POKE, Albert George (1906–1989)
Senator for Tasmania, 1956–74 (Australian Labor Party)

‘I was reared where it was tough. I was reared in the mud in the bush, brother. I can take it’. So Bob Poke (as he was always known) told a Senate opponent in 1969. There was little hyperbole in Poke’s invocation of his own hard times. He was born at Somerset, Tasmania, on 16 February 1906, second of nine children of Alfred John Poke, a labourer, and his wife Georgina, née Burgess, who were both descended from early English immigrants to Tasmania. Poke’s brief education passed at state schools, and from 1920, or earlier, he worked in the timber industry, initially as a sawmill hand. The Depression brought unemployment and hardship—for periods he was an itinerant worker in the bush. ‘Quite often we had to go to a farm and bandicoot the farmer’s potato crop to get enough potatoes for a meal’. From such experience came a man able to take harshness—and to respond in kind. Returning later to the timber industry, Poke became foreman and then a timber mill engine driver. He was a unionist from early days, and active in various ALP branches and sporting clubs, including later serving as goal umpire with the Tasmanian Football League, and scorer for Glenorchy cricket club. It appears that he volunteered for service in World War II, but, as an engine driver, was in a reserved occupation. [1]

Poke continued to live in the North-West, at least until late in the 1940s, when his first significant involvement in labour affairs was with the Devonport Trades and Labor Council. It was probably on becoming an organiser for the Timber Workers’ Union (TWU) of Tasmania in 1947 that he moved from Ulverstone to Launceston. There he was Trades Hall Council secretary from 1949 to 1951. In 1951 his appointment as state secretary of the TWU took him to Hobart.

A left-wing activist in both the ALP and unions, ready to criticise the state’s Labor governments for paying too little heed to workers’ concerns, Poke won election to the Senate in 1955. He maintained a high level of union involvement while in the Senate, becoming President of the Hobart Trades Hall Council from 1956 to 1957 and, for the next five years, its more than nominal secretary, as well as president of the state branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union from 1957 to 1972.[2]

As senator, Poke delivered but one or two speeches in most sessions while also posing only a handful of questions. Union concerns often dominated these contributions, most interestingly in 1958 and 1959, when he upheld Tasmania’s Waterside Workers’ Federation in its battle with two local stevedores who refused to pay a union levy in aid of the ALP. When Senator Roy Kendall suggested that Poke was ‘backing the Comms’, Poke sought withdrawal of the comment. President McMullin ruled that there had been no personal imputation, although he agreed that the word ‘communist’, directly applied to any senator was objectionable. In August 1961 there were prolonged and bitter personal exchanges between Poke and George Cole, leader of the Democratic Labor Party, who was also from Tasmania’s North-West, when Cole suggested that Gil Duthie, Labor MHR for the Tasmanian seat of Wilmot, had once been a member of the Communist Party.[3]

While on one occasion admitting to a community of interests between management and men, Poke generally offered a bleak view of industrial relations. Employers, he often said, were ruthless in seeking maximum advantage. Drawing on his own experience, Poke presented industrial tribunals—notably the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration—as biased against the worker. Unions, he said, did better through direct industrial negotiation, and strikes must remain part of their armoury. Poke saw the Liberal–Country Party Coalition governments, in office through almost all his time in the Senate, as furthering this class war, especially by limiting workers’ compensation and long service leave—though in one such debate, Liberal senator, John Gorton, acknowledged his Labor colleague’s authority on waterside matters.[4]

Provision of affordable housing and comprehensive welfare benefits were Poke’s other great concerns. Government failure to increase such benefits as child endowment in ratio to other economic indices was a frequent plaint. Poke argued for abolition of the means test on the age pension, at least for people over seventy-five. From time to time. he invoked the needs of the unemployed, pensioners, young married couples, unwed mothers, deserted wives, widows, ex-servicemen, the blind and deaf (Poke suffered from deafness himself), those requiring expensive medicines or dental care, and psychiatric sufferers. He often referred to particular cases from among his constituents: ‘Many callers come to my office at Hobart. That is quite understandable, because I am quite accessible to the trade union movement’, he said, and his office remained in the Hobart Trades Hall. One of the books Poke cited was John Stubbs’ 1966 controversial work, The Hidden People: Poverty in Australia, and he welcomed Professor Ronald Henderson’s Commission of Inquiry into Poverty established by the McMahon Liberal Government in 1972. Speaking on the 1959 Matrimonial Causes Bill, Poke argued that divorce was ever to be regretted, but it should be available where marriages had altogether failed. Further, the measure promised to diminish births outside marriage; he did not believe there was ‘any greater social problem facing any person than that which faces a person who was an illegitimate child’.[5]

