O’BYRNE, Justin Hilary (1912–1993)
Senator for Tasmania, 1947–81 (Australian Labor Party)

Justin Hilary O’Byrne was a World War II fighter pilot and prisoner of war, and President of the Senate during the 1975 constitutional crisis. He was born on 1 June 1912 in Launceston, Tasmania, the seventh of ten children. His father, Patrick Augustus O’Byrne, a wine and spirit merchant in Launceston, was the son of Irish migrants who had settled at Westbury. His mother, Mary Elizabeth née Madden, probably attended the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music. The couple were devout Catholics. Justin’s early years were spent at Trevallyn on the Tamar River, where he developed a lifelong interest in aquatic sports. At the age of nine, he was a cox at the Tamar Rowing Club.

Educated at Trevallyn Primary School and at St Patrick’s College, Launceston, O’Byrne was a prominent athlete and swimmer. He continued to cox rowing teams, and played handball and Australian Rules football. O’Byrne’s schooling ended at the age of fifteen. He worked at the Kelsall & Kemp textile factory, and then as an assistant in the chemistry laboratory of the Rapson Tyre & Rubber Company during 1929, studying rubber chemistry and accountancy on a part-time basis at Launceston Technical College. O’Byrne left Launceston that year after the company experienced a series of catastrophes that eventually bankrupted it. In 1930 he walked, in stages, over 1000 kilometres from Melbourne in Victoria to Cunnamulla in south-west Queensland, where, as ‘a jack of all trades’, he sheared sheep, drove bullocks, bored drains, mended fences, taught himself to play the mouth organ, and acquired bushcraft skills from Aboriginals. He became a station overseer and bookkeeper, and learnt to fly light aircraft. In his spare time, he read widely in economics and political science. In 1935 he joined the Australian Workers’ Union. Outraged by the conduct of Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Ethiopia, O’Byrne was persuaded by the writings of G. D. H. Cole, Harold Laski and George Bernard Shaw that capitalism must give way to socialism. [1]

On 20 June 1940 O’Byrne enlisted in the RAAF at Hobart. In November, he embarked for training in Ottawa, Canada. Commissioned as a pilot officer, O’Byrne travelled to Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire, serving as a founding member of 452 Squadron, RAAF. In July 1941 the squadron was transferred to Kenley in Surrey and, with the arrival of Squadron Leader Robert Bungey, 452 Squadron was now predominantly Australian. O’Byrne participated in offensive operations across the Channel, opposing the waves of German bombers preparing for Hitler’s projected invasion of Britain, thus helping to ensure the enemy’s ultimate defeat. A Spitfire flown on occasion by O’Byrne is on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

In August 1941, accompanying British bombers, O’Byrne’s Spitfire was shot down over France by a German fighter. Although wounded, O’Byrne bailed out—it was his first parachute jump. He was captured by Germans, and spent some time in hospital at Saint-Omer, France. A fellow casualty was the legendary Douglas Bader. O’Byrne later related that before the RAF parachuted artificial limbs for Bader into Germany, he carried the ace pilot on his back. Bader never forgot him, and sent O’Byrne a telegram on his retirement from the Senate. After leaving the hospital, O’Byrne began nearly four years of incarceration in eight prisoner of war camps. Conditions, even for officers, were bad. Food was so meagre that without Red Cross parcels many would have starved to death. Life in the huts was monotonous. Only the hope of escape kept up morale. O’Byrne continued his studies, leading seminars in politics, economics and languages in preparation for the better world to come. At Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Silesia, O’Byrne took part in celebrated break outs, which subsequently inspired the popular books and films, The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape. During the latter, teams of prisoners created escape tunnels while others distracted the guards. O’Byrne, who later described himself as ‘the administrative officer’, did not draw a place in the lotteries for the relatively small number who would try to escape through the tunnels. He was fortunate, as fifty of the prisoners who broke out were executed following recapture. To O’Byrne, the effort, despite its results, was worthwhile.

