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Massy-Greene, Sir Walter (1874–1952)

by C. J. Lloyd

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

Walter Massy-Greene (1874-1952), by Spencer Shier

Walter Massy-Greene (1874-1952), by Spencer Shier

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23546247

Sir Walter Massy-Greene (1874-1952), politician and entrepreneur, was born on 6 November 1874 at Camberwell, Surrey, England, second son of John Greene, brewer and hotel proprietor, and his wife Julia Eamer, née Sandeman. Walter spent his childhood at Wimbledon, and was educated at Lynton House College, Oxfordshire. When it was agreed that his delicate constitution needed the toughening of outdoor work his father gave him £10 and his passage to Australia, where he worked as a farm and sawmill labourer in northern Tasmania from 1891. His family joined him to farm near Kyneton, Victoria. In 1895 Greene joined the Bank of New South Wales and was posted to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Here, during the gold boom, he led a rather adventurous life for a young bank officer.

Greene was transferred to head office, Sydney, in 1901, then to Lismore as branch manager. From 1902 he farmed a property near Nimbin with his two brothers and became involved in local government, holding office as first president of Terania Shire Council. He joined the newly created Liberal League in 1909 and assisted in forming branches on the north coast and tablelands. He comfortably won the Federal seat of Richmond in 1910 with the support of small farmers. Likened to 'a schoolboy who had mistakenly strayed into a gathering of Presbyterian elders', Greene created an immediate impression in the parliament. His vivid mane of red hair and his aplomb singled him out. Early speeches were devoted to parochial questions of post offices, railways and rural markets but he soon widened his range, speaking with particular authority on banking and finance. He was extremely critical of the Labor government's legislation to take over the note issue and to establish a Commonwealth bank, being convinced that these matters should remain in the private sector. He remained extremely conservative on questions of banking, finance and currency. Re-elected in 1913, Greene was appointed whip to the Cook government, which had a majority of one. He displayed considerable skill in organizing to maintain government numbers and showed a liking for parliamentary hurly-burly. Opposition whip after the government's defeat in 1914, during a turbulent debate on new banking legislation he was suspended, all the Liberals present walking out with him.

After the Labor Party split in 1916, Greene was appointed whip of the new Nationalist government led by W. M. Hughes. He developed rapport with Hughes, with whom he shared a wide experience of working men and hard physical labour, and quickly emerged as his chief lieutenant. As a liberal in the mould of Alfred Deakin, Greene had little affinity with the conservative wing of the National Party. He strongly supported the conciliation and arbitration system, claiming that no one outside a lunatic asylum could deny that its principles were just, right and 'such as become civilised societies'. He also supported, and co-operated with, trade unions, believing that it was not possible for working men and women to better their conditions without unionism. Co-operative effort he described as 'sane socialism', attributing the success of north-coast farmers to its practice. He advocated profit-sharing and had practised it with his farmworkers. He also believed in high protection and taxes on wealth.

On 27 March 1918 Greene was appointed assistant minister and given responsibility for price-control (though he had once described price-fixing as 'the most fatuous futility that had ever addled the brain of man'). It brought him into close contact with every facet of Australian economic life. According to a critic: 'To Mr Greene fell the duty of fixing most of the things that Mr Hughes' fertile brain could suggest, from flax to the Army, and from knitting needles to HMAS Australia. No man ever fixed more things in shorter time'. He also administered wheat, wool and butter pools, and in April 1918 was appointed to the Board of Trade. On 17 January 1919 Hughes promoted him to the senior portfolio of trade and customs. Here he conducted delicate negotiations for resumption of post-war trade, particularly with the defeated powers. As customs minister he had important decisions to make on the development of the infant motor-body industry and on the social implications of imported films. He was involved with quarantine regulations and other domestic measures taken against the influenza epidemic. He participated in the planning of the repatriation scheme for ex-servicemen and the operation of the Transcontinental Railway. By mid-1919 he had the satisfaction of phasing out the price-controls which had made him especially unpopular with rural producers.

Greene's greatest achievement during the immediate post-war years was a major revision of the tariff schedule. He prepared for this huge task by an exhaustive programme of factory inspections and intensive analysis of the existing schedule with his departmental officers. The proposals were ready in March 1920 and approved in July 1921. During debate Greene displayed impressive command of the myriad detail of a labyrinthine tariff schedule. Subjected to a barrage of questions, pleas and threats, his control never faltered; his knowledge, imperturbability and readiness to compromise won him parliamentary commendation on a question where divisiveness and rancour traditionally prevailed. He was, however, disappointed that constitutional difficulties prevented him from producing a more scientific and comprehensive measure than 'the Greene tariff'. In 1921 he also carried legislation to establish the Australian Tariff Board.

He saw the tariff not as a narrow revenue-raising instrument but a device for vigorous national development and population growth, and succeeded in infusing a visionary quality into debate on routine machinery aspects of the elaborate tariff structure. He saw high protection as essential for the stimulation of Australian industries to fill the many gaps in local production. Appalled by the economic waste he detected in excessive reliance on overseas supply, he urged the creation of factories at decentralized points along the coastline, supplied by raw materials from the interior and manned by a workforce boosted by immigration. His arguments for development and migration policies based on a high tariff structure foreshadowed the policies commonly associated with the Bruce-Page government.

