John Duffy was the only surviving son of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (a passionate Irish nationalist who achieved high political office including Premier of Victoria). In 1870 Charles had chaired a Royal Commission to investigate the possibility of Federation. However his vision was premature. Sentiment for national unity was not strong enough and the structures necessary to conduct negotiations were slow to form.
In 1872 the ministry of Charles Gavan Duffy fell, and in the election campaign that followed some churches attacked those seeking free and secular education. This incensed the new government. It passed the Education Act of 1872, which provided for free, secular and compulsory education. Until then primary education had been left largely to the churches but their reach was limited and by 1850 only half of 8-12 year old children were at school.
The resultant loss of funds to the churches had an indirect effect on St Kilda. The parish priest of St Mary’s, in Dandenong Road, immediately wrote to Ireland seeking assistance from the Presentation nuns. They arrived in 1873 and set up the Presentation Convent in Windsor (Mulquin). Duffy resided locally at ‘Narrara’ in Alma Road, St Kilda.
As successor to his father, John represented the safe Catholic seat of Dalhousie in the Victorian Legislative Assembly between 1874 and 76 and again between 1887 and 1904. He was a member of the Catholic group in Parliament and as their spokesman on education opposed non-denominational teaching in schools. However, despite strong campaigning from the Catholic Church, free secular education remained a key plank of most federalists and the Australian nationalist movement including the Australian Natives Association (ANA) (Pitt) and the Bulletin (McKinley).
John Duffy filled many ministerial positions including attorney-general, postmaster general, agriculture and crown lands and survey. In 1877 he proposed a bill to parliament to enable women to undertake university degrees but it was defeated by the upper house. He was a strong supporter of Australian Antarctic exploration, which he proposed to the parliament in 1887.
Like his father he was a supporter of federation and attended the Federal Council of Australasia in 1893 when he was chairman of the standing committee. The council was established by an act of the British parliament in 1885 and allowed for biannual conferences of official delegates from the colonies, Fiji and New Zealand. It had limited powers but was an important forerunner of federation. Duffy was also a delegate at the Intercolonial Conference of Ministers held in Sydney in 1896.
After leaving parliament, Duffy’s law partnership did much of the legal business for the Catholic church and he was a prominent layman. He died at his St Kilda home in 1917, survived by his wife Margaret Mary, two sons and a daughter.