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Beasley, John Albert (Jack) (1895–1949)

by Bede Nairn

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Albert Beasley (1895-1949), by unknown photographer, 1940s

John Albert Beasley (1895-1949), by unknown photographer, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23194212

John Albert (Jack) Beasley (1895-1949), trade unionist and politician, was born on 9 November 1895 at Werribee, Victoria, son of native-born John Beasley, a blacksmith who later turned to farming, and his wife Catherine, née Hogan, from County Tipperary, Ireland. Educated at St Andrew's Catholic Primary School, Werribee, young Jack worked on his father's farm, then dug holes for electricity poles in the country and Tasmania. In 1916 he was in Adelaide constructing outdoor installations, and continued to learn the electrical trade at Port Augusta; next year at Moonta he advised the town council on equipment purchases.

Completing his training at Broken Hill, Beasley went to Sydney in 1918, worked at the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, Cockatoo Island, and became a shop steward for the New South Wales branch of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia. In 1920 he was employed by the electricity department of Sydney Municipal Council and represented his union as a delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales. He was president of the council (1922-28) and of the E.T.U. (1924-30). By 1925 he was an electrical installation inspector and in December 1926 supervisor of appliance sales in the electricity department.

Beasley's intellectual grasp of the vital social role of unionism complemented his experience, and ensured that he was foremost among young labour movement leaders in the 1920s. He was fascinated by oral accounts of the work of the Labor Council since 1871: he revelled in reading the plethora of pamphlets on the importance of the 'working class' in Western history and the heady promises of Lenin's 1917 revolution. These ideas clashed with the day-to-day work of the council. So, as Beasley mastered the complexities of industrial relations in Australia, and probed for a policy of reform within contemporary economic and social structures, he was excited and disturbed by the prospect of the 'workers' paradise' that was believed to follow the overthrow of existing society.

His dilemma was intensified by his membership of the Australian Labor Party which sought reform through a programme modified by electoral demands. In the early 1920s, charmed by the garrulous utopianism of J. S. Garden, secretary of the Labor Council, Beasley sought solutions in visionary revelations. Aware of the Labor Party's ban on membership of other parties, he did not join the Communist Party of Australia, though Garden was one of its founders in October 1920 and leader of the 'Trades Hall Reds'. At the All-Australian Trade Union Congress in Melbourne in June 1921, Beasley was impressed by the influence of Garden and A. C. Willis on the formulation of a socialist objective for the labour movement, but was perplexed when the A.L.P. diluted the aspiration in Brisbane in October.

Because of his activity in union affairs, Beasley was able to postpone a decision of where his true loyalties lay. But he remained close to Garden and was elected with him to the New South Wales Labor Party executive in June 1923. Garden's expulsion from the party in November confirmed Labor's ban on links with the Communist Party. At the 1924 party conference Beasley's plea for Garden's readmission was turned down; his failure prompted him to question his youthful ideals, though his liberalism led him to argue that unions should remain free to employ communists.

In May-June 1926 Beasley was an Australian representative at the eighth and ninth sessions of the International Labour Conference, held at Geneva, Switzerland. He returned on 17 September, appalled at the excesses of Italian fascism and disconcerted by the realities of Russian communism. His new insights quickened his rejection of extremism. At Mary Immaculate Church, Manly, on 5 February 1927 he married Alma Matilda Creighton. He consolidated his political base in the West Sydney Federal electorate and won the seat at the general election on 17 November 1928.

Beasley had been in the cockpit of Labor factionalism since 1923. Small, dark and dapper, he liked cricket, billiards, cards and the pictures. Although his latent strength of will and purpose had matured by 1928, it had not diminished his friendliness and popularity, which were unaffected by his being a non-smoker and teetotaller. He was a fluent speaker, logical, quick-fire and tireless, responsive to the mood of Labor audiences indoors and in the open. He deserved the gold medal awarded to him by the Labor Council.

