KNIGHT, John William (1943–1981)
Senator for the Australian Capital Territory, 1975–81 (Liberal Party of Australia)

John William Knight, public servant and diplomat, was one of the first two senators to represent the Australian Capital Territory. He was born on 20 November 1943 at Armidale, New South Wales, the only son of Jack Albert Knight, a grocer, then serving in the RAN, and later a merchant seaman, and his wife Myrane Ruth, née Porter, a dressmaker. Educated at Armidale Demonstration School and Armidale High School, John was captain of both schools, and was successful in swimming, cricket, basketball and rugby union. In 1961 he commenced studies at the University of New England on a New South Wales teachers’ scholarship, graduating in 1965 with a BA (Hons) in history, and receiving the Shell Prize for Arts. On 9 May 1964 at All Saints’ Church of England, Kempsey, he married Jennifer Major, a high school sweetheart and a schoolteacher.[1]

In 1965 Knight joined the Department of External Affairs (from November 1970 the Department of Foreign Affairs) as one of fifteen cadet diplomats. Once he had completed his training with External Affairs, Knight was transferred to the South Asia section. His first diplomatic posting, after completing a six-month course in Hindi, was to New Delhi, India, as third secretary in 1966. Here he developed a lasting interest in the region. While in India, he was granted an East–West Centre (EWC) grant at the University of Hawaii, which led to his obtaining an MA in Asian History and Hindi. The subject of his thesis was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. While at the University of Hawaii he met Karla Frances Havholm, an American student there. After returning to Australia he was posted to Suva, Fiji, as second secretary from November 1969, and first secretary from May 1971. During this time he and Jennifer divorced and, on 8 November 1971, John and Karla married in Suva.[2]

Knight had joined the ACT branch of the Liberal Party in 1969, and held several positions including branch secretary (1974–75). In March 1973 he took leave without pay from his department to serve as senior private secretary to the Leader of the federal Opposition, Billy Snedden. He played a vital role in Snedden’s office, the Opposition Leader relying heavily on Knight’s knowledge of foreign affairs. During this time, Knight regularly worked long hours, dealing at any one time with a multiplicity of subjects, a mode of operation that would continue for the rest of his life. He kept fit, continued his swimming and took up squash, tennis and water skiing. Apart from sport his recreation was reading. His passion for books mirrored the intensity of his working habits: his intellectual curiosity embraced a wide range of reading from political biography to a study of religion.

Knight left Snedden’s office in December 1974 to take up a three-month position as a visiting fellow in international relations at the Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. He then rejoined the Department of Foreign Affairs as head of its United Nations Economic Agencies Section before being posted to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as counsellor in August 1975.[3]

Despite having established a career as a diplomat, Knight saw his future in politics rather than diplomacy. Snedden encouraged him to nominate for the Liberal Party for preselection for a seat in the Senate for the ACT. On 6 November 1975 Knight was elected in absentia by the ACT branch to first position on the ACT Liberal Senate ticket. Returning with his family on 8 November, Knight resigned from the department on 14 November. In the federal election of 13 December 1975 he topped the poll for the ACT. Unlike other senators, those from the territories do not have fixed terms. Under the 1973 legislation establishing Senate representation for the ACT and the Northern Territory, the terms of territory senators begin on the day of their election and end on the day of the next general election for the House of Representatives. Knight was re-elected in 1977 and 1980.[4]

Capable, personable, energetic and enthusiastic, Knight made his first speech when moving the Address-in-Reply on 18 February 1976. Pledging to serve the ACT, he outlined his areas of concern: the new Commonwealth superannuation scheme; the Commonwealth Public Service; women’s issues; employment of people with disabilities; Australian foreign policy, especially in Asia and the Pacific; and Australia’s relations with the USA. Appointed Senate Government Deputy Whip on 1 March 1978, Knight succeeded Senator Peter Baume as Government Whip on 25 November 1980.

Knight spoke often and asked numerous questions, especially on matters affecting the ACT. He was not afraid to take a stance that differed from that of his party, such as supporting the ALP’s opposition to Pol Pot’s regime in Kampuchea (Cambodia). He was approachable, made himself available, and took a serious interest in his electorate. He established a high media profile, issuing press releases and appearing frequently on local radio and TV, as well as writing feature articles on a variety of local, national and international topics in newspapers and journals, especially the Canberra Times.[5]

Knight played a crucial role in the development of the ACT as chair of the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, which examined and reported on all proposed modifications or variations of the planned layout of the city of Canberra. In addition, three full inquiries were referred to the committee while Knight was chair: Planning in the ACT (December 1976), Tourism in the ACT (April 1979) and Energy in the ACT (November 1979). During his term as chairman, the number of matters referred to the committee increased considerably, as did their importance. Knight saw his role as ‘putting the case for the ACT to the Government’. He regarded his principal tasks as to encourage the transfer of public servants into Canberra, to get major projects moving, and to ease problems caused by over-expansion of the territory in the decade up to 1975.[6]

Knight’s expertise in foreign affairs ensured that he was an extremely active member of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, reading submissions closely and questioning witnesses thoroughly. In the Committee’s inquiry on Australian representation overseas, Knight was dominant, especially in the questioning of the Secretaries for Foreign Affairs, past and present. He was a member of two parliamentary delegations, to the South Pacific (June–July 1977) and to Africa (June–July 1979). The latter trip took the delegation of five to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria, Gabon and the Sudan. The timing of the visit meant that the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia issue was a dominant subject of discussions in all the countries visited. During the visit to Uganda a coup took place, and members of the delegation told how they were forced to shelter on the floor of a hotel room during gunfire.

