TOOHEY, James Philip (1909–1992)
Senator for South Australia, 1953–71 (Australian Labor Party)

James Philip Toohey, union official and Labor Party secretary, played a central role in holding together Labor’s South Australian branch during the ALP Split of 1954–55. Jim, as he was known, was born in Rose Park, Adelaide, on 11 July 1909, the eighth of eleven children of James Patrick, a builder’s labourer, and Lilian née Morgan. Educated at various state and Catholic schools in Adelaide’s western suburbs, he was a bright and promising pupil. But the family’s income did not allow for the basic necessities, such as shoes for all the children, and when he was fourteen his father made him leave school and get a job. After several unskilled and semi-skilled factory jobs (Holden & Frost Ltd, Harris Scarfe Limited, Scott Bonnar & Co.), Jim was apprenticed to a joiner (Baldock & Sons), and by the mid-1930s was working for T. J. Richards & Sons, well known in Adelaide as a firm of motor body builders. It was here that the small, softly spoken young man from a thoroughly working-class family began to develop his later reputation as a trade union militant. Influenced by his father and elder brother, he had taken an early interest in union affairs and Labor politics.[1]

Toohey, who during the Depression had suffered unemployment, deprivation, and above all humiliation, became a member of the Richmond and Keswick branch of the ALP in about 1927. At various times he was secretary of the Glenelg Labor electoral committee, chairman of the Richmond sub-branch and secretary of the Keswick sub-branch. When T. J. Richards began a time and motion study of its employees in the late 1930s, Toohey protested and was demoted; when his next employer, General Motors-Holden’s Ltd, began another such study in the early 1940s, Toohey led a strike against the firm. Although he had long been a shop steward, these events brought him into prominence in the South Australian branch of the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation of Australia (VBEF). In March 1944 he was elected as the full-time assistant secretary and organiser of the VBEF, holding the position until 1947; from 1946 to 1950 he was a member of the union’s Journal Committee. In 1947, and between 1953 and 1959, he was a delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia. From 1944 to 1947 and from 1954 to 1959, he was the union’s delegate to the ALP state council and convention. His VBEF positions involved frequent travel around the country areas of South Australia, as well as representing the union in the state’s Industrial Court in Adelaide.[2]

The state ALP’s annual convention in 1946, at which Toohey was VBEF delegate, was a turning point in his career, for it was on this occasion that he met the future Member for Hindmarsh, Clyde Cameron. Cameron and Toohey represented the two largest unions in the state—the Australian Workers’ Union and the VBEF respectively—and from that point forged one of the most successful partnerships in Australian labour history. Aided by Cameron and backed by both unions, Toohey was overwhelmingly elected the ALP’s state secretary, serving from 1947 until 1953. The two began reorganising the state branch in an effort to restore its unity and prevent another outbreak of the factionalism that had split the party into three distinct groups in the early 1930s. Reintroducing the card vote (which ensured that affiliated unions would be represented at forums of the branch according to their numerical strength) and inaugurating the consensus method (which enabled all factions within the party to get their fair share of jobs and posts), they transformed the state branch, and for nearly thirty years it was the most harmonious in the land, the envy of its counterparts in the eastern states. For most of this time, Cameron and Toohey were its most powerful figures, eventually becoming known as ‘the patriarchs’.[3]

Both Cameron and Toohey preferred to preside over the state branch from the vantage point of a seat in the federal Parliament. While Cameron secured a safe seat in the House of Representatives in 1949, Toohey agreed to stand for the Senate in 1953. Preparing himself for politics, from 1947 to 1949 he had served as a councillor with the Municipal Corporation of West Torrens, where he was an advocate of the single land tax, an enthusiasm he shared with Cameron. An active member of the ALP’s Federal Executive between 1948 and 1960, Toohey opposed the 1950 Communist Party Dissolution Bill. In the following year, when a proposal to ban the Communist Party was put to a referendum, he campaigned in support of the successful ‘no’ case. In 1953 he joined the Fabian Society in South Australia. Well liked and renowned as a calming influence in party debate, Toohey never had to struggle either to enter or remain in the Parliament. Nominating for Labor preselection, he was allocated third place on the party’s ticket, and at the Senate election of May 1953, won fifth place at the poll. Thereafter his seat was never in doubt. In 1954 and 1955 he served as state president of the ALP. At the federal elections in 1958 and 1964, he was placed first on the state Labor Senate ticket.[4]

