Dignity, loyalty and drama

Lindsay Thompson was a dedicated family man and a much-admired politician. His life was also prone to extraordinary outbreaks of drama, writes Victoria Peel.

Lindsay Thompson was a dedicated family man and a much-admired politician. His life was also prone to extraordinary outbreaks of drama, writes Victoria Peel.

IN OCTOBER 1972, 19-year-old teacher Mary Gibb and six pupils from the Faraday primary school near Castlemaine were kidnapped by two armed men. The kidnappers demanded a $1 million ransom from the Victorian Government for their release, with the instruction that the education minister himself deliver the money.

The minister, Lindsay Thompson, had spent most of the night at police headquarters and did not hesitate to comply when he was assured that this would aid the release of the hostages. The ransom was never collected but the teacher and pupils escaped from the van in which they were held prisoners, and the kidnappers were finally caught. The photograph of the lone Thompson standing anxious but resolute in the dawn gloom remains one of the most familiar and evocative Australian press images of the 1970s.

Thompson, who died in Cabrini Hospital on Wednesday, aged 84, after being admitted about a week earlier suffering from pneumonia, was later awarded a Royal Humane Society Bronze medal for bravery.

He would re-tell the Faraday drama with a mix of matter-of-fact detail and a certain self-deprecation. As he was being driven to Woodend, supposedly to hand over the ransom to the kidnappers, he was accompanied by a young police assistant commissioner, Mick Miller, who lay concealed under a blanket on the floor of the car. Miller advised Thompson that should the kidnapper charge to "try and do a bit of a back-flip in mid-air and give us a clear go at him with our pistols".

Recalled Thompson: "I thought to myself that it was not exactly the sort of exercise I practised every morning before breakfast." But in the circumstances he reckoned it was worth a go. In the end, such gymnastics were not required.

Reflecting on the events in 2004, Thompson told The Age: "I've had a bit of ill health recently, and you tend to go back over days gone by. I often think of Faraday . of how fortunate I was and how fortunate the survivors were."

Known as "the man of whom no one in parliament would ever say a cross word", Thompson served for 27 years in the Victorian parliament and was premier for 10 months from June 1981 before the election of the Cain Labor government in April 1982.

Although Thompson's brief term as premier could not reverse longstanding opinion polls running against a Liberal victory, his appointment at the time was significant, not least for the desperately needed order and unity it brought to a party in disarray.

In many ways, it could be argued that he was the most successful Victorian politician of the 1970s in surviving and making successes of challenging portfolios in transport, housing, education and police.

Thompson was renowned as a contented family man whose chief consolation lay with his family - he was Father of the Year in 1970 - and the garden of their cream brick veneer in Glen Iris.

Yet, his parliamentary career was lit with extraordinary flashes of drama: his role as bagman during the Faraday kidnapping; his heroic preparedness to do it all again during the hostage-taking of another small school at Wooreen in 1977; dealing calmly with death threats suffered by his family during the fiery days of teacher union activity in the early 1970s; and surviving possible disaster when, as acting premier on inspection of the Gippsland fires in January 1978, his light aircraft was forced down with engine trouble. He dismissed the drama, remarking drily: "It was the left wing that let us down again."

Thompson dominated the headlines for these events, but throughout his political career, these were but odd flickers of melodrama that contrasted sharply with Thompson's real persona of calm probity, extraordinary work ethic and faithfulness to leadership.

He was born into a family of teachers at Warburton - his grandmother was one of the earliest teacher trainees in Melbourne and, with his mother, Ethel, founded the original private school that became Mentone Girls' Grammar.

When he was two, Thompson's teacher father, Arthur, died and, with the loss of the family savings when their solicitor went bankrupt, he and his mother were forced onto the mercy of the extended family. He had been attending Caulfield Grammar School, which kept him on scholarship, and he excelled. He declined a free university place to return for an additional year at school, where he also undertook junior teaching duties.

Thompson then volunteered for service in World War II and spent from 1942 until 1945 mostly in New Guinea, where he contracted malaria, which seriously affected his health throughout his life.

After the war, he graduated from Melbourne University with degrees in arts and education and taught at Melbourne High School, but was increasingly drawn to politics.

He married Joan Poynder in January 1950, and became a member of the Legislative Council for the province of Higginbotham from 1955 to 1967 - during which time he served as deputy leader of the upper house - and for Monash from 1967 to 1970. He then transferred to the Legislative Assembly in 1970 when he won the seat of Malvern. He served as minister of housing, minister of forests, minister for police and emergency services and for 12 years as minister of education. He was chief secretary on Arthur Rylah's retirement under the Bolte government, and deputy premier to Rupert Hamer from 1972 until 1981.

Noted for the rationality and probity that he brought to Victorian political life, Thompson's capacity for brokering peace was obviously valued by Bolte, who handed him one challenging portfolio after another. The same also applied to Bolte's successor, Rupert Hamer.

Thompson's adroit management of a long spate of industrial crises during Hamer's frequent periods of absence ensured his leadership qualities came sharply into focus.

It was, however, his handling of the education portfolio between 1967 and 1979 - a turbulent period when a neglected system had to be rebuilt - that made him a household name in the state. This record 12-year term, in which he oversaw a tripling in the number of Victorian schools, the decentralisation of state responsibilities, and negotiated a fraught course with teacher unions, is frequently regarded as his greatest political legacy.

Then premier Bolte's characteristically antagonistic approach to militant teachers was underscored by Thompson's reasoned challenging of the moral sensibilities of union leaders, and his entreaties, at least initially, to act in what he saw as the common good. Ever ready with the sporting metaphor he was later reported to observe of this time: "I have no personal feelings against union people or anyone else in education - they played the game as they saw it."

In 1969, Thompson published Looking Ahead in Education, one of three works on policy produced during his parliamentary career.

In August 1972, Thompson beat Bill Borthwick to become premier Hamer's deputy. Although frequently described by journalists as "the man with the lean and hungry look", a reference both to his physical appearance and ambitions, Thompson was far more concerned with performing well in the job at hand. He had admired the way Bolte could leave the state under Rylah's capable management and how the two settled their differences of opinion on policy in private and without rancour. As he wrote in his biography, I Remember: "I endeavoured at all times to be an equally loyal lieutenant."

During Hamer's nine years as premier, Thompson achieved his aim. And when he came to the premiership in mid-1981, he would be the last in harness of Henry Bolte's 1955 group; the destructive events of the Liberals' last years under Hamer came to their inevitable conclusion during his premiership.

On his retirement from parliamentary office in October 1982, no other state or federal parliamentarian, with the exception of South Australia's Sir Thomas Playford, had held ministerial office continuously for so long.

Highly respected for his work and personal ethic, his proficiency in policy and astute handling of volatile industrial situations, during his premiership, and in the months of opposition following, Thompson returned a strong measure of dignity to the office and set in motion the rejuvenation of the party's fortunes in the appointment of Jeff Kennett as his successor.

He was an avid supporter of the Richmond Football Club and quietly proud of his son Murray's playing career in the mid-1970s. He was also an elder of the East Malvern Uniting Church, president of the Royal Life Saving Society and an enthusiast of cricket, tennis and golf.

He is survived by his beloved wife, Joan, and their children, Heather, Murray and David, and seven grandchildren.

Dr Victoria Peel writes on education history and is a lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University.


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