As the Russians moved west in the closing stages of the war, the Germans forced O’Byrne and other prisoners to walk 150 kilometres through the snow from Scubin to Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. After the Russians finally liberated this camp, O’Byrne had to make his own way to the American forces on the Elbe, over 100 kilometres away. In light of this experience, and his earlier wanderings across Australia, he later described himself as a ‘Roads Scholar’. By May 1945 he was back in the United Kingdom, having been promoted to flight lieutenant in February 1943 while still a POW.[2]

After rehabilitation in England, O’Byrne returned to Sydney in May 1945 and was discharged on 1 February 1946. Back in Tasmania, he worked for a short time as the Launceston district officer in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. With his gallant war background and well-honed socialist philosophy, in March 1946 O’Byrne obtained nomination for the Senate for the September federal election. The ALP, under Ben Chifley, was returned to power, and Labor won all three Senate seats in Tasmania with O’Byrne elected third.

From the first, O’Byrne proved an active senator, speaking, questioning and interjecting. In polemical outbursts, he developed a flair for striking metaphors and witty analogies, sometimes using satirical verse. Despite vigorous criticism of opponents, O’Byrne bore them no malice and was often happy to fraternise outside the chamber, where he became a celebrated raconteur. His enthusiasm for the brave new world to be inaugurated by Labor was palpable. Wartime experiences added depth to O’Byrne’s reading of socialist writers. In 1948 he lambasted the capitalist system, which, he said, during the war had forced the RAF to pay royalties for its fuel to Standard Oil of New Jersey, these royalties eventually going to the German corporation of I. G. Farben. In later years, he complained that ‘Australia was involved in every war that was on’, adding, ‘What did we get out of it? Nothing’. Nevertheless, referring to his POW experience, he declared: ‘I lost my freedom. I gave it up in a cause’. Urging the importance of understanding Australia’s Asian neighbours, he reiterated Franklin Roosevelt’s view that ‘if civilization is to survive we must cultivate the science of human relationships’. O’Byrne insisted that the socialism of the ALP did not require the nationalisation of private enterprises, provided that these were managed without exploitation and in a socially useful manner.[3]

In 1949 Labor lost office and began twenty-three years in opposition. As his chances of high office dwindled, O’Byrne identified with the radical left of the party in its contest against the apparently immovable regime of Robert Menzies. He opposed the Communist Party Dissolution Bill as a threat to national liberties and welcomed its rejection in a referendum. A staunch supporter of Evatt, O’Byrne had no sympathy with the Labor dissidents who broke away in 1955 to form the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Personally denounced by Archbishop Guilford Young of Hobart for supporting divorce legislation, O’Byrne became a constant antagonist of the DLP until its disappearance from the Senate in 1974. Chifley remained his hero. After Chifley’s death in 1951, O’Byrne said that ‘by his personal example he has permanently influenced my conception of the duties of public life’.

On 11 February 1961, at Holy Cross Church, Woollahra, New South Wales, O’Byrne married Gisele Anne Crossle, like himself an ALP stalwart and keen social reformer of Irish background. Justin and Anne had three children..[4]

O’Byrne took an active part in the protest against the Vietnam War, presenting a petition against the harshness of conscription that led Senator Rae on 27 March 1969 to accuse O’Byrne of being a tool of fraud. O’Byrne in turn accused Rae of acting as an informer, using the word ‘pimp’, for which ‘unparliamentary language’ he was suspended from the sitting of the Senate. He was less virulent, but equally fervent, in his opposition to the flooding of Lake Pedder and the damming of the Franklin River. He proudly advertised his membership of the Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park Board and the Tasmanian Scenery Preservation Board, and spoke vigorously in the Senate on the dangers of uranium mining. He warned that a ‘society based on the lust for private profit must inevitably render the earth incapable of supporting human life’.

O’Byrne served on a wide range of parliamentary committees throughout his Senate career. He was also a member of the parliamentary delegation to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and a parliamentary adviser to the Australian delegation at the United Nations General Assembly in New York from 1971 to 1972. In 1980 he attended the 67th Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference in East Berlin, during which, so the story goes, the Russian delegation awarded him a medal, causing O’Byrne to refer to ‘our glorious Russian allies’, memories of his release by the Russians in 1945 overshadowing the more recent events of the Cold War.

