LECKIE, John William (1872–1947)
Senator for Victoria, 1935–47 (United Australia Party; Liberal Party of Australia)

John William Leckie, son of James Leckie, butcher, and Mary, née Reilly, was born at Alexandra, Victoria, on 14 October 1872. He had a long parliamentary career serving in the Victorian Legislative Assembly and both houses of the Commonwealth Parliament, but he first achieved prominence as an athlete and footballer. He was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he captained the football team and was twice champion athlete. Between 1917 and 1918 he was president of the Old Scotch Collegians Club. From the age of seventeen he played football for Fitzroy and in 1895 was a member of their first premiership team. He was well known to football fans as ‘Jack Leckie’ and described as ‘the bravest and most daring footballer who ever played the game in this State’. He studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, but withdrew after two years. This led to a quarrel with his father and Leckie moved to Kalgoorlie, where he joined a group of friends including the famous footballer, A. J. Thurgood, with whom he dug for gold and with whom he continued to pursue football. At some time Leckie moved to Perth and, with his friends, helped to reinvigorate the Fremantle Football Club.[1]

When his father died, probably in 1897, Leckie moved back to Alexandra to run the family store and farm. On 7 April 1898 he married May Beatrix Johnston, at St Matthew’s Church of England, in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran. They were to have three daughters before May died in 1910. While at Alexandra, Leckie was a member of the Murrindindi Shire Council from 1901 to 1911 and president from 1904 to 1905. He developed a keen interest in politics and in 1906 unsuccessfully contested the federal seat of Mernda as an Anti‑Socialist (protectionist). He became known as a hard-working organiser. He was unable to secure endorsement for a federal seat, but in 1913 won a by-election for the state Legislative Assembly seat of Benambra. By then he had moved to Melbourne where he co-founded the firm of Leckie and Grey, lithographic printers and canister manufacturers. During World War I he was rejected for military service on medical grounds, but became the chairman of the state’s recruiting committee. In 1917 he resigned from the Victorian Parliament and was elected as a ‘Win‑the‑War’ candidate for Indi in the House of Representatives.

Throughout his parliamentary life Leckie exhibited a strong streak of independence. He regretted the tightness of party organisation and wished he could be responsible only to his constituents, but recognised party discipline as a necessary evil of the times. He disagreed with William (later Sir William) Irvine, MHR, over the value of the second conscription campaign, which he argued would reduce voluntary enlistment. Leckie was openly critical of the Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, when Hughes failed to fulfil his pledge to quit on the defeat of the second conscription referendum. He insisted that he previously had had no quarrel with Hughes’ leadership, but could not support what the Prime Minister had done nor understand his motives. Hughes’ behaviour prompted Leckie to quote from Shelley:

The sense that he is greater than his kind
Has struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind,
By gazing on his own exceeding light.

Nevertheless Leckie was unable to vote for the no confidence motion in January 1918 which, he considered, might have put Labor into government.[2]

In the event, he served only one term in the House of Representatives. He supported the Government’s measure to introduce preferential voting in House of Representatives elections, believing this had worked well in Victoria. But when the new system came into operation Leckie was among its first casualties. In 1919 he lost Indi to Robert Cook, a member of the newly emerging Country Party. It was a three-cornered contest in which 97 per cent of Leckie’s preferences enabled Cook to defeat the ALP candidate. In 1921 Leckie unsuccessfully contested the seat of Upper Goulburn in the Victorian Legislative Assembly.

For the next few years Leckie devoted himself to the cause of manufacturing, becoming a prominent member of the Australian Industries Protection League, the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, and the Apprenticeship Commission of Victoria. In 1934 he was elected to the Senate as an endorsed UAP candidate. He explained that he had been reluctant to stand for election:

I felt that if I went to Canberra it would interfere greatly with my business. But . . . I knew that at present there is no member in the Senate who is directly interested in manufacturing and who has a first-hand knowledge of industrial and tariff matters . . . If I had refused I felt that I would have been ‘letting down’ the manufacturers, for we have often deplored the absence from the Senate of men who appreciate our problems.

