SPICER John Armstrong

Position
Attorney-General
Years active
19 December 1949 – 14 August 1956

SIR JOHN ARMSTRONG SPICER QC 1899–19781

John Armstrong Spicer was born on 5 March 1899 at 935 High Street, Armadale, in Prahran, Melbourne. He was the son of English-born photographer Henry Spicer and his wife Helen Jane, née Armstrong, from Bendigo, Victoria. Between 1905 and 1911 he lived with his family in England, where he attended Chelston School in Torquay. Returned to Melbourne, he continued his education at Hawksburn State School on Malvern Road. Obtaining a job as an office-boy in a legal firm in 1913, he gained his matriculation at night school, then doing an articled clerk's course at the University of Melbourne from 1916 to 1918.

Admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1921, Spicer signed the Bar roll in Victoria on 5 May 1922. On 27 June 1924 he and Lavinia May Webster were married with Anglican rites at Christ Church, South Yarra. Establishing a solid legal practice, he was also developing a passion for politics, stimulated by his ongoing friendship with fellow law student Robert Menzies. A member of the Australian Natives' Association, Spicer was on the committee of Melbourne's Constitutional Club from 1929, later serving as club president and becoming a life member. In 1933 and 1937 he was Victorian president of the Young Nationalist Organisation, which he had helped found.

As a United Australia Party (UAP) candidate, Spicer was elected to the Senate in 1940. Becoming well known for his quick, logical mind and powerful debating skills, he made a notable contribution as chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances from 1940 until 1943. During this period he spoke frequently on taxation issues and served on several finance-related parliamentary committees. Defeated in the general election in August 1943, and concluding his Senate term in June 1944, Spicer was appointed as the first external legal adviser to Regulations and Ordinances Committee from 1 January 1945, as no lawyer senator was available to succeed him as chair. He resigned from the role 16 months later.

Returning to the Bar, Spicer was appointed King's Counsel (KC) in 19482. He acted as junior counsel for the English banks in court action against bank nationalisation, to which he was vehemently opposed. Heavily involved in the transformation of the UAP into the Liberal Party of Australia3 while he was out of office, Spicer was re-elected as a Liberal senator in December 1949. Initially appointed under section 64 of the Constitution, prior to his swearing in, he served as Attorney-General from 19 December 1949 to 14 August 1956 in the coalition government led by Menzies.

Valued for his sound legal knowledge, readiness to consider both sides of an argument and ability to put correct law ahead of political considerations, Spicer had to deal with some particularly problematic issues during his term. Legislation banning the Communist Party of Australia passed in 1950 was subsequently declared unconstitutional by the High Court. Related security questions, a controversial national services bill and conciliation and arbitration legislation also occupied Spicer's time – as did the 1954 defection of Soviet spy, Vladimir Petrov, and the subsequent Royal Commission on Espionage. As Attorney-General, Spicer contributed many pieces of advice to the Opinion Book. An earlier opinion published in Volume 3 concerned a prospective vacancy in the Senate. Written before Spicer was elected to Parliament, it was provided jointly with Wilfred Fullagar from Selborne Chambers.

Spicer resigned from the Senate on 14 August 1956 to take up appointment the next day as Chief Judge of the newly established Commonwealth Industrial Court. In 1959 he chaired a committee which reported on 'alterations desirable' in copyright law, leading to significant reform and the enactment of Australia's first substantive intellectual property legislation. Other judicial inquiries and royal commissions he led included several into naval and air disasters. In 1964, as sole commissioner, he inquired into the collision between HMAS Voyager and aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, finding that officers of both ships had been at fault. However, a second Royal Commission which was established in response to subsequent public pressure later attributed blame to the Voyager's officers only. Knighted on 8 June 1963, Sir John was appointed as the first president of the Copyright Tribunal in 1968. Before he retired from the Industrial Court in November 1976, he presided jointly over a marine inquiry into Hobart's Tasman Bridge disaster, following the crash into the bridge and sinking of the bulk ore carrier, Lake Illawarra, on the night of 5 January 1975.

Aged 78, Sir John Spicer died on 3 January 1978 at a private hospital in Armadale, Victoria. Survived by his wife and their only son, he was accorded a state funeral at Christ Church, South Yarra, and was cremated at Springvale.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Author unnamed, 'Spicer, Sir John Armstrong (1899-1978)', in Ann Millar (editor), The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Volume 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2004.
    • Geoff Browne, 'Spicer, Sir John Armstrong (1899–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spicer-sir-john-armstrong-11744/text20999, accessed 21 May 2012.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Made King's Counsel (KC) in the reign of King George VI, Spicer was reappointed as Queen's Counsel (QC) after Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952.
  3. The modern Liberal Party of Australia, as distinct from the Commonwealth Liberal Party which was formed in the 'Fusion' alliance of 1909 and merged with National Labor in February 1917 to become the Nationalist Party of Australia.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 1624

senate vacancy
prospective vacancy…

Opinion Number. 1880

NEW GUINEA
NATIONALITY OF PERSONS BORN…

Opinion Number. 1886

AGED CARE
WHETHER COMMONWEALTH PARLIAMENT…

Opinion Number. 1896

NATIONALITY
AUSTRALIAN CITIZENSHIP BY…

Opinion Number. 1900

BOUNTIES
COMMONWEALTH COAL SUBSIDIES:…

Opinion Number. 1903

AVIATION
COMPULSORY INSURANCE OF AIRLINE…