From 1954 onwards O’Byrne was an unsuccessful contender for the post of President of the Senate. Opposition Whip from 1962, he worked closely with Labor leaders, Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam. Following Whitlam’s victory at the House of Representatives election of 2 December 1972, O’Byrne was elected Government Whip, having again failed to acquire the necessary votes for the presidency. From 1972 to 1979 he was a member of the ALP Federal Executive, serving as treasurer from 1974 to 1975. In the adjournment debate of May 1973, O’Byrne accused the shadow Attorney-General, Senator Greenwood, of being led ‘by a little toad from Queensland’—a remark clearly intended for the DLP’s Senator Gair. Called to order by President McMullin, O’Byrne stated that he would alter his description of Gair to bull frog—‘90 per cent frog and 10 per cent bull’. Such invective did not prevent the affable O’Byrne from chatting to Gair, who, in conversations early in 1974, confirmed that he was willing to abandon his seat in return for the post of Ambassador to Ireland. Whitlam appointed Gair to the ambassadorship in the expectation of securing Gair’s seat for Labor, and thereby giving the Government a Senate majority, but the attempt was thwarted by Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

In March 1974 O’Byrne’s anticipation of another Labor victory at the polls was expressed in characteristic terms, as he derided the Opposition’s ‘old, worn out shibboleths, the old bone rattlers of the last century, the old horse and buggy mentality which has been astride this country for so long’. In the double dissolution of both houses that followed the ‘Gair affair’, Labor still failed to obtain a Senate majority, although O’Byrne was delighted to see the DLP lose all its Senate seats.[5]

With the ALP and the Liberal–Country Party Coalition holding twenty-nine seats apiece, and two Liberal-leaning independents, Steele Hall, and Michael Townley, the choice for President of the Senate in July 1974 lay between O’Byrne and the incumbent Liberal, Sir Magnus Cormack. Surprisingly, O’Byrne defeated Cormack 31 to 29. Hall publicly stated he voted for O’Byrne, and Townley declared his vote was for Cormack. When it was rumoured that Liberal senator Wright was the defector, an outraged Wright denied the charge and called for an examination of the ballot papers. On 11 July, O’Byrne ruled that a statement or denial by a senator must be accepted. Committed to impartiality, when asked whether under his presidency Labor would get a ‘fairer go’, O’Byrne responded that he believed that as President he would be a ‘great equaliser’.[6]

By September, O’Byrne, who as President had no casting vote but merely a deliberative vote, stated that Opposition tactics were threatening ‘the principles of democracy’, but, while disapproving of obstructionist tactics, he maintained impartiality in the chair. As President, he needed to curb aggressive speeches that infringed standing orders, and prohibit ‘offensive words’ against any parliamentarian and ‘all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on Members’. He also had to enforce relevance in debate, check senators inclined to read their speeches, and restrict personal statements to their initial object. But his approach incorporated some flexibility. In February 1975, O’Byrne, later admitting himself an ‘inveterate interjector’, ruled that although interjections were technically disorderly under standing orders, ‘relevant questions or interjections may elucidate the meaning of the speaker’; past presidents had exercised discretion when dealing with them. Senators on the other hand had a right to be heard in silence, and the President would protect them from ‘incessant interjections, from interjections calculated to disturb the speaker, and from interjections which can only be regarded as offensive’. He was tolerant of the widespread practice of virtually reading speeches from copious notes, pointing out that the relevant standing order was simply aimed at preventing senators from parroting information supplied by outsiders.

O’Byrne’s baptism of fire came soon after his election, when he presided over the historic joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives, held on 6 and 7 August 1974, after the double dissolution. With Opposition members angry at the Government for calling a joint sitting to pass its legislation, O’Byrne had to check influential Opposition parliamentarians such as Reg Withers and Reg Wright, and, on his own side, to restrain James McClelland and J. B. Keeffe, especially when the latter, defying standing orders, attacked Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Earlier in the year, O’Byrne himself had referred to Bjelke-Petersen as ‘that old goanna’.[7]

