MARTYR, John Raymond (1932–2021)
Senator for Western Australia, 1981–83 (Liberal Party of Australia)

John Raymond Martyr, vigorous promoter of ‘pro-life’ policies and of self-reliance, was born in Melbourne on 25 May 1932, elder of two sons of Ernest John Martyr and Ellen Mary, née Goodwin. Ernest Martyr was variously a ‘bush worker’ and ‘dyer and cleaner’ served briefly in the AIF in 1918, and then in the Royal Australian Navy as a stoker and officer’s steward. Classified as physically unfit for naval service, Ernest was discharged from the RAN in March 1935, and died in December of that year, when John was three and his brother one year old. Ellen and the two boys lived at East Brunswick until 1944, later moving to Caulfield. It is likely that John attended the local Catholic primary school.

John Martyr joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) at an early age. He was active in B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement (the Movement), formed in Melbourne in 1941 with the aim of fighting communism, especially in the trade unions. When the ALP Split took place in Victoria in 1955 he was expelled from the Elsternwick branch, as was his future wife, Doris Helen Dent, a member of the office staff of the Victorian Police Association. They married at St Patrick’s Church, Murrumbeena, on 14 April 1956. John and Doris became foundation members of the newly formed Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), known as the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) from 1957.

Living in Ferntree Gully, working as a sales representative, active in the local debating society, and a member of the Federated Clerks’ Union, Martyr directed the DLP campaign for Scoresby at the 1958 state election, and contested the federal seat of La Trobe for the DLP at a by-election in April 1960. In 1962 he was asked by the Movement’s successor, the National Civic Council (NCC), to relocate to Perth and there build up the NCC as its state president, which was a full-time task on a low salary. By this time the DLP had developed as a federal organisation with branches in all states, and in mid-1964 Martyr became state secretary of the Western Australian branch.

In the next seven years Martyr unsuccessfully contested every state and federal election for the DLP until he resigned as state secretary in late 1971, and from the party in early 1972. His departure was prompted by a falling out with several colleagues as a result of intervention by the federal office of the DLP in the affairs of the Western Australian branch. Following his resignation there were further disputes with the party over Martyr’s financial record keeping, and whether he or the party owned a car he had used for some time. One party official described Martyr as ‘steamed up for a stoush’, but matters were eventually resolved.[1]

Martyr then became an economic and political consultant. One of his clients was the mining magnate Lang Hancock, with whom he enjoyed a close personal and professional friendship for many years. By June 1972, Martyr and a former DLP colleague, Frank Pownall, had emerged as vice-presidents of the Victoria Park branch of the WA Liberal Party, and in 1975 Martyr secured preselection as the Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Swan, defeating the sitting Labor member on 13 December 1975.[2]

Taking his seat in the House, Martyr broke with convention by interjecting in the chamber before delivering his first speech, about which he later commented: ‘You become a shareholder in the Parliament when you’re elected, not after you make a speech’. Holding the tenth most vulnerable federal seat, which he could lose with only a 2.2 per cent swing, Martyr concentrated mostly on constituency work in his first term, but did not resile from espousing staunch conservative beliefs. In his first speech he referred to ‘that dreadful event known as International Women’s Year’ and deplored the ‘move away from the virtues of self-help, self-reliance and dependence on your own abilities’. He regarded the trend towards greater government involvement ‘not only in people’s personal lives but also in the whole of the economic structure’ as ‘fundamentally bad’. He warned against underestimating the strength of secession sentiment in Western Australia, telling the House that ‘Sometimes we get the feeling that you do forget us’. Martyr concluded by emphasising the vital importance of mining to the Australian economy. Two years later he argued that ‘there is only one policy for this Government and this country on uranium, and that is to dig it up and to sell it’. In September 1976 Martyr declared that, if he had the power, he would ‘chop the Conservation Foundation, cut the ABC in half and stop sending money overseas to countries that aren’t supporters of our way of life’.

In the 1977 federal election campaign Martyr focused on taxation, and confounded the pundits by ‘virtually coming back from the dead’ and defeating his ALP opponent by 689 votes. In his second term in the House of Representatives he played an active role in two important debates about moral issues: divorce, and the rights of the unborn child.

As a member of the Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act, Martyr issued a forceful dissenting report, asserting that the legislation was nothing more than a divorce Act. Speaking in the House, he described the Act as ‘the whole mechanism for breaking up families … [it] is designed to smash marriage; it is not designed to preserve it’.

