KANE, John Thomas (1908–1988)
Senator for New South Wales, 1970–74 (Democratic Labor Party)

John Thomas (Jack) Kane, militant anti-communist and founder of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), was born on 23 July 1908 in the small town of Burraga in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales. He was the son of Cornelius Kane, an engine-driver, born in Melbourne, and Kate, née Williams. In 1911 the family moved to Lithgow. Jack attended St Patrick’s School, leaving at thirteen to work as a shop assistant. When he was sixteen his father died, and Jack became the breadwinner for his mother (who later remarried), his sister Mary Ann (who died in 1928, at the age of thirteen) and his brother Charles. Jack obtained work in the Lithgow State Coal Mine as a ‘wheeler’—a person who hauled coal in a horse-drawn truck, or skip—and claimed that because he had to stoop (he was over 183 centimetres tall) his head was tilted permanently to one side. This posture was later very familiar to his colleagues in his electoral office and at Parliament House, with Kane cradling a telephone under his ear as he organised various political stratagems.[1]

Kane married Rose Emily Martin, the daughter of a miner, at St Patrick’s Church, Lithgow, on 24 March 1928. They were to have three children, the family moving around New South Wales before settling in a modest house in the Sydney suburb of Haberfield.[2]

Kane joined the ALP in 1929, and in the 1930s was active in the Lang Labor Party. Retrenched from the mine in 1932, he took to hawking fruit and vegetables and, at some time, ran a greengrocer’s shop. By 1937 he was an owner-driver of a Model A Ford truck. He joined the New South Wales branch of the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), and from June 1944 to April 1946 was inaugural chairman of the Lorry Owner Drivers’ Section. Kane was at the centre of the union’s anti-communist faction, though he did not become a member of the TWU’s Industrial Group at the time of its foundation in 1945, due to an internal dispute with fellow union official A. G. Platt. In 1949 Kane spoke to gatherings of miners in defence of the Chifley Government’s stand against communist-initiated coal strikes. It was about this time that he represented the Sydney sub-branch on the TWU’s state council.[3]

In April 1950 Kane became general secretary of the Industrial Groups in New South Wales, and in June 1952 a member of the ALP’s New South Wales Central Executive. By December he held the paid position of ALP organising secretary. Close to the Catholic Social Studies Movement (directed from Melbourne by B. A. Santamaria), in June 1953 Kane was appointed assistant general secretary of the ALP, holding the position until 1956. In March 1955 he was one of the six New South Wales delegates (members of the state’s central executive) to the ALP Federal Conference in Hobart, and, as such, a signatory of the letter in which the New South Wales delegates threatened to walk out, unless the conference allowed an appeal by the Movement-influenced ‘Old Executive’ from Victoria. At the end of the conference the central executive returned to Sydney, where it narrowly avoided splitting over the question of whether to accept the decisions made by the Federal Conference at Hobart, Kane’s militant faction losing by two votes to the moderates.[4]

Troubles between the federal and New South Wales executives continued for eighteen months, becoming inexorably entangled with accusations that Kane and a northern organiser, F. Rooney, were working for an outside anti-Labor movement while on the ALP payroll. In January 1956 a fresh allegation was made: that the two men had distributed a fake how-to-vote ticket at the 1955 state conference. Kane described the allegation as ‘a most wicked conspiracy’, for which he blamed the leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, H. V. Evatt. Although the state central executive carried a motion of full confidence in Kane and Rooney, the Federal Executive, in June 1956, chose a new central executive, Kane retaining his position as assistant secretary for only a short time. He was, in effect, removed from office, his place taken by Tony Mulvihill. By 29 July he was secretary of a new body, the Industrial Labour Organisation, but when the ALP prohibited its members from joining this body later in the year, Kane declared that given the choice between fighting communism or the ALP, he would choose the former.[5]

On 29 September Kane was to the fore at a meeting in the Sydney Trades Hall that formally established the Democratic Labor Party. The founding resolution stated that the party’s name was intended to distinguish it from the ‘totalitarian junta’ in control of the ALP. The DLP would soon merge with the Victorian ALP (Anti-Communist) and, in 1962, with the Queensland Labor Party. Kane became New South Wales secretary, and was elected secretary of the new national party at its first conference, held in Canberra on 25 August 1957. Kane was organiser, spokesman, recruiter and principal national fund-raiser—in short, a backroom man. He once said of himself: ‘I’m an organiser. That’s all I’ll ever be’.[6]