O’Byrne’s experience as moderator soon convinced him that the Senate, which he had once supported, despite his party’s goal of abolishing it, was in need of drastic reform or indeed abolition. As 1975 progressed, Australian federal politics became increasingly antagonistic. In July, O’Byrne presided over the Senate during the Opposition’s abortive attempt to question eleven senior public servants who had been called to the bar of the Senate to provide information about the Government’s controversial attempts to raise overseas loans through dubious intermediaries. The Opposition’s strategy failed when all the witnesses declined to answer questions on the grounds of public interest immunity. Persistent threats by the Opposition to block the Whitlam Government’s budget further raised the political temperature. While strongly supporting the Government, O’Byrne was equally determined to check disorder and ensure that senators on both sides could speak without interruption. When Bjelke-Petersen, contrary to convention, replaced the deceased Labor senator, B. R. Milliner with the conservative anti-Whitlamite (though nominally an ALP member) A. P. Field, tempers became frayed. When Field entered the Senate on 9 September, some Labor senators thought that O’Byrne should refuse to swear him, but the President insisted that he was bound to do so, after a motion to refer the question of Field’s eligibility to the Senate Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications was lost.[8]

As pressure mounted, O’Byrne appealed to the Senate: ‘The standard of language in debate recently has got to the stage at which a very drastic check has to be taken. There has been intemperate, extravagant and exaggerated language used during the debates. I will clamp down on it in the future much more than I have in the past’.

When the Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Whitlam on 11 November, and appointed the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, as caretaker Prime Minister, none of the senators, including O’Byrne, were informed. Neither were they included in the lunchtime meeting of senior ministers called by Whitlam. This was despite the fact that the Senate sat from noon that day, and senators could have used procedural devices to delay the budget, which was passed at 2.24 p.m., thus cementing Fraser’s position and ensuring a general election. O’Byrne was ‘absolutely shattered’ by these events.[9]

Under the Parliamentary Presiding Officers Act 1965, O’Byrne continued to act as President from the date of the double dissolution until the day before the election of President for the next Parliament. According to the Launceston Examiner, he passionately attacked the Fraser succession as based on Hitler-like tactics. He claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that his own constitutional position as President of the Senate made him, rather than Fraser, the proper head of a caretaker government. In the election of 13 December 1975, the ALP performed poorly in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives, though O’Byrne was comfortably re-elected. In the vote for President on 17 February 1976, O’Byrne was defeated by the Liberal Party’s Senator Condor Laucke. Remarkably, given the political climate of the time, during O’Byrne’s presidency there were no dissents from his rulings. Returning to the backbench, O’Byrne, while offering his support to Laucke ‘in a humble way’, attacked the Fraser Government’s legislation as highlighting ‘the true philosophy of the Establishment and of the capitalist system—double-talk and double standards’. He worried that Parliament was becoming a mere rubber stamp for an all-powerful executive, although he continued to be an active force on Senate committees.[10]

O’Byrne left the Senate at the completion of his term on 30 June 1981. Under party rules, being over the retiring age of sixty-five, he could not be re-endorsed. His reputation in the Senate reflected the fact that, unlike so many others, he had not been embittered by the events of 1975. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1984. In later years, he regretted the change that had come over Australian politics when the idealism of the Chifley period gave way to pragmatic politics in both of the main parties. Although he was careful not to embarrass the party in public, O’Byrne had little sympathy for the new Labor philosophy of Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, which he saw as insufficiently distinguishable from that of the Liberal Party.

O’Byrne died on 10 November 1993 in Sydney. Anne, Justin, Hilary and Helene survived him. Many of the prominent politicians who attended his state funeral in the Church of the Apostles, Launceston, had turned away from his strong critique of contemporary capitalism, and they regarded his respect for Parliament as a forum for genuine debate and social reconstruction as old-fashioned. His example, however, remains an ideal for subsequent generations.[11]

Richard P. Davis

[1] Justin Hilary O’Byrne, Sound recording of oral history interview with John Meredith, 1986, TRC 2222/R203–207, NLA; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Marlene Cantwell, Archivist, St Patrick’s College, Launceston; CPD, 16 Nov. 1993, p. 2924; Examiner (Launc.), 13 Nov. 1993, p. 11; Geoffrey Blainey, Jumping Over the Wheel, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1993, pp. 143–5; Australian Workers’ Union, Qld branch, Membership rolls, 1934–35, N117/735, NBAC, ANU.

