TURNBULL, Reginald John David (1908–2006)
Senator for Tasmania, 1962–74 (Independent; Australia Party; Independent)

Reginald John David Turnbull was the first independent to be elected to the Senate after the introduction of the proportional voting system in 1949. He represented Tasmania from 1 July 1962 until his decision not to contest the election of 18 May 1974. He had an earlier career in Tasmanian state and local politics, where he served as Minister for Health from 1948 to 1959 and Treasurer from 1956 to 1959, and was the Mayor of Launceston from 1964 to 1965. Turnbull was a controversial politician: he was effectively expelled from the Labor Party in 1959; he held the balance of power in the Senate from 1962 to 1965, with his state companion George Cole, and spent eight unhappy months as the leader of the Australia Party. Throughout his political career he remained a general practitioner because ‘politics always came second to medicine’. He was deregistered as a medical practitioner in Tasmania and New South Wales for a year in the mid-1970s for ‘infamous conduct’.[1]

Reg Turnbull was born on 21 February 1908 in Shanghai, China, where his Australian father, William John Turnbull, was a journalist on the North-China Daily News. Turnbull senior died when Reg was a small boy. His Singapore-born mother, Bertha (Betty) née Widler, then married Enos Soren Thellefsen, whom Reg came to idolise. He had commenced his primary education at Jewell’s Private Day Boarding School in Shanghai and, with his brother, attended Wesley College, Melbourne, where he acquired the nickname ‘Spot’ because of a prominent mole on his forehead. At Wesley, Turnbull was a contemporary and academic rival of future Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, and benefited from the progressive ideas of headmaster Dick Adamson, who made him head prefect. He commenced medical studies at the University of Melbourne in 1928 and graduated MB BS in 1933.[2]

While at University, Turnbull met Jean Elizabeth Ffrost, the daughter of a Bendigo medical practitioner. They married in secret at the Manse, Parkville, Victoria, on 11 June 1929; Elizabeth, at nineteen, was under age (she gave her age as twenty-one). The couple moved to Brisbane, where Turnbull took up a residency at the Brisbane General Hospital because the pay was better than in Melbourne. In 1936 they returned to Melbourne where Turnbull hoped to purchase a practice; finding this to be too expensive they moved to the Tasmanian town of Launceston. Despite being a newcomer in a rather insular society, he rapidly built up a practice by a willingness to do house calls at night. Medicine drew Turnbull to a second career in politics. In the pre-sulphur drug age, he became alarmed at the high incidence of tuberculosis and approached a friend in the United Australia Party (UAP) to canvass its attitude to compulsory screening. The UAP baulked at compulsion but Labor said it was in favour, and so Turnbull joined the ALP.

In 1942 Turnbull was called up for service in the Citizen Military Forces (having spent six years in the Melbourne University Regiment). He volunteered for service with the AIF the same year. As a major in the 12th Australian Field Ambulance, he served in Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory, and was discharged on 9 May 1944. Despite the party’s earlier commitments, successive state Labor governments had not acted on the problem of tuberculosis and this provoked Turnbull to run as a Labor candidate for the state seat of Bass, where he topped the poll. After only two years as a backbencher he was appointed Minister for Health on 2 September 1948. He was an activist minister who reformed the administration of his department, introduced mandatory screening for TB, and organised the recruitment of doctors from overseas to overcome shortages of general practitioners in country areas. Through his efforts, anti-cancer clinics were established in Tasmania in 1952, and the smear test for cervical cancer became available on a statewide basis in 1959. Turnbull believed that Tasmania was ahead of the rest of the country in both areas. It was said by a senior public servant that Dr Turnbull ‘passed the three tests of a good minister in that he listened to advice, he made up his mind, and he backed his head of department’.[3]