In 1965 Kane became private secretary to Vince Gair, his appointment one of two paid parliamentary positions available to the leader of the two-man Australian Democratic Labor Party (as the DLP had first called itself), the other being held by the writer. The position enabled Kane to maintain a bridge between the party as an organisation and its federal parliamentary representatives, and also to have immediate access to the parliamentary press gallery. He was the main conduit through which Santamaria conveyed his ideas to Canberra. Often Kane would phone Santamaria and, relaying his conversation to others in the office, would say something like: ‘The little fellow [a friendly reference to Santamaria] suggests that Vince [Gair] and Mac [McManus] should issue a statement about [such and such]’.[7]

Kane had many times stood for Parliament, contesting the Senate elections for New South Wales in 1958, 1961, 1964 and 1967. In 1959 he had failed in his bid for the Concord seat in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and, in 1963, for the federal seat of Evans. Finally, in 1970, he was elected to fill a New South Wales Senate casual vacancy, brought about by the death of the Country Party’s G. C. McKellar on 13 April 1970. The vacancy had been filled first by Douglas Barr Scott, who did not contest the November 1970 election. Kane’s term commenced on 21 November 1970 and was due to last until the end of McKellar’s term on 30 June 1974. Kane’s defeat at the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974 meant that his term concluded immediately.

Kane’s political activities took place in the wider political arena where the party used the threat of its key voting position in the Senate, and its pivotal preference role in House of Representatives elections to influence government legislation and policy. Given to using hyperbole to make a point, in December 1971 Kane told the Melbourne Age that union amalgamation would lead to the construction of ‘vast and powerful union monoliths under communist control, whose purpose is to take on the Government and destroy the arbitration system itself’.[8]

Kane was more at home speaking in a public hall or being interviewed for television than he was on the floor of the Senate, where he spoke only on some thirty occasions. He did not deliver his first speech until 7 April 1971, when he moved an urgency motion about the economic position of senior citizens, the DLP now having the five senators required to initiate such a motion.[9]

At the election for the House of Representatives on 2 December 1972, at which the ALP was returned to government, the DLP performed badly. Although its five senators continued to play a key role, their electoral future was in jeopardy. In the hope of salvaging his party, Kane proposed a DLP–Country Party merger, which he promoted on the basis that this would enable the Country Party to lose its ‘cockies’ label and the DLP its sectarian tag, but, despite his hard sell of the idea, by 1973 it was clear that the proposal lacked support.[10]

Kane took a particular interest in his membership of the Select Committee on Civil Rights of Migrant Australians, established in May 1973 following the raid by Senator Lionel Murphy on ASIO headquarters, and subsequent raids on Croatian migrants’ homes. In April 1974 the issue became part of Kane’s campaign for re-election, when he told two and a half thousand cheering Australian Croatians that the day was at hand when ‘captive nations will overthrow their bonds, and the communists will be flung back to where they came from’. Other campaign topics included the abolition of death duties (an old favourite of Kane’s in the Senate) and the maintenance of strict censorship. His criticisms of Don Chipp on the censorship issue caused the Australian Financial Review to claim that Kane was after the ‘wowser vote’. His struggle to maintain some kind of relevance for the DLP during his last months in office was not helped by Gair leaving the party to become Australian Ambassador to Ireland. At the double dissolution election of 18 May 1974, all DLP senators were defeated.[11]

During 1974, journalist Wilfred Burchett brought a libel case against Kane in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, based on an article in the DLP’s magazine Focus. The article claimed that Burchett had worked for the KGB. The court found that as the article was based on testimony before a congressional committee of the United States Senate, a document that Gair had successfully moved for incorporation in Senate Hansard, its statements were protected by parliamentary privilege. Accordingly, the case was lost, as was an appeal in 1976, but not before the matter had caused Kane to travel to the USA in the process of preparing a spirited defence against the Burchett action.[12]

In November 1975 Kane stood again for the Senate, but was unsuccessful. He established a consultancy ‘as an advisor to corporate management’, and continued his close involvement with Santamaria’s National Civic Council. On 27 October 1988 he died at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, survived by Rose and two of their children. After Requiem Mass at St Thomas More, Brighton-le-Sands, at which the processional hymn was ‘Strong and Constant’, he was buried at Botany Cemetery. Journalist Greg Sheridan, who had lunched with him regularly, wrote that Kane ‘could talk forever about the past, but never lost interest in the present’.[13]

Behind a down-to-earth and gruff manner, Kane was a ‘surprisingly shy and diffident man’. He was regarded as a kind and loyal friend, who was prepared to try and understand the motives of his political opponents. However, he did not mellow in the maintenance of his core beliefs, or in his sense of the historical injustices done to those who had founded the DLP. He regarded the version of the Split presented in the ABC television series, The True Believers, as a ‘travesty’, and was provoked to write his own account of those events in his autobiography, published posthumously, entitled Exploding the Myths.[14]

Denis Strangman

[1] Jack Kane, Exploding the Myths: The Political Memoirs of Jack Kane, A & R, North Ryde, NSW, 1989, pp. 4–6; John Thomas Kane, Transcript of oral history interview with Ron Hurst, 1985–88, POHP, CPL, TRC 4900/46, NLA, p. 1:24.