Imbued with the culture of his home state and the South Australian Labor Party, Toohey’s stay in the federal Parliament was long and secure, but his performance in the Senate was hardly out of the ordinary. During his eighteen years there, he accepted appointment on some half dozen parliamentary committees, but none seems to have engaged his passion, except perhaps the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory. In Senate debate, while he was a confident and competent speaker, he was never a compelling one. His well-modulated voice and calm and careful delivery made his speeches easy to listen to, but they were seldom original or even especially well researched. It was the man who was impressive rather than what he said.[5]

He frequently pressed the Government of R. G. Menzies to reduce sales tax, particularly on automobiles, foodstuffs containing dried fruits, and canned fish. In the 1950s Toohey urged the establishment of a steelworks in Whyalla; and in 1962 he unsuccesfully requested an amendment to the budget, seeking funding for the standardisation of the railway gauge between Broken Hill and Port Pirie, the issue having made the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser. Later he supported the building of the controversial Chowilla Dam and, to a lesser extent, its successor, the Dartmouth Dam. He pressed the interests of the state’s wine industry and urged greater support for towns devastated when the River Murray burst its banks in the winter of 1956.[6]

When he spoke on such matters as old-age pensions, widows’ pensions, invalid pensions, child endowment, pharmaceutical benefits and war service homes, and, not least of all, people’s ignorance of their entitlements, it was with some authority and with much greater credibility than his not infrequent forays into foreign affairs. Insofar as his contributions to the Senate were notable, it was because of his persistence in demanding liberalisation of, and amendments to, the slowly expanding welfare system in Australia. He also supported Labor’s plea for an inquiry into poverty in 1967, and called for an end to discrimination against Aboriginal women receiving social security benefits.[7]

In the Senate, the assertive trade union official who had at times been too left-wing for his own union, and the energetic ALP secretary who had helped Cameron rid the state branch of the Industrial Groups was hardly a firebrand. Toohey constantly urged that Australia do away with appeals to the Privy Council, yet had no hesitation in expressing his party’s affectionate loyalty to the Queen. He often attacked BHP but took pains to assure his listeners that the Labor Party had no intention of nationalising the steel industry. On several occasions he stood up for the big car manufacturers in South Australia (General Motors-Holden’s and Chrysler), albeit in the hope that they could take on more operatives or at least retain those they had. Indeed, he spoke up for the interests of particular industries as often as he did for the workers, the unemployed, the poor, and the underprivileged generally.[8]

For the most part, Toohey’s targets were those of his party. It was an article of faith in the ALP that the press was biased against it. Yet, while Toohey often criticised the press, it was less on the grounds that it favoured the Government than that ownership of it was concentrated in too few hands. It was another article of faith that national service was un-Australian. Yet he was less interested in attacking compulsory military training than in advocating the build-up of the air force and decrying the scaling down of the aircraft manufacturing industry. He attacked the Liberal–Country Party’s promotion of private banks but this was mainly because he saw the Menzies Government’s policy as a threat to the Commonwealth Bank. Although he often attacked the Playford Liberal and Country League Government in South Australia, he was less concerned with its policies than with the fact that it retained power by means of a notorious gerrymander. Toward the end of his parliamentary career, he revealed his true attitude to Playford when he castigated a Liberal senator for having ‘undermined the credibility of one of the greatest leaders South Australia ever had’. That Playford, Premier of South Australia (1938–65), was a great South Australian was more important to Toohey than that he had been a lifelong political opponent.[9]

Moreover, Toohey seldom, if ever, got ‘under the skin’ of those on the opposite side of the Senate. It was in his nature to counsel, conciliate and compromise. After he had delivered his first speech, a government senator rose to his feet and congratulated him not only on the ‘considerable thought’ he had given to the speech but also his ‘moderation’ and ‘manner of delivery’. Toohey attacked the policies and actions of the Liberal–Country Party Government, not because these were particularly abhorrent to him but because that was what he had been sent into the Senate to do. Several times he felt obliged to praise the Government.[10]