At this time, he was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘well groomed’ with ‘something of the suavity and manner’ of the actor, David Niven. He was also said to be an ‘extreme individualist’, who was unusually blunt, ‘with no apparent understanding of or regard for political subtleties’. Spot displayed little comprehension of the conventions of collective responsibility, and regularly disagreed publicly with government policies and criticised his fellow ministers. In October 1956, while retaining responsibility for Health, Turnbull was appointed Treasurer in the hope that this might ‘moderate his demands for more health expenditure’. In June 1958 he was charged with soliciting a bribe from a Sydney businessman over the granting of a lottery licence. He resigned his portfolios, was tried twice and acquitted, and returned to the ministry four months later. However, he had made so many enemies that he was forced from the Cabinet in April 1959, dismissed by the Governor after refusing to resign, and his membership of the ALP was suspended. Turnbull’s dismissal precipitated an early election, and he was returned as an independent in Bass with an extraordinarily high vote of 28 per cent. Concurrently with his state and federal terms, Turnbull served as an alderman on the Launceston City Council from 1959 to 1965 and from 1966 to 1967 and as Mayor of Launceston from 1964 to 1965. In 1960 he was instrumental in the council’s decision to add fluoride to the Launceston water supply. Turnbull soon became bored with life as a backbencher in the Tasmanian Parliament, and successfully contested the 1961 Senate election as an independent.[4]

Throughout his Senate career Turnbull retained his independence of mind on controversial issues: he supported equal pay for women workers, the lowering of the voting age to eighteen, public health insurance, and the presence of United States military bases in Australia. He opposed censorship, state aid to religious schools, and criticised the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. A frequent and constructive contributor to debates on national health, he supported banning of cigarette advertising. When Australian troop commitments to Vietnam began to increase in 1965 he became a passionate opponent of the war and of conscription for military service. Yet he believed in Australia having a strong defence force, even to the point of acquiring nuclear weapons to assist ‘in developing northern Australia’.[5]

From 1 July 1962 until 1 July 1968, Turnbull was part of a group of minor party and independent senators who held the ‘balance of power’. As he explained in 1974, ‘I enjoyed being in the Senate. Cole was the DLP [Democratic Labor Party] Member and he and I, if we joined together we had balance of power. We only used it occasionally, I don’t think we ever abused it’. In 1964 the freight company IPEC-Air applied to the Director-General of Civil Aviation to import aircraft to operate an inter-city freight service. In a ruthless application of the two-airline policy, the request was refused and IPEC appealed unsuccessfully to the High Court, and then applied for leave to appeal to the Privy Council. While the appeal was in progress the Government issued a regulation that undermined the basis of IPEC’s appeal. Senators from geographically isolated states were often frustrated by the limitations placed on passenger and flight options by the two-airline policy, and Turnbull was no exception. Asking a series of probing questions in the Senate, he made it clear that unless the Government agreed to pay the company’s legal costs he would vote to disallow the regulation. The Government wavered, but two Liberal senators supported the Opposition and the regulation was disallowed. In May 1967 Turnbull voted with the Opposition to defeat the second reading of the Government’s Post and Telegraph Rates Bill.[6]

Spot Turnbull was prominent in what became known as the VIP affair, which centred on the Holt Government’s attempts to keep secret the details of dignitaries who flew on the RAAF’s 34 Squadron. In May 1966, responding to parliamentary questions about the use of the aircraft, Prime Minister Harold Holt replied that details of passengers and their destinations were not ‘retained for long’. Labor lost interest in the issue, but throughout 1966 and 1967 Turnbull and the DLP senators continued to probe the Government about the use of the aircraft. Turnbull had been briefed by an RAAF wing commander who had told him that passenger manifests were kept for twelve months. According to Turnbull, Labor senator Lionel Murphy saw that the issue could embarrass the Government. Turnbull and Murphy went to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, John Gorton, and informed him that they intended to call the permanent head of the Department of Air to the bar of the Senate and question him about the VIP flight manifests. After an order for papers was carried with Turnbull’s vote, Gorton tabled the relevant documents in the Senate, which revealed that Holt and the Minister for Air, Peter Howson, had misinformed Parliament about the existence of the records. The affair caused a furore and damaged the Government at the 1967 half-Senate election.[7]

