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Charles Keith (Charlie) Jones (1917–2003)

by Allan Morris

from Australian

Charles Keith Jones: Whitlam government minister and federal member for Newcastle, NSW, 1958-83. Born Newcastle, September 9, 1917. Died Newcastle, August 7, aged 85.

Charlie Jones was transport minister in Gough Whitlam's Labor government elected in December 1972, after 23 years of Coalition rule. Always a champion of the workers, he took to federal cabinet a rough-edged but effective style that recast the nation's transport priorities.

He was born into a staunch Labor family in the working-class northern suburbs of Newcastle — his grandfather was a founding member of the Labor Party in Newcastle.

Jones attended Cooks Hill high school and trained as a boilermaker at Newcastle technical college as a BHP apprentice. He later worked at the Newcastle state dockyards.

He was a firm supporter of family values long before it became politically fashionable. In April, 1939, he married Doreen Wright, a member of another solid Labor family.

He was elected Newcastle Council alderman in 1946, commencing a 36-year career of Labor representation. This included becoming Newcastle's youngest ever lord mayor in 1956 — a position he achieved after being drawn from the hat following a tied vote. He was also an inaugural councillor on Shortland County Council.

As a member of the Boilermakers Union, Jones was an effective delegate. He served for 15 years as an official of the Metal Trades Federation of Unions and was a member of Newcastle Trades Hall Council.

During this period, Jones developed and consolidated his commitment to the working man, a commitment he maintained to his death. His active opposition to "the Groupers" on the Right of the party and the communists on the Left flowed from his rejection of extremist ideology and his view that they were contrary to the interests of workers.

Jones was elected to federal parliament representing the electorate of Newcastle in 1958. He was only the third person elected to this Federation seat and he later won a further nine elections. He was extremely active in party forums and became Opposition spokesman for transport.

With the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 he became transport and civil aviation minister. He came to the position with a well-developed agenda for sweeping changes to national transport infrastructure. His starting point was the need for a national perspective on transport and preparedness for the government to make a financial contribution to the states for transport infrastructure and facilities.

His most notable achievement was the establishment of the national highway network that included the commonwealth being involved in the planning and funding of a world-class road system — something that was sadly lacking in pre-1972 Australia.

His other achievements included the purchase of the South Australian and Tasmanian rail track systems and the establishment of Australian National Railways; construction of the Tarcoola to Alice Springs railway, the starting point of today's Alice Springs to Darwin railway; the establishment of commonwealth grants to the states for urban transport; the Road Grants Act, which made federal funding available to improve road safety by diverting traffic away from residential areas; and the establishment of the interstate commission to co-ordinate transport policy.

Jones was a reformist minister who brought a strong national perspective to the transport field. Before 1972, Australia's transport systems were a series of state fiefdoms often going in different directions with competing priorities.

In his condolence speech on Monday, Opposition leader Simon Crean told the story of Whitlam being asked by a journalist what would happen if Whitlam were to fall under a bus. To which the PM replied in a tribute to Jones: "With the improvements my government has initiated in urban transport, this is unlikely to happen."

The dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 brought Jones's ministerial work to an abrupt end and he never stopped being angry that he had not been allowed to finish it. He was working on expanding Australia's shipbuilding capacity in concert with our increasing sales of coal into Asia at the time of the dismissal. Jones was convinced that we could successfully expect that more of our export cargo should and could be carried in ships built in Australia and even Australian owned.

As a lifelong member of the Left of the party Jones used to boast that he had never failed to vote the Left ticket. His great mates in the party were Tom Uren and Jim Cairns. The three had once shared a small office in Parliament House with Frank Crean. In his book Straight Left Uren points out that unsurprisingly Crean used to do most of his work at a desk in the caucus room.

Jones was a man of very strong views which he always put emphatically.

He was one of the last of the old-style Labor representatives, a staunch champion of the working man, of Newcastle and of the Australian Labor Party.

He is survived by Doreen and their two children, Fay and Kenneth.

* Allan Morris was federal MP for Newcastle, 1983-2001.

Original publication

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Citation details

Allan Morris, 'Jones, Charles Keith (Charlie) (1917–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 July 2024.

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