MILLEN, John Dunlop (1877–1941)
Senator for Tasmania, 1920–38 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party)

John Dunlop Millen, mining engineer, was born on 3 May 1877, at Londonderry, Ireland, son of John Millen, draper, and Kate, née Dickson. In 1884 the family migrated to Queensland where Millen senior established himself as a draper in Toowoomba. The younger John was educated at Toowoomba Grammar School, after which he obtained a diploma from Sydney Technical College. Millen secured the position of metallurgist with the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company in Launceston about 1903. He also worked as a mining consultant for the Renison Bell tin mine in Tasmania’s west. On 6 February 1906 he married, at Launceston, in accordance with the usages of the Presbyterian Church, Janet May Scott, and the following year was appointed manager of the Mount Bischoff mine at Waratah, a position he held until 1919. During his period of leadership, Millen was credited with the modernisation of the mine’s facilities and was regarded by all those associated with the mine’s operations as an effective manager.

Later in life Millen became a director of a number of companies. He was also a government-appointed director on the board of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), an advisory engineer to the Vacuum Oil Company, and just before his death became managing director of Hadfields (Australia), steel founders in Sydney. He was a foundation member, councillor, and fifth president (1924) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. A photographic portrait of Millen hangs in the council room of Engineering House, Canberra.[1]

In November 1919, at ‘the urgent request of numerous Electors from many parts of Tasmania’, Millen resigned his position at Mount Bischoff to return to Launceston to contest a Senate seat for the Nationalists for the December federal election. When he and his wife left Waratah it was clear both had become part of the local community where they had been engaged in the tennis club and the local Presbyterian Church. Ministers of two other denominations spoke also of Millen’s support (perhaps on behalf of the mine) to their congregations. In Hobart where Millen was relatively unknown, the Mercury thought his campaign speech at the Town Hall established him ‘as precisely the kind of man by whom the State should be represented at this time’. In Launceston the Examiner, which considered his address in that town an ‘intellectual treat’, held even higher expectations, pronouncing him a man ‘who will not only ably represent the state, but who is calculated to adorn the Senate, and help to restore that Chamber to its proper sphere in the Constitution’. Millen claimed first place in the Senate election for Tasmania, the first conducted under the system of preferential voting. He would be re-elected in 1925 (the year in which he was the Nationalists’ Tasmanian campaign director) and again in 1931.[2]

Millen’s speeches in the Senate were characterised by meticulous research and relentless logic. Offering relief during a long dissertation upon the benefits of standardisation in industry (Millen was a member of the main committee of the Australian Commonwealth Engineering Standards Association), he was urged by Senator Pearce to go on: ‘We are all much interested in the honorable senator’s speech’.[3] But his central interest was in the development and application of science and technology for the cause of human progress. ‘The commonplace of history’, he argued, ‘is the struggle of the nations, but the lesson of history is that it is only by organization and the employment of science in every national function that victory can be achieved’. In 1920 he endorsed the establishment of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry, and spoke of the need for a federal geological survey. Critical of his Government’s inadequate funding and its choice of director, he later participated in moves to reorganise the institute, and was pleased when it was reconstituted on a more satisfactory basis as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (later CSIRO) in 1926. He believed that the pursuit of scientific knowledge was the key to the future.[4]

Millen held strong views on industrial relations and the economy. He regarded arbitration as a failure and attributed the industrial unrest of the postwar period to ‘an insurgent spirit that has been growing during several decades of our commercial history’. Treating the Senate to a disquisition on the origins of syndicalism during debate on the Industrial Peace Bill of 1920, he stated:

These people who deny the intangible elements of the human soul, who insist that supremacy lies with the physical powers and brain mind, and that there is nothing beyond the physical senses, have inspired a terrible dogma which repudiates all ethical obligations and spiritual qualities in man. These iconoclasts are prepared to destroy practically the foundations of society, and to do away with the social and industrial state of the world to-day.

