Edward St John

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Edward St John

Member of the Australian Parliament
for Warringah
In office
26 November 1966 – 25 October 1969
Preceded byJohn Cockle
Succeeded byMichael MacKellar
Personal details
Edward Henry St John

(1916-08-15)15 August 1916
Boggabri, New South Wales
Died24 October 1994(1994-10-24) (aged 78)
Political partyLiberal (1966–1969)
Independent (1969)
Spouse(s)Sylvette Cargher; Valerie Winslow
ChildrenMadeleine St John
Colette St John
Oliver St John
Edward "Ed" St John
Patrick St John

Edward Henry St John QC (pr: Sinj'n) (15 August 1916 – 24 October 1994) was a prominent Australian barrister, anti-nuclear activist and Liberal politician in the 1960s. His political career came to a controversial end after he criticised the Prime Minister John Gorton. His book A Time to Speak was an account of his eventful three years in politics from 1966 to 1969. Justice Michael Kirby described St John as a "contradictory, restless, reforming spirit".[1]

Early life[edit]

Born in Boggabri, New South Wales,[2] Edward St John was one of eight children of a Church of England canon and a descendant of many famous St Johns, including Ambrose St John, who converted to Roman Catholicism and became a close friend of Cardinal John Henry Newman, and Oliver St John, a statesman and judge who challenged the legality of Charles I's Ship Money tax.[3] Edward St John was educated at state schools before attending the University of Sydney. His older brother was Anglican churchman Roland St John.[citation needed]


He became a barrister in 1940 and served in the 2nd AIF in Australia, the Middle East and the New Guinea campaign between 1940 and 1945 during World War II.[4] Upon his return he was a law lecturer at the University of Sydney. In 1959 he was an official observer at the South African Treason Trial in Pretoria. He served in 1960 as a member of the Malta Constitutional Commission. In 1966, before entering parliament, he was an acting judge of the Supreme Court on NSW. He was also President of the Australian Section of the International Commission of Jurists. In November 1966 St John was elected to the House of Representatives as the Liberal member for the safe seat of Warringah.

As a barrister, St John successfully defended Richard Walsh, editor of the satirical magazine Oz at the first Oz obscenity trial in 1964.[3] Of his last two major cases[1] he successfully defended Thomas and Alexander Barton, two company directors charged with a series of alleged offences in which Barton company shareholders lost millions of dollars. The prosecutor for the NSW Corporate Affairs Commission was Tom Hughes QC, a former Liberal Attorney-General. The other was a major action arising out of the Chelmsford Hospital scandal.


His maiden speech before the House of Representatives on 16 May 1967 was remarkable for not being, as is usual, a paean to the beauties of the electorate, the civic pride of its inhabitants and the aims of its new representative. Instead, he criticised, in forthright terms, the conduct and findings of the Royal Commission into the Voyager disaster, calling for a second inquiry. Even more remarkably, and against all precedent, he was interrupted by an interjection from the Prime Minister – his own party leader – Harold Holt. He had effectively sacrificed his parliamentary career, but there was a second Royal Commission, largely vindicating his stand.[5]

He irritated the Government. In a debate on the new General Dynamics F-111 aircraft the Minister for Air, Gordon Freeth, said of St John:

From this honourable gentleman emanates an odour of sanctity in this House which is quite nauseating. He has come here fairly recently with all the benefits of his party's endorsement for one of the safest electorates in Australia, and in this comfortable security he has been quick, very quick, to cash in on every opportunity to secure for himself a headline—always available to any member who attacks his own party. He has used this regardless of the political consequences to his own less comfortably situated colleagues. He does this with an air of the highest virtue, always proclaiming his anguish, as he did last night.[6]

In 1969 he embarrassed his party by criticising the behaviour of Prime Minister John Gorton, claiming that he had offended American ambassador Crook by turning up at 1 am at the American embassy, after a late press-gallery dinner, with journalist Geraldine Willesee, the 19-year-old daughter of Labor Senator Don Willesee.[7] Labor Senator Lionel Murphy sent a message to the House suggesting that St John's comments were an inappropriate breach of the Prime Minister's privacy. St John's view was that Gorton was inadequate in character, training and temperament to be prime minister. He said that he was not the only one dissatisfied with Gorton, but no other party members supported him.[8][9] Gorton's wife Bettina supported her husband by sending a poem to the press gallery, referring to St John as "the member with the Serpent's tongue".[10] St John resigned from the Liberal Party on 28 March 1969 to sit as an independent.[11] He contested Warringah as an independent at the October 1969 election, but finished third after losing more than half of his primary vote from 1966. His book about these turbulent times, A Time to Speak,[12] was published just before the elections.

During his time as an MP he spoke in parliament on many matters.[13] He spoke in support of the Vietnam war and military conscription.[14] He urged the development of nuclear power capacity for peaceful purposes and for deterrent purposes in case of war.[15]

After his defeat he took up an interest in mining. In 1970 he was managing director (later chairman) of prospecting company Mount Mejack Minerals Pty Ltd, and a director of its related nickel exploration company, Meekatharra Minerals NL.[16]


He was a member of the conservative Association of Cultural Freedom and a friend of activist journalist B. A. Santamaria. Despite this conservatism, he set up the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa for victims of apartheid;[1] and his election to parliament had been firmly opposed by the Australian League of Rights.

