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Francis Edward (Joe) Chamberlain (1900–1984)

by Bobbie Oliver

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Francis Edward (Joe) Chamberlain (1900-1984), Labor Party secretary, was born on 13 May 1900 at East Barnett, London, one of seven children of Frank Chamberlain, a pay sergeant in the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Willis. Nicknamed `Joe’ after the British politician, he was brought up at East Barnett in `a terrible, drab two storey tenement, in [a] drab and gloomy street’. He was close to his mother, who died when he was 16. Educated at local schools, he was apprenticed at 14 to a copperplate printer, and was conscripted in 1918 to serve in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. After his discharge he could not find employment and in 1923 migrated to Western Australia. He took on jobs as a labourer, clearing timber and constructing roads and railways.

On 26 December 1927 Chamberlain married 18-year-old Gladys Lilian Burke at the Congregational Church, Busselton. For nine years they were group settlers on a dairy farm near Busselton before moving to Perth. Chamberlain worked (1936-42) for the Mines Department, first as a labourer and then as a watchman. Joining the Western Australian Government Tramways in 1942 as a conductor and later as a driver, he was secretary (1944-49) of the Western Australian Government Tramways, Motor Omnibus, and River Ferries Employees’ Union of Workers, Perth. As union advocate, he became a skilled negotiator in the Court of Arbitration of Western Australia. In 1949 he was elected Australian Labor Party State secretary, a full-time, paid position wielding considerable influence. He soon dominated the party’s industrial and political apparatus, serving as an ex-officio member of all State party committees, as secretary of the Trade Unions’ Industrial Council, and as a delegate to the federal executive of the ALP and to the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Chamberlain remained in office for a quarter-century, showing a resistance to change and an unwillingness to compromise that over the years caused many controversies. Among them was his opposition to the establishment of an independent Trades and Labor Council in Western Australia. On political grounds he objected to the increased influence of non-ALP members (especially communists) in the labour movement. He also recognised that moves to form a separate industrial body threatened the chief source of party funds, affiliation fees collected from unions. When in 1963 he could no longer prevent the TLC’s formation, he controlled the process of creating the new body and of disbanding the ALP district councils.

In November 1953 Chamberlain had been elected one of two vice-presidents of the ALP federal executive. He strongly supported the parliamentary leader, Bert Evatt, and regarded a leadership challenge in 1954 by Tom Burke, the member for Perth, as disloyal. At the federal conference in Hobart in March 1955, he moved the resolution to exclude the `groupers’, thereby clashing with other members of the Western Australian delegation who then withdrew from the conference. Afterwards dissidents in Western Australia associated with the `grouper’ faction split with the ALP and formed the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), which became the Democratic Labor Party in 1957. As the ALP entered a period of repeated electoral defeats, Chamberlain reached the zenith of his power, as the party’s federal president (195561) and federal secretary (1961-63).

Chamberlain’s vision was militant in the `old Labor Left’ sense, setting him at odds with Labor conservatives and with communists. Repeatedly he warned party members of the need to maintain the principles on which the ALP was founded. His concept of democratic socialism was centred on the home. The male breadwinner worked `usefully in the community’ and was adequately remunerated while `his wife [was] divorced from the drudgery of housekeeping [by] the application of modern science’, and their children were educated to enable them to take their place as future citizens. Like Evatt, he warned against the `enemy within’—those DLP sympathisers who remained in the ALP as part of a strategy to `sow discontent with Labor leadership’ and to `undertake a steady campaign of reconciliation between the Labor Party and the breakaway groups’.

In 1964 Chamberlain attempted to stand against Senator Joseph Cooke, who had opposed him at the federal conference in 1955 but had remained in the ALP. Chamberlain withdrew his name from preselection after complaints that his nomination was contrary to `a time-honoured practice’ of not opposing a sitting member. During the State election campaign next year his continuing hostility to the DLP led to a major row with the ALP leader, Albert Hawke, who publicly supported the idea of talks aimed at finding a basis of unity. Afterwards, when Chamberlain said Hawke’s statement might have been a factor in the ALP losing the election, Hawke accused him of instigating `a campaign of disruption and treachery’. The State secretary, however, had considerable support from both unions and ALP branches. Subsequently the federal executive censured Hawke and threatened him with `more severe action’ if he repeated his misdemeanour. Such was Chamberlain’s power, even in 1965 when his only role on the federal executive was as a State representative.

While they were at odds over the DLP, Hawke and Chamberlain were united in their opposition to Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. In this they supported the federal leader, Arthur Calwell. In June 1967 Chamberlain came into conflict with Calwell’s successor, Gough Whitlam, and his deputy, Lance Barnard, over party policy in relation to the war. At the Western Australian State conference in July Whitlam and Chamberlain refused to speak to each other, until colleagues prevailed upon them to patch up their differences and to shake hands. Chamberlain took a prominent part in organising and leading anti-war rallies in Perth.

Despite ill health, Chamberlain continued as State secretary until December 1974. On the ALP federal executive for thirty years, he had given the State branch of the party unprecedented access to national politics. This, and the Cold War politics of the era, had brought the previously parochial Western Australian labour movement into the mainstream. However, Chamberlain left a party structure desperately in need of reform. His autocratic leadership and his quarrels with Federal and State parliamentary leaders had caused resentment and discord—he inspired intense loyalty among some Labor colleagues and deep enmity among others. A complex person with high principles, he was regarded as `absolutely incorruptible’. Colin Jamieson assessed Chamberlain as a `very genuine guy who liked to sail his ship straight. He didn’t suit everybody, nor they him’. Other colleagues accused him of authoritarianism, inflexibility and sectarianism. The extent to which Chamberlain’s motives and actions were misinterpreted is indicated by the fact that he was branded as `extreme Left wing’ by right-wing sections of the labour movement—especially those who formed the DLP—while communists regarded him as `conservative’.

A tallish, fit man, impeccably dressed, usually in a light-coloured suit, `Joe’ Chamberlain liked to play golf, garden, and swim in the ocean in his spare time. Survived by his wife, their daughter and their younger son, he died on 20 October 1984 at Graylands, Perth, and was cremated. His autobiography, My Life and Times, was edited by his son Harold and published in 1998.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits (1979)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec 1974, p 7
  • West Australian, 23 Oct 1984, p 15
  • S. Reid, taped interviews with K. Dowding (1991), R. A. Hartley (1988-90), and C. Jamieson (1989) (State Library of Western Australia)
  • R. Jamieson, taped interview with L. Elliott (1987, State Library of Western Australia)
  • P. Pendal, taped interview with A. R. G. Hawke (1971-73, State Library of Western Australia)
  • ALP (Western Australia), State executive and State executive officers, minutes of meetings, 1949-74, (State Library of Western Australia)
  • ALP (Western Australia) metropolitan district council, correspondence (State Library of Western Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bobbie Oliver, 'Chamberlain, Francis Edward (Joe) (1900–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


13 May, 1900
London, Middlesex, England


20 October, 1984 (aged 84)
Graylands, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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