[2] Kane, Exploding the Myths, pp. 4, 12, 14.

[3] Kane, Exploding the Myths, pp. 6, 12, 14–16; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, p. 123; Kane, Transcript, p. 1:22; ALP, New South Wales branch, Labor Nails the “Rebels’” Lies!: A Report to the Federal ALP Executive, Craftsman Printers, Stanmore, NSW, [1955], p. 18; Transport Workers’ Union of Australia, NSW branch, Lorry Owner Drivers’ section, Minutes, 30 June 1944, box 83, State council minutes, 1949, item 76, Z277, NBAC, ANU.

[4] Australia’s National News-Weekly (Melb.), 5 Apr. 1950, p. 2; SMH, 17 June 1952, p. 1; Murray, The Split, pp. 42, 225–6, 229, 243; SMH, 15 Nov. 1952, p. 3, 15 June 1953, p. 4; Jack Kane, ‘The Laurie Short Story: Filling the Gaps’, Quadrant (Syd.), Dec. 1982, pp. 28–9; SMH, 15 June 1953, p. 4, 30 June 1956, p. 1.

[5] Murray, The Split, pp. 242–3, 292–3, 295, 301–3; ALP, New South Wales branch, Labor Nails the “Rebels’” Lies!, p. 17; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 1 May 1955, p. 5, 14 Aug. 1955, p. 2; SMH, 3 Jan. 1956, p. 5, 24 Jan. 1956, p. 14, 30 June 1956, pp. 1, 5, 14 July 1956, p. 3, 13 Sept. 1956, p. 5.

[6] SMH, 29 Sept. 1956, p. 4; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 30 Sept. 1956, p. 3; Murray, The Split, pp. 305, 334–5; Denis Strangman, The Formation of the Democratic Labor Party in the New South Wales, Sydney University DLP Society, Broadway, NSW, 1962, p. 43; SMH, 26 Aug. 1957, p. 4; Kane, Transcript, pp. 17:4, 17:8, 19:10; AFR (Syd.), 26 July 1972, p. 2; Canberra News, 24 Nov. 1970, p. 4.

[7] SMH, 12 Dec. 1970, p. 2.

[8] Kane v. McClelland (1962) 36 ALJR 39; Age (Melb.), 30 Dec. 1971, p. 3.

[9] CPD, 7 Apr. 1971, pp. 809–12; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, pp. 292–3.

[10] Kane, Exploding the Myths, pp. 184–7; AFR (Syd.), 21 May 1973, p. 2.

[11] Australian (Syd.), 15 Apr. 1974, p. 2; SMH, 10 Apr. 1974, p. 13; CPD, 18 May 1971, p. 1965, 12 Apr. 1973, pp. 1103–5; Focus (DLP, Syd.), May 1972, p. 3; AFR (Syd.), 7 Apr. 1972, p. 8.

[12] Sun (Syd.), 4 Nov. 1974, p. 9; Focus (DLP, Syd.), Nov. 1971, p. 7; Age (Melb.), 2 Nov. 1974, p. 3; CPD, 7 Oct. 1971, pp. 1266–70; Burchett v. Kane [1980] 2 NSWLR 266; Kane, Exploding the Myths, pp. 195–217.

[13] SMH, 3 Dec. 1975, p. 7; John Thomas (Jack) Kane, Transcript of oral history interview with Veronica Keraitis, 1980, TRC 829, NLA, pp. 2:2/74–5; Australian (Syd.), 1 Nov. 1988, p. 9; SMH, 29 Oct. 1988, p. 156; ‘Mass of Thanksgiving: Jack Kane’, Funeral program, 31 Oct. 1988; Australian (Syd.), 12–13 Nov. 1988, p. 44.

[14] SMH, 12 Dec. 1970, p. 2; Kane, Exploding the Myths, pp. 222, 228.

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. 439-443.

Kane, John Thomas (1908–1988)

National Library of Australia
nla pic-vn4767053

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1970–74

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Social Environment, 1971

Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, 1971

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1971–72

Estimates Committee E, 1971–73

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1972–73

Select Committee on Civil Rights of Migrant Australians, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1973–74