MORRIS, John Joseph (1936–2013)
Senator for New South Wales, 1985–90 (Australian Labor Party)

John Joseph Morris was born at Young Wallsend (now known as Edgeworth, a suburb of Newcastle), NSW, on 12 June 1936, the youngest of six children of Thomas Wallace Hope Morris, a boilermaker, and his wife Minnie Doreen, née Gavin. His paternal grandfather, also Thomas Morris, had served as an alderman of Fairfield Municipal Council and was described as ‘a keen follower of the Labor movement’. On 12 August 1957, at Parramatta, John married Margaret Susan (Jill) Pettigrew; they had a daughter and a son.

John Morris’ first job was as an apprentice slaughterman in an abattoir at Homebush. A broken arm sustained while playing football ended his apprenticeship and he began work in the hospitality industry. While employed at the Beecroft Bowling Club, Morris joined the Federated Liquor and Allied Industries Employees’ Union of Australia, otherwise known as the Liquor Trades’ Union (LTU). He was elected to the committee of management of the NSW branch of the union in 1965 and as an LTU organiser in the following year. In 1970, with legal assistance from Neville Wran and James McClelland, Morris mounted a challenge in the Commonwealth Industrial Court to the results of a ballot for union leadership positions. He later described the court case, which ran for a month, as ‘one of the most traumatic periods of my life’. Morris won the case and led a ‘New Deal’ team which won the new ballot, so ending the entrenched communist control of the union. According to Graham Richardson, ‘John Morris was a hero then’ for defeating the communists ‘in what was one of the most bitter union fights in history’. Morris became secretary of the NSW branch of the LTU, remaining in the post until 1981, when he became president. As a strong defender of working conditions, manifesting overtones of anti-Communist ideology, Morris had a powerful appeal for the rank and file in the dispersed and casualised industry.

Control of the LTU secured Morris a place in the inner circle of the dominant right wing faction of the NSW ALP. Morris, who had joined the ALP in 1962, served on the party’s NSW Administrative Committee from 1971. He represented the food group of unions on the ACTU Executive (1973–81) and in 1978, like many other Australian right wing union officials, he completed Harvard University’s trade union program. Morris was national president of the LTU from 1972 to 1975, and again from 1984 to 1987. He also served as president of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Association (Asia-Pacific Region) from 1980 to 1985.[1]

Morris’ appointment to the NSW Legislative Council in 1976 was consistent with Labor tradition at the time, with the majority of Labor MLCs being full-time trade union officials, most of whom, according to John Faulkner (ALP, NSW), ‘never considered their parliamentary duties as a primary responsibility or even most pressing concern’. Morris was among the last nominated appointees, as two years later Premier Neville Wran initiated the democratisation of the Council through the election of its members by public franchise.

Although the LTU shifted towards the ‘extreme right wing’ under his leadership, Morris used his power to align his union’s block of votes with the Left at ALP conferences to force issues or obtain an outcome. He aspired to become president of the NSW ALP after John Ducker resigned in 1979 and when the branch secretary, Graham Richardson, promoted Paul Keating to the post, Morris responded by deserting the NSW Right to form a breakaway ‘Rank and File Committee’ potentially giving the fifty or so delegates from the LTU the balance of power. A direct consequence of the LTU defection was the shaking of the Right ‘out of its complacency’, leading to the formation of a well-organised Centre Unity faction.

At the 1981 ALP conference Morris initially supported an unsuccessful LTU candidate in his bid for the office of secretary of the party, a position that was held by Graham Richardson. However, he subsequently began negotiations to realign his union with right-wing factions. In March 1984 Morris was re-elected to the NSW Legislative Council but, less than eight months later, he resigned his seat, having been preselected in third position on Labor’s NSW Senate ticket for the federal election to be held in December 1984. Apparently, his preselection was the result of an agreement in which the Centre Unity faction of the party supported his nomination in exchange for the disbanding of the ‘Rank and File Committee’ and realignment of the LTU with Centre Unity: a ‘classic accommodation of interests’.

Duly elected to the Senate, for a term beginning on 1 July 1985, Morris was re-elected at the double dissolution election of July 1987. Election to the Senate carried with it much more in the way of party and public expectation than his previous role in the NSW Legislative Council.[2]

In his first speech in the Senate on 16 October 1985 Morris described his early working life and his involvement in the LTU, including the 1970 court case, and outlined the democratisation of the union that flowed from his success in the case. He concluded with a discussion of penalty rates, an issue of ongoing concern for his union.

