WILKINSON, Lawrence Degenhardt (1903–1991)
Senator for Western Australia, 1966–74 (Australian Labor Party)

Lawrence Degenhardt (Laurie) Wilkinson, telecommunications engineer, grazier and peace activist, was born in Fremantle on 12 November 1903, eldest of three children of Harold Wilkinson, secretary of the Fremantle Gas Company, and Lina Ellie Constance Wilkinson, née Degenhardt. Brought up in Beaconsfield on the fringes of Fremantle, Laurie was a student at Fremantle Boys’ School prior to winning a scholarship to Perth Modern School, which he attended from 1917 to 1920. Harold died in September 1920, and as soon as Laurie had finished his schooling, Lina moved the family to Adelaide to be nearer her family. As the eldest child, Laurie needed to support his mother and siblings. He obtained a position as an apprentice with Unbehaun & Johnstone, electrical engineers, contractors and merchants, becoming an engineer with the firm, and working there until January 1930. Wilkinson studied chemistry and physics at the University of Adelaide from 1921 to 1922, and attended evening classes at the South Australian School of Mines from 1925 to 1929.

On 1 February 1930, at Highgate Congregational Church, Adelaide, Wilkinson married Annie Elizabeth (Nancy) Aitchison, whose father Elliot was a farmer and co-founder and managing director of Cresco Fertilisers. Nancy, who grew up on her parents’ farm, had attended a business college, and was working as her father’s secretary, but she retained a love of the land and was a keen and successful equestrian. With the aid of a £1000 wedding gift from Elliot, the couple purchased a sheep farm near the Western Australian town of Harvey, not far from Perth.[1]

Given that they lacked farming experience and that world prices for farm products were plummeting, it is not surprising that the new venture ran into difficulties. Within a year or so the Wilkinsons were bankrupt, but by 1933 had recovered sufficiently to settle on a smaller dairy farm on the nearby Wokalup flats. At that time teams of unemployed men were paid minimal rates to divert the Harvey River, extend the weir, and dig irrigation canals. Their tools were little more than shovels and wheelbarrows, and they lived with their families in tents. Appalled by the conditions they observed, the Wilkinsons questioned the workings of the economy and society. At first they were drawn to the Douglas Credit movement, with its goals of equal access to goods and services for all, and consumer credit and price regulation, but ultimately they joined the ALP.

In 1938 Wilkinson accepted a position in Perth as a temporary technician with the ABC, whose technicians were employed by the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG). Shortly before the end of that year the family moved to the Perth suburb of Mount Lawley. An enthusiast for technology, Wilkinson made steady progress with the ABC. He was made permanent in 1940 as a broadcast mechanic, and from 1953 to 1964 served as a supervising technician and engineer in the engineering branch’s transmission section. A member of the Electrical Trades Union from 1920, in 1938 he joined the Postal Telecommunications Technicians’ Association, in which he held various offices at state and federal level between 1948 and 1965. In October 1962 he was made a life member. During this period the Wilkinsons renewed their ties to the land, in the late 1940s purchasing forty hectares at Stoneville and, in 1951, six hundred hectares at Wooroloo, where the family spent many weekends and holidays. By 1974 Wilkinson was a member of the Farmers’ Union of Western Australia.[2]

World War II intensified the social and political concerns which the Wilkinsons had developed during the Depression. In the early 1940s Wilkinson left the Anglican Church, in which he had been brought up and was a Licensed Lay Reader, to become a Quaker. In January 1943 he registered as a conscientious objector. In 1947 he and Nancy were accepted into membership of the Perth Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and in 1952 attended a World Conference of Quakers at Oxford. By 1944 he was a member of the Mount Lawley branch of the ALP, of which he became president. From 1947 until 1976 Wilkinson was a member of the ALP state executive. The Wilkinsons also belonged to the Left Book Club and to the Oxford Group Movement, later Moral Re-armament, though they would leave the latter when it moved too far to the right for their liking. Other influences proved more troublesome. In 1949 the PMG requested that ASIO investigate Wilkinson’s alleged communist associations. In 1952 he was assessed by ASIO as a communist sympathiser. In November 1960 Wilkinson was one of several speakers at a public meeting in Perth, organised to oppose proposed amendments to the federal Crimes Act. Next year, he and four other members of the ALP, including Senator Cant, unsuccessfully sued V. L. Ockerby, secretary of the Western Australian Liberal Party, for defamation, following the publication of a newspaper advertisement which suggested that the loudest opponents of the legislation were communists.[3]

Although the Labor Split of 1955 had not directly affected the Western Australian branch of the ALP, the decision of the MHR for Perth, Tom Burke, to join those boycotting the critical Hobart conference, had alienated the left wing of the party with which Wilkinson was in sympathy, and Wilkinson unsuccessfully stood against Burke for preselection. Two years later Burke, who had been defeated in 1955, was forced out of the preselection contest for Perth in acrimonious circumstances. Wilkinson ran in his place, although it was generally understood that the chances of Labor recovering the seat at the November 1958 poll were slim. Nancy Wilkinson sought Labor preselection for Swan at the same election, and the idea of husband and wife standing simultaneously made headlines. According to Nancy, ‘It has always been our goal to share our interests and do things together … [we] have always been anxious to put our Christian beliefs into practice in the social order’. Both were unsuccessful. Laurie again contested Perth for Labor in 1961 and, although defeated, he narrowed the margin.

