LATHAM John Greig

Position
Attorney-General
Years active
18 December 1925 ‒ 22 October 1929; 6 January 1932 ‒ 12 October 1934.
Portrait of John Greig Latham - Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. Photographer WJ Mildenhall

SIR JOHN GREIG LATHAM GCMG PC KC 1877–19641

John Greig Latham was born on 26 August 1877 at Ascot Vale, Victoria, eldest of the five children of tinsmith Thomas Latham and his Scottish-born wife Janet, née Scott. His father was founder and long-term secretary of the Victorian Society for the Protection of Animals, and following a family move to Ivanhoe when John was an infant, was a justice of the peace and town councillor. Brought up in a strict Methodist household the children were encouraged to aspire to hard work and high moral standards, instilling values which influenced Latham all his life.

Beginning his education at George Street State School in Fitzroy, Latham won a scholarship to Scotch College and in 1896 graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne. He taught at the Hamilton Academy in 1897-98, at the same time endeavouring to control, partly through elocution lessons, a boyhood stammer and nervousness. In 1899 he returned to the university to study law, supporting himself as a resident tutor in logic and philosophy at Ormond College.

Awarded the Supreme Court prize in 1901, Latham was admitted to the Victorian Bar in December 1904 and began practising in Selborne Chambers. Working long hours in his profession, he appeared mostly in petty sessions and the County Court in the early years. Coming comparatively late to his legal career, and lacking the advantages of birth and connection of some of his contemporaries, he supplemented his income with teaching, lecturing at the university and some journalism, providing reports to the Argus at a penny a line and contributing to other publications. Making time for literary, political and sporting interests, he was a skilled lacrosse player, captaining the Victorian team and in 1908 representing Australia against visiting Canadian players.

On 19 December 1907 Latham and Eleanor Mary (Ella) Tobin, also an arts graduate, were married in a Methodist ceremony at her family home in Northcote, Melbourne. Becoming secretary of the Universal Service League's Victorian branch when it was formed in 1915 Latham, along with his wife, campaigned vigorously for the introduction of conscription during the First World War.

Volunteering for service, he was given the honorary rank of lieutenant-commander in the Naval Reserve and in 1917 was appointed chief of naval intelligence. Apprehensive of Bolshevism, Latham was convinced that sedition should be prosecuted with the full weight of the law. In 1918 he went to Europe as adviser to the minister for the navy, Sir Joseph Cook, in a delegation led by Prime Minister William Morris Hughes. Permitted to submit his memoranda directly to the Prime Minister, Latham contributed to the work of the Imperial War Conference and War Cabinet in London, and served on a committee determining post-war borders at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. In recognition of this work, he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in January 1920.

Returning to the Bar in Melbourne, Latham soon established a highly successful practice. His reputation founded on clear thinking, meticulous preparation and rigorously logical presentation in court, he worked mainly on taxation, commercial and arbitration matters and also took on some significant constitutional cases. In 1920 he was one of a team of illustrious counsel – which included Wilbur HamEdward Mitchell, and Herbert Evatt – representing the State of Victoria in the Engineers' Case2 in the High Court. Latham was made a King's Counsel (KC) in 1922.

Declining an invitation to become a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria in late 1921, Latham instead entered federal politics. His personal disapproval of Hughes, generated by their time together in Europe, extended to condemnation of the government's policies of economic intervention and interference in industrial relations. Conservative and sympathetic to business interests, Latham stood as an Independent Liberal Union candidate for the seat of Kooyong in 1922, adopting as his campaign slogan 'Hughes Must Go'. Defeating the Nationalist member, Sir Robert Best, Latham won his seat in the House of Representatives at the election on 16 December 1922. He actively supported the Country Party during the negotiations that forced Hughes to resign as Prime Minister in 1923. From the back-benches, Latham commanded attention with occasional speeches delivered in a manner reminiscent of his time in court.

In 1925 he joined the National Party, headed by Prime Minster SM Bruce, who led the non-Labor side to victory at the elections on 14 November that year. Appointed Attorney-General from 18 December 1925, in place of Littleton Groom, Latham moved immediately to strengthen legislative provisions to overcome the deportation issue which had caused Groom's resignation. Latham led the Australian delegation to the League of Nations General Assembly in Geneva in 1926 and, with Bruce, attended the subsequent Imperial Conference in London. Agreement reached at this conference which redefined the relationship between Britain and the colonies was later reiterated in the Balfour Declaration and enacted as the Statute of Westminster in the British parliament in December 1931. While he had always supported imperial links, and agreed with the principles recognising Australia's autonomy as a self-governing nation, Latham was opposed to codifying them in written law. His continued resistance to such legal definition would prove influential in delaying Australia's passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act until 1942.

Minister for Industry from 10 December 1928, as well as Attorney-General, Latham became leader of the Party and of the Opposition after Bruce lost his seat in the October 1929 election, which was held solely for the House of Representatives. When defectors from the Labor Party joined with the Nationalists in May 1931 to form the United Australia Party (UAP), Latham – hoping to ensure a united approach to combating the economic crisis of the Great Depression – conceded leadership of the new party to former Labor minister Joseph Lyons. Following UAP success at the general election of 19 December that year, Latham served as Attorney-General in the Lyons government from 6 January 1932, and was also Minister for External Affairs and for Industry. Many of the numerous opinions he wrote during his terms as Attorney-General were on industrial relations issues. He travelled to Switzerland for the 1932 session of the world disarmament conference in Geneva and the Lausanne conference, called to consider a war debt reduction plan for Germany. In 1934, on the first such visit by a minister for external affairs, Latham officially toured South-East Asia, before retiring from politics when Parliament was dissolved on 7 August.3

Appointed Privy Councillor (PC) in 1933, he was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) on 3 June 1935. On 11 October that year Sir John was appointed as the fifth Chief Justice of the High Court, one of only eight justices to have served in the Parliament of Australia prior to his appointment to the Court. Possessed of a long-standing and well-informed interest in Japanese culture, in late 1940 he took especially-legislated leave from the Court to go to Tokyo as Australia's first Minister to Japan. Attempts to maintain friendly relations were constrained by Japan's pact of mutual assistance with Axis powers, and Sir John returned to Australia before the Pacific War began in December 1941. He continued to sit on the High Court until his retirement on 7 April 1952.

Serving as a director of several companies, Sir John was always heavily involved in community affairs. Chancellor of the University of Melbourne from 1939 to 1941, he was also foundation president of the Australian Congress for Cultural Freedom; a local founder and president of the League of Nations Union; and president of the Australian-American Association from 1951 to 1964, the Free Library Movement of Victoria from 1937 to 1948, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust from 1954 to 1961 and the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association from 1943 to 1956.

Lady Latham, who had been president of the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne from 1933 to 1954, predeceased her husband by four months. Their elder son had been killed while serving with the Royal Air Force in 1943, and their daughter died in 1953. Survived by their third child, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Greig Latham, Sir John died aged 86, at Richmond on 25 July 1964. After a memorial service at Wesley Church, Melbourne, he was cremated. The Canberra suburb of Latham was named after him in 1971.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Stuart Macintyre, 'Latham, Sir John Greig (1877–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp. 2-6.
    • Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams (editors), The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, © 2001.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Amalgamated Society of EngineersAdelaide Steamship Co Ltd (1920) 28 CLR 129.
  3. Latham's resignation as Attorney-General was accepted by the Governor-General on 12 October 1934. Robert Menzies was appointed on the same date.

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