He maintained that it was ‘only by a system of co-operation and profit-sharing that we can hope to find a solution to the difficulties with which this country is now faced’. The need to reduce tariffs was a theme throughout his final term—although he occasionally gave in to parochial sentiment. In 1936 he opposed the abolition of duty on British cement; and in 1937 supported assistance to apple and pear growers.[5]

On defence and international relations Millen initially placed great faith in the League of Nations and the new ‘age of Democracy’, and extolled the possibilities for progress inherent in disarmament. ‘Australia’, he believed (with so many others), ‘has cast aside her swaddling clothes, and has come forth in the habiliments of nationhood. She has won, as the result of her prowess at the Front, the right of entry into the councils of the nations of the world’. By 1923 he was less sanguine, and the following year urged a renewed focus on imperial defence. He accurately forecast the course of World War II in the Pacific.[6]

From 1921 to 1922 Millen played an active role in the deliberations of the Joint Select Committee into the Proposed Agreement with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia)—(AWA). Along with Senator Drake-Brockman, he was responsible for redrafting the agreement between the Commonwealth and AWA, and drafted his own scheme for the provision of wireless telegraphy should the proposed joint venture fail. A trenchant critic of the company, for effectively ignoring the agreement, and of the Bruce–Page Government, for failing to enforce it, he became an ardent supporter of AWA following his appointment by the Government to the company’s board of directors.[7]

According to R. G. Menzies, the public work for which Millen would be best remembered was his chairmanship of the Royal Commission on National Insurance between 1923 and 1927. The reports of the commission owed much to Millen and highlighted the shortcomings of existing welfare measures and health services, and the need for greater Commonwealth intervention. The commission recommended the establishment of a national insurance fund, providing a comprehensive social welfare system based on compulsory contributions by wage earners and their employers, and a national health scheme.[8]

In the aftermath of the inquiry, Millen was given responsibility for preparing the way for legislation (attracting Opposition attention over the remuneration he received for his extra-parliamentary activities) and was touted as a future minister in charge of the administration of the scheme. The National Insurance Bill—introduced by Earle Page in 1928 with due credit to Millen—incorporated many of the commission’s recommendations. By August 1929 the Government was offering excuses for inaction, and the matter lapsed with the defeat of the Bruce–Page coalition in November.[9]

In September 1935 Millen was one of six United Australia Party candidates for the position of President of the Senate but was defeated. It was believed that ‘his disinclination to submit to Government discipline’ had deprived him of ministerial support—another way perhaps of acknowledging that he was a thinker. But his attendance in the Senate had never been exemplary. As early as 1931 he was forced to defend his record following ill health; in later years his attendance deteriorated even further, again due to the onset of illness. In the latter part of his second term he found his parliamentary duties increasingly onerous and rarely addressed the Senate. Millen lost his seat at the October election in 1937, standing again in September 1940 without success. He died at Launceston on 1 August 1941, less than a year after this defeat, and was buried, with Presbyterian rites, at the Carr Villa Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and three sons, John Scott, Cecil Robert and Lionel Dickson, all Launceston businessmen. The tall and heavily built Millen was known as ‘a fluent and brilliant speaker’, always well prepared, but he delivered his speeches at such a speed that Hansard reporters often needed him to repeat parts of his address, a chore he was happy to undertake. Millen seems to have been popular among his parliamentary colleagues. John Curtin, then Leader of the Opposition, spoke of his admiration for the study and research that Millen ‘devoted to national problems’, while Menzies said: ‘He was always courteous, and the tolerance of his political outlook gained for him the esteem of those who were opposed to him. He was a man of real ability’.

Millen had been excited by the rapid development of scientific discovery, as the words from a speech he had made in the Senate in 1924 indicate:

There is no doubt that we are gradually substituting for the natural world an artificial world, moulded nearer to the desire of men’s hearts. In the ancient drama it was the deus ex machina that came in at the end to solve all problems of the play. It is to the same supernatural agency, the divinity in science, that we must look for the uplift of society. It is by means of applied science that the earth can be made habitable, and a decent human life made possible.

