“There are very few selfless people in this world but Johno was one of them.”
Words like that might be expected to flow easily from one of any number of people within the Labor party or the trade union movement about one of their own. Instead the tribute came someone not normally sympathetic to the Labor Party: former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after hearing of the passing of former NSW Labor Party stalwart John (popularly known as ‘Johno’) Johnson.
“Johno has not only been a great stalwart of the Labor Party but an exemplar of the committed citizen. He made his choices: to faith, to party, and to country and stuck unshakeably to them every moment of a long and productive life,” Mr Abbott said.
The former Prime Minister would know. As a young student politician, and an increasingly prominent public figure in the media, as well as a commentator on Australian and broader issues, it was the young Tony Abbott whose political potential was spotted by the always-canny Johno Johnson. When Mr Abbot departed then-Liberal Leader John Hewson’s staff following the election of 1993, Johno subsequently tried to recruit the future PM into the Labor Party but failed, in itself raising all sorts of interesting questions. One can only speculate how different modern Australian political history might have been.
Johno, a giant of the Labor movement and its political arm, the Labor party, passed away on 9 August after having being confined for the last two years in the care of a nursing home. Although his physical condition declined over the last two years his mind remained as sharp as a tack with the relative boredom of nursing home life buoyed by daily visits from his devoted wife Pauline, his family and Labor Party colleagues. The man who shaped numerous political careers enjoyed nothing more than talking politics with a string of Labor figures such as close friend and former NSW Premier Barrie Unsworth, another former NSW Premier Bob Carr or former Prime Minister Paul Keating – to name a few. The legacy left by the long-serving NSW Labor stalwart who played a major role in both the Labor party’s state branch (also its biggest) and its federal course over many decades left almost no area of life left untouched.
But as tributes poured in for one of the last of the major old-school figures in the Labor Party there was near-universal recognition of the two other great loves of his life: his family and the Catholic Church.
Unable to have children of their own, Johno and Pauline (née Russell) adopted two boys and two girls: “Four chosen children” was his description to the Legislative Council, the upper house of the NSW Parliament, in his opening address on 10 November 1976. Throughout the remainder of his life his family took pride of place.
He was to become President of the Council for 13 years from 1978 and remained a Member until his retirement in 2001.
After leaving active political life Johno never really stopped working, offering his support to those causes which dominated his life. Family was top of the list and as a life member of the ALP he continued to be a frequent visitor to party headquarters at the Sydney Trades Hall until ill health forced him into nursing home care early in 2016.
With his faith providing a guiding source of strength, he spent more than 10 years as the Chairman of The Catholic Weekly. After first receiving a Papal Honour in 2006 he was bestowed with the highest level of civilian award as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great in September 2015.
Born on 26 July 1930 at Murwillumbah in northern NSW, John Richard Johnson was educated at the local Mt St Patrick’s School. In his first speech to Parliament he recalled four sisters of the Presentation order: “They left a lifelong impression on me. I shall never be able to repay their outstanding service to me and to the community generally”.
Assisting in a family grocery store was his first taste of employment before later working for the railways, the post office and a credit union but his continuing interest in matters retail saw him become a delegate to the Shop Assistants’ Union where he worked his way up to the role of Assistant Secretary.
The working class boy who was a great champion of his fellow workers joined the Labor Party early in his life, eventually becoming its honorary financial officer in the powerful NSW branch.
“Without knowing the events of 1891 you cannot know Johno Johnson,” NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley told The Catholic Weekly.
“The papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (released in that year) and the birth of a Labor Party in Australia were both responses to the commodification of human beings that was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution.
“Pope Leo XIII shocked the wealthy with Rerum Novarum, teaching the world that the way societies organise are moral matters.
“This is the tradition that formed Johno Johnson. The principle of the common good, the dignity of labour, the preferential option for the poor, the essential virtue of solidarity, alongside economic efficiency – these are the values that have driven Johno all his life.
“Johno represents, more authentically than anyone I know, fidelity to Catholic social teaching.”
Devotion to the teaching of the Catholic Church was a decisive force in Johno’s life and he would happily outline the principles of the faith to fellow political travellers, especially the young who were contemplating a career in politics.
Former Sydney Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, outlined what might be called the Johno Effect. “His contribution encouraged an entire generation of Catholics and other Christians to be imbued with a solid understanding of Catholic social doctrine, within the Labor party in particular, and more generally within public life,” Cardinal Pell told The Catholic Weekly.
