NEWLANDS, Sir John (1864–1932)
Senator for South Australia, 1913–32 (Australian Labor Party; National Labour Party; Nationalist Party; United Australia Party)

John Newlands, railwayman, advocate for the Northern Territory and President of the Senate at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, was born on 4 August 1864, at Dallaschyle, near Cawdor, Nairnshire, Scotland, the son of an agricultural labourer, Andrew Newlands, and his wife, Ann. John used the name ‘Newland’ until May 1926 when he changed his name by deed poll to that which appears on his entry of birth.

Educated at Croy Public School in Scotland, Newlands arrived in South Australia on the Dundee in May 1883. On 27 February 1884 he married, at St Andrew’s Manse, Adelaide, Theresa Glancy, who had been a fellow passenger on the voyage to Australia. In 1884 he joined the South Australian Railways as a lamp cleaner, settling in Terowie and becoming a conductor on the Terowie-Broken Hill line, a position he held until his resignation from the railways in 1906. He was ‘widely known and . . . exceedingly popular among a large number of travellers’. In 1887 he joined the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Association, serving in various offices, including that of chairman. Later he became secretary of the South Australian Railway Officers’ Association, and was an employee representative on the Railways Service Appeal Board between 1904 and 1906. He was also a member of the Terowie District Council from 1889, and chairman from 1903 to 1904, but retired when the Government decided that railway employees were ineligible for positions in local government. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace in September 1901.[1]

Newlands entered state politics as a Labor candidate for the House of Assembly, winning the rural seat of Burra Burra at the general election of November 1906. In the Assembly he took a keen interest in rural issues, serving as a member of the Royal Commission on the Marketing of Wheat (1908-09). In 1907 he spoke out against the creation of a harbour trust, believing ‘that every department should be under the control of a responsible Minister’ rather than an independent board. It was at this time too that he developed an ongoing interest in the affairs of the Northern Territory.[2]

His principal preoccupation, however, was with the railways. Whether a matter relating to wages and working conditions, the state of the rolling stock, or the development of South Australia’s rail network, Newlands was free with criticism and advice, regardless of which party held office. On at least two occasions, he crossed swords with Premier Verran over aspects of rail development. He became Chairman of Committees in November 1911, but was allowed little time to enjoy his elevated status. Much to the surprise of his supporters, Newlands, ‘one of the most highly esteemed of the Labor members’, was a casualty of the February 1912 election, losing his seat by a substantial margin. He took the defeat with good grace, promising his supporters that when ‘the occasion arose, as he thought it would shortly, for a fresh election, his services would be cheerfully put at their disposal’.[3]

In May 1913 Newlands successfully stood for election to the Senate, along with two other Labor casualties of the 1912 South Australian election, J. V. O’Loghlin and William Senior. He was re-elected following the simultaneous dissolution of 1914, coming second only to the Liberal, J. W. Shannon. In October he was elected to the executive of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.[4] During these early years in the Senate, Newlands was, like his colleagues, preoccupied with the political situation arising from the Cook Liberal Government’s marginal victory at the 1913 election and the outbreak of war in 1914. Following Labor’s election victory in 1914, he expressed the hope that the war would not interfere with the substance of Labor’s program. Characteristically, he also pursued issues relating to the construction and management of the transcontinental railway.[5]

He was soon caught up in the maelstrom of the conscription debate. As early as April 1915 he let it be known that he ‘would have no objection to conscription if that course were necessary’. His advocacy of conscription led him to leave the Labor Party with W. M. Hughes in November 1916 to become a member of the Nationalist Party. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed chairman of the State Recruiting Committee in South Australia, a position he retained until the end of the war. Not least of his concerns was the need to raise reinforcements to relieve the men of the First Division, of which his son Alan was a member. These men had been away longest and served throughout the campaigns in Gallipoli and France. His bitterness at the failure of the nation to better support its soldiers at the front was still evident after the war. He was re-elected as a Nationalist in December 1919, coming second, and again in November 1925, coming first.[6]

