JOHNSTON, Edward Bertram (1880–1942)
Senator for Western Australia, 1929–42 (Australian Country Party)

Edward Bertram Johnston, for thirty years a colourful maverick in Western Australian and federal politics, was never considered enough of a team player to achieve cabinet rank, but never lost an election.Born on 11 January 1880 at Geraldton, Western Australia, Bertie, as he was known, was the eldest of eleven children born to Harry Frederick Johnston (Surveyor-General of Western Australia from 1896 to 1915) and his wife, Maria Louisa, née Butcher. In 1895 the young Johnston left Perth High School to enter the Lands Department of the public service, working first in the Lands Office in Katanning before becoming government land agent and clerk of courts at Wagin in 1903, and at Narrogin in 1904. At that time the districts east of Narrogin were opening up rapidly for agriculture and Johnston acquired a farm, owning properties at Kulin and at Kenwick. In 1909 he resigned from the Lands Department to move to Kalgoorlie. Well known and well liked, he was presented with an illuminated address, which included signatures from throughout the Narrogin district. In Kalgoorlie, where he went in search of business interests, he became honorary secretary of a pressure group demanding a railway between Esperance and Kalgoorlie. Two years later he was back in the Narrogin district when the local branch of the Australian Labour Federation encouraged him to stand for the newly created Legislative Assembly seat of Williams–Narrogin. Promising that a railway would be built in the eastern part of the district with which he was so intimately acquainted, he was returned in 1911 as part of a massive landslide to Labor, and became the first Labor member of the electorate.[1]

An outspoken backbencher in the Scaddan Government (1911–16), Johnston in 1912 carried a resolution that ‘all education at the University of Western Australia should be free, and that the practice of charging fees at State Educational establishments should be entirely abolished’. While this seems to have been the first time this idea was brought up in Parliament, Johnston made most impact as a tireless local member: ‘Whenever any voter in his constituency wanted some shopping done in Perth, Johnston was the man to do it; whenever any elector desired some service to be performed, their trusty member was only too willing to oblige’. He lobbied vigorously for local railways and showed great foresight in buying sites for hotel properties along their anticipated routes. In 1914 he was returned with an increased majority, a feat never matched by any Labor member in a Western Australian farming constituency. Increasingly restive at remaining a backbencher, he clashed with Scaddan over land policy and a poorly handled meatworks contract, resigned in December 1915 and was returned at a by-election as an independent. In July 1916 he voted with the Liberal and Country parties to bring down the Scaddan Government.[2]

A turbulent year followed. In February 1917 the Wilson (Liberal) Government put Johnston forward as Speaker. He lasted three weeks amid uncontrollably rowdy scenes, suspending several of his former Labor colleagues and summoning the editor of the West Australian to the bar of the Legislative Assembly for unfavourable comments on his negotiations for the speakership. Resigning in March in favour of a deaf colleague, he spoke so provocatively of his experiences that Government and Opposition combined to pass a strong vote of censure on him in the Legislative Assembly. Having joined the Country Party in June as a foundation member,Johnston had to face the October 1917 elections sharing endorsement with another candidate. He sued his rival for libel, won the seat, and endured the judge’s caustic comments when a jury assessed his damages at a farthing (in 2004, about one cent).

As a Country Party member he was thought ‘stodgy and platitudinous’, a loyal instrument of the Primary Producers’ Association. In 1922 he became deputy leader of that section of the Country Party which opposed the National Party Premier, Sir James Mitchell, and in 1924 attended an Australian Farmers’ Federal Organisation meeting in Melbourne, where one member referred to Nationalist Party ‘humbug’.By 1928 the coalition, while in opposition, had reunited, and Johnston, perhaps seeing no hope of office under Mitchell, resigned to seek election to the Senate. ‘I take it that the honourable member is retiring from public life’, commented Labor Premier Philip Collier.[3]

Instead, Johnston’s career was rejuvenated in Canberra. On 17 November 1928, he was elected to the Senate. After a quiet start his parliamentary technique improved and he came forward as a strong critic of high tariffs, a sturdy barracker for primary producers and a vehement provincial, who valued states’ rights and the Senate’s role as protector of state interests. He once described Canberra as ‘a vampire, draining the life-blood from the outer parts of the Commonwealth’. All ideas were grist to his mill; although he usually figured as an advocate of forestry, he asked a parliamentary question in 1931 about the possibility of importing elephants to clear timber. When Sir Robert Gibson was examined before the bar of the Senate in May 1931 Johnston annoyed him and gained publicity by persistently asking him whether the Commonwealth Bank Board had promised £20 million for the purchase of exportable commodities so that the price of wheat could be held at four shillings a bushel.[4]

