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National Observer Home > No. 66 - Spring 2005 >Article

Book Reviews

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 66, Spring 2005.

STEADFAST KNIGHT: A Life of Sir Hal Colebatch

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004.
320 pages.


Reviewed by K.H. Dunkley


The life of West Australian Premier, Senator, Agent-General and chess wizard Sir Hal Colebatch (1872-1953) is, in many ways too improbable for fiction. One of West Australia’s greatest adopted sons, and a figure of international stature, his remarkable story has been largely ignored by Australia’s predominantly leftist history establishment.

This biography by his son, well-known author, poet, journalist and lawyer Hal G.P. Colebatch, helps to rectify this and accord him some of the recognition that is his due.

The son of poor English immigrants, Hal Colebatch aged 11 left school in South Australia in 1883 and immediately commenced work as a junior reporter on a succession of small back-blocks newspapers. Penniless and in poor health, he sailed to Western Australia in the 1890s and, despite a bad leg, walked through the desert to the typhoid-ridden Coolgardie gold-fields, where, a journalist too poor to own a typewriter, he camped in a tent and slept wrapped in newspaper against the cold.

Within a few years he was bowls champion, chess champion and then, in 1919, Premier of Western Australia. He was first the greatest critic and then, as a Minister before the First World War, the deconstructor of many of the Scadden Labor Government’s well-meant but economically disastrous and often corrupt schemes of socialism, including State-owned saw-mills, fishing fleets, bakeries and brickworks. As first Acting-Premier and then Premier he had to deal with the Spanish Influenza epidemic in the face of the active non-co-operation of the Commonwealth Government under acting Prime Minister Watts, and then with a violent and homicidal riot on the Fremantle wharves inspired by union thugs and Communist agitators in which a man was killed and in which he, personally meeting the rioters in an attempt to obtain a settlement, narrowly escaped assassination. He resigned the Premiership after a month because he could not get a suitable lower house seat, but remained the most influential member of the government and its only member in the Upper House, responsible for the passage of all legislation as well as Parliamentary business and his own range of portfolios.

Because he had so little formal education, education was his special interest, and his proudest achievement in this period was probably, as Minister of Education, to establish Western Australian’s first country high schools, in Kalgoorlie, Albany, Geraldton and Bunbury. When he left this office no more were established for many years. As first Minister for the North-West, he personally led an expedition through wild and virtually unexplored country, and was involved with the first germs of both oil exploration there and Ord River irrigation.

He then went to London to represent Western Australia as Agent-General, with an enormous list of duties, and was generally reckoned to be the best Agent-General ever. He very nearly died on the way there: he had been, as it transpired, suffering from undiagnosed diabetes for years, and was after collapsing in India treated, as a desperate measure, with the new and untried insulin. He was in hospital for many months, surviving an earthquake. A friend, Arthur Linwood, who looked after him, died in an accident while he was convalescing.

He had two extended terms as Agent-General in the 20s and 30s, totalling just under ten years, and, although he was a political conservative, his disdain for party politics meant that he was able to work for nearly all that time under Labor State Governments. John Curtin, who as a young pro-Bolshevik had clashed bitterly with him over the wharf riot, visited London and came away writing articles praising him as Australia’s best speaker and advocate. The Labor Premier Philip Collier, who had once sworn to harry him out of public life, now extended his term on the grounds his talents were indispensible, and also commissioned him to write the Centenary History of Western Australia, A Story of A Hundred Years, showing he was greatly trusted and respected for his integrity on all sides of politics.

Returning to Western Australia, Colebatch sat on a Royal Commission into the Constitution, and returned a minority report supporting the Federal system against long-standing Labor plans to weaken and eventually abolish it in favour of a unitary State.

He accepted National Party endorsement for the Senate only on condition he did not attend Party meetings, as he believed Party politics has subverted the intended functions of the Senate, both as a States’ House and a House of Review. This Quixotic gesture meant he could never have the Federal Ministry to which his record and achievements would otherwise have entitled him, but left him free to criticise both sides. And, as fate would have it, it was he, as a direct result of one of his many cross-Party friendships, who was instrumental in bringing down the groteqeusly incompetent Scullin Labor Government.

With high protection a near universal dogma, Colebatch was a lonely voice advocating free trade, not only because it promoted mutual prosperity between trading partners, but to promote international peace. He also attacked Government bounties and subsidies to uneconomic industries. At the time he received a great deal of abuse for this from both sides of politics. In his first speech in the Senate, he unavailingly asked that Australia not put too much trust in the League of Nations as a guardian of eternal peace, but that Australia play its part in strengthening the Singapore base. Had he been heeded and money used to construct proper all-round land-defences, Singapore might not have fallen in 1942.

To his bitter disappointment the Lyons U.A.P. Government which succeeded Scullin proved no more than marginally better. He resigned from the Senate and accepted a second appointment from the W.A. Government as agent-general in London. There he worked tirelessly in innumerable ways to promote Western Australian products in Britain and Europe and was judged an outstanding success. When a new ship was launched for Western Australia (purchasing State ships was one of his many responsibilities) Colebatch, never missing an opportunity, saw it was christened with a bottle of West Australian wine.