While playing an important but mostly background role in the attempt during 1978 and 1979 by the National Country Party’s Stephen Lusher (MHR Hume) to remove the funding of medical benefits for abortions, Martyr prompted an extensive debate in 1980 when the Human Rights Commission Bill was introduced. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was included as a schedule to the bill. Martyr sought to amend the schedule to include the words ‘from conception’ as applied to the rights of unborn children. His amendment was defeated by ten votes, but an alternative motion, later disowned by its sponsor, Barry Simon (MHR McMillan), which referred to the child being entitled to protection ‘before as well as after birth’, was adopted by seven votes. The Senate twice rejected the House amendment but the bill was eventually passed in 1981 after compromises were made. This was the first time that the two houses had disagreed on a matter of conscience.[3]

The Australian, in June 1979, noted that although Martyr was ‘one of the toughest men on the Liberal backbench’, he ‘shuns publicity and rarely speaks in Parliament or in the party room’. According to Martyr, ‘the only way to hold a seat like mine is to knock on doors and tramp along footpaths’. But at the federal election held on 18 October 1980, he was defeated by Kim Beazley junior (ALP).

After a brief return to his role as a political and economic consultant, Martyr won a Liberal Party preselection contest in 1981 among thirteen candidates for a casual Senate vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Allan Rocher who had won the House of Representatives seat of Curtin. Martyr impressed the preselection committee, consisting of the Liberal state council of over 100 members, by his fiery speech. He later told the Senate, ‘I was very surprised that they chose me, for in my blunt way I said a few things to them which may not have been at the time in my best interests’.

His nomination to the casual vacancy was endorsed by the Western Australian Parliament on 25 March 1981. Martyr was sworn on 24 March 1981, and in characteristic fashion asked a question without notice before delivering his first speech. He commenced his first (or maiden) speech on 29 April 1981 with a reference to his previous parliamentary first speech: ‘It is not every day, or even every year, that a blushing neophyte like myself has a chance to be a maiden—twice!’ He declared his admiration for three former Liberal Party senators—Reg Wright, Ivor Greenwood and Magnus Cormack— stating that ‘I sometimes lose patience with those who demand a cosmetic perpetual youth for their parliamentary representatives’.

In his wide-ranging address he referred to the ‘callous indifference’ displayed by many sons and daughters ‘to the plight of their aged parents’. He declared, with typical hyperbole, that ‘we really have not had a serious problem in this country since 1945 and probably for a couple of years before that’, arguing that ‘part of the reason for people believing that life is really difficult today is the constant feeding of soothing syrup in social welfare handouts from government … everybody expects the Government to pick up his personal problems and carry them’.

Referring to the ‘popular disregard’ both for the aged and for ‘unborn life’, Martyr commented that ‘if we make one section of human life expendable it is only a matter of time before we move on others’, and declared that ‘Australia desperately needs population’. Foreshadowing the possibility of conflict between himself and those who did not agree with his views, he hoped that ‘we can have the same civilising and civilised friendship that I was able to enjoy in the other place’.[4]

The last sitting day for the Senate was 16 December 1982. The two houses were dissolved on 4 February 1983 and Martyr’s term (until June 1984) was abruptly terminated. He was defeated in the elections of 5 March 1983, which also saw a defeat for the coalition parties and a change of government.

In his twenty-one months in the Senate Martyr continued to raise the issues he had focused on in his House of Representatives career, particularly family law and ‘pro-life’ issues. He also took a strong interest in defence and international affairs, arguing that the USSR ‘is entirely responsible for the present state of world tension’. Martyr accused Western peace movements of acting as agents of the Soviet Union, and described local peace groups as ‘bears in merino skins which although they may look cuddly, are always on the lookout for an easy meal of gullible Australian suckers’.

One subject which he pursued through both houses was the case of Christopher Derkacz, a young boy with Down syndrome, who was admitted to a hospital in Western Australia following the development of croup. According to Martyr and others, Derkacz was not given proper treatment, and left to die because he had a disability. Martyr first raised this issue in the House of Representatives in November 1979, and when Brian Harradine raised it in the Senate on 10 September 1981, Martyr strongly supported Harradine. This resulted in the bipartisan adoption of a motion which noted the case and called for particular attention to be given ‘to ensure the preservation of life and proper health care of disabled persons … [who] incur some additional form of illness’.[5]

Contrary to expectations generated by his first speech, Martyr was not involved in any particularly bruising debates in the Senate. In tributes to those who had left the Senate at the 1983 election, speakers recalled Martyr’s capacity to discomfort them and to drive them mad, but Senator Chipp declared: ‘John Martyr had a great capacity to love and to be loved’.