In January 1964 Wilkinson retired from the PMG’s Department to give more time to his farming interests and continue his political activities, which included opposition to Australian participation in the Vietnam War and, later, a leading role in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement. Since 1950 he had been involved with the Australian Peace Council, and during the 1950s he and Nancy regularly held meetings of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at their home in Perth. A 1958 security file described him as someone who ‘continually emphasises the Christian obligation to find an alternative to recurring wars’, noting that this was an obsession that could make him a security risk.

At the 1966 House of Representatives election, there were special elections for several Senate casual vacancies. There were two positions to be filled in Western Australia, with Labor certain to win one of them. Placed first on the ticket, Wilkinson was elected on 26 November 1966. Re-elected in 1967, he remained in the Senate until 1974.[4]

Wilkinson gave his first speech in the Senate on 1 March 1967 and characteristically began by deploring the increase since the election of the number of Australian servicemen in Vietnam. He doubted that there was a mandate for any increase, as the electorate had shown little interest in Vietnam and had voted on domestic issues. He advocated the establishment of an institute for peace research and conflict resolution studies at the Australian National University. He applauded the Government’s intention to support sheltered workshops for the disabled, and three months before the landmark referendum of May 1967, he called for the Commonwealth to do more for Aboriginal people. Another theme was the desirability of adding value to minerals by local processing before export.

Wilkinson’s major contributions to parliamentary debate centred on his areas of expertise, telecommunications and agriculture. In May 1967 he spoke against a bill to increase postal charges, arguing that better planning and procedures within the PMG would obviate the need for this. Three years later he opposed a similar bill, but this time called for a semi-autonomous post office corporation outside the public service and free from Treasury control. This eventually became Labor policy following the 1973 Royal Commission to investigate management of the Australian Post Office, to which Wilkinson, with Senator McAuliffe, presented a submission.[5]

The first big agricultural issue to attract his attention was the Wheat Industry Stabilisation Bill of 1968, when he strongly attacked the principle of differential prices for wheat sold domestically as opposed to export. With Labor needing expertise in primary industry in the Senate, Wilkinson soon became an ALP spokesman on agricultural issues there, making lead speeches and moving amendments to the Australian Wool Commission Bill in 1970, as well as speaking on the Loan (Farmers’ Debt Adjustment) Bill of 1971 and a number of tax bills. With the help of the Democratic Labor Party he successfully moved an ALP amendment to the 1970 Estate Duty Assessment Bill. His speeches on such occasions offered an effective blend of thorough research and personal anecdote, but while his party was in opposition his views generally carried little weight. Following the formation of the Whitlam Government in 1972 his speeches tended to be less frequent and less critical, and indeed most were in the form of questions.[6]

Membership of the Senate Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade (later designated Industry and Trade) from September 1970 was also a natural outcome of his farming experience. Wilkinson chaired this committee from 15 March 1973 until his term ended, overseeing its report on trans-Tasman trade, which advocated the liberalisation of trade between Australia and New Zealand.

In 1973 and 1974 Wilkinson was a member of a number of Caucus committees including those dealing with matters relating to overseas trade, the PMG and primary industry. In March 1974 Wilkinson proposed to Caucus that efforts be made to assist farmers who would suffer as a result of the cessation of the superphosphate fertiliser bounty, but this was rejected. In 1972 he had been dropped from Labor’s Senate ticket for the next election, probably on account of age, and he left the Senate at the double dissolution of April 1974.[7]

In 1976 the Wilkinsons were awarded life membership of the Western Australian ALP. In the same year they gave their Wooroloo farm to the Australian Council of Churches Association Ltd, enabling it to set up the Glenburnie Program to assist ecumenical activities, especially among lay church members. In 1982 they set up the Oikumene Foundation, to which they gave their Stoneville property, with the foundation’s income to be used to promote a just, participatory and sustainable society. The couple continued to be active in the peace movement, strongly supporting a proposal to establish a foundation chair in peace and conflict studies at the new Murdoch University in 1975. They also contributed to the establishment of People for Nuclear Disarmament in Western Australia in the early 1980s. When Nancy died in 1984, Laurie moved to Canberra to be near their children and died there on 9 November 1991, three days short of his eighty-eighth birthday. Theirs had been a close partnership in all respects with a mutual dedication to peace, social justice and Christian community. Four of the Wilkinsons’ six children survived him, twins having died in childhood.

