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Lawson, Sir Harry Sutherland Wightman (1875–1952)

by Donald S. Garden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Harry Sutherland Wightman Lawson (1875-1952), by unknown photographer, 1930s

Harry Sutherland Wightman Lawson (1875-1952), by unknown photographer, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23386346

Sir Harry Sutherland Wightman Lawson (1875-1952), politician and lawyer, was born on 5 March 1875 at Dunolly, Victoria, only surviving son of John Wightman Lawson, Presbyterian minister from Scotland, and his twenty-two-years younger, native-born wife Penelope Bell, née Hawkins. In 1884 John retired to Forest Hall, a fine old home on the outskirts of Castlemaine. Harry was educated at Castlemaine Grammar School and briefly at Scotch College, Melbourne, hastening home after the death of his father in 1892 to become an articled clerk to F. K. Best, Castlemaine barrister and solicitor. After his mother's death in 1898 he continued to live at Forest Hall with his three sisters until his marriage with Presbyterian forms at East Malvern on 8 October 1901 to Olive Adele Horwood, daughter of a former Castlemaine iron foundry proprietor.

As a young man Lawson was extensively involved in local affairs. Tall and amiable, he was a teetotaller, prominent in the Presbyterian Church as a founder of the Young Men's Fellowship, and a champion cricketer and footballer. His popularity led to his election to the Castlemaine Borough Council in 1899 and a few weeks later pushed him into politics. In November he was asked to stand as a Turner Liberal candidate at a ministerial by-election to oppose (Sir) James McCay who had been selected in the new McLean ministry. McCay had been Lawson's headmaster at Castlemaine Grammar. Lawson, aged only 24, won the seat and held it until 1904, defeating McCay again in 1900; in 1904-27 he represented Castlemaine and Maldon and in 1927-28 Castlemaine and Kyneton.

During his first decade in parliament Lawson was not a lively member. He spoke infrequently, though a 'discriminating supporter' of the various Liberal governments. In 1907 Melbourne Punch described him as 'unimportant' and 'innocuous' and lamented Castlemaine's loss of a good footballer in return for a poor politician. However, Lawson attended carefully to his local duties, travelling around his electorate on his bicycle which, at least once, carried him the seventy miles (113 km) to a Melbourne sitting. He continued as a Castlemaine councillor until 1915 and was mayor in 1905-06. Some of Lawson's energy was also devoted to his law studies; in 1908 he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor and joined F. S. Newell in a partnership at Castlemaine with branches at Maldon and Newstead.

From about 1910 Lawson became more active in parliament and rose in stature among the Liberals. He was convivial, temperate and a good, if unimaginative, speaker. In 1913-15 he served as president of the Board of Land and Works and as commissioner of crown lands and survey in the Watt and then the Peacock governments. In November 1915 he was promoted to the portfolios of attorney-general, solicitor-general and public instruction. Education was one of his particular interests and he sought to promote secondary, especially technical, education. He also resisted the extreme anti-German sentiment which tried to force the closure of Lutheran schools in western Victoria. Frank Tate, director of education, liked Lawson and had far more support from him than from most other ministers of education.

When (Sir) John Bowser's 'Economy' faction of the National (formerly Liberal) Party overthrew Peacock in the November 1917 elections, Lawson followed Peacock out of office. In March 1918 Bowser was forced to resign and the Nationalists turned to Lawson as a compromise party leader and premier. Lawson won the support of the 'Economy' faction by including seven of its members in the ministry which was sworn in on 21 March; he retained for himself the portfolios of attorney-general (until 7 July 1919) and labour (until 21 October 1919 when he took control of lands) and served also, from 20 January until 21 September 1920, as solicitor-general. He successfully met a challenge by Bowser in June 1919 over the question of cabinet composition, securing Bowser's resignation from the ministry and his own confirmation as leader.

Further difficulties arose when the election of October 1920 left the Nationalists two short of a majority in the assembly. Lawson, appointing himself minister of agriculture and, from 21 February 1921, of water supply, was now dependent on the support of the Country Party, led by John Allan. In July the withdrawal of this support over Lawson's determination to abolish the wheat pool caused the government to fall. The consequent election, however, did not alter the balance of power and Lawson continued to govern, winning renewed Country Party backing by the introduction of a wheat pool which, ostensibly voluntary, was in practice compulsory.

Early in 1923 Lawson visited Britain to negotiate loan and migration agreements. He spent a month on the Continent, where Mussolini impressed him as 'the man whom Providence wanted to lead Italy', and before returning to Australia toured North America, arriving home in July to face a restless Country Party and some dissident Nationalists—the 'Metropolitan Liberals' who complained of dilatoriness and ineptitude within the cabinet. He was saved from defeat on 30 August only by the support of the Labor Party, and in September he agreed to the formation of a composite National-Country Party ministry, with Allan as his deputy. The coalition, however, never had the full support of the Victorian Farmers' Union and when the V.F.U. at its annual conference in March 1924 refused to agree to an electoral alliance Lawson had his Country Party ministers dismissed and formed a new, purely Nationalist cabinet, taking for himself the treasurership as well as the premiership.

