BLACK, John Rees (1952– )
Senator for Queensland, 1985–90 (Australian Labor Party)

John Rees Black was born in Sydney on 26 January 1952. He was the third of five children of Roger Foster Black, a botanist, born in Adelaide, and his Sydney-born wife Ivy Ada, née Tanner, whose father was said to have been an ‘ardent’ campaigner for Jack Lang. Ivy later wielded considerable back-room influence in the South Australian ALP and she was described as ‘a phenomenal motivator, organiser and networker’ for the party.

Roger and Ida were living in Adelaide when their first child was born in 1946; thereafter the family moved around the country at regular intervals, partly in furtherance of Roger’s developing career as an agricultural research scientist. Within a few years they moved to Sydney and by the mid-1950s the family was living at Griffith, NSW. From 1959 they lived at Nambour, Qld, before moving to Adelaide in 1969, then to Darwin between 1970 and 1971, after which Roger Black moved to Perth and Ida lived in Adelaide.

John Black’s secondary schooling was undertaken in Queensland, at Nambour State High School (1964–68), with his final year at Kedron State High School. He attended Flinders University (South Australia) between 1973 and 1974, and later studied economics at the University of Queensland, although he did not complete a degree. Black worked as a copy boy at the News (Adelaide) in 1969, then completed a cadetship at the Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser within two years. After working with the Northern Territory News in Darwin in 1971, he spent a year with Channel 7 News in Adelaide.[1]

Black joined the Australian Labor Party in 1971, and was employed as an executive assistant to South Australian deputy premier, Des Corcoran (1975–76). In 1977 he joined the personal staff of Premier Don Dunstan as a special research assistant. From 1977 until 1980 Black was employed by the Queensland branch of the ALP as a research and publicity officer; initially he also worked in the office of Senator Ron McAuliffe. In 1980 Black was Labor Party campaign director for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly elections, after which he worked as a research assistant to federal Leader of the Opposition Bill Hayden until 1982. Black then became an industrial advocate with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) Queensland. He married Sheryn (Sherry) Jensen on 6 October 1979; from the marriage there were two daughters and a son.

Following the 1975 South Australian election, Black had developed electoral modelling research to produce voting profiles for use in ALP election campaigns. In 1983 his pioneering profiling research was used in Labor’s successful federal election campaign, providing demographic information that would enable targeted campaigning aimed at creating a non-uniform swing that would ‘move the ratio of seats won, up to and beyond the ratio of votes won’.

With the assistance of AWU state secretary, Errol Hodder—he was regarded as Hodder’s ‘spear-carrier’—Black overcame what he later described as Queensland Labor’s ‘byzantine electoral procedures’ and secured third place on the party’s Senate ticket for the half-Senate election of 1 December 1984. He was the sixth senator elected, and took his seat on 21 February 1985. Black was re-elected at the double dissolution election of 1987, for a three-year term.[2]

Black began his first speech in the Senate, delivered on 25 March 1985, by attributing his motivation for entering politics to the influence of his maternal grandfather, Albert Rees Tanner, whom he described ‘as an example to me of all that is good and decent’ in the Labor Party. The fundamental premise of his speech was that his ‘paramount responsibility’ should be ‘to the people who elected me—the workers, the battlers, the young and the disadvantaged people of Queensland’, and he detailed how his constituency had struggled under the conservative state government, led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen.[3]

Black’s infrequent speeches in the Senate were largely concerned with issues raised in inquiries of the Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, of which he was Chair from October 1987 to June 1990. In November 1988 the committee reported on Kakadu National Park, dealing with the nature of the resources there and the present and potential impact of mining and tourism on the environment. The committee proposed stringent environmental controls and urged mining companies to negotiate with Aboriginal communities to ensure ‘that the rights of the Aborigines living in the area can be exercised freely’. A year later the committee presented a report on the role of the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau in assessing and managing the environmental impact of international development assistance projects. The government accepted in full most of the recommendations of the committee’s report, The Environmental Impact of Development Assistance, and in response, announced the implementation of evaluation and review measures to promote environmentally responsible development.[4]

Black came to national attention as Chair of the committee during its inquiry into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Australian sport. Horrified by revelations by an ABC TV Four Corners program, he moved the motion in the Senate in May 1988 that initiated the inquiry. In reports tabled in June 1989 and May 1990, the committee recommended measures to prevent and detect the use of sports drugs and restrict their availability. The reports also recommended investigations into the use of drugs within the Australian Institute of Sport and the Australian Weightlifting Federation. The first report led to the establishment of the Australian Sports Drug Testing Agency in 1989, although a recommendation for an independent sports drugs tribunal was not implemented. Major recommendations of the committee, including random testing of athletes out of competition, and the criminalisation of anabolic steroid use, were adopted as part of an international Olympic anti-doping charter in October 1989.[5]

The work of the committee was highly controversial. Olympic officials as well as state and federal Labor parliamentarians criticised the committee’s acceptance of unsubstantiated evidence; it was described as a ‘kangaroo court’ and comparisons were made with McCarthyist ‘witch hunts’ in the US Congress in the 1950s. Black—who was supported by Liberal Senate leader, Fred Chaney, and by the committee’s deputy chair, the Liberals’ Noel Crichton-Browne—pointed out ‘As much evidence as possible has been taken in camera’, and commented, ‘I have lived in Queensland with the Fitzgerald inquiry for the last 15 months and I have heard similar criticisms levelled at it. I think I’ve tried to do the best possible in accordance with the public interest and natural justice’.

