07/12/2004 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Hal Colebatch’s influence lives on

07/12/2004 - 21:00


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WESTERN Australians quickly forget former premiers. Thankfully Perth author and poet Hal Colebatch, son of WA’s shortest-serving premier Sir Hal Colebatch, reminds us of his father’s efforts and achievements in a recently released biography.

WESTERN Australians quickly forget former premiers.

Thankfully Perth author and poet Hal Colebatch, son of WA’s shortest-serving premier Sir Hal Colebatch, reminds us of his father’s efforts and achievements in a recently released biography.

English-born Sir Hal reached Adelaide in 1878 as a six-year old.

On completing elementary education he became a journalist and worked in several Australian mining centres in the outback, including forgotten Teetulpa, where Paddy Hannan first tried his luck, and Broken Hill.

In 1895 he ventured to WA’s Goldfields and worked on Coolgar-die’s Golden Age and the Kalgoorlie Miner. He knew many Goldfields identities, including engineer Herbert Hoover, subsequently US president, and prominent Western Australian politicians and newspapermen.

In Perth in 1896 he became mining and chess editor (he was WA’s third chess champion) for Perth’s Morning Herald and correspondent for two English newspapers.

By 1898 he’d been banned from the parliamentary press gallery for passing on details of a fight between two MPs. Six years later he moved to then sizeable Northam, where he owned the Northam Advertiser.

While there, James (later Sir) Mitchell, a future premier and WA governor, was a close friend, with many alleging Colebatch was Mitchell’s eminence grise.

Between 1909-12, the years the Avon River’s anti-flooding works were completed, Colebatch was Northam’s mayor.

“Hal Colebatch, having been banned from the WA Parliament as a journalist, re-entered it as MLC for East Province in a by-election in May 1912, shortly after his 40th birthday,” his son writes.

Many viewed him as potentially another Sir John Forrest, who had opted in 1901 for Australia’s national political scene.

Colebatch incisively criticised the Scaddan Labor government’s silly and wasteful socialist projects but later served with Scaddan in the Lefroy non-Labor government.

Colebatch joined, with Mitchell, the following Wilson Government to be colonial secretary and education minister, and launched WA’s moves into secondary education.

As acting premier he oversaw WA’s tragic fight against the post-Great War’s killer Spanish influenza epidemic.

In 1919 he was premier – from the upper house – but resigned after a month on being unable to find a lower house vacancy. Mitchell became premier with Colebatch health and education minister.

In the 1920s and 1930s Colebatch was WA’s agent-general in London, twice, and WA senator in Canberra. He again served in WA’s Parliament between 1940-48.

This biography, Steadfast Knight: A Life of Sir Hal Colebatch, (Fremantle Art Centre Press) also closely considers both out-of-State careers, highlighting Colebatch’s concerns about emerging Nazism following several visits to Hitler’s Reich.

His European years meant contact with many still-remembered inter-national political and cultural figures, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Benito Mussolini, Garibaldi’s daughter-in-law, Donna Constanza, Hitler’s banker, Hjalmar Schacht, Josef Goebbels and Stafford Cripps.

In 1924 John Curtin wrote of him thus: “One of the best speakers in Great Britain today is Mr H P Colebatch, our Agent-General.”

Colebatch was never a Federation enthusiast, “becoming increasingly aware of the financial disabilities WA was suffering under Federation” with growing centralism and protectionism.

He ceaselessly urged that Australia adopt international free trade, believing it nationally beneficial but especially for isolated resource rich and undeveloped WA.

He also doggedly opposed Canberra’s growing powers over WA.

He backed WA’s 1930s secessionist movement; strongly opposed Labor’s east coast devised plan to break-up Australia’s six States to create 36 Canberra-controlled provinces; and highlighted the retarding impact of protecting high cost east coast industries that boosted Sydney’s and Melbourne’s populations at the expense of development in WA.

As agent-general he not only oversaw the presentation of WA’s majority voter-backed secession petition to the houses of parliament, but also flew the secessionist flag over WA House.

Put bluntly, Colebatch was an outward-looking WA patriot, a rarely used, if not forgotten, word these days, which possibly explains why he and his achievements aren’t remembered.

He consistently defended democracy and bitterly criticised German and Italian fascism and Soviet bolshevism.

He was never shackled by formal party links.

However, State Scene sees Cole-batch’s major role as WA’s voice in the wilderness over four decades with advocacy of free trade, something, let’s face it, on which WA’s prosperity crucially hinges.

It should be noted that today’s shrill cries against so-called globalisation, if ever realised, would mean slashing WA’s growth and sparking significant emigration – probably by the State’s most talented – to economically expanding East Asia and South-East Asia, and North America.

What this biography reveals is that, although protectionism won over Australia’s Labor and non-Labor parties well before World War I, a tiny yet farsighted group, including especially Colebatch, never succumbed to that costly feather bedding ideology.

Dissenters like Colebatch “sought to change community attitudes by steadfast adherence to a long, slow process of argument”, and continued warning against protectionism.

And not until the 1980s, with the earlier emergence of the dries in Liberal parliamentary ranks – WA’s John Hyde, Ross McLean, Peter Shack (a distant relation of Hjalmar Schacht), and crucially, South Australia’s Bert Kelly – that things began turning around towards what Colebatch had urged so long before.

The upper echelons of the non-reforming Fraser Government wouldn’t act but Labor’s new leaders, namely Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, adopted the dry outlook on trade, meaning Colebatch’s view finally prevailed.

Sceptics of this interpretation can note the following words uttered on November 25 to ACTU industrial officers by Federal Labor’s new industrial relations spokesman, Western Australian Stephen Smith.

“The modern international competitiveness of Australia as a nation-State was underwritten by the landmark reforms effected the last time Labor was in office, the Hawke-Keating years,” he said. “That was when public policy opened Australia up for the first time, when we changed the nature of Australia as a trading nation, floated the dollar, brought down the tariff walls and removed quota restrictions. 

“All these were things the Fraser/Howard Government could have done but failed to do. It was that opening up of our economy which set the nation up for the prosperity that we have seen, set the nation up for 14 years of economic growth and set it up as an internationally competitive trading nation and attractive place for overseas capital investment.”

What Mr Smith didn’t say was that Labor’s Hawke-Keating years adopted what Colebatch spent a lifetime advocating.

Like so many, Mr Smith has forgotten this farsighted Western Australian who persisted in advocating the creation of an open, competitive, efficient and prosperous national and WA economy.



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