SIDDONS, John Royston (1927–2016)
Senator for Victoria, 1981–83; 1985–87 (Australian Democrats; Independent; Unite Australia Party)

John Royston Siddons was born in Melbourne, Victoria on 5 October 1927, the middle child and only son of Royston and Agnes Emily Siddons, née Smith. Agnes was a schoolteacher and Royston an electrical engineer. In 1931 Royston bought a disused metal casting factory in Fitzroy, moving his operations to Clifton Hill in 1934. Initially making cabinet hardware, he later expanded into die-cast padlocks and tools under the name of Sidchrome.

John was educated at Ivanhoe State School from 1933 to 1939. He began his secondary schooling at Preston Technical School, which he enjoyed for its emphasis on hands-on vocational training. Due to his parents’ wishes, he eventually attended Wesley College, Melbourne, from 1943 to 1945. It was a difficult transition. He failed to matriculate, but had always intended to forgo tertiary education in his eagerness to begin work in his father’s business—a future for which he had been groomed since childhood. John often remembered his father saying that he was ‘just waiting for the day you’ll come in and help me run this business’.

The war years saw Sidchrome expand into tool-making for the government under a new company name—Siddons Drop Forging Pty Ltd. John’s first job, in December 1945, was forging drop hammers at the Clifton Hill factory. Long hours and physically demanding labour ensured not only that John was safe from accusations of nepotism, but that he received a first-hand education in being a blue-collar worker—an experience he never forgot when he later became a manager. He recalled: ‘I learned that people in overalls have some pretty good ideas, with brainpower that was not being recognised and used’.

The company expanded to a new location in West Heidelberg in 1950, where production of tools began on a larger scale. Sidchrome became a household name in this period for its high-quality, Australian-made tools and a catchy advertising phrase—’Y’canna hand a man a grander spanner’. Beginning in 1956, the company set up a cooperative consultative system among its employees called ‘work councils’, where a group of elected employees and management met monthly to discuss and negotiate production and work conditions.[1]

While on a trip to the USA in 1949, John saw a revolutionary product being used by Ramset, an American company—a powder-actuated tool gun that greatly sped up the process of fastening slabs of concrete or steel. He eventually secured a licence to produce the tool gun in Australia from 1952, and established Ramset Fasteners (Aust.) Pty Ltd. Despite his father’s initial lack of support, the Ramset gun rapidly made a profit and Sidchrome and Ramset were eventually subsumed into the restructured Siddons Industries Limited (SIL).

John Siddons rose through a series of different positions in the company, where his business acumen and willingness to implement new ideas were soon demonstrated. By 1963 when he took over as Chairman of SIL, however, the company was on shaky ground, fighting off German and Japanese manufacturing rivals who flooded the Australian market with cheaper tools.

Employee share ownership was introduced in 1970 at SIL, which Siddons credited with saving the company. Subsequent development of a ‘cellular’ organisation structure saw small cells of employees grouped by manufacturing of a particular product (rather than in departments), where each group decided its goals, budget and monthly output.

Despite his respect for his father’s successes, John frequently clashed with Royston over different approaches to strengthening the business. John continued to develop ideas of industrial democracy, while his father became increasingly authoritarian and controlling, often sacking employees indiscriminately. The two did not reconcile their methods before Royston’s death in 1976.

On 15 May 1954, at Naracoorte, South Australia, John married Rosemary Wallace in the local Presbyterian Church. They were to have a large family, consisting of five boys and their youngest, a girl. Tragically their oldest child, Scott, died in an accident at the age of thirteen in 1969. This event, along with reading Gandhi’s All Men Are Brothers, led Siddons to re-evaluate his future: he came to believe that ‘I should be trying to doing something else other than make money … Politics is where things happen’.[2]

Siddons joined the small Australia Party (AP), started by Gordon Barton. He was attracted by the party’s environmental policies and commitment to participatory democracy. Siddons was an unsuccessful AP candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Diamond Valley in 1972, and for the Senate for Victoria in 1974 and 1975. He led the AP from 1974 to 1976 after Barton’s retirement.

In 1977 the Australian Democrats (AD) was formed, through a merger of the AP and the South Australian New Liberal Movement. Political stalwart Don Chipp had resigned from the Liberal Party and, after discussions with Siddons and others, he accepted the Democrats’ leadership. Chipp’s involvement aroused media interest, and the Democrats were seen as a serious new centre party. Siddons, the party’s national president (1977–79, 1983–84), was a Victorian Senate candidate in 1977, and finally won election to the Senate for the Democrats in October 1980, for a term beginning on 1 July 1981. While he relinquished direct control of the family company upon entering the Senate, he remained non-executive chairman.

