Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Collier, Philip (1873–1948)

by David Black

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

Philip Collier (1873-1948), premier, was born on 21 April 1873 at Woodstock near Melbourne, son of Phillip Collier, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Bourke. Collier left school at 16 to go gold-mining in Victoria and New South Wales; he was later foreman on the Melbourne sewerage works at Northcote. As founding secretary of the local Political Labor Council branch, he acted as campaign director for State and Federal election candidates, including Frank Anstey. On 27 June 1900 at Northcote he married Ellen Heagney; they had four children.

In 1904 Collier moved to Western Australia to work with the Perseverance Gold Mining Co. at Boulder. As a delegate from the Amalgamated Workers' Association, he was vice-president of the goldfields Trades and Labor Council in 1905. Aided by his Victorian reputation, Collier soon won pre-selection for the Boulder seat in the Legislative Assembly. That year, when Labor lost ten seats, he narrowly defeated the sitting member J. M. Hopkins. In 1908 he easily retained the seat and was opposed in only four out of twelve elections in 1911-47.

In his maiden speech Collier attacked Hopkins's alleged favouritism in allocating crown land to selectors, but for six years he spoke rarely and usually briefly. His main interests were mining and State and Federal land tax; he won legitimation for children born out of wedlock, whose parents subsequently married. In 1910 he was prominent in a stormy debate on the Wilson government's electoral redistribution.

When Labor took office under John Scaddan in October 1911, Collier became minister for mines and railways. A capable administrator, he had his hands full with the railway unions who resented alleged opposition to their wage demands. While caucus always backed him in such disputes, he was relieved to hand the portfolio to Scaddan in 1914. He succeeded T. H. Bath as second senior member of the cabinet and became minister for water-supply, sewerage and drainage. Collier avoided the opprobrium of the 1915 Nevanas scandal which helped destroy the government in mid-1916. That year he was increasingly forthright in his opposition to conscription. In September he rejected caucus requests to become temporary leader, while Scaddan, who was becoming vulnerable because of his support for conscription, was temporarily out of parliament; when he resigned, Collier took his place in May 1917.

In March 1918 Collier was fined by magistrate W. A. G. Walter at Kalgoorlie for utterances during the second conscription referendum 'likely to cause disaffection'. Although the High Court eventually quashed the sentence, it rankled and when Collier was premier in 1924 he arranged to retire Walter somewhat prematurely.

Under Collier the Western Australian Labor Party slowly overcame the effects of the conscription split. During the disturbances on the Fremantle waterfront in May 1919 which forced premier (Sir) Hal Colebatch to resign, Collier congratulated the workers and bitterly, and perhaps unjustly, attacked Colebatch for allowing the police to use firearms. Nevertheless, they worked harmoniously when Collier was premier and Colebatch agent-general; Collier also had a warm working relationship with (Sir) James Mitchell who succeeded Colebatch as premier.

A split in the Country Party helped Labor to a narrow victory in April 1924 and Collier's government was returned for a second term in 1927. As premier, treasurer and minister for forests and industries, he had a capable and efficient cabinet. Taxation was reduced and in mid-term the government budgeted for the first surplus in sixteen years. In its emphasis on rural development, the ministry differed little from its predecessor. Generous advances, through the Agricultural Bank, were continued to intending settlers and much loan money was spent on railways, water-supplies, roads and bridges. The government saw the area under wheat more than double, and output treble. After hesitating, it also continued Mitchell's scheme to establish a dairy industry in the south-west. Despite some Labor opposition group settlement was linked with an active programme of British migration. Collier's 1925 visit to England resulted in an agreement with the British and Australian governments to settle British migrants on the land; he secured low interest loans to cover the cost. Over 4000 migrants a year were assisted in 1925-28.

Throughout his career Collier, who possessed a certain charm, and his ministers dominated caucus. Close co-operation between the unions and the party reflected the unique structure of the Western Australian movement whereby the State executive also acted as a trades and labour council, and revealed the dominance of the Australian Workers' Union to which most leading government members, including Collier, belonged. Despite problems with a hostile Legislative Council the government also protected its industrial supporters. Substantial improvements were made to workers' compensation and industrial arbitration legislation; the first full-time president of the Arbitration Court was appointed; for the first time a State basic wage and a forty-four hour week were granted; preference for unionists was given to most government workers; the State Government Accident Insurance Office established. Other notable achievements of Collier's first administration included the State's first metropolitan Town Planning Act, the setting up of a main roads board, and further legislation on the protection of illegitimate children and married women.