[2] O’Byrne, Justin Hilary—Defence Service Record, A9300, NAA; John Herington, Air War Against Germany and Italy 1939–1943, AWM, Canberra, 1954, pp. 130, 133–6; The editor acknowledges the assistance of John White, Curator of Aircraft, AWM; Department of Air, Correspondence file relating to O’Byrne as a prisoner of war, A705, 166/31/273, NAA; RAAF personnel: list of prisoners of war, AWM135, 8, AWM; Herald (Melb.) 12 Aug. 1974, p. 5; Bulletin (Syd.), 20 July 1974, p. 31; Australian (Syd.), 29 May 1981, p. 7; Examiner (Launc.), 29 June 1981, p. 14; CPD, 16 Nov. 1993, pp. 2924–5; Examiner (Launc.), 13 Nov. 1993, p. 11.

[3] Mercury (Hob.), 30 Sept. 1946, p. 11; Richard Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, pp. 39–40, 43; CPD, 16 Nov. 1993, pp. 2918–23; Australian (Syd.), 29 May 1981, p. 7; Age (Melb.), 29 Sept. 1966, p. 3; CPD, 13 Oct. 1948, pp. 1498–9, 7 Mar. 1974, p. 171, 2 Sept. 1948, p. 24; Examiner (Launc.), 21 July 1949, p. 2; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, 1991, pp. 126–7.

[4] CPD, 8 June 1950, pp. 3945–6, 15 June 1950, p. 4343, 26 June 1951, pp. 341–2, 27 Sept. 1967, p. 988, 12 Mar. 1970, p. 296; R. P. Davis, A Guide to the State Aid Tangle in Tasmania, Cat & Fiddle Press, Hobart, 1974, pp. 31–2, 71; CPD, 26 Nov. 1959, p. 1908, 21 June 1951, p. 217.

[5] Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor, pp. 66, 107–8, 116; CPD, 12 Mar. 1970, pp. 296–9, 26 Mar. 1969, p. 605, 27 Mar. 1969, pp. 746–9; Mercury (Hob.), 18 May 1981, p. 3; CPD, 21 Nov. 1979, pp. 2658–9; Mercury (Hob.), 10 July 1974, p. 3; CPD, 10 May 1973, p. 1540; CT, 9 Apr. 1974, p. 13; CPD, 13 Mar. 1974, p. 282.

[6] CPD, 9 July 1974, pp. 4–6; Mercury (Hob.), 10 July 1974, p. 3; CPD, 11 July 1974, pp. 81–2, 101.

[7] Australian (Syd.), 2 Sept. 1974, p. 2; CPD, 14 Aug. 1974, pp. 890–1, 6 Aug. 1974 (J), pp. 17–19, 72, 76, 7 Aug. 1974 (J), pp. 161–2, 10 Sept. 1975, p. 675; Herald (Melb.), 15 July 1975, p. 2; CPD, 16 Oct. 1975, pp. 1216–17, 19 Mar. 1974, p. 384.

[8] CT, 2 Sept. 1974, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 2 Sept. 1974, p. 2; CPD, 16 July 1975, pp. 2765–93, 22 July 1975, pp. 2834–50, 3 Sept. 1975, pp. 541–3, 9 Sept. 1975, pp. 603–6.

[9] CPD, 29 Oct. 1975, p. 1547; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 545–7; Examiner (Launc.), 26 June 1981, p. 7.

[10] Examiner (Launc.), 17 Nov. 1975, p. 2; CT, 18 Feb. 1976, p. 10; CPD, 17 Feb. 1976, pp. 3, 5, 20 Nov. 1979, pp. 2575, 2577.

[11] Mercury (Hob.), 13 Dec. 1977, p. 3, 29 June 1991, p. 9, 3 June 1981, p. 7, 11 Nov. 1993, p. 6.

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. 117-124.

O’BYRNE, Justin Hilary (1912–1993)

Parliamentary Library

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1947–81

President of the Senate, 1974–76

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1947–50

Select Committee on National Service in the Defence Force, 1950–51

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1950–61

Standing Orders Committee, 1956–64, 1974–81

Select Committee on Road Safety, 1959–60

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1962–63

Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1965–66

Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources, 1967–71

House Committee, 1967–75

Committee of Privileges, 1971–74, 1976–81

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1972

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1973, 1974–75

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1973–74

Joint Committee on Prices, 1973–74

Library Committee, 1974–75

Joint Standing Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1975–80

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1978

Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, 1980–81