Nor did it matter to Johno whether the cause he supported was popular or not. A strong commitment to the Right to Life movement was one of the principal forces within his life, and he was outspoken against abortion. Speaking on one occasion in the NSW Parliament, he questioned society’s lack of values in the face of “greedy so-called men of medicine” and others who would defend the “evil philosophy of easy abortion” as being justified.
“When was the taking of innocent life ‘decent and justified’?” he asked an uncomfortable audience, simultaneously attacking the broader global neglect of new lives: “The governments of the world spend on children every year what they spend on armaments every two hours”.
Former NSW Premier and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, another of those mentored within the Party by Johno, said that there was never any question about where he stood on social issues such as abortion and euthanasia and that he helped to sustain the Catholic-Labor tradition.
“He was well respected by all of his colleagues; even those who were not Catholic gave him strong support but he never believed there was a ‘Catholic vote’ until the Church and Catholics were attacked.
“That support was based on his decency and commitment; his sheer hard work and personal loyalty; and he held the party together, frequently giving advice to its leaders.
“Johno was one of the most thoroughly decent people. A wonderful, humble being: forgiving, supporting, and bursting with good humour,” Mr Carr added.
Another former NSW Premier, Barrie Unsworth found some humour at his first meeting with Johno in 1956 when the Youth Council of the NSW ALP was debating the Suez crisis.
“The highlight of the night was the sight of a person who looked like Johno dancing around in his socks giving a boxing lesson to a delegate in the hallway. It was a good start to a happy friendship and thereafter I wanted to keep on Johno’s side in any argument,” he said.
Mr Unsworth also recalled how Labor Party fundraising became a “natural activity” for Johno who at one stage purchased a truckload of imported English groceries at a bankruptcy sale.
“A stall was set up in the entrance of the Sussex Street Labor Council building and the sale of Fortnum and Mason goods commenced.
“Most of us had never heard of the brand but the word soon spread and very soon the ladies of the north shore were heading to the Trades Hall to make their purchases.”
The provision of ice creams, sweets and other food for children fell to Johno during many picnics organised by the Labor Council through the 1960s. However, the Unsworth family gained a special appreciation of his ability and willingness reach out to others in the tragedy of the sudden death of their eldest son Anthony overseas at Christmas in 1977.
“On hearing of our loss Johno arrived at our house on Boxing Day morning with a commercial tea urn and boxes of cake,” Mr Unsworth said.
“We were mystified, but Johno knew best as he had put out the word and as a steady stream of visitors arrived to comfort us in our loss, he was there to cater to their presence”.
On becoming Premier in 1986, Mr Unsworth was presented with an inscribed bible from Johno which he then used for his swearing-in as Premier.
“That bible [still] enjoys a special place in our home and is a reminder of Johno’s active Christian faith,” he said.
Sydney priest Fr Tom Carroll first met Johno and his family while serving as a deacon Our Lady of the Annunciation Parish in Pagewood and was struck by the fact that the busy Member of Parliament could still find so much time to devote to assisting the needs of the Parish.
“I came to realise this was the calibre of the man; reflecting a deep and practical commitment to his Catholic faith,” he said.
Both Fr Carroll and also Fr John Knight, who served with Johno on the Board of The Catholic Weekly, expressed pride in having known him and gratitude for the commitment that he was able to devote to the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society.
Johno’s reign of more than a decade as the Chairman of the Weekly saw him oversee two successful revamps of the newspaper as it returned to profitability despite battling a decline in sales affecting all other print publications.
A prolific fundraiser for the Labor Party, he was legendary for the raffles which helped fund numerous party activities and campaigns. He applied the success of raffle-based fundraising to numerous other quarters for philanthropic purposes. Over the years almost no-one, including fellow members The Catholic Weekly Board and staff of the Polding Centre, managed to escape Johno’s presence without first purchasing several tickets for one cause or another.
Johno was proud of his Irish links, especially at annual events such as St Patrick’s Day where he was the necessary host to enable functions to be held in the Strangers’ Dining Room at State Parliament to assist causes such as the campaign to establish a Chair of Modern Irish Studies at the University of NSW.
For a time, and as a teetotaller, he insisted that every table had to be provided with Balleygowan mineral water which he proudly promoted as being bottled at Newcastlewest in County Limerick.
In many ways he was politically ahead of his time.
Part of his first speech to the Legislative Council four decades ago addressed the issue of donations to political parties.
