BEASLEY John Albert

Acting Attorney-General
Years active
For periods during 1942–1945
Portrait of John Albert Beasley (1895-1949), by unknown photographer, 1940s National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23194212.


John Albert (Jack) Beasley was born on 9 November 1895 at Werribee, Victoria. He was the second of the four children of John Beasley (a blacksmith turned farmer) and his Irish-born wife, Catherine, née Hogan. After attending St Andrew's Catholic Primary School, Werribee, Jack Beasley began his working life on the family farm then learned the electrical trade in various places around rural Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, finishing his training at Broken Hill. Moving to Sydney in 1918 he worked first at the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard on Cockatoo Island, and later for the electricity department of Sydney Municipal Council, where he was promoted to electrical installation inspector and then, in December 1926 to supervisor of appliance sales.

As shop steward for the New South Wales Branch of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia (ETU), in 1920 Beasley represented the union as delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales. Prominent among young labour movement leaders of the time, he was president of the council from 1922 to 1928 and of the ETU from 1924 to 1930. Also a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) he was an enthusiastic advocate of industrial relations reform. He had close political alignments with both John (Jock) Garden, a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia and, more significantly, with John (Jack) Lang, the dominating leader of the New South Wales Labor Party. In 1926 Beasley was a participant in the eighth and ninth sessions of the International Labour Conference at Geneva, Switzerland. On 5 February 1927 he and Alma Matilda Creighton were married at Mary Immaculate Church in Manly.

Influential in Labor Party factionalism throughout the 1920s, Beasley entered federal parliament in February 1929, after winning the seat of West Sydney at the general election on 11 November 1928. At the end of a notably short parliamentary session – ended prematurely by a deadlock over the government's contentious industrial policy – Beasley retained his seat at the October 1929 election, which resulted in a landslide victory to Labor. He became an honorary minister in the Scullin government, assisting in the industry portfolio, newly removed from the Attorney-General's responsibilities. Beasley's plans for extensive industrial relations reform were emasculated by the Depression, and he lost his Cabinet position on 3 March 1931 when he chose to support Lang's alternative solution for dealing with the financial emergency in preference to the approach taken by the Prime Minister and the federal Treasurer.

At the end of March 1931 Beasley became leader of the left-wing breakaway 'Lang Labor Party' in federal parliament, following the expulsion of the New South Wales Branch from the ALP. Instrumental in the fall of the Scullin government later that year, Lang Labor continued in existence until its members returned to the ALP, under John Curtin's leadership, in February 1936. Further divisions within the ranks during the Second World War saw Beasley as federal leader of a new group, the Australian Labor Party (Non-Communist) from May 1940 until February 1941 when, a power broker in his own right, he persuaded the 'Langites' to re-join the ALP.

From October 1940 Beasley was an Opposition member of the Advisory War Council established by Prime Minister Robert Menzies to provide a bi-partisan forum in which to discuss issues relating to the war. Instrumental in the subsequent formation of the Curtin Labor government, which came into power on 7 October 1941 after a crucial shift in support from two independent members who crossed the floor, Beasley became Minister for Supply and Development (later Supply and Shipping) in the War Cabinet. Also Chairman of the Allied Supply and of the Australian Food councils, and a member of the production executive of Cabinet, his responsibilities increased markedly after Japan entered the war in December 1941. Beasley's experience and knowledge proved invaluable in his work assisting to organise the war effort in Australia, and in marshalling union support for it. Despite acrimonious criticism from Lang, Beasley supported Curtin in the extension of compulsory military service in late 1942 and early 1943.

During Bert Evatt's trips abroad in 1942 and 1943, Beasley, in addition to his own massive workload, acted as Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs. His health failing from early in 1944, he was persuaded to head the Australian delegation to the twenty-sixth session of the International Labour Conference at Philadelphia, United States of America, in April; and then resigned his ministry on 2 February 1945 to become Vice-President of the Executive Council. Recovered somewhat, he acted as Attorney-General again during 1945, and served as acting Minister for Defence until Curtin died in office on 5 July 1945. Beasley held the defence portfolio, and his Executive Council position, during the week-long Forde government, and continued as defence minister in Ben Chifley's government from 13 July 1945. One of the handful of contributions he made to the Opinion Book during his periods as acting Attorney-General was selected for publication in Volume 3.

Appointed to the Privy Council on 1 January 1946, Beasley was made resident minister in London until his resignation from Parliament on 14 August that year, when he became Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. At the Paris Peace Conference in August 1946 he was applauded for his articulate defence of Australia's right to have a voice in the forum. In 1947 he was made a freeman of the City of London and honorary freeman of the Worshipful Company of Butchers.

At the age of 53 Beasley died suddenly of hypertensive cerebrovascular disease during a visit to Sydney, on 2 September 1949. After a Requiem Mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, he was buried in Frenchs Forest Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Bede Nairn, 'Beasley, John Albert (Jack) (1895–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 May 2012.
    • Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, Melbourne University Press, 1974.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 1695