Not surprisingly, Siddons’ main political goals were industrial and economic reform, democratising the workplace and protecting Australian business interests. He frequently cited his personal career experience as evidence for his expertise, and was ‘horrified’ at how few parliamentarians had any background in business.

Siddons’ focus was manifested in his 1981 Industrial Democracy Bill, in which he proposed that the government give businesses financial incentives for adopting profit and ownership sharing schemes with employees. The bill had the support of the ACTU and Bob Hawke, then shadow minister for industrial relations, and was passed by the Senate on 26 November—a notable achievement for a minor party senator. Despite his persistence, however, the measure was not supported in the House of Representatives by Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition Government. According to Siddons, Hawke had promised that the bill would be one of the first for consideration under a Labor ministry, but this never eventuated after the election of the Hawke Government in 1983.

Siddons espoused the need for governments to pursue better forward planning for Australian industries. He was also concerned with what he saw as the increasing domination of foreign capital and business, and in 1984 he opposed allowing more overseas banks to set up in Australia. While Siddons always believed unions were necessary and important, he also felt that existing arbitration systems encouraged ‘false expectations among unions and diminished responsibility among management’. He argued that management and employees should negotiate directly, with unions in an advisory role. He also believed that ‘negotiations ought to be conducted at the lowest administrative level possible, leaving out senior management’.

In September 1981 the Senate established the Select Committee on the Government Clothing and Ordnance Factories to consider a proposal by the Fraser Government’s ‘razor gang’ to close the government ordnance factory in Bendigo and the government clothing factory at Coburg, Melbourne. Siddons, who believed that both were well-run and essential enterprises, was a member of the committee. Doubting that his Liberal colleagues on the committee carried sufficient political weight, Siddons asked the Senate Opposition leader, John Button, for advice on how to make the government take the committee seriously. Button joined the committee himself, and he and Siddons wrote dissenting reports to the committee’s recommendations that the factories be sold; in the end, the factories remained open.[3]

Siddons lost his seat in the 1983 election, and had to wait until the 1984 half-Senate election to be re-elected. On re-entering the Senate in July 1985 he introduced ‘a re-vamped Industrial Democracy Bill’; in this instance, the bill did not progress beyond the second reading motion. As the Democrats’ spokesperson for industrial relations, treasury, finance, and industry and commerce, his time was engaged primarily with negotiating amendments to the Hawke Government’s sweeping tax reform package. Siddons won some concessions, and was most proud of his negotiations over the capital gains tax, where the Democrats’ amendments ensured that the tax would be indexed for inflation, would not be retrospective, and that family homes would be exempt. For Siddons, it was ‘a very important victory’.

Siddons was a senator during a heady time for the Democrats, when their numbers rose to seven senators by 1984 and the party held the balance of power in the Senate in its own right. However, cracks soon appeared in the party’s unity, particularly during Siddons’ second term. His initially collegial relationship with Chipp and Janine Haines quickly deteriorated in this period—all were strong-willed personalities. In May 1986 Siddons’ authority within the party was undermined by public disagreement with Chipp over tax policies, and party room discussions of this issue were heated.

Chipp’s campaign against Australian business involvement in South Africa under its apartheid regime also embarrassed Siddons by drawing attention to his company’s South African investments. The ensuing media attention forced Siddons to close all interests there. Events came to a head with Chipp’s resignation from the Senate and as Democrats leader in August 1986. Siddons felt betrayed by Chipp’s unequivocal choice of Haines as his successor. Haines was duly elected leader, with Siddons serving as deputy leader from August to his resignation from the party in November 1986.[4]

After Chipp’s retirement the seven AD senators often divided in the party room into two clear factions—Siddons, Colin Mason and David Vigor against Haines, Norman Sanders, Janet Powell, and Michael Macklin. This rift was indicative of deeper ideological divisions in the party. Siddons continued to believe that the Democrats had a larger part to play in both houses of Parliament and that one day the Democrats could even replace one of the major parties. Others believed in centralising influence in the Senate and using the party’s balance of power as political leverage.

Ironically, the Democrats’ central principle of participatory democracy was also divisive. The party was caught in a constant tension between the ‘principle of Members of Parliament having a free conscience vote on every issue and the need for some coherence in the party’s approach to policy issues’.

The final straw for Siddons came with the party’s disagreement on the Fertilisers Subsidy Bill 1986, when the Democrats vote in the Senate split on the four to three factional lines. Siddons was furious that Haines opposed the bill, which proposed that subsidies on imported fertiliser be removed, a measure which he believed was essential for the local Australian fertiliser industry.