Black also raised the issue of fundamental values, especially in the light of the international dimensions of drug cheating in sports: ‘The question all Australians have to ask is: what price victory? Is it at the cost of athletes’ health? … International doping is like the arms race with athletes being used instead of war heads’.[6]

During the 1980s, Black served the Australian Labor Party in numerous organisational positions, including as a member of the Queensland administrative, finance, and rules committees. He chaired the state electoral reform committee, and was a delegate to the ALP National Conference in 1984 and 1986, and a member of the ALP National Executive from 1986 to 1991.

Black was at the centre of power struggles within the Queensland ALP. Working with his AWU ally Errol Hodder, Black fostered an alliance between the AWU/Centre group and the Socialist Left, which held sway in the party organisation but not in Caucus. Black pushed hard for the replacement of Neville Warburton as leader of the state parliamentary party in favour of Wayne Goss, and achieved that aim in March 1988.

Black’s behind-the-scenes efforts in Queensland earned him the sobriquet ‘the prince of darkness’ and made him enemies. By 1989 Hodder was general secretary of the federal AWU and Bill Ludwig had become secretary of the Qld AWU. When Hodder sought greater power over state branches, the Ludwig faction retaliated by organising Black’s placement in the hazardous third spot on the Queensland ALP Senate ticket for the March 1990 election. Black was defeated for the final Queensland Senate place by the Australian Democrats’ Cheryl Kernot. For his part, Black believed that ‘chairing a committee on one of the last sacred cows in Australia—sport—and exposing the morals of sports people for what they are … was not a great boost to my political career’.[7]

Black did not deliver a valedictory address on leaving the Senate, but other senators acknowledged him as ‘an assiduous and very hard-working committee chairman’ who would be remembered for his role in the drugs in sport inquiry. In 1992, together with former Liberal Senator Chris Puplick and former Democrats Senator Michael Macklin, Black published a satirical political memoir entitled Up the Greasy Pole: A Year in the Life of Senator Frank Bragger. The fictional Bragger, ‘who belongs to all major parties’, has ‘no original ideas’ and no leadership or organisational skills, making him the ideal parliamentary candidate for the party apparatchiks who control him while allowing Bragger to enjoy to the full the perks of office. For Black, the serious point behind the satire was the way in which the preselection processes of political parties were becoming inaccessible to ordinary party members.[8]

Black, despite his career as a party ‘insider’ and powerbroker, remained a practical idealist. In 1988 he set out what he wished to achieve in politics:

… some reforms that I think are worthwhile, that your kids can look at and say, ‘Yes, my dad did that’. Whether it’s a piece of legislation, whether it’s an administrative decision, or whether it’s something that protects future generations of Australians from drug-pushers in gymnasiums.[9]

After leaving the Senate, Black established and became Executive Chairman of Australian Development Strategies Pty Ltd. Based in Brisbane, the company applied political and economic profiling and analysis to predict voter and consumer behaviour. In this capacity, Black also wrote commentary for newspapers and television, including the Australian Financial Review, the Australian, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Black was a founding member of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority from 2006 until 2009 and a member of the Anti-Doping Rule Violation Panel from 2010.

Biographical Dictionary Unit

[1] Advertiser (Adel.), 15 Aug. 2009, p. 70; John R. Black, ‘Eulogy for Dr Roger Foster Black’, Oct. 2008; John R. Black, ‘Eulogy for Mrs Ivy Ada Black’, April 2009; Age (Melb.), 10 Dec. 1988, p. 2.

[2] Australian Development Strategies Pty Ltd, Profile of the 2007 Australian Election, pp. 42–4; Labor Review (Brisb.), Oct. 1984, p. 8; Australian Labor Party, Media Information Directory, Federal Election 1990, p. 85; Jamie Walker, Goss: A Political Biography, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1995, p. 89.

[3] CPD, 25 March 1985, pp. 744–8.

[4] Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, The Potential of the Kakadu National Park Region, Canberra, Nov. 1988, Environmental Impact of Development Assistance, Canberra, Dec. 1989; CPD, 10 Nov. 1988, pp. 2414–6.

[5] Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, Drugs in Sport: Interim Report, Canberra, May 1989, Second Report, Canberra, May 1990.

[6] David O’Reilly, ‘When the Price of Gold is Fatal’, The Bulletin (Syd.), 9 May 1989, pp. 132–6; David O’Reilly, ‘The Fight for Drug-Free Sport’, The Bulletin (Syd.), 19 Dec. 1989, pp. 40–1; AFR (Syd.), 17 Feb. 1989, p. 5; WA (Perth), 15 Feb. 1989, pp. 1, 2; CT, 21 Feb. 1989, p. 3; CPD, 14 June 1989, pp. 3982–94, 24 May 1990, pp. 1015–24.

[7] Mark Hearn & Harry Knowles, One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886–1994, CUP, Melb., Vic., 1996, pp. 335–6; Walker, Goss, 1995; Australian (Syd.), 1 July 1989, p. 26, 7 July 1989, p. 5; ‘Paying the Price’, New Idea, 3 Aug. 1991, p. 14.

[8] CPD, 31 May 1990, pp. 1644–74; John Black, Michael Macklin & Chris Puplick, Up the Greasy Pole: A Year in the Life of Senator Frank Bragger, Mandarin Australia, Port Melb., Vic., 1992; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Ring the Bells’, 4 Oct. 1991.

[9] Age (Melb.), 10 Dec. 1988, p. 2.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 215-218.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1985–90 (ALP)

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee E, 1985–87; B, 1987; F, 1987–88; D, 1988–90

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1985–87

Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1985–87

Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, 1985–87

Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception, 1986

Committee of Privileges, 1987–90

Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1987–90

Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, 1987–90

Standing Committee on Community Affairs, 1990