Poke mistrusted capitalism and was always looking out for the interests of workers. He was wary of immigration lest it boost unemployment, and of cheap imports and the privatisation of industry. He disliked defence contracts being let to the USA. He predicted dire results from ‘super-mechanisation’ through new technology and, referring to electronic computing, cited American mathematician Norbert Wiener’s linking of automation with slave labour.[6]

Poke was a conscientious spokesman for his constituency, saying, ‘One comes to this place with the hope of getting the most assistance for one’s own State in the first place, and then, secondly, for Australia generally’. He argued that residents of various parts of Tasmania should enjoy the benefit of tax zoning, that is, allowance for disadvantages caused by where they lived. He joined the islanders’ constant call for effective shipping and air services, and promoted the interests of timber and fruit producers. Time and again, Poke urged the building of Commonwealth offices in Hobart. When R. C. Wright won promotion to the ministry, his fellow Tasmanian offered congratulations, remarking, ‘Senator Wright and I were born on opposite sides of the street. Senator Wright had the sunny side and I had the seamy or shady side’.[7]

In the early 1970s Poke attracted the President’s displeasure for his reliance on rhetorical questions, and for gibes at Liberal Prime Minister McMahon’s ventures into late fatherhood. Increasingly opposed to the Vietnam War, Poke asserted that the McMahon Government was allowing ‘Australia to drift rudderless into an uncertain future’. He continued his critique of the USA, and expressed concern for civil liberties both within Australia and as far away as Bolivia. Poke cited the American community rights advocate Ralph Nader on the potential toxicity of chemicals, and invoked the rights of Aboriginals in the Northern Territory against big corporations that exploited the land on which they lived.

Poke served as Deputy Opposition Whip (1962–72) and as a temporary chairman of committees (1962–63, 1968–74). He also served on several parliamentary committees, and his most memorable action was as the only dissenting voice against the 1974 recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings that Parliament be broadcast on television. Poke argued that this would be best undertaken in the ‘new’ Parliament House, which would provide adequate facilities. In the event, Parliament was televised for the first time in August of that year.[8]

Early in his term, Poke was a delegate to an Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Bangkok. Poke reported that meeting with escapees from communist regimes had revealed to delegates ‘the evils of communism’; he applauded countermeasures in both Malaya and South Vietnam. Later, he rejected support for South Vietnam in the conflict against North Vietnam, in March 1966 assailing Australian business interests that sought profit from ‘blood traffic’ by supplying military equipment, and in June 1968 declaring Australia’s commitment to be ‘morally wrong’.

Poke had had no difficulty in winning endorsement for the elections of December 1961 and November 1967. President of the Tasmanian branch of the ALP in 1967, he was a delegate to the Federal Executive from 1969 to 1971, becoming its senior vice-president from 1971 to 1972. He was treasurer of the Tasmanian branch from 1974 to 1975. Poke nominated for preselection for the half-Senate elections due in 1974, but then withdrew, citing recurrence of an earlier illness. He left the Senate at the end of his term in 1974.[9]

On one occasion Poke said that he was a Christian, but there is little evidence of his faith. His first marriage to Honora Rose Roden was celebrated with Catholic rites at Smithton, Tasmania, on 19 September 1936; sons were born in 1937 and 1939. Poke was divorced from Honora and on 15 February 1947 he married Alice Elizabeth Jacobs, at Chalmers Presbyterian Church, Launceston. There was a daughter from this marriage. After leaving the Senate, Poke lived in working-class Glenorchy, Hobart, and later in Lauderdale, continuing his involvement in the ALP. He professed himself a very rare drinker, but smoked up to 112 cigarettes a day, before reducing. He enjoyed horse racing and gardening. Poke died at Calvary Hospital, Hobart, on 4 January 1989, survived by Alice and his three children.

