre-selection as Grey was a strong Labor Party seat, held by the ALP since 1943. Grey was also a vast electorate (one of the three largest in Australia), at that time covering eighty-four percent of the land mass of South Australia, more than 800 000 square kilometres, and including industrial centres such as Port Pirie, Whyalla, and Port Lincoln.

Jessop campaigned for an expansion of the transport system across the state and highlighted the need for greater resource development in the region. He managed to reach voters in rural and remote areas through the use of an aircraft lent by a station owner friend. Although the ALP fared badly in Arthur Calwell’s last campaign as party leader, Jessop’s victory in Grey was unexpected. Elected to the House of Representatives on 26 November 1966, he served only one term, losing his seat at the general election of 25 October 1969. Jessop believed that an electoral redistribution, which excised many rural voters, had contributed to his defeat, along with the sense that the ‘wind was blowing against the government’.[1]

Jessop’s period out of federal politics was brief. He rejected an invitation from South Australian Premier, Steele Hall, to contest a seat in the state’s House of Assembly, believing that he could make better use of his federal political experience by seeking a Senate seat. His high personal profile and extensive connections throughout the state won him the secure second place on the Liberal Party’s Senate ticket in South Australia, and Jessop was elected at the half-Senate election of 21 November 1970. He was re-elected in 1974, 1975, 1980, 1983 and 1984.

In his first speech in the Senate, on 8 September 1971, Jessop argued that the time had come for a ‘complete reassessment of our attitude to all areas of social welfare’ through an independent inquiry into the social security system. He expressed in-principle support for a national superannuation scheme and joined a number of other senators in advocating the abolition of estate and succession duties, especially in rural areas. He called for greater involvement by the Commonwealth in funding for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and community medical centres in remote areas. Jessop was also troubled by the impact of excise duties and imports on the South Australian wine industry, and he frequently spoke for the industry in the Senate.

Jessop played a crucial role as an intermediary during successful negotiations between the Whitlam Government and the Australian Optometrical Association over the inclusion of benefits for optometry patients under the Medibank scheme, established in 1975. Highways and railways were consistent concerns for him, especially upgrading of the Eyre and Stuart highways. Jessop believed the latter to be a ‘death trap’ in urgent need of rerouting, arguing that the parlous state of the Stuart Highway was costing South Australia millions through lost business. He was a persistent advocate for the Tarcoola-Alice Springs rail line, which was finally opened in 1980. Jessop was willing to publicly criticise his party in government, especially on issues affecting his home state. In August 1976, he expressed disappointment at the process by which the coalition government decided to have four ships for the Australian National Line built in Japan, rather than at Whyalla.

In the events leading up to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975, Jessop expressed—sometimes in public—misgivings about his party’s approach. In a letter to the Adelaide Advertiser, he had argued that only ‘extreme circumstances’ could lead him to vote for the supply bill’s rejection. Subsequently Jessop was careful to draw a distinction between deferral and rejection: he considered that the former could be justified—especially in the light of the loans affair and the resignation of Minister for Minerals and Energy Rex Connor in October—but he would not vote for rejection of supply. As the crisis continued into November, Jessop came to believe that popular opinion in his state was running strongly against the Coalition’s tactic of deferral, and he subsequently said that if the events of 11 November had not occurred, he might well have crossed the floor and voted with Labor.

Such independence from the party line was not rare for Jessop, who crossed the floor regularly throughout his career. On several of these occasions—including the government’s move to abolish funeral benefits for pensioners in 1976, and government resistance to the proposal, in 1981, to establish a scrutiny of bills committee—the Fraser Government was defeated. At other times Jessop abstained from voting or spoke against his party’s position.[2]

Science and environmental issues were a major concern of Jessop’s career and in some instances anticipated the prominence of topics for years to come. As early as 1973 Jessop pointed to warnings from scientists of future ecological crises due to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While recognising the problems caused by nuclear waste, Jessop frequently promoted nuclear power as the most effective alternative power source to ‘dirty coal’, and argued that Australia had a duty to export uranium and manufacture fuel rods: ‘If the rich nations of the world deny the poor countries cheap and reliable energy they will stunt the growth of those nations in a perverse and callous manner’.

This interest saw Jessop chair the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment for seven years (1976–83) and then serve as a member of the Science, Technology and the Environment Committee until he left the Senate. Jessop advocated national policies for land-use and water conservation and in 1979 called for a national authority to control the Murray River. Fearing that Australian scientists and technologies would go overseas, he argued for significant increases in research funding and a prioritisation of scientific research in Australia.[3]

In 1978 Jessop declared the committee system to be ‘the most satisfying aspect’ of his work. He regarded parliamentary committees as significant because they allowed ‘members from both sides of politics to work together in the interests of the whole community, and that not infrequently leads to views and even reports critical of government action or lack of it’. Between 1981 and 82 he chaired the Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing which examined Parliament’s dependence upon the executive for funding through the ordinary annual services of government. The committee recommended a separate parliamentary appropriations bill prepared in consultation with the government, which the Senate could amend. Jessop’s committee also recommended the establishment of a permanent Senate committee to draw up annual estimates for Senate staffing and funding. These recommendations were adopted, and Jessop was the first chairman of the Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing from 1982 until 1987.

