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Lesina, Vincent Bernard (Joe) (1869–1955)

by Ross Barber

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Vincent Bernard (Joe) Lesina (1869-1955), journalist and politician, was born on 1 November 1869 at Araluen, New South Wales, son of Alexander Lesina, Italian-Swiss goldminer, and his Irish-born wife Margaret, née McGrath. Educated at the Catholic orphanage, Parramatta, St Joseph's, Newtown, and St Benedict's, Sydney, Lesina accompanied his mother to Auckland, New Zealand, where he worked in various jobs.

In 1887, after they had returned to Sydney, he was apprenticed to a signwriter. A public speaker by 19, Lesina studied privately, joined the Henry George movement and helped John Farrell to produce the Lithgow Enterprise and Land Nationaliser. While working as a house-painter in Melbourne he became first secretary of the Victorian Homestead League. On 27 March 1895 he married Phoebe Eleanor Cullen in Sydney with Gospel Temperance Church forms; they had three sons.

Before moving to Queensland in 1896 Lesina reputedly wrote for the Worker, Gosford Times, Orange Leader, Gloucester Gazette, Sydney Weekly News, Democrat, Australian Standard, Evening News and Australian Town and Country Journal. In 1896-1900 he edited the Charters Towers Eagle. He easily won Clermont for Labor at the 1899 election and retained it until 1912, having been re-elected in 1902, 1904 and 1909 and returned unopposed in 1907 and 1908.

Described by Bernays as a 'nervy, restless dark little man of passing good looks', Joe Lesina was an eloquent, if verbose, speaker possessed of considerable wit, biting sarcasm and devastating invective, together with a capacity for detailed research and factual inventiveness. He advocated White Australia and even 'white Empire'.

Lesina never rose to any position of power or influence in the Labor Party. His only notable contribution to social reform was the adoption, at the sixth Labor-in-Politics Convention in 1910, of the abolition of capital punishment (enacted in 1922). Initially he had the support of the trade unions, the central political executive, the Worker (in which he was a regular columnist) and such influential Labor figures as Matt Reid, but most of his intra-party support had gone by the time of the 1906 'split' with Kidston.

During the 1904-06 period, although twice censured by his party, Lesina refused to 'surrender' Labor Party policy and socialist principles, even for desired electoral reform. He was strongly critical of his parliamentary colleagues, particularly for their failure to oppose government measures contrary to Labor policy. But J. B. Dalton's view that Lesina's political career 'was one of shameless duplicity and mercenary self-interest' seems unjustified. More convincing is D. P. Crook's assessment of him as the self-appointed 'watch-dog of Labor principles … [who] characteristically reflected the sensitivity of militant Labor for the preservation of the Labor platform in toto'. Ultimately his flamboyant individualism and his idealistic yet politically naive behaviour brought about his political demise.

In 1909 Lesina's public dispute with Dave Bowman over Labor's policy on the liquor trade and certain other aspects of nationalization led to his expulsion from the party. Born 'an utterly irreconcilable freelance', he was uncontrollable by party discipline.

Lesina wrote for John Norton's Brisbane Truth after 1904. On his retirement from parliament he moved to Sydney and was a member of the Australian Journalists' Association in 1916-36. Little is known of his later life. In 1917 he was with the Dubbo Daily Liberal and during 1924-26 and 1928-29 he seems again to have worked for Sydney Truth. He was editor of a daily newspaper at Katoomba in 1930-31. During the 1930 New South Wales elections he was on the publicity staff of the A.J.A. Lesina died at Parramatta on 14 July 1955 and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty (1859-1919) Years (Brisb, nd, 1919?)
  • J. Larcombe, Notes on the Political History of the Labour Movement in Queensland (Brisb, 1934)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1907
  • S. A. Rayner, The Evolution of the Queensland Labour Party to 1907 (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1947)
  • J. B. Dalton, The Queensland Labour Movement, 1899-1915 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1962)
  • T. O'Sullivan, Reminiscences of the Queensland Parliament, 1903-15 (no date, State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

Ross Barber, 'Lesina, Vincent Bernard (Joe) (1869–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/lesina-vincent-bernard-joe-7174/text12397, accessed 25 September 2017.

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