16/11/2011 - 10:18

Visionary Court set state on prosperous path

16/11/2011 - 10:18


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A new biography highlights the vital role played by Sir Charles Court in WA’s development.

A new biography highlights the vital role played by Sir Charles Court in WA’s development.

I CAN still clearly recall the moments during which I was introduced to Western Australian politics.

It happened during WA’s 1959 state election campaign when, quite unexpectedly Labor premier Bert Hawke, uncle of Bob, visited the classroom where I and 50 other students were having a geography lesson.

Our teacher, Marist Brother Tarcisius (Dennis) Tankard, had grown up in Northam, from where Hawke hailed.

We all rose respectfully when Mr Hawke entered the room, after which he briefly spoke. Nothing political, I stress.

Two memorable things occurred during his talk.

Firstly, he told us he’d coached Brother Tarcisius in footy at Northam when our teacher was our age; and secondly a squadron of RAAF Vampire jets from Pearce airbase flew low over our New Norcia classroom.

“I can tell you boys, Denny was a great footie player when I coached him,” Hawke said just before those jets passed over.

His voice was then drowned out.

Although I would regard this visit as a nice gesture by the premier, as time passed I came to view it in a rather different light.

The major reason the March 1959 state election was so crucial was that it led to the then 47-year-old accountant, Charles Court, gaining executive responsibilities.

This point is well brought out in Rhonda Jamieson’s just-released biography, Charles Court – I love this place.

I say this because WA’s economy has, thankfully, twice had what economic historians call a ‘take-off’.

The first was between 1892 and about 1900, just before the self-governing British colony of WA entered the now Sydney-Melbourne-dominated Commonwealth of Australia federation.

That near decade, which covers the gold rush in WA, is integral to what Australia’s pre-eminent mining industry historian, Geoffrey Blainey, who contributes a foreword to the biography, has called “the rush that never ended”.

The key, but not the only player in this the first take-off, was undoubtedly John Forrest, great-great-uncle of founding chairman of the Fortescue Metals Group, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, who’s now battling the Rudd-Swan-Gillard Canberra mining super-tax designed to favour big miners over smaller venturers, without which WA would not have prospered.

During WA’s inaugural take-off, the state’s population tripled, from below 60,000 in 1892 to 180,000 in 1900.

Before 1892 there was a small settlement around the Swan River estuary and a few tiny townships – Guildford, York, Toodyay, Spanish Benedictine-founded New Norcia, and the like – nearby, plus several small coastal centres including Broome, Albany, Geraldton, Bunbury, and Busselton further away.

Inland, here and there, including in the Pilbara, were leaseholders raising stock.

The only other notable industries producing tradeable goods were whaling, sandalwood pulling, pearling, and hardwoods, primarily jarrah, marketed internationally as WA Mahogany.

Within the then British Empire’s framework, big WA was roughly on an economic par with tiny Newfoundland, off Canada, founded early in the 17th century and noted primarily for fishing. 

Several important things emanated from the first economic take-off, including construction of Mundaring Weir to provide potable water by a 530-kilometre steel pipeline to the arid and disease-infested Goldfields, and later the soon-to-emerge productive Central Wheatbelt. 

This crucial project got the go-ahead in mid-1896.

The opening of the Wheatbelt bushlands meant production of more tradeable goods – grain and stock –both unlikely to have emerged without the 1892-1900 take-off.

Charles Court (1911-2007) reached WA from Sussex, England, aged six months in 1912 when the population stood at 300,000.

Little of great economic note occurred from the outbreak of WWI in 1914 when Simpson (the man with that donkey) left our Wheatbelt for Gallipoli, and 1953, when Court became Nedlands’ MLA.

During those 40 years the population rose from 300,000 to only 600,000.

The gold rushes, or the Forrest take-off, had largely petered out except that by the mid-1950s there was a railway network into the Wheatbelt and Mid West that was costing taxpayers dearly.

WA’s only noteworthy political event was the 1933 secession referendum at which Sandgropers voted 2-1 to flee the centralising Sydney-Melbourne dominated federation.

When Court entered parliament, WA was actually losing some people, primarily its best educated (John Stone, later federal Treasury secretary, for example), because the economy was, if not stagnating, then heading that way, despite the post-war baby-boom and some immigration.

Many of those with a higher education couldn’t find work in Australia’s western third.

This began changing after the narrow 1959 coalition victory, largely because of Court’s relentless drive for economic growth, especially in internationally tradeable commodities and financial and business diversification.

When he entered parliament, and for some years after, WA was called a ‘Cinderella’ state, with Canberra cash handouts an essential ingredient in the budget.

But it wasn’t in Court’s nature to allow the state to remain mendicant.

Court believed WA could lead ‘the eastern states’, and not be forever beholden to Canberra’s strings-attached largesse.

After that crucial 1959 election, Court, in David Brand-led coalitions until 1971, held the key portfolios of north-west, industrial development, transport and railways.

In her book, Ms Jamieson outlines how Court utilised his time in these positions – with due credit to his little-known but crucial network of public servants and business identity advisers – to bring about WA’s second take-off (and add to this during his 1974-82 premiership years).

WA’s population from 1959 to 1982, when Court retired, doubled from 700,000 to 1.4 million, with its economic growth rates in the 1960s equalling those of East Asia’s economies.

This was largely due to Court’s developmental policies, promoted from day one of his parliamentary career and implemented from 1959 in his 20 ministerial years, including nine as premier.

To put it bluntly, those years were the very opposite of what one could have expected if a Greens government had reigned over WA from the late 1950s until early 1980s.

Under the Greens, WA’s 600,000 1953 population would have steadily slumped to below 500,000, with the skilful and aspiring fleeing either to eastern Australian or overseas.

What one finds over the crucial Court years is that the quantum output and exports of grains, iron ore, nickel, bauxite, mineral sands, gold, and offshore-derived gas, often growing exponentially; in some cases from a zero base.

Even a 1,530km Pilbara-to-Bunbury gas pipeline was laid.

Court, in 1959, had set about ensuring WA would be better able to cope with the challenges of the future.

The Perth-Fremantle metropolitan area’s population for 1959 to 1982 would double from 450,000 to 900,000, a direct outcome of his pressing for and bringing about a second ‘take-off’.

His programs were fashioned to not only diversify WA’s economy, most especially promoting resource extraction in the north-west, but also to broaden Perth’s employment and skills base.

And it was those extractive sectors and their spin-off linkages – engineering, fabrication and mineral exploration and specialist technical services – that meant Australia’s economy, following the economic reforms of Bob Hawke’s prime ministership, became markedly more solvent.

Ms Jamieson’s biography tells how WA’s second (and still ongoing) take-off was launched.



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