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Bryant, Gordon Munro (1914–1991)

by Peter Gifford

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Gordon Bryant, c.1955

Gordon Bryant, c.1955

Coburg Historical Society

Gordon Munro Bryant (1914-1991), teacher, soldier, and politician, was born on 3 August 1914 at Lismore, Victoria, second child of Victorian-born parents Donald Munro Bryant, storekeeper and farmer, and his wife Agnes Keith, née Bain. James Munro, premier of Victoria during the 1890s financial crash, was his great-uncle. Moving with his family to Baxter on the Mornington Peninsula, he attended Frankston High School where he won a teaching scholarship (1930). He showed an early interest in politics when he represented the ‘Labor Party’ in a mock election, winning the classroom ballot. In 1935 he taught at a subsidised school at Callaghan Creek, before being appointed as a student-teacher at Pearcedale. Three years later he was awarded a studentship to the Melbourne Teachers’ College and was posted to Mittyack State School. On 5 December 1942 he married Patricia Jean Hilton née Grant, accountant, at St Margaret’s Church, Eltham.

From May 1934 Bryant had served in the Citizen Military Forces, rising to lieutenant (1941). He began full-time duty in World War II on 16 February 1942. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in January 1943, he served in Australia until 1945. In July that year he took part in the invasion of Balikpapan, Borneo, with the 2/33rd Battalion and was promoted to captain in August. He returned to Australia in February 1946 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 22 October. From 1949 to 1961 he continued his CMF service. He was later an opponent of Australia’s involvement in, and conscription for, the Vietnam War, and opposed incorporation of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor into Indonesia.

Returning to education, Bryant taught part time at Upwey High School while studying at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1950; DipEd, 1975). In about 1949 he joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He stood unsuccessfully in 1951 and 1954 for the Victorian seat of Deakin in Federal parliament. In 1955, following the ALP split and backed by the left wing of the party, he was elected as the member for Wills in the House of Representatives. During his parliamentary career, he served on numerous committees including the joint committee on foreign affairs (and defence). He was a delegate to Inter-Parliamentary Union meetings in Copenhagen and Lucerne (1964) and in Canberra (1966); the Socialist International centenary celebrations in Brussels (1964); and the 33rd United Nations general assembly (1978). He served as a member of the council of the National Library of Australia (1964-72, 1976-80).

Bryant’s interest in Aboriginal affairs began in 1957 when he was alerted to the ‘starvation and privation’ of Aboriginal people in the Warburton Ranges, Western Australia. In the House he urged the Commonwealth government to develop a long-term policy to ‘improve the lot of the aborigines’ (Aust. HOR 1957, 1222). That year he became founding chairman of the Aborigines Advancement League in Victoria (1957-64), and a founding member of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (life member 1974). In May 1963 he seconded a motion by his ALP colleague Kim Beazley senior calling on the Commonwealth government to recognise Aboriginal land title. Four months later he travelled with Beazley to Yirrkala in the Northern Territory to hear the Yolngu people’s concerns about mining on their traditional land. The visit led to the creation of the Yirrkala bark petitions of 1963—the first documents prepared by Indigenous Australians to be recognised by the Australian parliament. Bryant also lodged an objection to the granting of Yirrkala mining leases; ‘one of the first occasions on which the legal right of the Aboriginal people of Australia to their land was taken up in the courts’ (NLA MS 8256).

Appointed to a parliamentary inquiry to examine the claims of the Yolngu people, Bryant wrote that it was ‘going to be a tough fight’ but he hoped that others would ‘see the injustice of it all’ (NLA MS 8256). His friend, Darwin-based journalist Douglas Lockwood, reported that the central question was whether those on reserves had the right to ‘decide for themselves who is admitted—and where, when and at what price’ (1963, 4). The enquiry made several recommendations including that the Yolngu should be compensated for bauxite mining development on their lands.

In 1962 Bryant had stated that ‘No aborigine can feel absolutely free and equal to other Australians whilst the Commonwealth Constitution contains the two clauses which exclude him from the Census . . . and from Commonwealth laws’ (Attwood and Markus 2007, 106). A referendum to determine whether these clauses should be removed was announced by the Federal government in 1967. Bryant’s parliamentary office in Canberra was active in organising the successful campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, with over ninety percent of voters supporting change. Following the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972, he was appointed as the first minister for Aboriginal affairs. As minister he was described by the Bulletin as an ‘old time radical, fiery, impatient, fearless, [a] battler for the Aborigines’, and ‘no friend of Whitlam’ (1973, 35). Although he had poor relations with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, he was instrumental in establishing the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, an advisory body composed of elected representatives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Bryant lost the Aboriginal affairs portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle on 9 October 1973, becoming instead the minister for the capital territory. His successor, Senator Jim Cavanagh, denied that Bryant had been sacked, and claimed that he had been moved to relieve Kep Enderby in the portfolio. There had been allegations of financial mismanagement in the newly established department. Inquiries in 1973 and 1974 by the auditor-general found that the department had failed to ‘control the expenditure of large amounts of public moneys’ and had not taken ‘early and resolute action’ to ensure that proper financial measures were instituted. Responding to the report, Bryant maintained that he had taken certain steps, but even in hindsight could not say what else could have been done to avoid this ‘disastrous situation’ (NLA MS 8256). He remained in the capital territory portfolio until the dismissal of the Whitlam Government on 11 November 1975.

The next year Bryant resisted pressure from the ALP to retire so that Bob Hawke could stand for his seat in a by-election. After retiring in 1980, he stood unsuccessfully for election to the Heidelberg City Council (1981). He was a visiting fellow at the school of economics, La Trobe University, and remained vocal on Aboriginal issues, education, and matters affecting the Australian Capital Territory. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 14 January 1991 in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and was cremated. It fell to Hawke, then prime minister, to announce Bryant’s death to the House and to place on record his ‘long and meritorious public service’ (Aust. HOR 1991, 491).

Select Bibliography

  • Attwood, Bain, and Markus, Andrew. The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution. Canberra: AIATSIS, 2007
  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, no. 19, 1957, 1221-35
  • Australia. House of Representatives. Votes and Proceedings, no. 41, 12 February 1991, 491
  • Bryant, Gordon. Interview by Adam Ashforth, 18 July-13 October 1983. Transcript. Parliament’s oral history project. National Library of Australia
  • Bulletin (Sydney). 28 April 1973, 35
  • Lockwood, Douglas. ‘Aboriginal Fight For a Principle.’ Herald (Melbourne), 16 September 1963, 4
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 3111535
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8256, Bryant, Gordon. Papers, 1917-1991
  • Palmer, Ian. Buying Back The Land: Organisational Struggle and the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission. Canberra: AIAS, 1998

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Gifford, 'Bryant, Gordon Munro (1914–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bryant-gordon-munro-18365/text30004, accessed 24 March 2017.

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