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Hunkin, Leslie Claude (1884–1984)

by Carol Fort

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Leslie Claude Hunkin (1884-1984), politician and public servant, was born on 10 January 1884 at George Town, Tasmania, eldest of ten children of Joseph Hunkin, gold-miner, and his wife Elma Blanche, née Edwards. Educated at home and at local schools, Leslie began studying law but at 19 required treatment in a sanatorium for tuberculosis. He was to suffer several bouts of poor health during his life. Taking a job at Dempsters Ltd, drapers, he was soon in charge of the Launceston workroom. Advised for health reasons to move to the mainland, he joined the staff of Foy & Gibson Ltd in Perth, and in 1908 transferred to the firm’s Adelaide store. He then worked for Goode, Durrant & Co. Ltd at their Grenfell Street warehouse. On 6 August 1910 at the office of the registrar-general, Victoria Square, he married Myrtle Florence Evans (d.1977). They had two sons and a daughter.

Attracted to the labour movement, in 1912 Hunkin became secretary of the Distributing Trades Union (from 1917 the South Australian branch of the Shop Assistants and Warehouse Employees’ Federation of Australia) and helped to found the local branch of the Federated Storemen and Packers’ Union of Australia in 1915. He gained a reputation as an outstanding industrial advocate in State and Federal industrial courts; the deputy-president of the former remarked during one case that the nation owed him a debt of gratitude `for the manner in which he had dealt with a [particularly] difficult situation’. In 1920 Hunkin travelled to Narbethong, Victoria, to help friends revive a flagging timber-milling company. On his return to Adelaide he established with Ralph Hains the retail furnishing company Hains Hunkin Ltd. Still engaged in labour issues, he played a major part in preparing South Australia’s Industrial Code, enacted in 1920. In January 1921, under the new legislation, he was appointed one of two employee members of the Board of Industry.

In 1921-27 Hunkin, representing the Australian Labor Party, was a member for East Torrens in the House of Assembly. He was also general secretary (1922-29) of the Public Service Association of South Australia and editor of the Public Service Review. A clear and logical debater in the House, he decisively shaped significant amendments to the Public Service (1925) and Superannuation (1926) Acts. He was defeated at the April 1927 election but, recognising his abilities, the conservative government of (Sir) Richard Layton Butler named him public service commissioner (his appointment to take effect from 1 January 1930) and chairman of the Public Service Classification and Efficiency Board. He was to hold several other administrative posts, among them the chairmanship (1933-69) of the Forestry Board.

During the Depression Hunkin sat on various economic committees, including the South Australian Advisory Committee on State Finance, and represented South Australia at national finance meetings. Aware of the Australian Loan Council’s pressure on the States to reduce government expenditure, he formed an advisory budget committee to deflect its demands. Showing a fierce sense of justice, he addressed the Public Service Association one night in `Black October’ (1930) and persuaded its members to make voluntary salary sacrifices (on top of general reductions already in place) so that the government could retain officers otherwise threatened with retrenchment.

In February 1942 Hunkin became deputy-director of manpower, responsible for implementing the Commonwealth government’s labour distribution scheme in South Australia. This post demanded all his diplomacy in labour matters and his ability to concentrate on the matter at hand and to interpret complex and shifting legislation. His phenomenal memory and commercial acumen were also important. Justifiably proud of his performance, he was appointed CMG in 1945. He resumed his State government role in 1946 and retired in January 1949. Intending to return to politics, he gained endorsement as the ALP candidate for the Federal seat of Angas in April that year, but an eye injury forced his withdrawal in August.

His father’s Cornish background was apparent in Hunkin’s rather short frame, dark hair and clipped speech. Interested in sport, he was delighted when the South Australian Jockey Club made him a life member. He was a crack shot—the duck-hunting season saw him donning waders and pack until well into his eighties—and he enjoyed fishing. At his Toorak Gardens home he played the piano, read voraciously, especially ancient history and politics, and tended the garden. He was a member of Tattersalls Club.

Hunkin’s family relationships did not mirror his success in public life. Work and a sense of community responsibility absorbed him. His family remembered him as `always right’ and very organised; he expected others to `mind their Ps and Qs’. Towards the end of his life he moved into the Masonic Memorial Village, Somerton Park. On 8 September 1984, aged 100, he died in Adelaide and was cremated. His daughter and one son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Feb 1922, p 6, 16 Apr 1949, p 1, 12 Nov 1981, p 3, 17 Nov 1981, p 5, 10 Jan 1984, p 2
  • Public Service Review, 30 Jan 1924, 31 Oct 1925
  • South Australiana, Sept 1981, p 64
  • C. S. Fort, Developing a National Employment Policy (PhD thesis, University of Adelaide, 2000)
  • Hunkin papers (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Carol Fort, 'Hunkin, Leslie Claude (1884–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/hunkin-leslie-claude-12669/text22833, accessed 14 December 2017.

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