On 26 November 1986 Siddons announced his resignation from the Democrats, telling the Senate that the majority of AD senators paid only ‘lip service’ to their party’s economic policies. A few months later he bitterly described his former party as ‘a stinking, decaying compost heap’.[5]

In December 1986 Siddons became leader of a new political group, the Unite Australia Party, which incorporated the small Advance Australia Party and the mostly Victoria-based remnants of the Australia Party. Siddons, who was joined by David Vigor, was confident of attracting former AD voters. However, significant defections to the Unite Australia group did not eventuate and both Siddons and Vigor lost their seats in the double dissolution election of July 1987; the party was deregistered in 1990. During the 1990s Siddons was a House of Representatives candidate at three general elections, on the last two occasions again standing as an Australian Democrat.

After leaving Parliament, Siddons went back to managing his company, which changed its name to Siddons Ramset Limited in 1988. Despite his best efforts, the family company was taken over by a large American business conglomerate, Illinois Tool Works Inc., in 2000. In subsequent years, Siddons became involved in various ventures including a new company, Siddons Solarstream, and published an autobiography and three books on philosophy. Siddons passed away on 22 September 2016, survived by his wife Rosemary.

John Siddons represented several paradoxes: an industry capitalist with unusual tendencies towards a democratic, decentralised workplace and environmentalism; a founding member of a party that was suspicious of big business; and a protector of Australian business interests but eager to borrow ideas from international manufacturers and turn them into profit at home.

Perhaps Siddons’ most important legacy in the Senate was his attempt to legislate principles of industrial democracy. He remained greatly disappointed by the failure of his industrial democracy bills, but was fatalistic about it: ‘The ideal of Industrial Democracy is accepted almost as readily as motherhood, but when it comes to implementation there is resistance’.[6]

Rosalind Hearder

[1] John Siddons, A Spanner In the Works, Macmillan, South Melb., 1990; Transcript of interview with John R. Siddons by Adam Ashforth, Dec. 1987–Jan. 1988, POHP (access restricted); Recording of author interview with John Siddons, 22 July, 2010; John Lack, ‘Siddons, Royston’ ADB, vol. 16; Brian Carroll, Australia Made: Success Stories In Australian Manufacturing Since 1937, Institution of Production Engineers Australia Council, Parkville, Vic., 1987, pp. 122–5.

[2] POHP; author interview; Siddons, A Spanner In the Works; Brian Carroll, Australia Made; Age (Melb.), 6 April 1981, p. 19.

[3] Australian Democrats, 30 years, Australian Democrats, East Melb., Vic., 2007; ‘Australian Democrats: the passing of an era’, Research Paper No. 25, 2008–9, Parliamentary Library; CPD, 19 Aug. 1981, p. 72, 27 Aug. 1981, p. 422; Peter Stirling, ‘Taking the shop floor to Canberra’, Australian Business (Melb.), 22 Oct. 1981, pp. 67–8; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 15 June 1986, p. 49; WA (Perth), 15 Feb. 1984, p. 72; Press Release, Senator John Siddons, 15 July 1981, 27 Aug. 1981, 27 Nov. 1981; Siddons, A Spanner In the Works, pp. 179–180; Select Committee on the Government Clothing and Ordnance Factories, The Future of Ordnance Factory Bendigo and The Future of the Clothing Factory at Coburg, Canberra, 1982.

[4] POHP; CPD, 21 Aug. 1985, p. 54, 9 Oct. 1985, pp. 914–16, 11 Oct. 1985, pp. 1053–4, 5 Nov. 1985, pp. 1542–4, 6 Nov. 1985, pp. 1638–42, 4 June 1986, pp. 3403– 5, 17 Oct. 1986, pp. 1476–80; Australian, (Syd.), 22 May 1986, pp. 1–2; Transcript, ABC TV, ‘Carleton-Walsh Report’, 12 Nov. 1985, 26 Nov. 1985; CPD, 21 Aug. 1985, pp. 88–9; Laurie Oakes, ‘Top democrat red faced over South Africa’, The Bulletin (Syd.), 6 Aug. 1985, pp. 37–8; SMH, 29 Nov. 1986, p. 23.

[5] POHP; author interview; John Warhurst, (ed.), Keeping the Bastards Honest, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1997, pp. 16–18; Australian (Syd.), 28 Nov. 1986, p. 8; Media Release, Senator John Siddons, 26 Nov. 1986; Age (Melb.), 12 Jan. 1987, p. 3.

[6] CT, 4 Dec. 1986, p. 3, 16 Dec. 1986, p.3; Siddons, A Spanner In the Works.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 438-442.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1981–83; 1985–87 (AD; Ind; Unite AP)

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on South West Tasmania, 1981

Select Committee on the Government Clothing and Ordnance Factories, 1981–82

Standing Committee on Trade and Commerce, 1981–83

Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation, 1982–83

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1985