His second term in London was marked by several trips to Nazi Germany, ostensibly with the International Chamber of Commerce, but actually to meet leading German anti-Nazi industrialists and financiers who were trying to defuse Nazism by restoring Germany’s ability to trade with the rest of the world on peaceful terms. He was reporting back on the situation to Churchill and others. He had several talks with German finance wizard Hjalmar Schacht, but it was, he realised, too late to save the situation. Schacht was sacked by Hitler shortly afterwards when he refused to gear the German economy for war production. Colebatch also met a number of Nazi bosses, including Hitler, Goering and Goebbels, and was taken on a tour of a “model” concentration camp near Berlin, probably Sachenhausen. Unlike many progressive Western intellectuals who visited the Soviet Gulags and returned singing their praises he was repelled, and saw at once that the impression of humane treatment created for visitors was a sham. Returning to England, he gave a series of lectures warning of Nazism and advocating universal military training. The West Australian Trades Hall found out about this, and demanded he be sacked for preaching conscription.

He also discovered that London fire brigades had different, and incompatible, apparatus in the different boroughs. Hoses, connections and other equipment used by one borough could not be used in the next. He got information from the West Australian Fire Brigades Board on standardising equipment and supplied it to the British Government. His recommendations were adopted, and so the West Australian Agent-General played a key role in helping London, and Britain, survive the bombing blitz of World War II.

Visiting Italy at this time he met Mussolini, and though recognising him as a charismatic and overwhelming personality, was appalled by fascism. He was speaking and writing against fascism and in favour of democracy when Hitler was no more than a minor street-agitator. On the recommendation of the State Labor Government he was knighted at the end of his first term, and spent a few days on the Isle of Man, where he met the island’s leaders and found his admiration for small, independent, self-governing communities reinforced. He often quoted Chesterton, and while firmly in the classic economic tradition descended from Adam Smith, his political thinking in favour of small, local self-government seems to have had some parallels with Chesterton’s distributism.

He returned to Western Australia at the end of his extended term in 1939, despite his protests that he wished to stay on, and re-entered the Legislative Council. There, and in his paper, the Northam Advertiser, he worked tirelessly to promote the defence effort. His leaders in the Northam Advertiser offer a fascinating alternate history of World War II, and were often remarkably prophetic. When others were predicting a quick Russian collapse after the German attack he suggested, correctly, that an early winter might save the Russian forces and that the fighting would go on for years. Shortly before Pearl Harbour he forecast a Japanese attack and was almost the only person who warned against underestimating Japanese fighting ability. He also warned, going to the limits of journalistic propriety for the day, of the physical strain on John Curtin, and pleaded that others help lighten his task. In fact the A.L.P. left, led by the loathsome duo of Eddie Ward and H. V. Evatt, who also knew Curtin’s sensitive and vulnerable nature, appear to have set out to deliberately destroy him. He bitterly attacked “evil” wartime strikes and waste. A warm-hearted, fun-loving and popular man, a leading light of London’s Savage Club, of the Royal Perth Yacht Club and innumerable other clubs and societies and a former President of the West Australia Club, he had a huge circle of friends in both high and low places. He died in 1953, leaving, despite his long public and political career, an estate of only £2,000, with neither a house nor a car. The generous superannuation of modern politicians was not available then, and his widow, Lady Colebatch, went back to nursing, living in a one-room hut in the grounds of an Army hospital. She later obtained a war-service home and a T.P.I. pension for war-caused disabilities. Her father, long-time Fremantle mayor Sir Frank Gibson, and the Soldier’s Children’s Education Scheme, paid for, as the author puts it, “My schooling at Christ Church Grammar School and later my education at Leederville Tech.”

Sir Hal Colebatch’s first wife died in 1940. He married the author’s mother, then an Army nursing sister, in 1944. The author has departed from the political account here to paint a delightful and moving picture of his last years. There is a lovely photograph of the old man in his eighties, washing the dishes in the kitchen with his five-year-old son. He finally left politics in 1948 but remained very busy as a public activist and writer, promoting free trade and minimal and localised government in particular.

These are only a few highlights from a truly remarkable life. Despite his scanty formal education Colebatch read widely and carefully and proved himself a keen critic and philosopher of political economy, whose wisdom and judgment were vindicated by events. Many of the economic reforms he had been advocating since the beginning of the 20th Century were at last brought in in the 1980s and 1990s. In a lonely struggle he carried the torch and paved the way for “dries” like Bert Kelly and John Hyde.

Sir Hal Colebatch had a quite lengthy entry in the first edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia, but this was purged from later editions, doubtless as part of the left’s Kulturkampf and its attempts to suppress the memory and legacy of historically incorrect figures. As his son puts it rather tartly: “Later editions gave space to minor left-wing journalists and similar figures. To give a fairly innocuous example, William Astley (1855-1911), manager of the Australian Workman and ‘secretary of the Bathurst Federal League, which worked towards Federation’ is judged worthy of inclusion while Sir Hal Colebatch is not.” Gough Whitlam and A.L.P. Federal President Barry Jones were the only two politicians on the board of the Encyclopeadia when this purging was carried out.

So far, the book hailed as the great West Australian biography has been Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, the story of a man who, starting from very poor beginnings, achieved little. Steadfast Knight, more inspiringly, is the story of a man starting from very poor beginnings who achieved an enormous amount, who enriched the prosperity of his adopted State in innumerable ways, who left an example of selfless integrity in a long career of public and political service, who kept alive the principles of sound public economics in a long, lonely fight, who resisted party domination of his integrity, and who may even have played a part in altering the course of the Second World War.