After his first speech Morris made few other contributions of any substance in the Senate. In November 1985, during a debate on the Hawke Government’s prices and incomes accord, Morris made a short intervention to express his ‘disgust and amazement’ at Senator Stan Collard’s suggestion that Hawke should tell unionists that ‘We all have to tighten our belts’ for the sake of the national economy. On 12 June 1986 Morris gave notice that he would move a motion noting ‘with regret’ Neville Wran’s announcement that he would resign as premier of New South Wales, and listing Wran’s ‘many achievements’ under eight headings. Liberal Senator Chris Puplick seized the opportunity to move an immediate suspension of Standing Orders to bring the motion on at once. For the next fifteen minutes, amid frequent interjections and points of order, Puplick ‘used his speech on the proposed suspension of the Standing Orders to convey his own views on the achievements of the Premier’. Eventually, a division was held and Puplick’s motion was defeated. Morris gave no further such notices of motion. Although Morris asked some questions in the Senate, they often related to union matters and were usually of the ‘Dorothy Dix’ variety.

Morris did not avoid the normal run of senatorial duties, even though John Faulkner (ALP, NSW) observed that he ‘did not enjoy’ committee work. Morris sat on a number of parliamentary committees, chairing the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare (1987–90) and the Joint Statutory Committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (1988–90). In 1988 Morris tabled a report of the animal welfare committee on the management and culling of kangaroos which recommended the ‘continuation of the commercial killing of kangaroos for damage mitigation purposes’ but which also found that funding restraints ‘had perpetrated a system in which the level of cruelty is unacceptably high’. The report recommended that landowners wishing to shoot kangaroos should be required to demonstrate proof of marksmanship skills; where this was lacking, professional shooters were to be employed.[3]

Morris continued as ‘Honorary President’ of the LTU throughout his time in the Senate, establishing an electorate office in Parramatta, where his union office was located, and maintaining a following among the grass roots union membership.

In 1986 he led a six-hour sit-in at the Toohey’s brewery at Auburn, NSW that forced management to negotiate over superannuation entitlements. However, questions began to arise in the press and in the Senate about the quality of his performance in his two roles, for each of which, it was reported, he received remuneration. In March 1989 his rival in the forthcoming election for president of the union alleged that Morris had spent no more than twenty days in his union office over the previous two years. It was a similar story in the Senate, where Morris’ inactivity in the Senate chamber led to him being headlined as ‘the silent senator’ in an article published in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph on 5 March. The epithet stuck.

In the Senate on 8 June 1989, Liberal Senator Michael Baume drew attention to the impending Labor Senate preselections in New South Wales and the coincidence of those preselections with his receipt of ‘extraordinarily large amounts of information which seem to be critical of Senator John Morris’. As well as highlighting the rebellion against Morris from within the LTU, Baume prosecuted the case against Morris’ performance as a senator. He calculated that the paucity of speeches from Morris, two in 1985 and none since, meant that his cost to taxpayers was seventy-two dollars a word: ‘I know of no member of the Senate apart from Senator Morris who is worth $72 a word’. Baume noted that Morris had missed forty per cent of divisions during his four years in the Senate, despite being present in Parliament House on many of those days. He pointed out that even though Morris was chairman of the Select Committee on Animal Welfare, he had ‘managed to miss’ nearly a quarter of the committee’s meetings. In the face of Baume’s attack and a relatively tepid defence by Victorian Labor Senator Robert Ray, Morris was compelled to respond. His strong, often abrupt, character was never easily upset by opponents, and he claimed that Baume was motivated by the hope of eliminating penalty rates in the hospitality industry. Morris branded his union opponents ‘a dangerous gang’ seeking ‘to call national stoppages’ and concluded by stating that he was ‘quite confident’ of Senate preselection ‘as the No.1 person from the Labor Party to represent New South Wales’. In a radio interview, he pointed out that Senate work ‘is not all about jumping up and making speeches’. On the day of the preselection ballot the press quoted a letter written by Tim Robertson, a prominent Labor lawyer, to the party’s NSW Administrative Committee. Of Morris, Robertson had said: ‘He has given nothing to the Parliament, and as little as he can get away with to his party’. Morris was nevertheless elected to first position on the Senate ticket for the next election at the NSW ALP Conference on 11 June.[4]

Returned as state LTU president in July 1989 with a reduced majority, Morris faced a legal challenge to the union ballot, which alleged ‘major irregularities’; there was also a dispute about a sum of money that was missing from an LTU slush fund. Faced with the steady erosion of his public standing, on 16 February 1990, the day on which Prime Minister Hawke announced the date of the 1990 election, Morris formally withdrew from the Senate contest, and his Senate term expired at the end of June 1990. His departure from the Senate attracted minimal comment from Senate colleagues. The Leader of the Government in the Senate, John Button remarked: ‘I have not had the opportunity of knowing Senator John Morris well—indeed none of us have!’