In April 1978 Knight was invited to Washington to explain to the United States Senate Committee on the Constitution how ACT members and senators were able to vote on all issues in Parliament. The Australian position contrasted with that of the US Congress, where the District of Columbia representatives were barred from voting except on matters specific to the District, and the District had (and still has) no representation in the Senate. Sometimes Knight was asked to deputise for the Foreign Affairs Minister, Andrew Peacock, as in 1977, when he spoke to the Western Australian branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs on the zone-of-peace proposal for the Indian Ocean. Subsequently he addressed the Indian Ocean zone-of-peace conference in Fremantle in 1980.

Knight’s last speech to the Senate, on 26 February 1981, took place in the course of a debate on foreign policy. He discussed the importance of recognised international laws of the sea, the decline in Asian studies, Australia’s ignorance of its Asian neighbours, the difficulties of the relationship with Indonesia, and the need for Australia to take a firm stance on foreign policy and not ‘back off on every issue or qualify our stand’.[7]

On 28 February 1981 Knight suffered chest pains while water skiing at Lake Jindabyne. He was admitted to the Royal Canberra Hospital, where he died on 4 March 1981. His wife and two sons, Jason and Joshua, survived him. Knight’s father, Jack, had died at Casino, New South Wales, on the day after his son was admitted to hospital. Neither knew of the other’s illness.

Profound shock at the unexpected death of a young, vigorous and popular man was obvious in the tributes paid to Knight by his parliamentary colleagues. Speakers praised his zest for life and his humanity, talent and capacity for hard work, as well as his contribution to foreign affairs and his devotion to the ACT. Labor’s Susan Ryan spoke of Knight’s readiness to work cooperatively for the good of ‘the Territory’, and his reasoned, ‘non-dogmatic’ approach to any problem.

Knight’s funeral was held at the Norwood Park Crematorium, Canberra, on 6 March 1981. His ashes were scattered in two places: at Norwood Park, and over Mount Duval, just outside Armidale. On the day of his funeral Knight was named Canberran of the Year. The Canberra community commemorated Knight’s memory in a number of ways. One of these was a trust fund established to bring community leaders from the South Pacific to study at the ANU. Another was the John Knight Hostel in Wanniassa, which from 1986 to 1996 offered housing to young people with disabilities. The John Knight Memorial Park at Lake Ginninderra, Belconnen, was proclaimed in 1982 as an acknowledgement of his role in the preservation of the area for public recreation.[8]

Maureen Chan

[1] The author acknowledges the assistance of Dick Porter and Trevor Knight; CT, 7 Dec. 1977, p. 21; The Acorn: the Magazine of Armidale High School, 1956–60.

[2] CT, 25 Sept. 1980, p. 13; The author acknowledges the assistance of Elizabeth Nathan, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Karla Knight in the compilation of this entry; CT, 18 Dec. 1975, p. 13.

[3] CT, 15 Nov. 1975, p. 6; Laurie Oakes and David Solomon, Grab for Power: Election ’74, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1974, p. 186.

[4] CT, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 2; Billy Snedden, Transcript of oral history interview with Bernadette Schedvin, 1983–87, POHP, TRC 4900/57, NLA, p. 24:12.

[5] CPD, 18 Feb. 1976, pp. 42–4; CT, 26 July 1980, p. 3.

[6] CPP, 65/1979, 67/1980, 185/1981; Eric Sparke, Canberra 1954–1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, p. 246; CT, 25 Sept. 1980, p. 13.

[7] Official report of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Gabon, and Sudan, June–July 1979; CT, 23 June 1979, p. 2, 26 Apr. 1978, p. 3, 27 Apr. 1978, p. 2, 23 Feb. 1978, p. 2, 5 Apr. 1977, p. 11, 22 Sept. 1980, p. 3; CPD, 26 Feb. 1981, pp. 215–19.

[8] CT, 1 Mar. 1981, p. 1, 5 Mar. 1981, p. 2; CPD, 4 Mar. 1981, pp. 303–9, 4 Mar. 1981 (R), pp. 403–8; CT, 7 Mar. 1981, p. 1, 21 Apr. 1981, p. 9; Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, no. G13, 30 Mar. 1982, p. 23.

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. 547-550.

KNIGHT, John William (1943–1981)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for the Australian Capital Territory, 1975–81

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee A, 1976–80

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1976–81

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1976–81

Library Committee, 1978–81

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

Standing Orders Committee, 1980–81