RYAN, John Victor (1890–1974)
Senator for South Australia, 1950–59 (Australian Labor Party)

John Victor Ryan, baker, footballer and trade union official, was called John Lattin at the time of his birth on 2 December 1890 at the Destitute Asylum, Adelaide. He was the son of Rose Lattin. Later Rose married John Ryan, a labourer, her son taking the surname of Ryan. Six years after becoming a senator, John Victor Ryan established his name by deed poll.

John Victor, who belonged to a large family, was educated at Grote Street Public School (1895–1902) but did not go beyond elementary education. Family members recollect his being an avid reader and largely self-taught; at an early age he served an apprenticeship with Menz Biscuits of Adelaide. He did not enlist for World War I, for after John Ryan’s death, John Victor, now a baker, literally became the family’s sole bread winner. By 1921 Ryan was assistant secretary of the South Australian branch of the Baking Trade Employees’ Federation of Australasia. As its branch secretary (1928–50), he won improved conditions for workers in the baking trade and was prominent in the South Australian Trades and Labor Council. He was to become national secretary of his union, serving in that position until 1952, and was also a member of the Bread Prices Committee.

On 17 March 1924 Ryan married at Maughan Methodist Church, Adelaide, Edith Laura Maud Grivell. As a keen sportsman in a sporting family, Ryan was a League footballer for South Australia and a wicketkeeper and batsman for Adelaide and Glenelg A-grade cricket teams. When he retired from playing, Ryan coached the Edwardstown League team for ten years, during which time the team won five premierships and was twice a runner-up. Ryan also was manager, secretary and a selector for the Adelaide Trades Hall Kole-Hole cricket team.

Ryan was active in the South Australian Labor Party for some twenty years before becoming a senator, serving as a conference delegate and member of the state council. However, in 1931 he joined the Lang group, which, gingered up by the visits of J. T. Lang in April 1931, was now calling itself the Lang Party in its opposition to the Premiers’ Plan. In August 1931, with S. W. O’Flaherty and others, Ryan was expelled from the ALP by the state council, though readmitted in September 1932.

In 1938 he became campaign manager for Frank H. Walsh—later premier of South Australia—holding the position until 1950; in the preceding December he had been successful for the Senate at the election that saw the introduction of proportional representation and an increase in the number of senators. One of the forty-two senators elected, Ryan, who was placed last on the ALP ticket, secured the seventh vacancy only after the exhaustion of preferences. He took his seat on 22 February 1950.[1]

Ryan began his first speech with warm support for the planned 1952 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth ‘because we [the ALP] stand four-square for the retention of our democratic way of life’. He criticised the Menzies Government for seeking to introduce conscription rather than concentrating upon developing Australia’s industrial resources. He objected to the planned extension of child endowment to the first child under sixteen because he believed this would conflict with sought-after increases in the basic wage.

During his nine years in the Senate, Ryan generally focused upon issues of interest to the conventional Labor man. He chastised the Government for its handling of the economy, especially its failure to control inflation, and urged a return to the strict economic management of the Chifley era—the reintroduction of orderly marketing and price control. He argued that the Government’s response to inflation—increasing taxes and pegging wages—was simply destabilising the economy further, while pensions and the basic wage were declining in value. A particular bugbear was the ‘iniquitous and discriminatory sales tax’. As both baker and sportsman, he objected especially to the imposition of sales tax on sporting goods and prepared foods.[2]

In March 1951 Prime Minister Menzies successfully sought a simultaneous dissolution over the Government’s controversial banking bills. At the subsequent poll in April, Ryan was successful, though as the last of the South Australians to be elected he fitted into the category of a short-term senator, so had to stand at the Senate election of May 1953, when he was again successful. Prior to the referendum on the Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communists and Communism) Bill in September 1951, he campaigned for the ‘no’ case, arguing that ‘the only way to destroy . . . communism is to provide better economic conditions’. He was at his most vocal in debate on the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill 1956, arguing forcibly that the bill was unfair to unions, which often were fined for actions taken by their members, even when the union was not involved.

In 1954 Ryan joined Senator Critchley in bringing to the attention of the Senate the case of a young national serviceman who, falling ill while in camp, was hospitalised for three months after the expiry of his training without compensation. Despite regular rebuffs, both senators maintained pressure on the Government to reopen the case. Their persistent inquiries led finally to the satisfactory resolution of the issue in 1956.[3]

Ryan was a member of the Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, which was under the influential chairmanship of Senator McCallum. Beginning its inquiries in December 1954, the committee referred to the practical problems associated with the fact that most government departments had remained in Melbourne when the federal Parliament removed to Canberra in 1927. Ryan was assiduous in his attendance at the committee’s hearings, questioning witnesses closely. Participating in the debate on the tabling of the select committee’s comprehensive report, Ryan told the Senate that he felt honoured to have been associated with the committee to which many expert witnesses had given evidence. He believed that Walter Burley Griffin’s original plan had been adhered to closely but that Canberra needed a central authority to champion its future development: ‘That’, he argued, ‘is the moral responsibility of the Parliament’. He criticised the lack of long-range finance for a works program to ensure the development of the national capital. He felt that Canberra, ‘a city unto itself’, should ‘be developed in a manner befitting a national capital’. His own particular interest was in the development of parks, gardens and reserves.