Leckie certainly did not ‘let down’ the manufacturers, but provided a strong voice in the Senate for their concerns over the next twelve years.[3]

In 1920 Leckie’s eldest daughter Pat (Pattie Maie), later Dame Pattie, had married R. G. Menzies, but it is impossible to know whether Leckie’s position within the UAP was affected by the relationship. There was no suggestion of nepotism when Menzies, as Prime Minister, appointed Leckie as an assistant minister and subsequently promoted him to Minister for Aircraft Production, a position he continued to hold in the short-lived Fadden Government. There were few references to the relationship of Menzies and Leckie, but when, in August 1941, the Senate was debating whether Menzies, as Prime Minister, would visit Britain, Leckie declared:

In view of my relationship to the Prime Minister, I hesitate to speak of him, but I consider that I am quite capable of gauging dispassionately the capabilities of any man, and I say quite emphatically and calmly that the Prime Minister is the biggest man in Australia at the present time.

When disagreements occurred among members of the UAP and between Menzies and Fadden in the 1943 election campaign, Leckie, a member of the National Service Group, consistently supported Menzies.[4] But, in his early years in the Senate, Leckie often criticised the Government and its conduct of parliamentary proceedings. On several occasions he complained of the lack of facilities for backbench senators. He objected when legislation was introduced without the allowance of time necessary to   consider it before debate. He was particularly critical of the practice that allowed changes in tariff duties to come into operation as soon as they were tabled in Parliament without any possibility of public or parliamentary discussion. He saw the Tariff Board exercising more powers than intended and argued that the Government’s policy of following the board’s decisions meant that the power of Parliament was nullified.

Leckie believed that the policy of the Tariff Board fostered big business and the concentration of particular industries in a few factories. He saw the boards of big business as dominated by accountants and representatives of financial institutions who cared only for profits, were ‘soulless’ and had no sympathy for the rights of employees. He felt it was in Australia’s interests to have manufacturing activities distributed as much as possible and tended to eulogise small business: ‘I glory in the fact that, as a manufacturer, I am helping to create something and to give employment’. But he opposed high taxes on manufactures or the dividends therefrom as this limited the capacity of employers to provide jobs and investment. Though he did not oppose reduction of tariffs, he warned that the continued process could lead to production in Australia becoming unprofitable.[5]

Leckie was very critical of the Ottawa Agreement and the extension of empire preference therein; its chief purpose was to assist Australia’s primary producers, but its effect, he considered, was to assist British rather than Australian manufacturers. When cement was imported from Britain, he stressed that the Government had ‘a moral obligation to put Australians into employment, not to give work to Englishmen’. He attacked government activities that competed with private enterprise, particularly in relation to Amalgamated Wireless of Australia. He voted against proposals to spend money on the establishment of munitions factories, arguing that it would be better to encourage manufacturers to train men and acquire machinery so that private industry could produce the necessary armaments. He supported moves for national insurance, but wished to see a genuine contributory scheme. He predicted that workers’ contributions would be added to the basic wage so that employers and the public would foot the whole bill.[6]

When the Curtin Labor Government took office in October 1941, Leckie was one of its strongest critics. He constantly rebutted criticism that the Menzies Government had not done all possible to prepare for war and asserted that there had been no reason for the ALP to seize control of the country. He saw Curtin’s ministry as extremely bureaucratic as it rushed through legislation on the grounds of urgency, and left much to be covered by regulation.

From 1943 to 1947, he was Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and constantly asked the Government whether it intended to allow the continuation of private enterprise. He was extremely critical of the legislation to allow the militia to serve in certain areas ‘which are hardly fit for white men to live in, let alone fight in’ and deplored the failure to create a single army. Though Leckie had long believed that there was need for reform in federal–state financial relations he was bitterly opposed to Labor attempts to amend the Constitution. He considered it was cheating to force a single vote on the fourteen proposals of the 1944 referendum and ridiculed the notion of changing the Constitution for a limited period.[7]

He saw Labor as putting unionists in a privileged position and promoting class war. He strongly objected to references to ‘bloodthirsty racketeering manufacturers’ and said he could not understand how it was that men who provide jobs for others—men who by their energy and enterprise have established industries which had contributed so much to the defence of Australia—could be described as exploiters. He particularly stressed the role of BHP and Essington Lewis.[8]