As he drifted from Garden, Beasley drew near to J. T. Lang, the dominating head of the New South Wales Labor Party. With Lang's blessing, he retained West Sydney at the elections on 12 October 1929 and became an honorary minister in J. H. Scullin's government, assisting him in the industry portfolio which had previously been part of the attorney-general's responsibilities. He quickly gained Scullin's confidence.

Beasley's wide-ranging plans to dissolve the chaos surrounding the control of Federal industrial relations were soon nullified by the Depression. The government was trapped in spiralling financial constraints which Lang (New South Wales premier, 1930-32) chose to ignore. The ensuing, deep division between Lang and Scullin, and his treasurer E. G. Theodore, forced Beasley finally to support the artful 'Lang Plan' against Theodore's more circumspect solutions for the Depression. In the snarl of internecine strife Beasley lost his cabinet post on 3 March 1931.

In parliament he headed seven Lang dissidents and became leader of the Federal 'Lang Labor Party' on 27 March when the New South Wales branch was expelled from the A.L.P. The conflict intensified and Lang conspired with Beasley and his followers to bring down the Scullin government on 25 November. The sobriquet 'Stabber Jack' that Beasley acquired could have been more justly added to Lang's opprobrious titles. In 1931-35 Beasley helped Lang in his impossible mission to take over the A.L.P. The Federal Lang faction variously survived the elections of 1931 and 1934, highlighted by a swing against Beasley of 23 per cent in 1931 which failed to unseat him. Lang lost State elections in 1932 and 1935. These defeats, together with the unity hopes of John Curtin, who became leader of the Federal Labor Party on 1 October 1935, resulted in the return of the 'Langites' to the A.L.P. in February 1936. Beasley could now look forward in relative tranquillity to the probability of fruitful ministerial achievement.

But he was still entangled with Lang who, from 1936, was being assailed by Laborites growing in number and power. Beasley served on Labor's Federal executive, where his defence of Lang was unavailing, and was New South Wales director of the 1937 Federal election campaign, again lost by Labor. The infiltration of the party by communists enabled Lang to cling to the State leadership and aroused Beasley to vigorous and perceptive criticism of the C.P.A.'s Stalinist doctrines. Yet, as a delegate at the 1939 Federal triennial conference, he could not prevent a directive for a special unity conference to decide his patron's position. Lang was replaced by (Sir) William McKell on 5 September, two days after World War II began.

The Stalinists had not been dislodged. They exploited confusion at the 1940 State conference, allowing Lang to form a new group, the Australian Labor Party (Non-Communist), with Beasley as its Federal leader from 2 May. Curtin said that they had again stabbed Labor in the back; but he 'dished' the Stalinists decisively in August, and consolidated rising electoral support for the Labor Party. Adjusting with discernment to Labor's resurgence at a time of grave national danger, Beasley persuaded the Lang breakaways to rejoin the A.L.P. in February 1941. At last he was his own man, a seasoned politician of great potential, determined to put past animosities behind him.

In October 1940 Beasley had joined the Advisory War Council established by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. From this vantage-ground he observed the disintegration of the Menzies and (Sir) Arthur Fadden conservative governments, and took a vital role in the events that preceded the formation of Curtin's government on 7 October 1941. Beasley joined the War Cabinet as minister for supply and development (supply and shipping from 17 October 1942). The pressures of the post increased immeasurably when Japan entered the war in December 1941. Chairman of the Allied Supply and of the Australian Food councils, and a member of the production executive of cabinet, he became Curtin's indispensable lieutenant, not only in the immense work of organizing Australia's war effort, but also in mobilizing the labour movement's united support. Beasley's unrivalled knowledge of the complexities of trade union and Labor Party internal politics was invaluable. In late 1942 and early 1943, against traditional objections, he facilitated Curtin's successful attempt to extend the area of compulsory military service: he was bitterly attacked by Lang for his actions.

