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Tonkin, John Tresize (1902–1995)

by Duncan Graham

State funerals produce curious images and seeming contradictions, and Mr Tonkin's was no exception. The Western Australian Premier, Mr Court, and federal Health Minister, Dr Carmen Lawrence, sat next to each other at a church service and led the 350 mourners. For much of this year, Dr Lawrence has been the focus of a $3 million royal commission set up by Mr Court.

But there was a congruency between the funeral seating arrangements and Mr Tonkin's life in politics. When his Labor Government was defeated in 1974, he lost to Mr Court's father, Sir Charles Court. But when Mr Tonkin died, no one was more vocal than Sir Charles in praising a parliamentarian who gave 44 years of service to Western Australia.

During those four decades, the game of politics was certainly played hard, but without the vitriol that characterises public life in Western Australia today. Mr Tonkin was happy to call Sir David Brand, the Liberal he had defeated to win Government in 1971, a friend.

Mr Tonkin was Premier for three years, and spent much of that compromising, as the ALP had a one-seat majority. For his balancing skills he was dubbed Supertonk. For his integrity in keeping promises he became Honest John.

He introduced laws protecting Aboriginal heritage and the environment when they were fringe issues. But he lost government in 1974 when anti-Whitlam hysteria in WA was at its peak.

Mr Tonkin's earlier terms in Government were more productive.

He entered Parliament in 1933 as member for North-East Fremantle.

In 1947 he was deputy leader in the Government led by Bert Hawke, Bob Hawke's uncle, and held several key portfolios.

His success in extending piped water through the wheatbelt now sounds prosaic. In fact, it was a decision of vision as rainfall has steadily decreased in the past 20 years. Unlike city-born politicians, he understood the importance of reliable water supplies. His actions dissolved rural hostility towards Labor.

He was born in the Goldfields, quit school at 14, then studied at night to become an accountant and teacher. As a person, he was idiosyncratic and at times anachronistic. He was obsessed with the number two, partly because he was born on 2 February 1902.

His first wife, Rosalie, and a daughter died of cancer, triggering an insatiable interest in cures. Despite ridicule from mainstream medicine, he promoted a German machine, the Tronado. Journalists who challenged his beliefs were battered into silence by a barrage of anecdotes and "facts''. Two Tronados were imported by Mr Tonkin as Premier, and in 1988 he used the device to treat his prostate cancer.

He was also a stern moralist, who found his premiership the butt of ridicule when he condemned a sex manual that contained blurred photos of copulating couples.

If he amassed wealth, it was never obvious. He lived, sounded and looked trilbyhatted working class, a man who knew John Curtin and shared his times. He was accessible, slow-talking, robustly Australian, likeable and often stubborn.

As a young man he was attracted to racing but he was quick to see the damage it could do to a man in public life, so he swapped the track for the garden.

His Cabinet colleagues would dread being in a room with him and a blackboard. "Once a teacher, always a teacher,'' he said without apology.

At the funeral, his friend, a former WA Governor, Sir Francis Burt, said Mr Tonkin was "an honorable man . . . an inspiration to our generation. He never generated cynicism or malice. We always knew we could trust him''.

Sir Charles Court revealed that Mr Tonkin rejected offers of imperial honors. "I admired him greatly,'' Sir Charles said. "He typified the true values of the old-style Labor Party.''

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 1 November 1995, p 18

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Citation details

Duncan Graham, 'Tonkin, John Tresize (1902–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/tonkin-john-tresize-29935/text37380, accessed 14 July 2020.

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