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Ferguson, Laurie John (Jack) (1924–2002)

by Rodney Cavalier

from Australian

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Jack Ferguson was born in a Fire Brigade terrace at Zetland in September 1924, the first of three children of John Ferguson (native of Kilmarnock, Scotland) and Mary Ellen Burke (Australian born of Irish Catholics). Christened Laurie John Ferguson, he was known then and always, to his family and the wider world, as Jack.

His childhood was one of material privation and the richness of reading, a father continuously out of work, a succession of rented houses in and around Granville and Guildford. Eviction was a weekly threat. Leaving school at the earliest legal age was one of life’s certainties so as to find the steady employment his father could not, necessarily in jobs that were menial or dangerous or both. His income sustained the family his mother had held together.

It took a world war to break the certainties of his life’s course. He enlisted as soon as he was old enough, trained as a gunner and was despatched to New Guinea in a Field Regiment of the Ninth Division. Demobilised he took advantage of the retraining programs the Chifley Government had devised exactly for men like him, enrolled in a technical college course in bricklaying, gained his qualifications, built houses all over Sydney, joined his union and joined the Labor Party in 1949 in gratitude for what Chifley had made possible.

Active in his party, he took on branch and other offices, won the respect and support of people much older than him, served on the Parramatta Council, won a tight contest for ALP preselection for the new seat of Merrylands in the NSW Parliament which, in 1959, was by no means the safe proposition for Labor that it was to become. Elected to Parliament, he found himself part of an out-group critical of the complacency of a Labor Government already 18 years old.

Around him the critics of the ALP leadership coalesced. Following that Government’s defeat in 1965 – after so many achievements there was scarce concealing it was decayed and out of touch – Ferguson was the first to perceive that the taint of the defeated had to pass before Labor was again electable. A second defeat in 1968 made that need urgent; another defeat and the certainty of a fourth convinced the party machine and those committed to a return to government that something drastic, untried, altogether novel was the party’s one hope of avoiding the loss of government for a generation. The party had to look outside its ranks in the Lower House though no further than a brilliant QC in the Upper House with impeccable Labor credentials. It says much about the state of Labor in 1973 that the choice of Neville Wran appeared so radical.

Jack Ferguson was far from convinced about the merits of the Wran experiment; he had no cause to like the man, their previous dealings had been minimal. Subscribing always to what he called “the art of the possible”, Ferguson threw all of his support behind Wran. In a caucus split literally down the middle, Wran tied the ballot for Leader but was declared winner after a countback of the primaries. Ferguson won Deputy with one vote more. The Wran victory came from a coalition of the Left – when that term enjoyed a meaning – the dissatisfied, the mavericks and independents, those desperate to win back government. Only Ferguson could have marshalled those numbers and held them, given what forces were put in play to stay with the past. Neville Wran, for one, never doubted the extent of his debt.

In Opposition the two men forged a relationship that transcended the political to become the bedrock of NSW parliamentary Labor for the next decade. Wran, who owed so much to siblings who had made sacrifices, came to look on Jack as the best a person could aspire to be. “I love Jack more than life itself,” he said more than once. And Jack, who was never demonstrative, reciprocated that feeling in his own understated manner. Jack resigned from the Deputy’s position in 1984, keeping a promise to himself that he would retire on top, when everyone was wanting him to stay and before he turned 65. A good deal of the light went out of the pleasure Neville took in the Premiership.

Jack retired to grow cabbages and lettuce and tomatoes, returning to the tasks he had performed for his mother all those years ago when such matters were the tasks of survival. In his absence from the Parliament and the affairs of his faction, the Left split and lost any meaning as a philosophical or ideological alternative, competing with the Right as an executive placement agency for the restricted gene pool of the political class.

When he died this week, not long after his 78th birthday, his body was a medical phenomenon. At age five he contracted scarlet fever with lifelong consequences for his kidneys. An early job as a lagger had him breathing asbestos day after day for 18 months. During the War he suffered from malaria. He drank and he smoked (neither in moderation), suffered from diabetes and was laid low by heart attacks.

Although university was not a word he so much as encountered in his childhood, his respect for learning was profound. In the midst of serious material poverty, young Jack was devouring English boys’ weeklies, adventure yarns and cowboy stories nightly at the kitchen table in the mellow light cast by an oil lamp. When electricity became available universally, Jack was mindful of the cost of consumption, an attitude that precluded reading in a separate room.

Though the ownership of books was out of the question, their presence in numbers was a feature of the Ferguson household, made possible by the lending libraries and book exchanges and his beloved Guildford School of Arts. A public library for local people was 20 years in the future, the result of Jack’s determined campaign during his term on the Parramatta Council. The extensions to the State Library in Macquarie Street were wholly a Ferguson initiative, even if the only place for expansion was on top of Parliament’s own tennis courts. The extensions proceeded without so much as a resolution of either House. Jack wanted it, Neville Wran backed him, the Members could say what they wanted. The Library was going ahead.

Jack’s intellectual awakening you could trace to an exact moment and place: in the jungles of New Guinea after the capture of Finschaffen, when he dipped into a wooden box of Penguins on offer from the Army Education Service. In his hands was G. B. Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. It was a book like nothing Ferguson had seen before. "A book wasn't only about the story in the book," Jack told me. "Shaw was questioning, he was making you think."

In his modesty, Jack did not understand that 60 years of purposeful self-directed reading of the world’s great novelists and the historians of the ancient and modern worlds made him better educated than most who had only ever known undergraduate studies. An indulgence as Deputy Premier was to allot himself a Water Board cottage at Warragamba where he could lock himself away and catch up on his reading.

The girl he married was from the other side of the Guildford tracks. Mary Ellen Bett was a child of the country who stayed with her parents in a stately mansion when one side of Guildford was a suburb of stately mansions. Their courting began in 1946 a little time after Mary observed him buying a Napoleon puff pastry in the local cakeshop, such is her memory and her eye for detail. She was the rock of his life, submerging her own ambitions in the man she married and the five children they created. Brought up in a household where a young Gough Whitlam was likely to drop in without notice, it was not surprising that all five became active in the Labor Party as soon as they could join.

The family lived in the house which Jack had built for his bride, brick by brick. A man who had built his own house was becoming a rarity in politics by the 1970s. His practical background served the State so well: wanting to restore Macquarie Street to its former glory, as Public Works Minister Jack brought stonemasons from Italy to train young Australians on the job. Two of the first six were women.

The couple did not marry until the house was complete. It was on the vacant block where his mother had kept a cow, next door to the house his mother had bought in 1938. Apart from the War and his all too frequent stays in hospital, he only ever lived in those two houses in Guildford for sixty-plus years.

Jack Ferguson is survived by his widow, his five children, eight grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

Original Publication

  • Australian, 18 September 2002

Other Entries for Laurie John (Jack) Ferguson

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rodney Cavalier, 'Ferguson, Laurie John (Jack) (1924–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/ferguson-laurie-john-jack-15934/text27142, accessed 21 November 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012