The defining theme of Newlands’ Senate career was his interest in the affairs of the Northern Territory, which he visited in 1916, delivering on his return home a speech highly critical of the Commonwealth Government and Territory administration. In December he formally moved for the appointment of a royal commission ‘to inquire into and report upon the past administration, and the policy for the future general administration and conduct of affairs in the Northern Territory’. The Territory’s Administrator, Dr J. A. Gilruth, suggested that Newlands had failed to verify the grievances, and ‘was simply anxious to collect adverse criticism, not facts’. Newlands replied with another swingeing attack, presenting yet more evidence of the Territory’s maladministration. He warned the Government he would use every means at his disposal ‘to obtain for the persons whose grievances I have been ventilating a fair hearing and a square deal’.[7]

Over the next decade Newlands was unrelenting in his pursuit of what he perceived as the best interests of the Territory. In 1918 he urged the Government to move immediately on the construction of the north-south railway, and pleaded both for direct representation of the Territory in the Commonwealth Parliament and for some form of local government. He welcomed the Northern Territory Representation bills of 1920 and 1922. In 1921 Newlands, who had received a CBE in 1920, was part of the Public Works Committee’s inquiries into the extension of the north-south railway, leading a subcommittee, consisting of himself, Senator Foll, D. S. Jackson, MHR, and a small staff, on a tour of the Northern Territory (including a brief sojourn by Newlands and Jackson in Java). The journey was a real adventure, through country still but lightly touched by European civilisation, over roads that were rough or non-existent, and was not without its hazards and hardships. Newlands’ letters home recount numerous instances of vehicles being bogged, or stalling mid-crossing in a creek. They also reveal a self-deprecating sense of humour and an eye for detail. Overall, the subcommittee ‘held 50 meetings, and examined 85 witnesses. In the course of its investigations it travelled 5,000 miles by motor car, 3,370 miles by rail, 3,100 miles by steamer, and 230 miles on horseback and buggy, a total of 11,700 miles’, in five months. And, as Newlands related to his grandson, he ‘was not killed and eaten by Savages once’.[8]

Armed with the committee’s report, Newlands continued his agitation on behalf of the Territory. He made regular requests for the construction of the north-south railway, assistance to settlers, improvements in shipping services, and telephone and wireless communications. He also spoke out on behalf of Vestey Brothers, in that company’s attempts to gain government subsidies for its Darwin meatworks. On 12 July 1923 he explained the vigour of his criticisms:

I know that the Government do not expect me to remain silent when I have fault to find. As long as I occupy a seat in the Senate I intend to speak my mind freely. When the Government do that of which I approve they will have my cordial support. When they do that of which I disapprove, they will hear my opinion on the matter. The Government have the right to expect that from those who support them.

The following week, he stated: ‘I have felt, from time to time, that my efforts in urging, in the Senate, the claims of the Territory, were as a voice crying in the wilderness; but I am now satisfied that my humble efforts in the past have not been without result’.[9]

As Chairman of Committees since July 1923, Newlands had deputised for President Givens on a number of occasions, his performance recommending him as Givens’ successor when the latter finally relinquished the presidency on 30 June 1926. Newlands was elected President on 1 July much to the chagrin of Senator Lynch who claimed to have obtained one-third of the vote held previously in the party room, and who resented, he said, being overlooked ‘in the interests of a pet’. Newlands retorted that he was ‘no pet of the Government or of any other section’.

As President of the Senate, Newlands, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon. Sir Littleton Groom, participated in the public and parliamentary ceremonies for the opening of Parliament House, Canberra, on Monday, 9 May 1927, firstly on the dais outside the entrance to the new King’s Hall, and later in the morning in the Senate chamber itself. At midday the Senate rose for lunch, meeting again at 5 p.m., when it became apparent that the euphoria of the day would not override political controversy. In moving the adjournment, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, George Pearce, congratulated Newlands on the KCMG conferred upon him earlier in the day. Pearce then referred to the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, Matthew Charlton, MHR, had informed the Prime Minister that, should the report of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts on the Commonwealth Shipping Line be presented, certain members of the Labor Party would feel it incumbent upon themselves to debate the report at once. Pearce then announced that the Government had come, ‘somewhat unwillingly’, to the conclusion that, after ‘a ceremony so brilliantly begun and so fittingly carried out’, it would be better if the joint committee ‘did not present its report at this sitting’. He concluded by adjuring senators to remember ‘that to-day the eyes of the world are on Australia’.