Shortly after his defeat Martyr experienced a health scare and, in his own words ‘slipped into the background’. Throughout his career he was firmly supported by his wife, who was also active in the Right to Life Association (Western Australia). He and Doris had seven children.

Looking back in 2006, Martyr regarded his careers in both houses as a ‘failure’ because he had not succeeded in his attempts to prevent the Parliament from complicity in what he once described as the ‘erosion of the law’s protection of innocent life’. This judgment may be too harsh: his persistent questions, speeches and interventions on ‘pro-life’ subjects focused public attention on the issue of abortion in Australia, and initiated an intense and unprecedented conflict of conscience between the two houses.[6]

Denis Strangman

[1] Ernest John Martyr—Defence Service Records, B2455 and A6770, NAA; Australian (Syd.), ‘Weekend Magazine’, 16–17 June 1979, p. 2; Victorian Police Journal (Melb.), Apr. 1956, p. 67, May 1956, p. 95; DLP Records, MS 10389/B/3/6 and MS 10389/B/8/20, SLV; WA (Perth), 21 Feb. 1972, p. 3; Bulletin (Syd.), 1 July 1972, p. 22.

[2] Australian (Syd.), ‘Weekend Magazine’, 16–17 June 1979, p. 2; Joe Poprzeczny, ‘Many players in iron ore history’, WA Business News, 14 July 2005, viewed 13 Mar. 2009, <>; Robert Duffield, Rogue Bull: The Story of Lang Hancock, King of the Pilbara, Collins, Sydney, 1979, pp. 178–9; Bulletin (Syd.), 1 July 1972, p. 22; Australian (Syd.), 21 June 1972, p. 5.

[3] Australian (Syd.), 11 Sept. 1976, p. 23; CPD, 19 Feb. 1976 (R), pp. 173–5, 1 Mar. 1978 (R), p. 313; AFR (Syd.), 21 Dec. 1977, pp. 4, 6; WA (Perth), 21 Dec. 1977, p. 4; CPD, 28 Aug. 1980 (R), p. 884, 18 Sept. 1980 (R), pp. 1556–8, 4 Mar. 1980 (R), pp. 628–30, 6 Mar. 1980 (R), pp. 713–17; CT, 2 Apr. 1980, p. 11; Nationwide, ABC Television, 3 Apr. 1980, Transcript, pp. 1–2, CPL.

[4] Australian (Syd.), ‘Weekend Magazine’, 16–17 June 1979, p. 2; WA (Perth), 9 Mar. 1981, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 11 July 1981, p. 14; CPD, 29 Apr.1981, pp. 1487–92; Letter, Vincent E. Hart, Official Secretary, Government House, Perth, to the Hon. C. L. Laucke, President of the Senate, 27 Mar. 1981, Senate Registry File, A8161, S367, NAA; WA (Perth), 26 Mar. 1981, p. 9.

[5] CPD, 18 Nov. 1982, p. 2496, 23 Nov. 1982, p. 2658, 14 Nov. 1979 (R), pp. 3030–1, 15 Nov. 1979 (R), pp. 3061, 3146–7; Age (Melb.), 16 Nov. 1979, p. 5; CPD , 21 Nov. 1979 (R), pp. 3274–5, 19 Feb. 1980 (R), p. 72, 10 Sept. 1981, pp. 689–97, 701; WA (Perth), 12 Sept. 1981, p. 10.

[6] CPD, 3 May 1983, pp. 131–5; Age (Melb.), 14 Oct. 1980, p. 16; Australian (Syd.), 15 Dec. 1975, pp. 3, 5; CPD, 4 Mar. 1980 (R), p. 629.

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. 539-543.

MARTYR, John Raymond (1932– )

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1981–83

MHR, Swan, WA, 1975–80 (Lib)

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1977–80, 1981–83

Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act, 1978–80

Select Committee on Government Clothing and Ordnance Factories, 1981–82

Estimates Committee C, 1981–83

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1981–83

Estimates Committee G, 1982