Leckie was defeated in the elections of 1946, retaining his Senate seat until June 1947. In a farewell speech he stressed his good fortune in serving in three legislative chambers and said how much he had enjoyed parliamentary life. He died on 25 September and was given a state funeral. After the death of his first wife, he had married, on 4 April 1917, Hattie Martha Knight, who, under her maiden name, became a well-known journalist and broadcaster and published a collection of essays, Candour and Cant, in 1931. She survived Leckie as did their son Roland John, and the three daughters, Pattie Maie, Conyn Louise and Gwenyth Mary, of Leckie’s first marriage.[9]

Joan Rydon

[1] Geoff Browne, ‘Leckie, John William’, ADB, vol. 10; History of Scotch College Melbourne 1851–1951, Scotch College History Committee, Melbourne, 1926, pp. 463–4; Punch (Melb.), 5 Feb. 1914, p. 204; The editor is indebted to Chris Donald, Historian, Fitzroy Football Club, Col Hutchinson, Historian and Statistician, Australian Football League and D. J. Clement, Historian, WA Football League.

[2] Information provided by Alexandra Shire Council; Argus (Melb.), 30 Oct. 1917, p. 7, 31 Oct. 1917, p. 8; VPD, 27 June 1917, p. 16; CPD, 11 July 1917, p. 47, 16 Jan. 1918, pp. 3071–3.

[3] CPD, 1 Nov. 1918, pp. 7411–13; Argus (Melb.), 31 Aug. 1939, p. 3, 4 Aug. 1934, p. 21; James Hume-Cook, The Australian Industries Protection League: A Historical Review, Melbourne, 1938; Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, Members’ Service Brochure, 1944; VPP, Apprenticeship Commission of Victoria, annual reports, 1932–1945; CPD, 13 Nov. 1936, pp. 1838–40.

[4] SMH, 28 Oct. 1940, p. 9, 27 June 1941, p. 9; CPD, 21 Aug. 1941, p. 42; Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942–1945, AWM, Canberra, 1970, pp. 357, 365; A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, vol. 1, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1993, pp. 42, 64, 382, 412–13.

[5]  CPD, 3 Dec. 1935, p. 2327, 25 Feb. 1943, p. 1002, 29 Apr. 1936, pp. 903–11, 23 June 1937, p. 227, 2 Oct. 1935, p. 389, 2 Dec. 1937, p. 102.

[6] CPD, 13 May 1936, pp. 1563–6, 1590–2, 22 May 1936, pp. 2164–5, 7 Sept. 1937, pp. 515–18, 19 Oct. 1938, pp. 885–6, 10 Oct. 1935, p. 617, 14 May 1940, p. 754, 23 June 1938, pp. 2536–41

[7] CPD, 25 Sept. 1942, pp. 955–61, 28 Jan. 1943, pp. 75–8, 25 Feb. 1944, pp. 619–21, 29 June 1943, pp. 459–63, 30 Sept. 1943, pp. 197–9, 18 Feb. 1943, pp. 868–9, 21 May 1936, pp. 20, 26, 11 Feb. 1944, p. 136, 21 Mar. 1944, p. 1752, 22 & 23 Mar. 1944, pp. 1834–9.

[8] CPD, 14 Oct 1938, pp. 815–18, 25 Sept. 1942, pp. 957, 959, 29 June 1943, p. 463, 19 July 1944, pp. 152–3, 15 Sept. 1944, p. 868, 14 May 1940, pp. 753–4, 21 June 1940, pp. 115–16.

[9] CPD, 4 June 1947, p. 3297, 15 Oct. 1947, pp. 734–5, 22 Oct. 1947, p. 1061; Argus (Melb.), 26 Sept. 1947, pp. 7, 9, 27 Sept. 1947, p. 5; SMH, 26 Sept. 1947, p. 3; Hattie Knight, Candour and Cant, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1931.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 130-133.

LECKIE, John William (1872–1947)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1935–47

Member o0f the House of Representatives for Indi, 1917–19

Minister Without Portfolio Assisting the Minister for Trade and Customs, 1940–41

Minister Without Portfolio Assisting the Minister for Labour and National Service, 1940–41

Minister Assisting the Minister for the Army, 1941

Minister for Aircraft Production, 1941

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Benambra, 1913–17

Senate Committee Service

Joint Select Committee on the Bankruptcy Act, 1935–36

Printing Committee, 1935–40