“It concerns me that public disclosure of the sources of funds to political campaigns are (sic) not mandatory in this state … I look forward to the day when the bagmen of the political parties are put out of business and a more reasoned approach to election funding is forthcoming,” he said.
Despite him then naming ten countries which required such disclosure, it was to take many years before others in Australia would begin to seriously address the issue at the heart of his call.
Becoming the youngest President of the Legislative Council at the age of 48 following the “Wranslide” election of 1978, he set new and arguably more Australian standards by refusing to adopt the wig, cloak, frilled shirt and knee breeches complete with silk stockings and buckled shoes that had been worn by his predecessor, Sir Harry Budd.
“Johno wisely discarded the whole uniform and presided with dignity in a business suit, much to the delight of his colleagues and the dismay of the conservative opposition,” former Premier Barrie Unsworth said.
Anthony Cleary, the Director of Religious Education and Evangelisation for Sydney Catholic Schools said: “His time in public office was guided by the moral compass of his faith and he worked to ensure that Australian society was characterised by religious freedom”.
Roles undertaken by Johno in association with his active involvement in politics and the Church included time spent as a Director of the Prince of Wales Hospital, membership of the Board of NSW State Lotteries, and he also was a Board member of the Cancer Australia Advisory Council.
The Centenary Medal was awarded to him in 2001 and it was the service outlined here along with his overriding love of God and a strong commitment to the Church which led to the bestowal in 2006 of the Papal Honour of Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great.
Former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating were among guests who attended the initial Papal presentation ceremony – and Mr Keating joined former NSW Premiers Unsworth and Carr again together with State Labor leader Luke Foley in 2015 when the award of the highest Papal Honour of Knight Grand Cross of the same order was bestowed on Johno.
“There’s a kind of naturalness that the Pope and the Vatican should recognise not simply his faith and work for the Church, but also his secular faith,” Mr Keating told The Catholic Weekly at the time as he reflected on Johno’s devotion to both Catholicism and the Labor party.
“I think that he’s provided a kind of standard, a standard by which you measure fidelity to the Labor cause and a standard by which you measure his faith and religious observance … and even John’s opponents would always give him credit for being both a conscientious and good person, in both a secular and in a spiritual sense,” he added.
Justice Terry Sheehan, a former NSW parliamentarian and Attorney General described Johno as: “One of a kind, totally unlike anyone else I have ever known”.
He was, he said, indebted to Johno for his assistance in ways he could never repay … “Especially in two times of great need. Countless others owe him plenty, and may not even know it. Our debts could never be repaid, and he asked nothing in return.
“It was truly an honour to have been regularly greeted by him as ‘beloved friend’. He will be greatly missed”.
Most prominent among the list of attendees at both of Johno’s Papal award presentations, however, were members of his family. His wife Pauline, whose “loving and affectionate help” he had addressed during the first event, was a stalwart in looking after his needs at home which increased due to his declining health throughout 2015, and she rarely missed a day visiting him after he reluctantly had to accept the care provided by a nursing home.
Through his final active years when his walking had slowed significantly Johno always answered questions regarding how he was through what became his trademark offering of just one word: “Marvellous”.
Despite the increasing weakness of his body during his time in care, his mind continued to be sharp and he continued to serve as a kind of mentor to numerous figures in politics, often dispensing advice from his bedside to numerous politicians who regularly took time out to share their views on contemporary events.
Despite the persistent need for strength over the many years of his political and business endeavours, those who knew Johno speak consistently nominated his humility and his generosity to others – but the great mark of his life can be summed-up in one word: commitment.
John Richard Johnson gave his all to every cause that he embraced; his wife and family along with the Catholic Church and the Australian Labor Party were the leading beneficiaries of that devotion.
Not one to be stuck for a word, there was one occasion, however, when he came close. Asked casually one day what it had been like to live through the split within the ALP that occurred along sectarian and ideological lines during the 1950s, he paused for what seemed an eternity of silence.
Finally, he spoke just one word: “Terrible.” The silence and his apparent unwillingness to talk much about the issue that tore the Labor movement asunder sixty years ago seemed to speak volumes about the hurt and pain that so many experienced throughout the process.
But Johno was an optimist who remained unfazed by almost any turn of events. His personality and his values won widespread respect and friendships across the customary political divide. Wrapping up his maiden speech to the Legislative Council in 1976, he said: “I trust that my sojourn in this House will not at any future time be looked back upon in anger by anyone”.
Those words today could well be offered as an epitaph, not just to his parliamentary years but more fully as a true reflection on the 87 years of the life of a remarkable man and member of the Church.