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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Jenkins, Henry Alfred (Harry) (1925–2004)

by Chris Jones

Harry Jenkins forever changed the way Australians view their politicians.

As Speaker of the House of Representatives in the early 1980s he was the first to authorise the televising of certain parliamentary debates, doing away with the 40-year-old practice of allowing only audio feeds of parliamentary proceedings to be broadcast.

But Dr Jenkins was not content with just allowing excerpts of the proceedings to be televised, and dreamed of a time when both chambers were continuously televised — something that happened just four years after he stood down as Speaker in 1986.

And it was not only with the televising of parliamentary debates that "Doc" Jenkins was a reformer, being one of the first Speakers to opt not to wear the ceremonial robes and taking any opportunity to talk up the chances of a truly independent Speaker based on the British model.

But the self-confessed fan of the quaint customs of Australia's parliamentary system was no radical when it came to the parliament's centuries-old rules, at one point leading a crackdown on the words "liar, lied and lies" during parliamentary debate — a precedent which stands to this day.

He is remembered as having run the Parliament with a mixture of wit, good humour and — at times — a certain amount of exasperation at the antics of his parliamentary colleagues.

Henry Alfred Jenkins ("everybody calls me Harry") was born to a storeman-packer and metal polisher in 1925, acquiring his Labor ideals in his formative years growing up in a struggling Melbourne neighbourhood.

At the age of 11 he took on part-time work as a golf caddy to help the family, later becoming a professional's assistant at Rosanna and Heidelberg Golf Clubs to help pay his way through secondary school at Ivanhoe Grammar School and at Melbourne University.

"I had to battle as a kid," he once recalled. "I come from a working-class background that brought me in touch with Labor people.

"I had to work my way through university and I became acquainted with social and economic problems in the community; I became interested in these and I found myself tied up with them."

After finishing his science degree, the young Harry went on to gain further degrees in Medicine and Surgery while working as a tutor, demonstrator and laboratory assistant in the university's Physiology Department.

He married Hazel (nee Winter) on September 6, 1951.

After his resident year at the Alfred Hospital in 1953, he took up general practice in suburban Thornbury and served part-time as a major in the Citizen Military Forces.

It was not until his mid-30s that he took up politics, winning the state seat of Reservoir for Labor and later serving on the Opposition frontbench as its health spokesman.

Eight years later, Dr Jenkins won Labor preselection for the safe federal electorate of Scullin and was swept to office as one of Gough Whitlam's "class of '69".

During a period recognised as possibly the most stunning in Australia's political history, Dr Jenkins sat on the backbench — but he was anything but forgettable, if only for his hulking 190cm, 90kg frame and head of white hair.

With his medical background, he also was one of the early proponents of Whitlam's policy to create a universal system of health insurance, which led to the creation of Medibank and then Medicare.

He spent a year-long stint as deputy chairman of committees and six months as deputy speaker and chairman of committees in the mid-1970s.

After winning his seat for the eighth time in the 1983 election in which the Hawke government won office, Dr Jenkins was made Speaker.

He once said he coped with the stresses of the job courtesy of "gallons of coffee and too many cigarettes, unfortunately".

But after just 20 months in the chair, Dr Jenkins announced his retirement from politics and vacated the chair when Parliament resumed three months later, on February 11, 1986.

His son, Harry jr, won a bitter preselection battle for the safe seat and still holds it.

Just a month later, foreign minister Bill Hayden appointed Dr Jenkins to a $55,000-a-year job as Australia's Ambassador to Spain — a move which had been widely speculated and criticised as "jobs for the boys".

But then-opposition leader John Howard said there was nothing wrong with the principle of giving former politicians diplomatic posts.

Dr Jenkins requested, in March 1988, to return to Australia because of ill-health.

Harry Jenkins was made a Member in the Order of Australia in 1991, was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2003, and was a member of the Lions Club for most of his life.

He died last Tuesday at the Northern Hospital in Epping after a long fight with motor neurone disease, and is survived by his wife Wendy, sons Harry, Tim and Mark, daughter Jane, eight grandchildren and a great granddaughter.

Dr Jenkins will be honoured with a state funeral today at the Plenty Ranges Arts and Convention Centre in the electorate he held for 16 years.

Original publication

  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 2 August 2004

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Jones, 'Jenkins, Henry Alfred (Harry) (1925–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jenkins-henry-alfred-harry-30887/text38505, accessed 24 April 2021.

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