Such was his interest in Canberra that Ryan became a member of the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, again with McCallum as chairman. In September 1957 the committee was requested to inquire into trading hours in Canberra, its report recommending the restriction of trading hours by legislation, the retention of Saturday morning trading, and late-night shopping on one weekday. Ryan joined three other committee members in a dissenting report upholding the principle of the 40-hour week, rejecting Saturday morning shopping and only accepting late-night trading where employees were paid penalty rates.[4]

A highlight of Ryan’s parliamentary career was his membership of the Australian delegation to the 46th Inter-Parliamentary Union conference held in London in Westminster Hall in September 1957. During a discussion on the sovereignty of Parliament, Ryan spoke against the practice of the guillotine and the ‘haste and discrimination’ in which legislation was passed. He considered that governments were given mandates ‘to govern for the peace, order and welfare of all’ and that by ‘catering only to sectional and preferential supporters’, democracy itself was destroyed. In his diary, Ryan recorded that his speech had ‘a good House’ and ‘an attentive hearing’, adding that all his colleagues had congratulated him.[5]

Ryan’s term concluded on 30 June 1959 after he had lost preselection for the 1959 election to Clement Ridley, secretary of the Vehicle Builders’ Union, the second largest in the state, and Arnold Drury. On 13 October 1974 Ryan died at his home at 45 Byron Road in the Adelaide suburb of Black Forest, where he had lived since a young man of twenty-four. He had celebrated his golden wedding anniversary in March, and not long before his passing completed the daily crossword, crossword puzzles having been one of his passions. Survived by his wife Maud, a daughter, Rhonda, and three sons, Dean and John (twins), and Daniel, he was buried at Centennial Park Cemetery. A son and daughter predeceased him. Clyde Cameron remembers him as being of a retiring disposition, while Ryan’s grandson, David Ryan, speaks of ‘a very principled person’, who entered politics to improve the lot of working-class people, but who was frustrated at having been unable to achieve his goals because of the overwhelming pressure of the party system.[6]

Maureen Chan

[1] Letter, David Ryan (grandson) to author, 17 May 1999; Advertiser (Adel.), 20 Jan. 1950, p. 15, 16 Oct. 1974, p. 13; Information provided by Mark Hulme, SA national secretary, baking section, Australian Liquor and Hospitality Miscellaneous Workers’ Union; Sid O’Flaherty, A Synopsis of the Formation and the Historical Records of the Australian Labor Party, South Australian Branch 1882–1956, Adelaide, 1956, p. 55; Don Hopgood, ‘Lang Labor in South Australia’, Labour History, Nov. 1969, pp. 161–73; Jim Moss, Sound of Trumpets: History of the Labour Movement in South Australia, Wakefield Press, Netley, SA, 1985, pp. 313–16; Advertiser and Register (Adel.), 14 Aug. 1931, p. 21; Advertiser (Adel.), 17 July 1934, p. 11; Letter, Clyde Cameron to author, 7 April 1999; Information provided by Clyde Cameron.

[2] CPD, 1 Mar. 1950, pp. 180–3, 31 Oct. 1950, pp. 1598-601, 1 Nov. 1950, pp. 1671–4, 13 Oct. 1955, pp. 496-501, 16 Sept. 1952, pp. 1427-30, 20 Oct. 1954, p. 850.

[3] Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 10th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2001, pp. 121–2; Moss, Sound of Trumpets, p. 374; CPD, 19 Oct. 1950, p. 1045, 14 June 1956, pp. 1546-54, 19 Oct. 1954, pp. 819-20, 1 June 1955, pp. 568-73, 20 Oct. 1955, pp. 603-5, 6 Sept. 1956, p. 149.

[4] Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, report, 1955, Table Office, Department of the Senate; Eric Sparke, Canberra 1954–1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, pp. 36-49; CPD, 15 May 1956, pp. 726–8; CPP, Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, report on trading hours in Canberra, 1959.

[5] CPP, Report of the Australian delegation to the forty-sixth conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, London, 1957, 1959, pp. 28–9; Diary of John Victor Ryan, 12 & 16 Sept. 1957 (held by Ryan’s daughter).

[6] Letter, Clyde Cameron to author, 7 Apr. 1999; Information provided by Clyde Cameron; Advertiser (Adel.), 16 Oct. 1974, p. 13; Letter, David Ryan to author, 17 May 1999.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 317-320.

RYAN, John Victor (1890–1974)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1950–59

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, 1954–55

House Committee, 1956–58

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1957–58