The one rift in party-union harmony was a clash in December 1924 between the government and the Seamen's Union of Australia, when police were allowed on the waterfront to protect passengers on a ship that the union had declared black. After a protracted dispute the party in 1925 upheld the government's action by a large majority. The rise in unemployment in the late 1920s produced criticism within the labour movement about migration and the need for practical schemes of work provision. Collier as treasurer also had to accept diminished independence for the State resulting from the end of per capita payments by the Commonwealth and the financial agreement of 1928. However, he presided over the centenary celebrations in 1929 with little apparent premonition of the economic trouble to come.

Collier's defeat by Mitchell in the 1930 election was a disguised blessing. In coping with the Depression, his sympathies were with the 'sound finance' policies of the prime minister, J. A. Lyons, but as Opposition leader he could criticize the details and implementation of the Premiers' Plan. The local Labor Party thus avoided the split which shattered their Federal and some State counterparts, with Collier playing a crucial role. He lacked sympathy with the more militant unemployed—he warned the Labor premier of South Australia of 'reds' in their ranks—but Mitchell's government had to bear the brunt of mass demonstrations.

In April 1933 Collier led the party to a sweeping victory on the same day as the electors voted to secede from the Australian Commonwealth. With most Labor members opposed to secession, Collier skilfully defused the issue. He appointed a delegation of secessionist leaders, with Labor supporters conspicuously absent; its petition was rejected by the British parliament's 1935 select committee, but by then the economy had improved and the movement lost momentum. This achievement was not fully appreciated by a few of Collier's followers. They also resented his unilateral action (and misleading explanations) in appointing Mitchell as lieutenant-governor. Collier now held the posts of premier, treasurer and minister for forests. He had some success at conferences in the east, but his absences from his office became more frequent and he grew less tolerant of opposition within the party. From November 1934 to January 1935, at the suggestion of colleagues, he holidayed in New Zealand to restore his health.

Collier remained premier after Labor was returned in 1936 but on 19 August, after the expression of some concern within the government, he decided to step down. He realized that increasing ill health—aggravated, no doubt, over many years, by a personal failing—had made him lose confidence. After a record term of nearly nineteen years as Labor leader and nine years as premier, he was succeeded by his deputy J. C. Willcock. In the next twelve years as a backbencher he spoke only twice: once, while attacking a Labor government bill to legalize off-course bookmaking, he implied disloyalty from within the party during his final phase as premier; viewed dispassionately this was probably unfair. He died on 18 October 1948 after almost forty-three years continuous parliamentary service, a record not exceeded until 1976 (by J. T. Tonkin). Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he was given a state funeral and was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £28,498.

At the peak of his powers Collier had been Labor's greatest Western Australian leader and could have shone in Federal politics. He was a man of wit and intellectual capacity, well read in humanitarian literature and poetry. Despite a lack of formal training he displayed great financial ability and developed into an effective speaker. A moderate, especially after 1924, he nevertheless possessed a stubborn, ruthless streak and could play politics hard. At the same time his balance, tolerance and ability earned him deep respect, and his personal friendship with Mitchell influenced the character of Western Australian politics. Loyal as he was to his party, Collier still had his own scale of values, as evidenced by his fervent anti-Communism, his encouragement of prospecting parties to solve unemployment and his support for capital punishment against party policy, when two policemen were murdered on the goldfields. He always remained something of a loner.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • J. G. Wilson (ed), Western Australia's Centenary, 1829-1929 (Perth, 1929)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In (Perth, 1972)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • V. Courtney, All I May Tell (Syd, 1956)
  • University Studies in History (Western Australia), 3 (1959), no 3
  • To-day (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1933
  • Tocsin, 16 Oct 1902
  • Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 26 Sept 1905
  • Kalgoorlie Miner, 10, 16, 30, 31 Oct 1905, 9, 13 Mar 1918
  • West Australian, 28 Oct 1905, 13, 22 Dec 1917, 26, 28 May 1924, 19, 20 Oct 1948
  • Daily News (Perth), 29 Jan 1935
  • Record (Perth), 21 Oct 1948
  • D. Black, The Early Administrations of Philip Collier (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1959)
  • R. F. Pervan, The Western Australian Labor Movement, 1933-47 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1966).

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Citation details

David Black, 'Collier, Philip (1873–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/collier-philip-5732/text9701, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 October 2014.

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

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