Within a month another National-Country Party coalition with a change of leader was mooted. Lawson, weary of the turmoil and doubting his ability to survive, took the opportunity offered by the death of Sir John Mackey to resign and stand for the vacant Speakership. His election appeared a foregone conclusion but his Labor and Country Party enemies united to appoint his 'old and jealous rival' Bowser, forcing Lawson to retreat ignominiously to the back-bench.

Among the achievements of Lawson's premiership were his fostering of the State Electricity Commission and the development of the Yallourn brown-coal deposit; his encouragement of land settlement schemes; and the formation of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board, the Forests Commission and the Charities Board. William Calder, chairman of the Country Roads Board, and William Cattanach, chairman of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, became firm friends. Lawson's government also perpetuated the six o'clock closing of hotels and combated the police strike of 1923. Whereas during the 1903 railway strike Lawson had been one of the minority of parliamentarians to advocate negotiation rather than suppression by legislation ('Mercy first and last should brightest shine', he urged, quoting Milton), as premier in 1923 he was adamant that there could be no forgiveness 'for desertion of the post of duty' and introduced Draconian legislation. He was also able to call on his erstwhile headmaster, hustings and legal opponent, but by now his firm friend McCay to work with Sir John Monash in arranging the Special Constabulary Force.

Lawson was always praised as honest, courteous, good tempered and conscientious. But friends such as (Sir) Frederic Eggleston were forced to acknowledge his lack of originality or interest in political principle. Astute outsiders could be bluntly critical: 'His honesty is beyond question', wrote one journalist, 'but so is his opportunism'. In 1924 Lawson emphasized: 'It is of great importance to remember that Parliament's chief duty is to govern'. Earlier he had quoted Pope:

For forms of Government let fools contest,
What e'er is best administered is best.

Handicapped as they were throughout 1918-23 by the lack both of a strong group cohesion and a parliamentary majority, the Nationalists had in Lawson a usefully pragmatic leader who was able to hang on to power and achieve legislation of a utilitarian kind.

After moving to the back-bench Lawson again became quiet. He nurtured his business interests and his legal practice which from about 1930 as Lawson & Co. included a Melbourne branch. In 1926 he was elected president of the National Federation and next year became the party's election director. Rumour in December 1927 that he intended to contest a Legislative Council seat proved false, but in October 1928 he resigned from the assembly to stand successfully for the Senate. In January 1933 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and from October that year served as honorary minister in the Lyons government, representing the Treasury and the Department of Commerce in the Senate. In 1934 he was also minister for external territories and for a few months acting postmaster-general. He did not stand for re-election later that year.

In retirement Lawson worked in his law firm and served on the boards of several companies including the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, Perpetual Executors & Trustees Co., Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. and Robert Harper & Co. Ltd. He resigned from the board of the Argus during World War II when that paper was critical of (Sir) Robert Menzies. From 1939 he lived in Melbourne. He was appointed to the Capital Issues Advisory Board in 1941, was a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and of the Shrine of Remembrance and belonged to the Australian Club.

Lawson's son and biographer R. S. Lawson, while proud of his father's achievements, wrote of him as over-protective towards his children, 'dutiful, thrifty … demanding' and sometimes 'pretty grumpy', an egotist who became with success 'a little pompous and platitudinous'. Lawson's youngest son, a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, was killed in 1941; his wife died in 1949. Lawson died at East Melbourne on 12 June 1952, survived by three sons and four daughters. He was cremated after a state funeral at Toorak Presbyterian Church, leaving an estate valued for probate at £33,083. A portrait by John Longstaff is held by Castlemaine Art Gallery; outside the gallery stands a bronze bust by Paul Montford, unveiled in 1930.

Select Bibliography

  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • C. Edwards, Brown Power (Melb, 1969)
  • J. Iremonger et al (eds), Strikes (Syd, 1973)
  • R. S. Lawson, Sir Harry Lawson, Premier and Senator (Melb, 1976)
  • G. Cresciani, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, 1922-1945 (Canb, 1980)
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • Melbourne Graduate, June 1953
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1907, 26 July 1917
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 July 1921, 25 Jan 1922, 7 Sept 1923, 15 Dec 1924, 25 Oct 1930
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1927
  • Today, 1 Mar 1934
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 June 1952
  • Castlemaine Mail, 14 June 1952
  • W. Osmond, F. W. Eggleston (1875-1954) (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1980)
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes (Australian National University Library)
  • Eggleston papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Donald S. Garden, 'Lawson, Sir Harry Sutherland Wightman (1875–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawson-sir-harry-sutherland-wightman-7117/text12277, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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