Despite his massive workload, Beasley found time to reflect on his department's achievements and published three articles in the Melbourne Age in March 1944. That year, inter alia, the department had to arrange production of 88 million garments, 31 million pairs of socks and stockings for civilians, and up to 26 million uniforms for Australian, British and American troops. Overall, in 1940-43, it placed contracts valued at £373 million; in 1944 an estimated 20,000 contracts worth £60 million would be arranged. Among the other items produced were 'hundreds of thousands of machetes' for jungle warfare, and 'hunting knives used for stabbing a Japanese or killing an animal for food'. Beasley was proud of his department's accounting system which was 'close to' perfect. Scientific resources were being tapped, and future plans included an aluminium-ingot industry at a cost of £3 million.

He had suffered from hypertension from about 1935. His incessant administrative duties brought on a breakdown early in 1944. During Bert Evatt's trips abroad, Beasley had acted as attorney-general and minister for external affairs. To relieve him, Curtin persuaded Beasley to head the Australian delegation to the twenty-sixth session of the International Labour Conference at Philadelphia, United States of America, in April 1944. His health deteriorated, however, and he resigned his ministry on 2 February 1945 to become vice-president of the Executive Council. He recovered and served as acting-minister for defence until Curtin's death on 5 July. In Frank Forde's government, from 6 July Beasley held the defence portfolio, as well as the vice-presidency of the Executive Council. He continued as minister for defence in J. B. Chifley's government from 13 July. But Beasley's health remained delicate and, having been appointed to the Privy Council on 1 January 1946, he became resident minister in London. He resigned from parliament on 15 August and that day was appointed high commissioner.

Beasley had been an exemplar of 'the Labor man', who, with minimal formal education, had been able to build on diligence and great native intelligence. He had thrived on spacious experience, based on unremitting trade union and party action, supplemented by sufficient reading of progressive social and political theory. His Catholicism and marriage had tempered the zeal that might have led him into the blind alley of extremism. Increasing insight had finally helped him to escape from his gullible deference to older and wayward men, and to make an outstanding contribution to the nation's war organization.

By 1946 the turbulence of Beasley's career—together with his illness—precluded any further advancement in the A.L.P. But his past did not prevent him from being a successful high commissioner who moved easily in several levels of British society. His accumulated knowledge of torrid meetings proved beneficial in August at the Paris Peace Conference. He was applauded when he told Andrei Vyshinsky that Australia would not be abused for speaking its mind and that Russian intimidation would not be tolerated: 'We had the right to speak of Europe. Our dead of two wars earned us that right'.

In 1947 Beasley was admitted freeman of the City of London and honorary freeman of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. Visiting Sydney, he died suddenly of hypertensive cerebrovascular disease on 2 September 1949 at St Vincent's Hospital. After a requiem Mass at St Mary's Cathedral he was buried in Frenchs Forest cemetery; he was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters; his estate was sworn for probate at £33,274.

On 7 September Lang pre-empted Chifley in reporting Beasley's death to parliament. 'In the turbulence of politics', he said, 'Mr Beasley was called upon to make many critical decisions . . . and the final judgment about what is right and what is wrong must be left to history to determine'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • J. Robertson, J. H. Scullin (Perth, 1974)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • B. Nairn, The 'Big Fella' (Melb, 1986)
  • R. McMullin, The Light on the Hill (Melb, 1991)
  • Cavalcade, July 1942
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 Apr 1926
  • Australian Worker, 4 Dec 1929
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 17 Oct 1930
  • Sun (Sydney), 22 Oct 1930
  • Age (Melbourne), 21-23 Mar 1944
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Aug 1946
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1949
  • Times (London), 3 Sept 1949
  • Labor Council of New South Wales records, 1920-29 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Beasley, John Albert (Jack) (1895–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/beasley-john-albert-jack-9461/text16641, accessed 23 September 2017.

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