Wilkinson, the first Quaker ever elected to the Australian Parliament, was a man of principle with high ideals for Australia who nevertheless kept his feet firmly on the ground, and whose friendly, cheerful and considerate disposition made him generally popular.[8]

Brian de Garis

[1] The author and editor are indebted to the Wilkinson family for their assistance; Sphinx Foundation, Perth Modern School: The History and the Heritage, B+G Resource Enterprises, Cottesloe, WA, 2005, p. 431; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Cathy Davis, University of South Australia; Australian Friend (Syd.), Sept. 1984, p. 13.

[2] The editor acknowledges the assistance of Rachel Zarrop, Insolvency and Trustee Service Australia, Perth; Shire of Harvey, 1895–1995: Proud To Be 100, Centennial Book Committee in conjunction with Noble Publishing for the Shire of Harvey, Harvey, WA, 1995, p. 35; G. D. Snooks, Depression and Recovery in Western Australia, 1928/29–1938/39: A Study in Cyclical and Structural Change, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1974, p. 103; Australian Friend (Syd.), Sept. 1984, p. 13; Lawrence Wilkinson, ASIO personal file, A6119, 1855, folios 1–2, NAA; CPD, 12 May 1967, p. 1538; WA (Perth), 24 Nov. 1966, p. 8; Tele-Technician: Journal of Postal Telecommunication Technicians’ Association (Melb.), Mar.–Apr. 1962, p. 70, JulyAug. 1951, p. 97, Aug. 1950, p. 143, July 1961, p. 116, June 1965, p. 99, June 1961, p. 96, Oct. 1962, p. 164; CPD, 2 Apr. 1974, p. 592.

[3] Australian Friend (Syd.), Sept. 1984, pp. 13–14; Lawrence Wilkinson, ASIO personal file, A6119, 1855, folios 2–3, 11–12, NAA; Daily News (Perth), 23 Feb. 1966, p. 2; ALP, WA branch, State executive minutes, 31 Oct. 1947, ACC 1704A/42, 31 May 1976, ACC 3658A/2, Roll of delegates to state executive, 1949–53, ACC 1573A/26, MN 300, SLWA; Dowding and Ors v. Ockerby [1962] WAR 110; WA (Perth), 7 Nov. 1960, p. 10.

[4] Ralph Pervan and Campbell Sharman (eds), Essays on Western Australian Politics, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1979, pp. 140, 142; Brian A. Peachey, The Burkes of Western Australia, Peachey Holdings, Woodlands, WA, 1992, pp. 81, 88, 113–20; ALP, WA branch, State executive minutes, 9 May 1955, ACC 1198A/3, 7, MN 300, SLWA; Daily News (Perth), 31 Oct. 1957, p. 1; WA (Perth), 6 Nov. 1958, p. 2; Daily News (Perth), 23 Feb. 1966, p. 2; Western Sun (Perth), July 1965, p. 8; United Nations Outreach, Nov.–Dec. 1991; Malcolm James Saunders, ‘The Vietnam Moratorium Movement in Australia 1969–73’, PhD thesis, Flinders University, 1977, vol. 1, pp. 40, 294–5; Lawrence Wilkinson, ASIO personal file, A6119, 1855, folios 14, 20, NAA.

[5] CPD, 1 Mar. 1967, pp. 220–3, 12 May 1967, pp. 1538–9, 29 Sept. 1970, pp. 945–7, 27 Sept. 1970, pp. 986–7; CPP, 123/1974; Australian (Syd.), 7 Aug. 1973, p. 4.

[6] CPD, 12 Nov. 1968, pp. 1880–2, 13 Nov. 1968, pp. 1977–9; CT, 13 Nov. 1968, p. 13; CPD, 30 Oct. 1970, pp. 1753–9, 1806–7, 1815–16; Senate, Journals, 2 Nov. 1970, pp. 417–18; CPD, 18 May 1971, pp. 1965, 1969–70, 1977–8, 21 Oct. 1970, pp. 1367–9, 26 Oct. 1970, p. 1474; Senate, Journals, 10 Nov. 1971, pp. 781–2; CPD, 7 May 1970, pp. 1244–5; Senate, Journals, 14 May 1970, pp. 105–6; CPD, 3 Nov. 1971, pp. 1648–55, 5 June 1973, p. 2292, 29 Aug. 1973, p. 265, 9 Apr. 1974, p. 763.

[7] CPP, 96/1973; SMH, 21 Mar. 1974, p. 8; WA (Perth), 24 May 1972, p. 3.

[8] Australian Friend (Syd.), Sept. 1984, p. 14; The editor is indebted to Geoffrey Bolton; Stepping Out for Peace: A History of CANE and PND (WA), compiled by Barbara Kearns, People for Nuclear Disarmament (WA), Maylands, WA, 2004, pp. 49–50; CPD, 11 Nov. 1991, pp. 2816–19; United Nations Outreach, Nov.–Dec. 1991.

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. 522-526.

WILKINSON, Lawrence Degenhardt (1903–1991)

Parliamentary Handbook

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1966–74

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1970–72

Estimates Committee E, 1970–73

Standing Orders Committee, 1971–74

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1972–74

Estimates Committee C, 1973–74

Estimates Committee F, 1973–74

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