The speech did not impress Senator Givens, who was obviously aware that the Government was anxious to have as little debate as possible on its intention to privatise the shipping line. ‘What right’, asked Givens, ‘has the Government or any individual member to prevent the committee from presenting its report to-day if it desires to do so? Is the committee prepared to sacrifice its privileges?’ He sternly rebuked Newlands for allowing the Government to arrange the Business of the Senate, declaring that this had usurped the President’s authority and was an abrogation of the rights of the Senate under its own standing orders—‘a most lamentable precedent to establish on the first day of our meeting here’.

The Senate adjourned just before 6 p.m. and due, apparently, to the difficulties of settling in to the new Parliament House, did not reconvene until towards the end of September, when the Public Accounts Committee report was presented by the committee’s chairman, Senator Kingsmill, and Givens moved: ‘That the manner in which the proceedings in the Senate were conducted at its meeting on 9 May, 1927, was a grave breach of the privileges of the House, and must not be regarded as a precedent’. Newlands ruled that the motion was not one of privilege. At this, Givens moved a motion of dissent from Newlands’ ruling, which was lost. On 6 October Givens tried again, asserting that if the practice of 9 May ‘were accepted as a precedent, this chamber might as well be wiped out of existence, because it would be at the mercy of any government which chose to prevent the Senate from transacting its business in accordance with its rules of procedure’. Again his motion was lost. On 13 October Kingsmill moved that the joint committee’s report be printed. He said he had no desire to refer to the circumstances of 9 May, which had led to the report’s ‘suppression’.

On 9 November, in the midst of a censure motion in the House of Representatives on the Government’s proposal to sell the shipping line (which it did the following year without further reference to the Parliament until after the sale), Pearce moved that until Kingsmill’s motion had been disposed of, all other business should be postponed. As a Minister of the Crown, Pearce was entitled to do this under Senate standing orders. Newlands therefore was obliged to rule that Kingsmill’s motion took precedence over all other business, and, despite a dissenting motion by Labor’s Senator Needham, the ruling was upheld. Throughout all this, Newlands seemed at some disadvantage, virtually admitting that due to his own poor health and the excitement of the proceedings of 9 May, he had not been fully aware of the political implications of what was happening. He hotly denied having been in league with the Government to prevent Kingsmill presenting his report on 9 May; this was true enough. Few people were aware, certainly not the infant Canberra Times, that a matter of some political moment was being swept under the carpet.

At the end of the session, Newlands thanked senators for their patience. Illness had prevented his attendance at the last sitting of the federal Parliament in Melbourne on 24 March 1927. Somewhat restored to health in 1928, he was, nevertheless, replaced as President by Senator Kingsmill.[10]

Sir John was immensely proud of Canberra but he would not long serve in the bush capital. Now ‘old and frail’, he was persuaded by the Emergency Committee in South Australia not to stand for re-election. His last contribution to debate was in May 1931. He announced his retirement in a letter published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 4 December. He died at Warringa Private Hospital, Glenelg, on 20 May 1932, survived by his wife, three sons, William, Alan and Donald, and a daughter, Mrs Jessie Stephens. His profession was given on his death certificate as ‘knight and legislator’. Described as ‘a man of sturdy build, and sturdy character’, he was accorded a state funeral. Lady Newlands, who shared his charitable interests, died in April 1942.[11]


[1] G. Grainger, ‘Newland(s), Sir John’, ADB, vol. 11; Register (Adel.), 7 Nov. 1906, p. 9; Advertiser (Adel.), 9 May 1927, p. 9, 4 June 1913, p. 17, 7 Aug. 1914, p. 13, 5 Jan. 1920, p. 7, 18 Oct. 1906, p. 10; Wilbur W. Besanko, Historic Terowie: A Pictorial History, Terowie Citizens Association, Terowie, SA, 1977, p. 36; South Australian Government Gazette, 12 Sept. 1901.

