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Gillies, William Neil (1868–1928)

by D. J. Murphy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Neil Gillies (1868-1928), farmer, premier and industrial arbitrator, was born on 27 October 1868 at Eccleston, New South Wales, son of Dougald Gillies, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Gillies; they were Scottish migrants. In 1882 he went with his parents to a Richmond River sugar-farm. There, his father founded an Anti-alien League, dedicated, like his own later New South Wales Sugar Growers' Defence League, to keeping the industry white. About 1900 he married Margaret Smith; they had a son and a daughter. Before inspecting land being opened for settlement near Atherton in Queensland in 1908, Gillies had worked in timber, sugar and dairying. A member of the Tintenbar Shire Council, he stood unsuccessfully as a Labor candidate for both the State and Federal seats of Richmond in 1910.

Late in 1910 Gillies selected a block at Atherton but was soon in business there as a commission agent and bought shares in the Labor-oriented Tableland Examiner. When the new Queensland Legislative Assembly seat of Eacham was created, he won it for the Labor Party in 1912, despite a charge of falsely stating his period of residence on an electoral claim. In the successful 1915 electoral campaign, T. J. Ryan, the Labor party leader, placed great emphasis on winning the votes of sugar-growers. Trusted by growers and a participant in their meetings with the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., Gillies gave valuable advice to Ryan on what legislation the growers wanted.

Gillies retained his seat easily in 1915 and, being a hard worker, advanced rapidly in the party. He was a member of the Australian Workers' Union, and his fierce opposition to non-European labour earned him the support of both the union and Labor members in sugar seats. His suspicion of and public animosity to big corporations won him backing also from small selectors. A conciliator in other respects, Gillies became a trusted supporter of both Ryan and his deputy E. G. Theodore. As chairman of the Public Works Commission recommending the Brisbane-Kyogle railway, he saw the obligation of central government to undertake road construction and, when a minister in 1919, he established the Main Road Board. The Gillies Highway was named for him.

Gillies was elected to cabinet on 25 April 1918 after the general election. As assistant minister for justice under Ryan, he negotiated with the Legislative Council over rejected bills and with North Queensland railway employees during a rail strike in 1918. When Ryan decided to enter Federal politics, Gillies gained the important post of secretary for agriculture and stock, and lost the deputy premiership to John Fihelly by only two votes; he won it, however, when Fihelly became agent-general in 1922. Gillies was an able minister for agriculture and stock. The new legislation creating commodity boards and co-operative marketing schemes was largely Theodore's but the conciliatory Gillies administered it sympathetically. His farming legislation consolidated the party's rural vote won under Ryan.

In February 1925 Theodore resigned as premier and Gillies narrowly defeated the more able but more truculent William McCormack for the premiership. Gillies won support because of his seniority, but also from the caucus militants; the latter feared that McCormack would clash with the left-wing unions and wanted more legislation based on radical policies. A bitter wrangle inherited from Theodore between the government and the militants, particularly the Australian Railways Union, erupted into a strike in August. Gillies settled it by bypassing the Arbitration Court and conceding the union's demands; but he had not consulted cabinet and his caucus friends deserted him. When the Industrial Arbitration Act was amended to provide for the appointment of non-legal members to the court, Gillies accepted one of the positions in October rather than be deposed.

Though an able administrator, Gillies was not a leader and McCormack's biographer aptly summed up the Gillies dilemma. 'The qualities which had won Gillies the leadership—his personal kindness, his freedom from spleen, his ability to co-operate with all factions—did not fit him for the position of Premier'. On the Board of Trade and Arbitration which replaced the Industrial Court, Gillies was overshadowed by his other lay colleague, W. J. Dunstan. Nevertheless, he was regarded as a fair commissioner by employers and warmly remembered by the militant unions for his 1925 decision. On 9 February 1928 he died suddenly in Brisbane of hypertensive heart disease and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His estate was valued at £5321 in Queensland and £1410 in New South Wales. His brother, Robert Towers Gillies, represented Byron Bay in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1925-27.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Collinson, Tropic Coasts and Tablelands (Brisb, 1941)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland, 1915-57 (Brisb, 1979)
  • K. H. Kennedy, The Public Life of William McCormack: 1907-1932 (Ph.D. thesis, James Cook University, 1973).

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Gillies, William Neil (1868–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillies-william-neil-6388/text10917, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 31 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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