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Butler, Sir Richard (1850–1925)

by Kay Rollison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Richard Butler (1850-1925), by unknown photographer

Richard Butler (1850-1925), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 10798

Sir Richard Butler (1850-1925), premier, was born at Stadhampton near Oxford, England, on 3 December 1850, elder son of Richard Butler, farmer, and his wife Mary Eliza, née Sadler. On 8 March 1854 the family arrived in Adelaide. Butler was educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, then worked for his uncle Philip on his property, Yattalunga, near Gawler. In 1876 he took up land in the near-by agricultural district of Mallala and, in 1882, at Spalding. He had married Helena Kate Layton in 1878; they had eight children before her death in 1892. After two years sheep-farming at Crystal Brook near Port Pirie, in 1887-99 he was again at Mallala. On 7 June 1894 he married Ethel Pauline Finey; they had three children.

Butler's social and economic background led easily to an involvement in community affairs. He was a justice of the peace before he was 30, a member of the Crystal Brook School Board of Advice and in 1887-91 a councillor and sometime chairman of the Grace District Council. In August 1890 he won a House of Assembly by-election for Yatala which he represented until 1902; he then became member for Barossa until 1924. He had moved to Adelaide in 1899.

Butler entered parliament at a time of fluid political alignments. He stood as a Liberal without formal affiliations, and his maiden speech supported Thomas Playford's motion of no confidence in (Sir) J. A. Cockburn's government in a dispute over the Broken Hill rail link. He voted for Playford against (Sir) F. W. Holder's successful challenge in June 1892, and backed Sir John Downer's conservative ministry of 1892-93. He opposed C. C. Kingston's attack on Downer in 1893. But with the Liberals united in the new Kingston ministry Butler veered to support it, becoming government whip. He opposed progressive land tax, intercolonial free trade and the introduction of coloured labour, but favoured female suffrage, free education, payment of members and the establishment of a state bank. In 1898 he took over Cockburn's portfolios of agriculture and education, retaining them until the defeat of the Kingston government next year over Legislative Council reform. Butler had supported the range of liberal constitutional and industrial legislation introduced by Kingston's ministry. He admired Kingston, was ambitious for office and may, despite later affiliations, have been genuinely sympathetic to these causes at that time.

In May 1901 Butler became treasurer in J. G. Jenkins's cabinet, and from April 1902 was also commissioner of crown lands and immigration. This ministry claimed linear descent from Kingston's of 1893-99, but became increasingly conservative. Butler's political outlook changed considerably at this time. 1901-04 were years of political and financial readjustment for South Australia, the problems raised by Federation being magnified by drought and depression in 1901-02. Although his realism as treasurer resulted in the nickname 'Dismal Dick', Butler earned a high reputation for financial ability by pursuing a policy of balancing budgets through retrenchment. At Commonwealth-State conferences in 1903 and 1905 he was very critical of the financial provisions of the Federal compact. His concern for reducing expenditure now led him to resist any extension of state services outside those directly connected with rural development and he opposed further Legislative Council reform. He was hostile to the Labor Party's policy of expanding state intervention. These views alienated him from the more liberal of Kingston's old supporters who formed a separate party under A. H. Peake in 1904. Butler's increasing conservatism was exemplified in July when the government was reshuffled to include two members of the conservative opposition.

However he did not fully align himself with the conservatives. Instead, Butler became the parliamentary leader of an informal group of country members supported by the Farmers and Producers' Political Union, set up in September to defend country interests. Non-Labor politics was further fragmented by the formation of an electoral alliance between Peake's Liberals and the Labor Party. In these difficult circumstances, on 1 March 1905 Butler became premier in addition to his other offices. In the May elections the ministerialists lost seats, Labor gained, and his government was defeated when he met parliament on 20 July. After another defeat he resigned on 26 July and became leader of the Opposition. In June 1909, after Premier Tom Price's death, Butler supported a new ministry led by Peake and an anti-Labor fusion was negotiated in September. In December a reconstruction of the ministry saw him again treasurer and minister for the Northern Territory. However the fusion was defeated by the Labor Party in the 1910 election and Butler accepted Peake as leader of the Opposition.

In February 1912 Butler again took office under Peake as minister of mines, minister of marine, and commissioner of public works (until November 1914 when he became commissioner of crown lands). The ministry was defeated at the March 1915 election. In 1917 after the Labor Party split, Peake again formed a government with Butler as treasurer; he was also minister of railways until May 1919 and of agriculture for five months. He consolidated his reputation for sound though frugal administration, taking some notable initiatives in the building of the Outer Harbour at Adelaide, once named 'Butler's Folly', and the locking of the River Murray. He had been knighted in 1913.

In May 1919 Butler's political career suffered a severe reverse. Irregularities in the bulk-wheat-handling scheme, which he had administered as minister of agriculture, were investigated by three royal commissions in 1917-21. The 1919 commission examined sixteen allegations against him, and found that strained relations between Butler and the scheme's manager had led to expensive administrative blunders and that he had used his position to gain minor electoral advantages. Peake immediately requested his resignation. Butler refused, claiming that he had done his best to protect his brother farmers and that resignation would be an admission of guilt. He was therefore dismissed by the Executive Council and he returned bitterly to the back-bench. In July 1920 the third royal commission found that an employee of the wheat scheme responsible for some of the allegations against Butler was himself guilty of more serious charges. Though the commission made no reference to the charges against Butler, he interpreted its findings as a vindication. His colleagues seemingly agreed, electing him Speaker in 1921. Not relishing 'political extinction', he retained this position but was badly defeated in the 1924 election when the Liberals lost office.

For a man who had 'early learned to “scorn delights and live laborious days”' and whose only recreation was a 'change of work', this was a considerable blow, but next year he visited England which he revered as the seat of the Empire. He died at South Croydon on 28 April 1925 survived by nine children. A funeral service was held at his old church, St Andrew's (Anglican), Walkerville, and his remains were buried in North Road cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £10,998. In 1928 a memorial portrait by George Webb was hung in the House of Assembly. Butler's second son, (Sir) Richard Layton followed his father into politics and was twice premier.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • G. D. Combe, Responsible Government in South Australia (Adel, 1957)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1919, 3 (28), 1920, 2 (27)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 30 Oct 1896, 11 Mar 1905, 2 May, 13 June 1925, 20 Oct 1928
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 24 July 1922
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 Apr 1925
  • R. Daunton-Fear, Sir Richard Butler (B.A. Hons thesis, Flinders University, 1970).

Citation details

Kay Rollison, 'Butler, Sir Richard (1850–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/butler-sir-richard-5447/text9247, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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