Ironically, it was this election that significantly reduced Turnbull’s political influence, as the four DLP senators no longer needed his vote to exercise the balance of power. He lost interest in politics and despite selling his Tasmanian medical practice in 1969, continued to work as a locum and was criticised for frequent absences from Parliament. It was something of a surprise when in June 1969 Turnbull announced his intention to form a new political party, subsequently named the Australia Party. The new party was a version of the Liberal Reform Group, later known as the Liberal Reform Movement (LRM), which had been formed in 1966 by Sydney businessman Gordon Barton as a protest against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. On that issue the membership of the Australia Party and Senator Turnbull were in furious agreement, but the union was to be brief and unhappy. A number of prominent LRM members resigned because they believed that the executive had behaved undemocratically in holding secret merger meetings with Turnbull. Also, Turnbull’s ‘Fortress Australia’ defence policy and his advocacy of developing nuclear weapons alarmed the more pacifistic members of the Australia Party. At a personal level, the demands of being a party leader with no staff restricted Turnbull’s ability to practise his primary profession of medicine. The party contested thirty-seven House of Representatives seats at the October 1969 federal election but polled less than 1 per cent of the vote and did only slightly better in the Senate. On 3 March 1970 Turnbull announced that he had resigned from the Australia Party and would revert to being an independent.[8]

Turnbull decided not to contest the 1974 election because he ‘just didn’t like the atmosphere’ in Parliament and the manner in which the Opposition in the Senate harassed the Whitlam Government, and Senator Lionel Murphy in particular. In 1973, discussing the pursuit of Murphy, he referred to ‘the smell of death in this chamber, of people waiting to kill … They are waiting and thinking: “We have got him, we have got the numbers” ’.

Turnbull continued to practise medicine and was to be involved in one final public controversy when in 1975 a seventeen-year-old girl claimed that he ‘had interfered with her at his rooms’. Turnbull vigorously denied the allegations and no charges were laid, but the Tasmanian Medical Council deregistered him for ‘infamous conduct’ in September 1975. He remained bitter about the incident and believed it was ‘a set-up job’. Reinstated in December 1976, he practised at George Town, and chose not to renew his registration on 1 January 1986. He retired to Melbourne where he died on 17 July 2006, aged ninety-eight. Predeceased by his first wife, he was survived by his second wife, Ellen Grace (Nell) Fullerton, née Ramsay, whom he had married on 21 July 1987 at Wesley College Chapel, Prahran, and by his three children. His funeral service was held at Wesley College Chapel, Melbourne, followed by a memorial service at St John’s Church, Launceston. For someone who ‘never wanted to go into politics’ he had a remarkable career in two parliaments for nearly three decades. Proud of his record and not burdened by modesty, he declared: ‘I was always ahead of my time, both in medicine and politics’. He was ‘the stormy petrel’ of Tasmanian politics, but his achievements as Minister for Health were ground-breaking.[9]

Brian Costar

[1] Reginald John David Turnbull, Transcript of oral history interview with Tony Hannan, 1983, POHP, TRC 4900/4, NLA, p. 3:20; Examiner (Launc.), 24 May 2006, p. 35.

[2] Lion, Wesley College, no. 96, Nov. 2005, pp. 10–11; Reginald John David Turnbull, Transcript of oral history interview with Suzanne Walker, 1974, TRC 313, NLA, p. 1:1/3; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Tony Hannan, pp. 1:1–2, 1:4; The editor is indebted to Margot Vaughan, Wesley College Archives, Melbourne.

[3] Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Tony Hannan, pp. 1:6, 1:10, 1:12, 1:14–15, 1:22, 2:4–7; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Suzanne Walker, p. 1:1/17; Age (Melb.), 25 July 2006, p. 10; Turnbull, Reginald John David—Defence Service Record, B883, TX6006, NAA; Mercury (Hob.), 24 Mar. 1949, p. 11, 14 Sept. 1950, p. 5, 9 May 1951, p. 10, 28 June 1952, p. 8; New Australasian Post (Melb.), 31 July 1952, p. 8; DT (Syd.), 4 July 1953, p. 15; Tasmania, Department of Public Health, Reports, 1953, p. 25, 1954, p. 10; Tasmania, Department of Health Services, Report, 1959, p. 6; W. A. Townsley, The Government of Tasmania, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1976, p. 104.