Toohey never took proceedings in the Senate as seriously as did most of his fellow senators. His loyalty was not to the federal Parliament but to the party that put him there; he was its faithful servant. In the mid-1950s, he was primarily concerned about the welfare of the Australian Labor Party going through the third and worst split in its history. As a member of the party’s federal executive, and senior vice-president from 1955 until 1960, he played a leading role in events that forced the Industrial Groups out of the Victorian branch in 1954 and 1955, yet reconciled the left and right factions in New South Wales in 1955 and 1956. His health was affected by these events. His most active years in the Senate were between 1961 and 1967, followed, in 1968, by a three-month appointment to the United Nations in New York, as a parliamentary delegate. But in May 1969, toward the end of his third term, he admitted that he could not keep up the pace, and did not seek preselection for the 1970 Senate election. He did not, he said, wish to be ‘just a seat-warmer’.[11]

Appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1978, Jim Toohey continued to give service to the South Australian branch of the Labor Party as one of its elder statesmen and an occasional troubleshooter. In 1973 he was appointed temporary secretary of the South Australian branch. For most of these years, he lived in retirement with his wife, Margaret Ann (Maggie), née Griffin, in their home at West Beach and later in a retirement village at West Lakes. The couple had married on 20 February 1937 at St Paul’s Church of England, Adelaide. They had no children. Toohey’s real family was the Labor Party in general, and the state branch in particular. When he died, in the Western Community Hospital, Henley Beach, on 18 August 1992, most of the tributes came from prominent sections and leading figures in the branch. Only months before, the ALP in South Australia had dedicated an executive room in his honour in the Trades Hall building in South Terrace. The dedication speech was delivered by his long-time colleague and close friend, Clyde Cameron. It is doubtful whether either could have enjoyed the life and career he did without the constant support of the other.[12]

Malcolm Saunders

[1] Malcolm Saunders, ‘ “Jim” Toohey (1909–1992): The “Father” of the Labor Party in South Australia’, Labour History, Nov. 2003, pp. 173–92; James Philip Toohey, Transcript of oral history interview with Ron Hurst, 1990, POHP, TRC 4900/107, NLA, pp. 1:1–7, 1:10, 2:1–7; CPD, 19 Aug. 1992, pp. 238–40; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, p. 126.

[2] Toohey, Transcript, pp. 1:11–14, 2:2–7, 2:10; Advertiser (Adel.), 22 Mar. 1944, p. 3; 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; CPD, 19 Aug. 1992, pp. 240–1; John Wanna, ‘The History of Organisational Development in the South Australian Coachmakers’ (Vehicle Builders) Union’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no. 15, 1987, pp. 151, 155; Advertiser (Adel.), 10 Sept. 1947, p. 3; Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation of Australia, SA branch, Annual reports, 1944–60.

[3] Toohey, Transcript, pp. 3:2, 3:8; Advertiser (Adel.), 10 Sept. 1947, p. 3; ALP, SA branch, Official report of the 65th annual state convention, 1968, p. 17; Herald (Adel.), Spring 1992, p. 1; Geoff Stokes, ‘South Australia: Consensus Politics’, in Andrew Parkin and John Warhurst (eds), Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983, pp. 135–42; Geoff Stokes and Richard Cox, ‘The Governing Party: The ALP and the Politics of Consensus’, in Andrew Parkin and Allan Patience (eds), The Dunstan Decade: Social Democracy at the State Level, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1981, pp. 256–65.

[4] The editor acknowledges the assistance of Di Hancock, City of West Torrens; Toohey, Transcript, pp. 5:9–10; ALP, Official reports of Commonwealth conferences, 1948–59; ALP, Federal Secretariat, Federal Executive minutes, 8 Sept. 1960, MS 4985, box 124, NLA; The editor is indebted to John Bannon; South Australian Fabian Society, Minutes, 14 Dec. 1953, SRG 493/1/2, SLSA; CPD, 19 Aug. 1992, p. 242; Advertiser (Adel.), 11 May 1953, p. 3.