The question of how Morris was spending his time (and money) on the many days when he was neither in the Senate chamber nor in his union office seemed to be answered, in large part, by ‘very considerable property transactions’ noted by the Sunday Telegraph and by Senator Michael Baume. In May 1990 an article in the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that, during his years as an LTU official and senator, Morris and his wife had purchased twenty-three properties across NSW and the ACT, one of which was sold in 1989 for $1.8 million. The article also reported that several members of Morris’ family were employed by the LTU.

After he had left the Senate, Morris survived as New South Wales President of the LTU, and became president of the liquor division of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union after the LTU had merged into that union in 1992. He took a redundancy package in 1998 but re-emerged in 1999 as ‘Honorary President’. Baume continued to target him in the Senate, claiming in 1991 that Morris was the organising force behind industrial action (including a picket line) by catering staff at Parliament House over the issue of privatisation of the services of the parliamentary dining room. He also accused Morris of running a ‘get square’ campaign against his former colleagues, ‘in particular’ the presiding officers.

Morris was made a life member of the NSW ALP in 2001. He was a foundation director of the Club Plus Super superannuation fund. Deeply involved in greyhound racing as an owner of greyhounds trained by his wife, he served on the board of the Greyhound Racing Authority NSW and the board of the Wentworth Park Sporting Complex Trust. Morris died suddenly at the Unibet Gardens greyhound racing track, Newcastle, on 8 February 2013. He was survived by his wife and daughter and predeceased by his son.

In his condolence speech to the Senate, Senator John Faulkner commented that there had ‘been few kind words spoken about former Senator John Morris in this place. But it is also true John Morris did not have many kind words to say about the Senate. He and the Senate were not a good fit’.[5]

Geoffrey Hawker

[1] Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta), 13 Dec. 1934; Author interview with Jim Morris (nephew of John Morris); CPD, 16 Oct. 1985, pp. 1297–1301; Mike Seketee & Milton Cockburn, Wran: An Unauthorised Biography, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1986, pp. 51–2; Fia Cumming, Mates: Five Champions of the Labor Right, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1991, p. 132; SMH, 19 May 1990, p. 71; ALP, House of Representatives and Senate Candidates, Biographical Details, 1984.

[2] SMH, 3 Nov. 1975, p. 8; CPD, 27 Feb. 2013, pp. 1129–32; Cumming, Mates, pp. 248–51; SMH, 22 June 1980, p. 19, 17 Aug. 1984, p. 5, 19 May 1990, p. 71.

[3] CPD, 16 Oct. 1985, pp. 1297–301, 7 Nov. 1985, pp. 1758–9, 12 June 1986, pp. 3822–6; Senate Procedural Bulletin, No. 15, 17 June 1986, p. 2; CPD, 1 June 1988, pp. 3396–9; Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, Kangaroos, Canberra, 1988.

[4] SMH, 11 July 1985, p. 63, 9 Sept. 1986, p. 2; CPD, 18 Nov. 1986, pp. 2374–5; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 5 March 1989, p. 14; CPD, 8 June 1989, pp. 3731–42, 16 June 1989, pp. 4201, 4299–301, 4304–5; Transcript, ABC Radio, ‘Andrew Olle Program’, 9 June 1989; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 11 June 1989, p. 8; Australian (Syd.), 12 June 1989, p. 4.

[5] Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 17 Sept. 1989, p. 5; SMH, 19 Nov. 1989, p. 11, 15 Aug. 1990, p. 5, 19 May 1990, pp. 1, 71; CPD, 31 May 1990, p. 1648, 15 Aug. 1991, pp. 377–8, 22 Aug. 1991, pp. 1004–5, 27 Feb 2013, pp. 1129–32.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 93-96.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1985–90 (ALP)

New South Wales Parliament

MLC, 1976–84

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee D, 1985–87; B, 1988–89; E, 1988–90

Publications Committee, 1985–87

Standing Committee on Social Welfare, 1985–87

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1986–90

House Committee, 1987–90

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, 1987

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, 1987–90

Select Committee on Animal Welfare, 1987–90

Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, 1987–88

Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, 1988

Joint Committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, 1988–90

Select Committee on Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals in Australia, 1988–90