Jessop was also chairman of the Senate Committee of Privileges (1981–83), and a member of a joint select committee appointed in 1982 to review parliamentary privilege. When the latter committee reported in 1984, Jessop, together with Senator Peter Rae, published a dissenting report. By the time of the passage of the Parliamentary Privileges Bill 1986 the matters raised by Jessop and Rae had been resolved to their satisfaction, except for a clause in the bill abolishing the power of the Houses to expel members. Jessop remained opposed, believing there was ‘no justification’ for removal of the right to expel. In September 1985 Jessop raised in the Senate the question of whether recent judgments of the New South Wales Supreme Court impeded the rights of witnesses appearing before parliamentary committees to give evidence freely without fear of prosecution. Two years later, the passing of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 ensured that evidence given and documents presented in the course of parliamentary committee hearings could not be used in court proceedings. Jessop served as a temporary chairman of committees (1978–82, 1985–87). He was the Opposition’s candidate for the presidency of the Senate in 1985 and 1987. After Jessop had left the Senate, his colleague Senator Chapman paid tribute to Jessop as ‘a stout defender of the Senate’s constitutional role’.[4]

In June 1987 the South Australian Liberal Party elected not to re-endorse Jessop for the party’s Senate ticket in the forthcoming election. The reasons for this remain obscure. Jessop later blamed the complexities of the party ballot for his disendorsement, and noted that many in the party were ‘surprised’ at the result. He told the Age newspaper that his tendency to always tell the party leader what he thought they should know rather than what they wanted to hear may have worked against him.

After being dropped, Jessop was persuaded by party members to run again. He decided to contest the election for the Senate as an Independent Liberal. His campaign was supported by the Australian Small Business Association, and he called for a reduction in government taxes, charges and excises. Jessop was defeated at the federal double-dissolution election of 11 July 1987, despite polling over 25 000 first preference votes. In 1989 he was an unsuccessful candidate on the Grey Power ticket for the South Australian Legislative Council. Jessop returned to optometry and, in 2010, was described as ‘an enthusiastic letter writer to the Advertiser on the merits of nuclear power’.[5]

Jessop’s independence of mind and constructive concern with the role of Parliament marked him as a significant Liberal senator at a period when senators like him were gradually disappearing from the ranks of the parliamentary party.

Barry York

[1] This entry draws throughout on a transcript of an interview with Don Jessop by Bruce Edwards, 1990–91, POHP.

[2] CPD, 8 Sept. 1971, pp. 562–4, 25 Sept. 1979, p. 903, 14 Sept. 1978, pp. 633–4; Charles Wright, History of Australian Optometry, Australian Optometrical Association, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 175–8; Advertiser (Adel.), 7 June 1977, p. 10, 30 Aug. 1976, p. 3, 13 Sept. 1975, p. 5, 18 Oct. 1975, p. 7; Paul Kelly, November 1975: The Inside Story of Australia’s Greatest Political Crisis, Allen & Unwin, St Leonard’s, NSW, 1995, pp. 111–13, 157, 171, 238.

[3] CPD, 29 Nov. 1973, p. 2287, 24 Feb. 1976, pp. 154–67, 10 May 1978, pp. 1618–22, 29 Aug. 1979, p. 2287, 6 June 1984, p. 2581, 18 Feb. 1987, pp. 158–61; Age (Melb.), 12 Dec. 1981, p. 20; Australian (Syd.), 2 Sept. 1978, p. 3; Standing Committee on Science and the Environment, The Continuing Scrutiny of Pollution—The River Murray, Canberra, June 1979, pp. 32–8, Industrial Research and Development in Australia, Canberra, 1979, Recommendation 1, p. 23.

[4] CT, 12 Nov. 1978, p. 2; Senate Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing, Report, Canberra, 1981; CPD, 3 Oct. 1984, p. 1144, 17 March 1987, p. 817, 16 Sept. 1987, p. 547, 20 Aug. 1985, p. 2, 17 Feb. 1987, p. 1591, 21 Oct. 1987, p. 1080; Harry Evans (ed.), OdgersAustralian Senate Practice, 12th ed., Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2008, pp. 33–41.

[5] Age (Melb.), 10 July 1987, p. 18; SMH, 19 June 1987, p. 10; Australian (Syd.), 8 April 1989, p. 4, 28 June 2010, p. 7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 248-251.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

MHR, Grey, SA, 1966–69 (Lib)

Senator, SA, 1971–87 (Lib; Ind)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee A, 1971–72, 1974–75, 1985–87; D, 1971–72, 1978, 1980–81; E, 1973–74, 1978–80; B, 1976; F, 1976–78, 1981

House Committee, 1971–74

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1971–76

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1971–73

Committee of Privileges, 1976–87

Standing Committee on Science and the Environment, 1976–1983

Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing, 1980–81

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1982–87

Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, 1982–85

Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, 1983–87

Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, 1985–87