[5] CPP, 2/1968; Toohey, Transcript, pp. 5:10–11; CPD, 17 Oct. 1967, p. 1332, 18 Oct. 1967, pp. 1373–5, 30 Apr. 1968, pp. 668–72; CT, 1 Nov. 1967, p. 1; CPD, 23 Sept. 1953, pp. 200–3, 19 Aug. 1992, p. 239.

[6] CPD, 22 Oct. 1953, pp. 858–9, 20 Sept. 1956, pp. 376–7, 8 June 1955, pp. 717–22, 27 Nov. 1957, pp. 1554–7, 12 Sept. 1963, pp. 500–1, 14 Aug. 1963, pp. 25–6, 12 Oct. 1955, p. 452, 10 Oct. 1961, p. 999; Advertiser (Adel.), 24 Aug. 1962, p. 1; Senate, Journals, 30 Aug. 1962, p. 131; CPD, 22 Aug. 1967, pp. 96–7, 31 Aug. 1967, p. 440, 25 Feb. 1969, p. 52, 22 Apr. 1970, pp. 1000–2, 28 Sept. 1961, pp. 747–8; Advertiser (Adel.), 27 Aug. 1956, p. 1.

[7] CPD, 23 Sept. 1953, pp. 201–4; Senate, Journals, 9 Oct. 1957, p. 106, 10 Oct. 1957, pp. 107–11, 18 Apr. 1967, p. 76; CPD, 18 Apr. 1967, pp. 848–50, 10 Oct. 1957, pp. 517–18.

[8] Toohey, Transcript, pp. 2:4, 2:12; CPD, 25 Oct. 1957, pp. 870–1, 11 Aug. 1954, p. 126, 4 Mar. 1964, p. 198, 20 Sept. 1956, pp. 378–9, 23 Aug. 1961, p. 175, 5 Dec. 1960, pp. 2028–32.

[9] CPD, 23 Sept. 1953, pp. 201–4, 17 May 1956, pp. 825–9, 12 Aug. 1959, pp. 41–3, 27 Mar. 1957, p. 226, 20 Sept. 1956, pp. 377–8, 19 Oct. 1956, pp. 766–7, 4 Mar. 1964, p. 201, 27 Mar. 1958, pp. 425–9, 24 Oct. 1961, pp. 1402–6, 14 Mar. 1962, pp. 503–7, 12 Oct. 1955, pp. 452–4, 7 May 1958, pp. 837–41, 2 June 1955, pp. 621–2, 14 Nov. 1957, p. 1307, 22 Apr. 1970, p. 1001.

[10] CPD, 9 Oct. 1957, p. 462, 19 Aug. 1992, p. 237, 23 Sept. 1953, p. 204, 29 Sept. 1966, pp. 818–19, 18 Apr. 1967, p. 845, 12 Nov. 1957, p. 1174, 31 Aug. 1967, p. 442, 29 May 1968, p. 1245.

[11] Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 1 May 1955, p. 13; ALP, Federal Secretariat, Federal Executive minutes, 8 Sept. 1960, MS 4985, box 124, NLA; Toohey, Transcript, pp. 3:4–7, 4:9–10, 6:8; Murray, The Split, pp. 194, 197, 205–6, 227, 231, 259, 287, 294; Graham Freudenberg, Cause for Power: The Official History of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, NSW, 1991, p. 230; Advertiser (Adel.), 9 Jan. 1962, p. 9, 10 May 1969, p. 10.

[12] Advertiser (Adel.), 3 June 1978, p. 4, 19 Aug. 1992, p. 11, 15 Sept. 1973 p. 25; CPD, 19 Aug. 1992, pp. 236–42; Herald (Adel.), Autumn 1992, 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. 202-206.

TOOHEY, James Philip (1909–1992)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for South Australia, 1953–71

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1953–59

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1957–59

Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary and Government Publications, 1962–64

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1962–69

Standing Orders Committee, 1965–67

House Committee, 1965–69

Select Committee on the Canberra Abattoir, 1969