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Colebatch, Sir Harry Pateshall (Hal) (1872–1953)

by B. K. De Garis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Harry Pateshall Colebatch (1872-1953), by Talma, 1930s

Harry Pateshall Colebatch (1872-1953), by Talma, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24072285

Sir Harry Pateshall (Hal) Colebatch (1872-1953), journalist and politician, was born on 29 March 1872 at Underley, Wolverflow, Herefordshire, England, one of seven children of George Pateshall Colebatch, farmer and chemist, and his wife Georgina, née Gardner. In 1878 the family migrated to Goolwa, South Australia, where Hal attended the local school; at 11 he took a job as office boy and printer's devil at 6s. per week with the Norwood Free Press. At Norwood he attended evening classes in shorthand, English literature and Latin. When the Free Press collapsed he worked with a succession of transient newspapers at Peterborough, Port Pirie and Laura; at 16 he moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales, as a journalist with the Silver Age. In the 1892 strike he took verbatim notes at meetings and was later subpoenaed as a crown witness at the leaders' trial. His involvement in the case was fortuitous but this close contact with trade unionism did not win his sympathies for the emergent labour movement.

In 1894 Colebatch went to the Western Australian goldfields and a job with the Coolgardie Golden Age. Next year he joined the Kalgoorlie Miner for a few months and in 1896 moved to Perth as mining editor of the Morning Herald, a new daily which he edited from 1904, but soon left to become proprietor-editor of a major provincial paper, the Northam Advertiser. A champion chess-player, by this time he was tall and distinguished looking with a pale face, a brown, pointed beard and the slight stoop of a scholar. On 29 April 1896 he had married Maud Mary Saunders, a South Australian; they had two sons, one of whom, Harley, took over the running of the Advertiser in 1919. Although he knew little of farming, Colebatch was readily accepted into Northam's agricultural and commercial élite, becoming mayor in 1909-14.

In Northam he organized the election of local bank manager (Sir) James Mitchell to the Legislative Assembly. After two false starts, Colebatch entered the Legislative Council for East Province in 1912. He advocated improved rural education—a favourite subject—Legislative Council reform, and rapid development through land settlement and immigration. He was president of the Northam branch of the Liberal League and a member of its State executive. The league was not formally linked with the parliamentary Liberal Party and, despite his involvement in the organization, he prided himself, like most other councillors, on his independence.

Scaddan's Labor government had a large majority in the assembly but scant representation in the council, where much of its legislation was defeated, delayed or emasculated. Colebatch thrived on this situation: his retentive memory, fluent speech and incisive wit made him a formidable debater; within two years he was unofficial Opposition leader in the 'non-partisan' council and one Labor member complained, 'When Mr Colebatch makes a speech other members follow him in a manner which forcibly reminds one of the hymn, “Lead Kindly Light”'. When the government fell in 1916, the new Liberal premier Frank Wilson appointed Colebatch leader of the council, colonial secretary and minister for education. He played no part in the formation of the National Party in 1917, in the course of which Wilson was displaced by (Sir) H. B. Lefroy, but retained his portfolios in the new cabinet and became deputy premier. Among his many legislative and administrative activities in this period, those which satisfied him most were the establishment of district high schools in four country towns; the transformation of Rottnest Island from a prison to a class 'A' reserve and holiday resort; a major revision of the Health Act; and the reorganization of the State's trading concerns.

In April 1919 following a cabinet crisis, Colebatch was elected by the Nationalists to succeed Lefroy as premier; his ministry resembled his predecessor's but he brought back Mitchell. To remain in office Colebatch had to find an assembly seat, but the Country Party refused to allow him to change places with one of their members. His opportunities to resolve this tangle were limited by his part in a major waterfront crisis which culminated in the 'Battle of the Barricades'. In 1917 the Commonwealth government had been using non-union lumpers to break a wharf dispute and guaranteed them continued preference of employment over unionists. By 1919 the Lumpers Union of Workers' resentment had been increased by the return of many ex-servicemen members. A trial of strength developed at Fremantle over the unloading of the Dimboola, which carried perishable goods much needed by a community isolated for several months by anti-influenza quarantine rules. On 4 May Colebatch supervised attempts to barricade the wharf so that the non-unionists could unload the Dimboola, but in the ensuing fracas a lumper was fatally injured and the plan was abandoned.

This contretemps, combined with the difficulty of finding an assembly seat, led Colebatch, after only a month, to resign the premiership in favour of Mitchell, himself reverting to the deputy premiership. Political stability was restored and in 1919-23 Mitchell and Colebatch harmoniously fostered the State's development, including the ill-fated Group Settlement Scheme. In 1923 Colebatch went as the State's agent-general to London, where he found himself implementing policies he had helped to frame: selecting migrants, promoting Western Australian products and negotiating loans. Appointed C.M.G. in 1923, at his term's conclusion in 1927 he was knighted.

On his return to Perth the government commissioned Colebatch to edit a history of Western Australia for the centenary of British settlement; this was published in 1929 as A Story of a Hundred Years. He also joined the 1927-29 royal commission into the working of the Commonwealth constitution, on which he was the only small-State representative. A strong supporter of State rights, Colebatch signed the majority report which advocated preservation of the Federal system, since unification 'would be likely to produce paralysis at the centre and anaemia at the circumference'. This theme dominated Colebatch's years in the Senate in 1928-33, for he accepted Nationalist endorsement on the understanding that he would hold himself free of party ties. Although this anachronistic stance, plus the Depression, limited his effectiveness, the Senate gave Colebatch a platform from which to express his forthright views on Commonwealth-State relations and the economic crisis; he published pamphlets and contributed many articles to leading Sydney and Melbourne papers during these years. In particular, as president of the Melbourne-based Tariff Reform League, he was a notable critic of high tariffs, which he saw as doubly bad in their unfair impact on the less-developed States.

In 1933 Colebatch resumed the post of agent-general for Western Australia and although there were now fewer responsibilities he again enjoyed the role. He led the delegation which in 1934 presented Western Australia's secession petition to the British parliament. Warned in advance that the parliament was unlikely even to receive the petition, he used the episode as an opportunity to publicize Western Australia's grievances.

Colebatch returned to Perth in 1939 and in 1940 re-entered the Legislative Council, where he sat till 1948. His first wife had died in 1940 and on 21 December 1944 he married Marion Frances Gibson, nursing sister; this second marriage brought him a third son, Hal. He died on 12 February 1953 and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £2346. He had rendered unusually varied service to his adopted State.

Select Bibliography

  • D. S. Garden, Northam, an Avon Valley History (Melb, 1979)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 June 1923, 27 Aug 1932, 22 Dec 1944
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Oct 1924
  • B. K. de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1962)
  • Colebatch papers (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

B. K. De Garis, 'Colebatch, Sir Harry Pateshall (Hal) (1872–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/colebatch-sir-harry-pateshall-hal-5725/text9685, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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