St John helped establish global principles of the rule of law at successive meetings of the International Commission of Jurists in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro and New Delhi, a non-governmental international human rights organisation.[1] As an environmentalist he led the campaign against the flooding of Lake Pedder, which was dammed in 1972. After leaving politics for himself he supported Peter Garrett's Nuclear Disarmament Party candidature for the Australian Senate in 1984, which almost succeeded.

Over the last decade of his life he campaigned for nuclear disarmament and peace. In 1984 he and the poet Les Murray jointly composed "The Universal Prayer for Peace: A Prayer for the Nuclear Age". A founding member of Australian Lawyers for Nuclear Disarmament in the same year, he was instrumental in its affiliation to the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms. In the mid-1980s he co-founded and chaired the Australian Peace Foundation. Inspired by his New Zealand colleague Harold Evans, he was a leading supporter of the World Court Project (WCP), through which his last quest was to ask the International Court of Justice to provide an advisory opinion on the criminality of nuclear weapons.[1][2]

From 1985 St. John began writing his major work, an anti-nuclear book Judgment at Hiroshima, with some research assistance from Elizabeth Handsley[2] but died before publication. A Japanese edition appeared in 1995 to coincide with the 50th anniversaries of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His widow Valerie released the English version two years later with copies distributed to research libraries in Australia and overseas.[2]

Personal life[edit]

In 1940 he married Frenchwoman Sylvette Cargher, who committed suicide in 1954. They had two daughters: Madeleine and Colette. Madeleine became a successful yet reclusive writer who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 1955 he married Valerie Winslow, who died in 2010. They had three sons: Oliver, Edward (Ed) and Patrick.[4]


Edward St John died on 24 October 1994.[17] His funeral was held in St Luke's Anglican Church, Mosman. The address was given by Justice Michael Kirby, who recalled St John's relationship to Oliver Cromwell:

In his blood, as he told the House of Representatives in 1967, were the genes of Oliver St John who defended John Hampden when he refused to pay ship money to King Charles I. Oliver married into the Cromwell family.[1]

An obituary titled "A crusader who put his party second" was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 October 1994, and another, "Maverick Liberal caused a storm", by Mungo MacCallum, was published in The Australian on 1 November 1994.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Edward Henry St John QC – Valiant for Truth address by Hon Justice Michael Kirby, St Luke's Anglican Church, Mosman, 3 November 1994.
  2. ^ a b c d State Library of New South Wales, Manuscripts, Oral History and Pictures – Collection record details
  3. ^ a b The Independent "Madeleine St John Obituary", by Christopher Potter 6 July 2006.
  4. ^ a b Barnier, Cheryl (ed.) Notable Australians Paul Hamlyn Pty. Ltd. 1978 ISBN 0-86832-012-9
  5. ^ Kemp, Rod; Stanton, Marion (2004). Speaking for Australia: Parliamentary speeches that shaped our nation. Allen and Unwin, Crowsnest NSW 2065. ISBN 1-74114-430-2.
  6. ^ House of Representatives Hansard 10 October 1968 p1828.
  7. ^ House of Representatives Hansard 20 March 1969 pp790-792
  8. ^ "A timeline of the United States embassy incident". Crikey. Private Media Pty Ltd. Archived from the original (pdf) on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  9. ^ Lane, Terry; Aiton, Doug (2000). The First Century: Australia's Federal Elections since Federation. Information Australia. p. 97. ISBN 1-86350-270-X.
  10. ^ Edward St John 'A Time to Speak', Sun Books, 1969, p207.
  11. ^ As an independent member he spoke only twice in the House: 29 April 1969 and 26 August 1969
  12. ^ published by Sun Books, Melbourne, 1969. The title was taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The book was reviewed by J. D. Pringle in The Sydney Morning Herald on 11 October 1969, "St John's Gospel".
  13. ^ HoR Hansard 16 May 1967 maiden speech Voyager inquiry; 17 May 1967 claim was misrepresented; 30 Aug 1967 PNG salaries; 19 Oct 1967 parlty pension; 25 Oct 1967 taxation of companies; 1 Nov 1967 Sydney customs house; 18 Nov 1967 Human Rights Year; 25 Mar 1968 Snowy Mtns Hydro Auth; 26 Mar 1968 PNG independence; 3 Apr 968 Voyager report; 7 May 1968 F111 aircraft; 28 May 1968 conscription, Vietnam war; 4 June 1968 copyright bill; 6 June 1968 ACT trust funds; 13 June 1968 Vietnam war; 14 Aug 1968 Patents Bill; 22 Aug 1968 West Irian; 10 Sep 1968 new Parlt House; 12 Sep 1968 shipping; 17 Sep 1968 Rhodesia; 18 Sep 1968 PNG; 24 Sep 1968 white Australia; 9 Oct 1968 F111 aircraft; 15 Oct 1968 nuclear power; 17 Oct 1968 new Parlt House site; 21 Nov 1968 parlty salaries; 20 Mar 1969 PM's indiscretions; 29 Apr 1969 Pine Gap base; 26 Aug 1969 Budget matters.
  14. ^ HoR Hansard 28 May 1968
  15. ^ HoR Hansard 15 October 1968.
  16. ^ The Sydney Morning Herald 26 September 1970 p13 "The rich new life of Edward St John" by Gavin Souter
  17. ^ Carr, Adam (2008). "Australian Election Archive". Psephos, Adam Carr's Election Archive. Archived from the original on 20 July 2007. Retrieved 31 May 2008.
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
John Cockle
Member for Warringah
Succeeded by
Michael MacKellar