Passionately critical of the Scullin Ministry, he remained vocal when the United Australia Party came to power under Joseph Lyons. In December 1932, when Lyons terminated a bounty of fourpence-halfpenny a bushel on wheat, Johnston moved for its renewal. Claiming that such a move would imperil the Government, Senator Walter Massy‑Greene rebuked him: ‘These are not times to go fishing for votes with both hands and feet’, and the proposal was defeated. Failing to gain sympathy in Canberra, Johnston then threw himself into supporting the referendum for Western Australian secession. In March 1933 after Lyons and Senator Pearce had been stormily heckled at the launch of the anti‑secession campaign at Perth’s Theatre Royal, Johnston mounted the balcony to bellow for ‘three cheers for secession’. Returning to Canberra after the voters backed secession, Johnston took a leading part during 1933 in opposing tariff increases resulting from the Ottawa Conference, helping to secure reductions on agricultural machinery and barbed wire and successfully moving rejection of the duties on tinplate. He also objected to the appointment of Frederic Eggleston, whom he thought hostile to Western Australia, as first chairman of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, but only two senators, P. J. Lynch and William Carroll supported him.[5]

In October 1935 Johnston vehemently opposed the appointment of Charles Hardy as ‘Leader of the United Parliamentary Country Party’ in a debate which showed clearly that whatever else the Country Party was, it was not ‘united’. Johnston had lost the position to Hardy at a meeting of Country Party senators, at which he and the absent Senator Carroll were pitted against three senators from the ‘Eastern States’. With the continent thus divided, Johnston angrily announced that he would not bow to a ‘cabal sitting behind closed doors’, would not have used a formal leadership title himself, and had not come 2500 miles from Western Australia to be told by a party leader in a non-party Senate what to do. He concluded by tendering his resignation as a member of the Federal Country Party, calling himself instead a Western Australian Country Party senator. Little seems to have come of all this, though the Narrogin Observer thought the incident worthy of report.[6]

Having married the daughter of a grazier, Hildelith Olymphe King‑Lethbridge, at St Paul’s Church of England, Harvey, on 18 February 1931, and become the father of three daughters, Johnston’s attention shifted somewhat during the late 1930s to his family and his hotel and farming interests. His business affairs prospered to the extent that he could commission Perth’s most promising architect, Marshall Clifton, to build two suburban hotels, the Captain Stirling and the Inglewood, now major examples of 1930s art deco. He fell foul of the Commonwealth and state taxation departments, and, according to his own account, at the end of 1941 owed them a total of nearly £92 000. Despite these worries he continued assiduously to push for Western Australian interests. After the outbreak of World War II he urged particularly the needs of primary producers during wartime, the grant of military contracts to his state, and the appointment of Western Australians to such federal bodies as the Commonwealth Bank Board. He also congratulated the Government on the appointment of a fifth minister in the Senate. He had always considered ‘the Senate should play a more important role in the administration of Government affairs as well as in the framing of Government policy’.

With theadvent of the Curtin Government in October 1941 and Japan’s entry into the war in December, Johnston sometimes broke ranks with his party to support legislation which he thought helped the war effort. Asthe parties were almost evenly divided in the Senate his role was significant. His voteallowed the Government to pass legislation regulating the employment of women. Although as a staunch states’ righter he claimed to oppose uniform taxation, on 3 June 1942, despite the urging of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, George McLeay, he cast a vital vote against the Opposition’s move to reduce grants to the state governments, thus ensuring the implementation of the system. He was requested to cease attending meetings of Opposition senators.[7]

In August 1942 he was accused in a Perth court of falsifying Commonwealth income tax returns. When Parliament resumed in September he told a small group of journalists and politicians: ‘You will never see me again’. Some thought that Johnston would have to resign his seat because of his taxation problems. Instead he went to his brother’s houseat Black Rock on Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, and early on the cold spring morning of 6 September went for a swim from which he never returned. A Labor MHR, Rowley James, strongly condemned the judge in bankruptcy (Lukin) for hounding Johnston before his death. Eventually the taxation authorities were satisfied with a lesser amount from the estate.