[2] Advertiser (Adel.), 18 Oct. 1906, p. 10, 4 Apr. 1910, p. 10; Orraroo Enterprise and Great-Northern Advertiser, 9 Nov. 1906, p. 3; SAPD, 20 Nov. 1907, pp. 871-4, 4 July 1907, p. 48; SAPP, Royal Commission on the Marketing of Wheat, reports, 1908, 1909; SAPD, 20 July 1910, pp. 131–4.

[3] SAPD, 11 Dec. 1907, pp. 1080-91, 13 Dec. 1906, p. 130, 20 Dec. 1906, p. 198, 6 Aug. 1908, pp. 102-4, 20 Oct. 1909, pp. 574-6, 9 Nov. 1910, p. 953, 1 Nov. 1911, p. 839; Advertiser (Adel.), 12 Feb. 1912, p. 10, 13 Feb. 1912, p. 9, 16 Feb. 1912, p. 11.

[4] Advertiser (Adel.), 26 Apr. 1913, p. 22, 28 Aug. 1914, p. 10; Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901-1949, vol. 1, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, p. 382.

[5] Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, pp. 115–16; CPD, 28 Aug. 1913, pp. 616-17, 9 Dec. 1913, pp. 3897-902, 18 Dec. 1913, pp. 4700-1, 21 Apr. 1915, pp. 2450-3, 21 May 1914, pp. 1205, 1213.

[6] CPD, 21 Apr. 1915, p. 2449, 11 May 1916, p. 7807, 22 Sept. 1916, pp. 8932–4; Advertiser (Adel.), 15 Nov. 1916, p. 7; Ernest Scott, Australia During the War, A & R, Sydney, 1943, pp. 400-1; Register (Adel.), 11 June 1917, p. 6; CPD, 18 July 1917, p. 200; Advertiser (Adel.), 5 Dec. 1919, p. 10, 12 Nov. 1925, p. 15; SMH, 9 Oct. 1925, p. 12.

[7] CPD, 26 June 1914, pp. 2615-16, 27 Sept. 1916, pp. 8972-87, 14 Dec. 1916, pp. 9872-4; CPP, Northern Territory. Notes by the Administrator, Dr. J. A. Gilruth, on speech by Senator Newland, 1917; CPD, 18 July 1917, p. 211.

[8] CPD, 3 Aug. 1923, pp. 2086-8, 2 Aug. 1923, pp. 1995-2002, 10 July 1925, pp. 918-27, 4 Feb. 1926, pp. 652-63, 14 June 1918, pp. 6046-54, 16 Sept. 1920, pp. 4607-12, 27 Sept. 1922, pp. 2684, 2692; CPP, Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, reports on proposed railways, 1922; Letters, 1921, Newlands Papers, MS 1516, NLA.

[9] CPD, 27 Sept. 1922, pp. 2684-92, 12 July 1923, pp. 999-1005, 18 July 1923, p. 1206.

[10] CPD, 5 July 1923, p. 677, 9 May 1927, pp. 1-14, 28 Sept. 1927, p. 20, 30 Sept. 1927, pp. 134–41, 6 Oct. 1927, pp. 279-93, 13 Oct. 1927, pp. 492–3, 9 Nov. 1927, pp. 1053–7, 10 Nov. 1927, pp. 1148-51; CT, 13 May 1927, p. 3; CPD, 22 Sept. 1928, p. 7237, 15 Dec. 1927, p. 3264; Advertiser (Adel.), 14 Aug. 1929, p. 13.

[11] CPD, 26 Mar. 1930, pp. 482-3; A. Grenfell Price, ‘The Emergency Committee of South Australia and the Origin of the Premiers’ Plan, 1931-2’, South Australiana, Mar. 1978, pp. 5–47; Advertiser (Adel.), 4 Dec. 1931, p. 24, 21 May 1932, pp. 15-16, 24 May 1932, p. 10, 2 Apr. 1942, p. 11; CPD, 20 May 1932, pp. 1115-17, 1149-50.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 237-241.

NEWLANDS, Sir John (1864-1932)

National Library of Australia
nla.pic-an23418499

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1913–32

President of the Senate, 1926–29

Chairman of Committees, 1923–26

South Australian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Burra Burra, 1906–12

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1914–23

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1917–23

House Committee, 1923–29

Standing Orders Committee, 1923–29

Library Committee, 1926–29