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Leslie Royston (Les) Johnson (1924–2015)

by Tony Stephens

Les [Leslie Royston] Johnson left scattered footprints across Australian history — helping to build the Sutherland shire, helping to build Australia as minister for housing in Gough Whitlam's government, then, as minister for Aboriginal Affairs, helping the glacial shifts towards reconciliation with Indigenous Australians — he was present when Whitlam handed land back to the Gurindji people in 1975, symbolically pouring soil into Vincent Lingiari's hands.

Johnson had worked with the future prime minister in 1950, when Whitlam lost campaigns for local government in Cronulla and for the state seat of Sutherland. When the Woronora River flooded during the Sutherland campaign, the only way to a night meeting for Liberal Joe Munro, the "King of Cronulla", was to row a boat, remove shoes, roll up trousers and wade ashore with hurricane lamps. Johnson would say later to Whitlam: "Shame you're prime minister. You would have made a great shire president and a great NSW premier."

Whitlam went to Canberra in 1952 and Johnson three years later, representing the new seat of Hughes. Malcolm Fraser was another of Federal Parliament's intake in 1955. Some time before Fraser's death (March 2015), Johnson told him: "We're an endangered species." The Labor man was to be the last of the '55 species.

He entered Parliament with Labor's Left group but, while remaining a "friend of the Left", drifted towards the party's centre. This sometimes cost him support in caucus. His standing in the Sutherland shire, however, was rarely questioned. He was never opposed for pre-selection in Hughes from 1955 to his retirement in 1983. He held the seat for all that time, except for the three years from the 1966 "Vietnam election", when Labor was thrashed.

Leslie Royston Johnson was born on November 22, 1924, to William Johnson and his wife, formerly Maude English, migrants from London. Les was one of five children; one died as a baby. They lived at Enfield.

William Johnson was a jack-of-all trades who became a stretcher bearer in World War I, was wounded at St Souplet, France, and left with shrapnel in his brain. Back home he bought a horse and cart to deliver fruit and vegetables to his shop and homes in the Enfield area. He died when Les was six.

The boy and his mates swam nude in the river, fashioned catapults to shoot at various objects, made billy carts, raided birds' nests, sold cow manure and, during the Depression, grew and sold vegetables. Maude Johnson would seek sheep heads from the butcher, to extract the brains. She taught her children the importance of community spirit.

Les attended schools at Enfield and Croydon Park but left at 14 to help feed the family. His education continued, however, at places such as the local gospel hall and in the Sydney Domain, where he learnt about the power of words and the communication of ideas. He was "a bit of an actor", attracted to performance. A boy preacher on street corners, he became an apprentice fitter and turner, attended technical college at night, joined the Labor Party at 15 and was soon a shop steward with the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He bought a little book, The Art of Debating, and wrote poetry.

Johnson became the man of the house when his two elder brothers went to World War II. On the home front, he was the air raid warden in Enfield. Briefly involved with the Eureka Youth League, he was later accused of being a communist while working as an organiser with the Federated Clerks Union. He left the clerks to work for the Red Cross, recruiting blood donors and setting up clubs for teenagers in inner Sydney suburbs.

After his mother bought land at Gymea, Johnson and his two brothers built her a home. He married a nurse, Gladys (Peg) Jones, and built another house, knocking timber and fibro together himself after a bank refused him a loan. He became chairman of the Gymea Progress Association and active in a wide variety of interest groups, setting up the Council for Social Services in Sutherland and as president of the Aboriginal Children's Advancement Society. After working for a pharmaceutical firm, he ran a general store with a partner.

Local government in Sutherland tempered his union radicalism. He formed an ALP branch in Gymea, the first of 28 branches in the Hughes electorate, and beat 10 other candidates for Labor pre-selection in 1955. While right-wingers saw him as a "mad Leftie", the Left sometimes saw him as an opportunist. Johnson came through the middle.

He became the youngest Labor member in the House of Representatives. His maiden speech ranged from the backlog of applications for telephones and the scheme in Sutherland to offer pensioner discounts for goods and services, to questions about the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights and about bomb tests on the Monte Bello islands. He wanted a "crusade for lasting peace through the outlawing of atomic and hydrogen bombs and the total abolition of war". He witnessed, without protective clothing, the British bomb tests at Maralinga.

Johnson visited Vietnam during the war and, in 1964, railed in Parliament against the American "barrage of death and destruction" and "dreadful carnage". A majority of Australians were not ready to move from their support for the war. Labor — and Johnson — lost in 1966. Les dug a hole for a swimming pool in the backyard of a house he had built in Jannali, worked as chief of staff for Senator Lionel Murphy and proceeded to woo his people again. In 1969, he won 61 per cent of their primary votes. Tom Uren thought him the best local campaigner.

Johnson, raised like many Labor supporters on anti-boss, anti-establishment militant socialism, had joined others imbued with Whitlam's reformism and broadening of the ALP base. Commonwealth funding for education and sewerage systems for the suburbs were among his chief concerns. Seeing houses as part of an environment in which people lived, he wanted to expand living options for Australians. An advocate for public housing, he wanted a stockpile of rental housing for young people, a uniform building code and prefabrication.

In 1972, when Whitlam returned Labor to power after 23 years in the wilderness, Johnson seized the chance to implement Labor policy. Record levels of completed housing were achieved in 1973-74. Johnson was a good organiser, efficient and resourceful, though with an autocratic streak and inclined to impetuosity, not uncommon a characteristic of that government. His plans brought him into conflict with Uren, Minister for Urban and Regional Development.

Johnson held his seat despite Labor's overwhelming defeats in the 1975 and 1977 elections. He was busy on various committees and his seven years as chief opposition whip helped make Labor electable again. He fell out with Bill Hayden by voting for Bob Hawke in the leadership challenge on the eve of Labor's successful 1983 campaign. At his retirement he was Father of the House.

Hawke appointed him High Commissioner to New Zealand. He led the association of former MPs, worked to establish aged care facilities and was made a member in the Order of Australia.

Les Johnson was blind in his 90th year but his mind knew well the natural beauty where he lived at Shoal Bay, Port Stephens, and he often walked there with Marion, whom he married in 2003. Peg Johnson predeceased him, as did their daughter, Sally. He leaves Marion, children Grant and Jennifer, a grandson, two great grandchildren, three stepchildren and a brother, Eric.

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Johnson, Leslie Royston (Les) (1924–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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