He was survived by his wife, twenty-nine years his junior, and their three young daughters, Marie Louise, Nanette and Berta. Even in death Johnston suffered misrepresentation. His gravestone in the Guildford Cemetery, near Perth, erroneously states that he was leader of the Country Party.[8]

Geoffrey Bolton


[1] G. C. Bolton, ‘Johnston, Edward Bertram’, ADB, vol. 9; F. M. Johnston, Knights and Theodolites: A Saga of Surveyors, Edwards & Shaw, Sydney, 1962, p. 118; British-Australasian (Lond.), 22 July 1915, p. 8; Ulrich Ellis Papers, MS 1006/3–2, NLA; J. S. Battye (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Western Australia,vol. 1, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, 1912, p. 345; William E. Greble, A Bold Yeomanry, Kulin Shire Council, Perth, 1979, pp. 28, 102; Western Mail (Perth), 14 Jan. 1916, p. 48.

[2] WAPD, 18 Sept. 1912, pp. 1771–84, 13 Nov. 1912, pp. 3307–8; Fred Alexander, Campus at Crowley: A Narrative and Critical Appreciation of the First Fifty Years of the University of Western Australia, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1963, pp. 111–12; WAPD, 22 Nov. 1921, p. 1800, 6 Dec. 1921, pp. 2103–5, 22 Dec. 1921, pp. 2597–617; David Black (ed.), The House on the Hill: A History of the Parliament of Western Australia 1832–1990, Parliament of Western Australia, Perth, 1991, pp. 100–1, 480; D. J. Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880–1920, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, p. 367; C. T. Stannage (ed.), A New History of Western Australia, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1981, pp. 386–7, 393–4; Western Mail (Perth), 24 Dec. 1915, p. 19, 14 Jan. 1916, p. 48, 4  Feb. 1916, p. 50, 28 Jan. 1916, p. 16.

[3] Black, The House on the Hill, pp. 102–3, 105, 413–14, 480–1; West Australian (Perth), 1 Dec. 1917, p. 8; Ellis Papers, MS 1006/3–3, NLA; B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Party, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 214–15, 218; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, pp. 112–13; Ellis Papers, MS 1006/31–2;To-Day (Perth),1 July 1933, p. 39.

[4] CPD, 3 Dec. 1929, pp. 538–43, 2 Dec. 1937, p. 116, 4 Aug. 1931, p. 4893, 10 July 1930, p. 3933, 6 May 1931, pp. 1624–6.

[5] CPD, 29 Sept. 1932, pp. 873–81, 1 & 2 Dec. 1932, pp. 3345–51, 8 June 1933, pp. 2166–7; West Australian (Perth), 28 Mar. 1933, pp. 9–10; CPD, 31 May 1933, p. 1970, 29 Nov. 1932, pp. 2930–42, 21 June 1933, pp. 2482–4, 2494, 20 June 1933, pp. 2454–6, 2431, 2435, 15 June 1933, pp. 2340–60.

[6] CPD, 3 Oct. 1935, p. 462, 9 Oct. 1935, pp. 522–3, 10 Oct. 1935, pp. 598–601, 22 Oct. 1935, pp. 867–9; Narrogin Observer, 19 Oct. 1935, p. 7.

[7] CPD, 17 Dec. 1941, p. 1168, 21 Nov. 1940, pp. 49–52, 3 Apr. 1941, p. 636, 13 Nov. 1941, pp. 346–7, 13 May 1942, p. 1104; Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942–1945, AWM, Canberra, 1970, p. 266; CPD, 3 June 1942, pp. 1904–6, 3 & 4 June 1942, pp. 1994–5; Herald (Melb.), 4 June 1942, p. 3.

[8] Herald (Melb.), 10 Aug. 1942, p. 3, 11 Aug. 1942, p. 3, 12 Aug. 1942, p. 3, 7 Sept. 1942, p. 5, 21 Sept. 1942, p. 3; West Australian (Perth), 7 Sept. 1942, p. 2; Age (Melb.), 7 Sept. 1942, p. 1; Argus (Melb.), 7 Sept. 1942, p. 1; CPD, 22 & 23 Sept. 1942, pp. 672–4, 702–3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 37-40.

JOHNSTON, Edward Bertram (1880–1942)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1929–42

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Williams–Narrogin, 1911–28

Senate Committtee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1932–42

Printing Committee, 1938–42

Joint Committee on Rural Industries, 1941–42