Smoke-filled rooms of trades and labor councils were Poke’s home place, not the parliamentary chamber where destiny took him to years of arid opposition. When the Senate met after his death, John Coates eulogised him as the ‘salt of the earth’ and a man of ‘firm views’ forcefully expressed. He was an effective and dedicated leader of the left in his home state. In 1970 a political opponent, Senator Marriott, acknowledged Poke’s influence, remarking that the Tasmanian ALP had two wings, ‘a right wing and the Poke wing’.[10]

Michael Roe

[1] CPD, 9 Sept. 1969, p. 568; Gwenyth A. Haines, John and Ann Poke: Their Descendants from the 1840s to the Present Day, Gwenyth A. Haines, Wynyard, Tas., [1989], pp. 3, 90; Annette Banks, The Family of George Burgess and Ann Haines: 160th Anniversary Edition 18142002, Annette Banks, Claremont, Tas., 2002, pp. 24, 519; CPD, 18 Oct. 1956, p. 712, 29 Aug. 1972, p. 500; Mercury (Hob.), 23 Dec. 1955, p. 6; CPD, 19 Nov. 1968, p. 2068.

[2] Mercury (Hob.), 11 Jan. 1951, p. 6; Hobart Trades Hall Council, Minutes, 27 Sept. 1956, 7 Feb. 1957, 13 Feb. 1958, 28 June 1962, M69/2–3, NBAC, ANU; Margo Beasley, The Missos: A History of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1996, p. 207.

[3] CPD, 29 Aug. 1972, pp. 504–5, 26 Aug. 1958, pp. 227–8, 12 May 1959, pp. 1307–8, 13 May 1959, p. 1357, 6 May 1958, p. 812, 30 Aug. 1961, p. 282, 31 Aug. 1961, pp. 308–12, 317–18.

[4] CPD, 16 Sept. 1970, p. 635, 24 Feb. 1959, pp. 147–8, 150, 18 Oct. 1956, pp. 712–14, 11 Nov. 1959, pp. 1379–80, 26 Aug. 1959, p. 297, 16 May 1961, pp. 1044–7.

[5] CPD, 26 Aug. 1958, pp. 225–7, 20 Mar. 1957, pp. 56–60, 26 Aug. 1959, pp. 297–9, 30 Aug. 1960, pp. 276–7, 2 May 1963, p. 222, 3 Oct. 1957, pp. 368–9, 20 Sept. 1967, pp. 762–3, 23 Aug. 1962, pp. 438–9, 12 June 1968, pp. 1723–7, 1730, 26 Aug. 1965, p. 166, 17 Mar. 1960, p. 219, 31 Oct. 1972, p. 2340, 18 Apr. 1961, pp. 561–3; Senate Registry File, A8161, S218, NAA; CPD, 20 Apr. 1967, pp. 985–6, 29 Aug. 1972, p. 501, 24 Nov. 1959, pp. 1773–6.

[6] CPD, 3 Oct. 1957, pp. 368–71, 21 Sept. 1960, pp. 621–2, 5 Sept. 1961, p. 336, 24 Feb. 1959, pp. 147–51.

[7] CPD, 29 Aug. 1972, pp. 506–7, 22 Feb. 1967, p. 52, 26 Aug. 1958, pp. 226–7, 25 Oct. 1957, pp. 873–5, 25 Oct. 1956, pp. 937–8, 25 Oct. 1967, p. 1624, 28 Mar. 1968, pp. 427–9.

[8] CPD, 2 Dec. 1971, p. 2293, 29 Aug. 1972, pp. 502–3, 3 Nov. 1971, p. 1605, 16 Sept. 1970, p. 586, 26 Oct. 1971, p. 1453, 25 Aug. 1971, p. 309, 30 Nov. 1971, p. 2154, 1 Dec. 1971, p. 2224, 22 Feb. 1972, pp. 36–7; CPP, 61/1974; CPD, 20 Feb. 1962, p. 14, 23 Aug. 1962, p. 409; Senate, Journals, 17 Sept. 1968, p. 202.

[9] CPD, 20 Mar. 1957, pp. 56, 58, 29 Mar. 1966, p. 270, 5 June 1968, p. 1437; Richard Davis, Eighty Years Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 19031983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, pp. 125–131; Mercury (Hob.), 5 Mar. 1971, p. 14; ALP, Federal Secretariat, Federal Executive minutes, 16 Mar. 1972, MS 4985, box 121, folder 50, NLA; Mercury (Hob.), 8 Feb. 1972, p. 2.

[10] CPD, 23 Aug. 1962, p. 441; Banks, The Family of George Burgess and Ann Haines, p. 519; CPD, 28 Feb. 1989, pp. 4–5, 26 Aug. 1965, pp. 164–5, 15 Sept. 1970, p. 574.

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. 147-151.

POKE, Albert George (1906–1989)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1956–74

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1957–58

Committee of Privileges, 1967–69

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1973–74

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1973–74