[4] SMH, 24 May 1958, p. 2; Townsley, The Government of Tasmania, pp. 50, 102–3, 106, 111; Richard Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, pp. 45–6, 55, 58; Examiner (Launc.), 12 June 1958, p. 1, 29 Oct. 1958, p. 1; R. v. Turnbull [1958] Tas SR 80; Examiner (Launc.), 8 Apr. 1959, pp. 1, 5, 10 Apr. 1959, p. 1; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Tony Hannan, pp. 3:5–6; The editor is indebted to Ross Smith, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston; Examiner (Launc.), 15 Mar. 1960, p. 1; L. L. Shea, ‘This is Your Life: Dr Reginald John David Turnbull, Eminent Tasmanian Politician, 1908–1998, 90 Years On’, Melbourne, 20 Feb. 1998, p. 3; Examiner (Launc.), 22 July 2006, pp. 35–6.

[5] CPD, 13 Oct. 1966, pp. 1053–4, 26 Aug. 1969, pp. 353–4, 25 Aug. 1964, pp. 218–19; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Tony Hannan, p. 4:1; CPD, 22 Sept. 1966, pp. 669–70, 28 Aug. 1969, p. 478, 27 Mar. 1973, pp. 585–8, 21 May 1970, p. 1732, 3 June 1970, pp. 1929, 1961, 1966, 5 Mar. 1964, pp. 230–1, 6 May 1965, pp. 626–32, 6 June 1968, pp. 1485–8, 2 Mar. 1967, pp. 265–6, 22 Feb. 1967, p. 37.

[6] Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Suzanne Walker, pp. 1:1/43–4; CPD, 25 Aug. 1965, pp. 77–81, 93–5, 24 Aug. 1965, p. 26; AFR (Syd.), 25 Aug. 1965, p. 24, 26 Aug. 1965, p. 1; CPD, 19 May 1967, pp. 1820–3.

[7] Ian Hancock, The V.I.P. Affair 1966–67: The Causes, Course and Consequences of a Ministerial and Public Service Cover-up, Australasian Study of Parliament Group, Canberra, 2004, pp. 4, 27–30, 36, 97–99; Ian Hancock, John Gorton: He Did It His Way, Hodder, Sydney, 2002, pp. 126, 133; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Tony Hannan, p. 4:7; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Suzanne Walker, p. 1:1/45.

[8] Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Suzanne Walker, p. 1:1/46; Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Tony Hannan, pp. 3:19–20, 5:9; Canberra News, 19 Nov. 1970, p. 6; Tony Blackshield, ‘The Australia Party’, Current Affairs Bulletin, 1 July 1972, pp. 35–49; Examiner (Launc.), 23 June 1969, pp. 1–2; Australian (Syd.), 21 July 1969, p. 3; SMH, 4 Mar. 1970, p. 1.

[9] Turnbull, Transcript of interview with Suzanne Walker, pp. 1:1/7, 1:1/45–6; CPD, 5 Apr. 1973, pp. 915–18; Examiner (Launc.), 9 Sept. 2000, p. 21, 10 Sept. 1975, p. 1; The editor is indebted to Annette McLean-Aherne, Registrar/Chief Executive Officer, Medical Council of Tasmania; Age (Melb.), 19 July 2006, p. 12; Examiner (Launc.), 2 Aug. 2006, p. 13; Age (Melb.), 25 July 2006, p. 10; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 5 Nov. 1961, p. 35.

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. 155-159.

TURNBULL, Reginald John David (1908–2006)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1962–74

Tasmanian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Bass, 1946–61

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, 1968–70

Estimates Committee D, 1970–71

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1970–71