Ten years after this speech, observers would not have been surprised that this champion of science was one of three senators who rose to their feet to eulogise Edgeworth David upon the news of the Australian scientist’s death.[10]

Scott Bennett

[1] Scott Bennett, ‘Millen, John Dunlop’, ADB, vol. 10; Examiner (Launc.), 2 Aug. 1941, p. 6; Mercury (Hob.), 2 Aug. 1941, p. 4; Examiner (Launc.), 5 Nov. 1919, p. 7; D. I. Groves, E. L. Martin, H. Murchie and H. K. Wellington, ‘A Century of Tin Mining at Mount Bischoff, 1871-1971’, Geological Survey Bulletin, no. 54, Tasmania Department of Mines, Hobart, 1972, pp. 93-112; Arthur Hardie Corbett, The Institution of Engineers Australia: A History of the First Fifty Years, 1919–1969, Institution of Engineers, Australia, in association with A & R, Sydney, 1973, p. 254.

[2] Examiner (Launc.), 1 Nov. 1919, p. 8; Mercury (Hob.), 6 Nov. 1919, pp. 4–6; Examiner (Launc.), 21 Nov. 1919, p. 4, 24 Dec. 1919, p. 5, 17 Nov. 1919, p. 4, 23 Nov. 1925, p. 2, 1 Jan. 1932, p. 5.

[3] CPD, 28 Aug. 1924, pp. 3688-90, 13 June 1923, pp. 33-5, 4 Aug. 1926, pp. 4836-8; Corbett, The Institution of Engineers Australia, pp. 178-9.

[4] CPD, 13 Aug. 1920, pp. 3514-18, 3523-4, 7 Dec. 1921, pp. 13881-2, 14 Mar. 1923, p. 375, 18 Sept. 1924, pp. 4483-5; Corbett, The Institution of Engineers Australia, p. 181; CPD, 4 Aug. 1926, p. 4838.

[5] CPD, 29 July 1920, p. 3065, 20 Aug. 1920, pp. 3710–15, 26 Nov. 1920, pp. 7079-81, 7 June 1933, pp. 2151–3, 14 June 1933, pp. 2294–6, 6 & 7 Aug. 1930, p. 5397, 13 May 1936, p. 1593, 15 Sept. 1937, pp. 1118–19.

[6] CPD, 14 Apr. 1921, pp. 7434–6, 7 Dec. 1921, pp. 13857–8, 14 Mar. 1923, pp. 374–5, 16 Aug. 1923, p. 2848, 7 Aug. 1924, pp. 2921–5.

[7] CPP, Joint Select Committee into the Proposed Agreement with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, report, 1922; CPD, 19 July 1922, pp. 531-5, 11 Sept. 1924, pp. 4195-201, 14 Dec. 1927, pp. 3149-56.

[8] CPD, 20 Aug. 1941, pp. 7–8; CPP, Royal Commission on National Insurance, reports, 1925, 1927; CPD, 4 Aug. 1926, pp. 4834-6.

[9] CPD, 20 Oct. 1927, p. 634, 9 Dec. 1927, p. 2952, 11 Sept. 1928, p. 6559; Herald (Melb.), 7 Oct. 1927, p. 1; CPD, 14 Sept. 1928, pp. 6764-5, 7 Feb. 1929, pp. 51-2, 22 Aug. 1929, p. 231.

[10] CT, 24 Sept. 1935, p. 1; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 43; Examiner (Launc.), 22 Oct. 1937, p. 13; Mercury (Hob.), 9 Dec. 1931, p. 11; Examiner (Launc.), 18 Dec. 1931, p. 8, 5 Nov. 1937, p. 7, 16 Sept. 1940, p. 3; Mercury (Hob.), 2 Aug. 1941, p. 5; Examiner (Launc.), 4 Aug. 1941, p. 4; Herald (Melb.), 1 Aug. 1941, p. 5; CPD, 20 Aug. 1941, pp. 5–8, 28 Aug. 1924, p. 3688, 23 Oct. 1934, p. 15.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 177-180.

MILLEN, John Dunlop (1877–1941)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1920–38

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1920–22

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1920–23

Joint Select Committee into the Proposed Agreement with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, 1921–22

Library Committee, 1921–38