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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Drew, John Michael (1865–1947)

by Mary Albertus Bain

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Michael Drew (1865-1947), journalist and politician, was born on 17 October 1865 at Wanerenooka near Northampton, Western Australia, eldest son of Cornelius Drew, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Gavin. Drew left school at 15 and worked as a telegraphist for two years, then for Gale, Monger & Co. at Geraldton before teaching for two years at the Northampton Assisted School. He began contributing regularly to the Catholic Record, whose editor, Rev. John O'Reily, persuaded him in 1885 to learn journalism with him at Fremantle. This led to a sub-editorship with the paper.

In 1890 Drew resigned, returned to Northampton and planted a successful orchard and vineyard. That year he became secretary and manager of the company which produced the Victorian Express and in 1892 became editor. Two years later the paper's name was changed to the Geraldton Express; it grew to achieve the largest circulation of any provincial paper in the colony. In 1912 Drew bought it. As editor he was scrupulous, honest and unbiased: that year he spent fourteen days in gaol for refusing to name a correspondent to the paper who had criticized the local government hospital's doctor. He proudly described his paper, which voiced hostility to Sir John Forrest's government, as 'a scourge of injustice, the scourge of inhumanity, the scourge of the oppressors of the poor and of public robbers'. On 19 February 1895 at Geraldton he married Mary Frances Commerford.

Sympathetic to the newly formed Political Labor Party, Drew championed the underprivileged and argued for a more equitable society. He strongly advocated the rights of the town and district of Geraldton, and although he criticized insular attitudes, he always sympathized with isolated people deprived of urban comforts. The paper was a vociferous opponent of Federation and in 1899 Drew appeared before a joint select committee to give his arguments, at great length, against the draft bill to set up the Commonwealth; he considered that though the constitution was democratic in theory, it would prove very conservative in practice. Next year he was elected as an independent member for the Central Province of the Legislative Council. In 1904 when the Labor Party first came to power under Henry Daglish it lacked representation in the Legislative Council. Drew and three other independents promised their support and he became minister for lands (August 1904–June 1905) and, in 1905, minister for agriculture, colonial secretary and leader in the council.

At a Geraldton policy speech for the ministerial elections in August, he announced that he would not join the party or support abolition of the council. He favoured old-age pensions (and a state lottery to finance them), payment of members and the breaking up and repurchase of large landed estates. Drew wanted closer settlement of the land for the small man, preferably on a leasehold basis, and agreed with the P.L.P. plank advocating taxation of all land not profitably used. He also favoured liberal exemption from taxation for those using land to the advantage of the state and for selectors during the first three years of their tenure. He opposed the P.L.P. planks which wanted to stop further alienation of crown land, and to redistribute seats on a population basis and he was also against extending universal suffrage to the Legislative Council. The ministry fell next year and was defeated at the October elections, but Drew retained his seat as an independent. In 1905 he relinquished the editorship of the Express. At this time he was described by a pamphleteer as having a small face with a big forehead; sharp-featured, he had a fair, ruddy complexion and ginger hair turning grey.

At the P.L.P.'s 1910 congress it was determined that future ministries would be elected by caucus. Drew's subsequent admission to caucus sittings brought strong criticism. But the party's State executive was assured of his loyalty and it was made clear to the parliamentary party that six months membership would be necessary for future admission to cabinet. Drew then became a financial member of the party. In 1911 when Labor again won office under John Scaddan, Drew and William Angwin were the only coastal members re-elected and, with Jabez Dodd, were known as men of strong principle. Drew again became colonial secretary.

The P.L.P. now embarked on a policy of socialism: plans were set in motion for workers' homes, a state shipping service, a dairy and sawmills, purchase of the metropolitan tramways and establishment of a state-owned meat industry. The government obtained a metropolitan electricity plant, bought the river ferry and set up a co-ordinated fishing industry. At the party's 1916 Kalgoorlie congress, Drew backed conscription, but this issue, coupled with what was seen as ministerial inexperience, led to their losing the 1918 election. Drew suffered his only political defeat.

He regained office with the party in 1924 and, under Philip Collier, administered the portfolios of education, health and the North-West as well as being chief secretary. He continued to do so until 1930 when Collier's government resigned; in 1933 he again became chief secretary but on 27 August 1936 retired to private membership. Drew had been liked for his unassuming manner during his long term as a member: he came to be seen as an elder of parliament, respected by all parties. As a journalist he had taken pride in his 'unswerving independence' and he tried to maintain that approach in politics; but years of fighting Labor's battles in a hostile Upper House blunted his force. Although he was a moderate and, perhaps an unimaginative administrator, he successfully fought for preservation of the State's history and for prison reform, on which he published two pamphlets. He contributed regularly to the Sydney Bulletin and was a member of the Senate of the University of Western Australia from 1925.

Predeceased by his wife, Drew died of cancer on 17 July 1947 at Perth and was buried in the Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery. He was survived by a daughter and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Truthful Thomas, Through the Spy-Glass (Perth, 1905)
  • C. T. Stannage, The People of Perth (Perth, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1899 (A10)
  • Labour History, May 1962, no 2, p 48
  • University Studies in History, Oct 1959, p 58
  • Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 24 May 1900
  • West Australian, 22 Aug 1904, 18 July 1947
  • Westralian Worker, 29 Sept 1905
  • Geraldton Express, nd, c1897, Murchison goldfields supplement
  • H. J. Gibbney, Working Class Organization in West Australia from 1880 to 1902 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1949)
  • A. H. Panton, Political History of the Australian Labor Party of W.A. (typescript, State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Mary Albertus Bain, 'Drew, John Michael (1865–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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