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Lee, Sir Walter Henry (1874–1963)

by Scott Bennett

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

Sir Walter Henry Lee (1874-1963), wheelwright, farmer and premier, was born on 27 April 1874 at Longford, Tasmania, son of Robert Lee, wheelwright, and his wife Margaret, née Flood. He was educated at Longford State School to primary level and went into his father's business at Longford. On 17 August 1898 he married Margaret Matilda Barnes at Longford. After 1900 with his brother James he ran the firm of Lee Bros which was well known in northern Tasmania for its wagons and farm implements. Lee sat in the House of Assembly for the rural division of Wilmot from April 1909 to November 1946, first as an Anti-Socialist, then as a Liberal, and later as a Nationalist. His obvious skills in political and parliamentary affairs soon brought rewards, and he was successively whip and in 1915 leader of the Opposition.

During the 1916 election Lee and the Liberals attacked the Labor government's 'reckless' spending of public money and promised a more 'businesslike' administration. Lee made no promises concerning public works, for he claimed that money for such matters was needed for the Empire's cause, but liberalization of land laws was promised 'in order to stop the flow of our young men into the overcrowded cities'. Despite failing to exceed Labor's total vote, the Liberals won half the seats and Lee became premier and minister for education (15 April 1916–12 August 1922), chief secretary until 31 March 1922 and treasurer from 1 April 1922. The first Lee government was a talented group containing two former premiers (Sir Neil Lewis and William Propsting), and one future premier (John Blyth Hayes). Its first term was relatively plain sailing for a conservative wartime government. In the 1919 election Lee led the recently formed National party to victory over the Labor Party by 14 per cent of the vote, though winning only 16 of 30 seats. He was knighted in 1920 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1922.

The weak condition of the Tasmanian economy became evident soon after the war. Manufacturing was at a low ebb, wartime inflation had been severe, and there was a large deficit. The Lee government promoted hydro-electric power generation and new industries, though Lee was criticized for undercharging for electricity used by these industries such as the woollen mills at Launceston. The government also established a popular soldier settlement scheme. However, the economic problems were intractable and at the June 1922 election the government's precarious position was emphasized by a larger deficit, an inefficient public service and a premier criticized for his increasingly autocratic style of government. In addition the new Country Party led by E. F. B. Blyth attacked Lee personally in an exceedingly bitter campaign. The result was a split anti-Labor vote with the Country Party holding the balance of power. When parliament resumed the Labor party unsuccessfully moved a vote of no confidence, but Lee resigned and advised the governor to send for Blyth. Blyth arranged a meeting of both parties and J. B. Hayes became premier of Tasmania's first coalition government. Lee remained as treasurer and minister for education. His term as premier had been a record.

After a year in office unable to resolve the economic situation, Hayes resigned in August 1923 in favour of Lee who secured an adjournment of parliament and became premier, treasurer and minister for railways. In October he stunned Tasmanians by announcing a drastic financial programme. It included public service retrenchment, abolition of the agent-general's office, a reduction in the number of members of parliament, introduction of fees for high school students and the abolition of dental clinics and medical inspections for schoolchildren. Many taxes were to be increased. Though Lee survived a Labor no confidence motion, he was defeated on a move to consider the proposals in committee. His government had survived for ten weeks. Lee asked for a dissolution but Joseph Lyons was called upon to form a Labor government. Lee resigned as party leader and Lyons won the 1925 election.

In 1928 when the Nationalists, led by (Sir) John McPhee, were returned to office Lee served as deputy premier and minister for lands and works, and in turn minister for agriculture and closer and soldier settlement. During 1933 Lee acted increasingly for McPhee whose health had begun to fail. It was a government marked by severe economic orthodoxy and caution. Public works were slashed, borrowing curtailed and salaries reduced. McPhee resigned and Lee became premier and treasurer on 15 March 1934 for the third time, only to lose office to Labor in the June election after a campaign in which Lee's personality and competence became an issue. Lee continued to play an active role in parliament until he failed to win the endorsement of the new Liberal Party for the 1946 election when he lost his seat, having stood as an Independent Liberal.

Lee was a short, dapper man, forthright and vigorous in his views, thorough in administration with a sound knowledge of public finance. He was a master of parliamentary tactics, excelling in debate, particularly in his ability to ridicule opponents. A perpetual opponent of Labor, he was yet sufficiently liberal in his views for it to be claimed that he had been offered the post of agent-general in London by the Ogilvie Labor government of 1934.

Lee had taken up land at Quamby Bend about 1923 where he and two sons established Barunah, the dairy-farm where he lived until his death. A devout Methodist and lay preacher, Lee died on 1 June 1963 at Westbury and was buried in Longford cemetery. Predeceased by his wife, he was survived by three sons and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Examiner (Launceston), 3 June 1963
  • Mercury (Hobart), 3 June 1963.

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Lee, Sir Walter Henry (1874–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lee-sir-walter-henry-7151/text12347, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 September 2014.

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

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