Greene was given the additional portfolio of health in March 1921 and was widely regarded within the government as Hughes's obvious successor. His appointment to succeed Cook as treasurer was regarded as a formality, but Hughes selected instead the relatively unknown S. M. (Viscount) Bruce. Greene's status as number two in the government was, however, confirmed and he was given the senior portfolio of defence in place of trade and customs, while retaining health. His relationship with Hughes remained as close as ever: he acted as prime minister and leader of the House in Hughes's absence. As health minister, he encouraged research and development in tropical medicine. As defence minister, he was responsible for unpopular economies, including modification of defence training schemes, retrenchment of personnel and curtailment of camps. As with the tariff, Greene acted through personal assessment in scrupulous consultation with those involved. A difficult and unpopular task was thus done with minimum bitterness and disruption. He was involved in plans to diversify the Lithgow small-arms factory and to establish an aircraft manufacturing industry at Mascot, Sydney. He directed the administrative measures necessary to reabsorb the wartime Navy Department into the Defence Department.

To general surprise, Greene was decisively beaten at the December 1922 election by the Country Party candidate Roland Green, who had lost a leg in the war. Green had used an ingenious punning campaign slogan: 'Vote for the Green without an E'. Lack of an E also gave him precedence on the ballot paper. Greene had neglected his electorate to some extent because of his ministerial and national campaign responsibilities. His price-fixing activities had made him unpopular in the country and his qualified support for the vigorous New State movement in northern New South Wales may have cost him votes. He made a tactical error by inviting the blunt Sir Granville Ryrie, who was given to tactless indiscretions, to campaign for him. The Country Party polled well enough to secure the balance of power and Hughes was replaced by the Bruce-Page coalition. Had he held his seat, Greene might have become prime minister, although he would have had problems in reaching an accommodation with Page and the Country Party.

He felt the defeat keenly. A contemporary account describes him as a silent spectre walking round Parliament House: 'He never whines. But the grey face and subdued eyes tell their own tale'. He retained his links with public life, making a lecture tour advocating high protection and giving evidence to a royal commission on the sugar industry. Late in 1923 he was appointed to a Senate casual vacancy for New South Wales. He remained in the Senate for fifteen years but never regained prominence.

Greene became increasingly disenchanted with the National Party which he saw as so weighed down by conservatism that it had lost much of its democratic support, but he remained close to Hughes who he believed brought to the Nationalists a numerous and enthusiastic following who otherwise would vote Labor. He favoured creation of a 'genuine centre party', deriving perhaps from a further split in the Labor Party and incorporating elements of the Nationalists in a 'strongly Australian, anti-conservative and progressive' party. In the Senate he frequently criticized Page and the Country Party, and in 1924 led a major defection of government members to amend a roads bill sponsored by Page. He assisted Hughes with tactical advice in the crisis that led to the defeat of the Bruce-Page government in October 1929. But he did not join the rebel parliamentary group, nor did he become a member of Hughes's breakaway Australian Party although he gave advice on its organization and financing. His disenchantment with the Nationalists came to a head when (Sir) John Latham was elected leader. Greene told the party meeting that it had made a grave mistake and that he would no longer support the party or attend its meetings. A year later he relented and resumed attendance.

After some reluctance, Greene accepted a post as assistant minister in the United Australia Party government formed by J. A. Lyons in January 1932. He acted as assistant treasurer to Lyons, supervising arrangements for Premiers' conferences, chairing the Loan Council, negotiating a trade agreement with New Zealand and conducting general financial administration. He resigned in October 1933, remaining in the Senate until 1938, although his political involvement diminished and there was criticism of his irregular attendance.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1933, he soon incorporated the family name of 'Massy' into a hyphenated surname, to formalize the usage of Massy-Greene that had evolved during the preceding twenty years.

After his political defeat in 1922 Massy-Greene had been attracted to company directorships as an alternative source of income, his interest in industry having been stimulated by his experience with price-fixing and the tariff. Invited to join the boards of three pastoral companies connected with the Baillieu family, he began an association with the Collins House group. So, approaching 50, he began the second career that made him an outstanding company director of his era, holding over forty directorships, some with the largest and most important Australian industrial enterprises.

In 1923 he became a director of the British-Australian Cotton Association Ltd which was extracted from its overwhelming problems as a result of his initiatives. He was equally successful in salvaging Austral Silk and Cotton Mills Ltd, of which he was a director, by persuading Bradford Cotton Mills Ltd into a takeover, after which he joined Bradford Cotton as a director and succeeded (Sir) Robert Webster as chairman. Also director of the Dunlop Rubber Co., he negotiated another successful and mutally profitable arrangement with Bradford. A long association with metals culminated after World War II in the chairmanship of Electrolytic Zinc Co. (Australasia) Ltd and in his recognition as a principal spokesman for gold producers. His major interest in textiles developed through Webster. Massy-Greene joined the board of Felt and Textiles of Australia before it became a public company, and through his advice and reorganization contributed much to its success. He was also associated with Yarra Falls Ltd.

His most distinguished involvement was with Associated Pulp and Paper Mills of Burnie, Tasmania, manufacturers of quality paper. As its first chairman (1936-52) he fathered this major industrial project from small beginnings. The company was the first to apply short-fibred eucalypt pulps from Australian hardwoods to the commercial manufacture of fine paper. It was also unusual in acquiring forestry rights and freehold forest lands. Throughout the difficulties of experimental techniques and the complications of wartime production, Massy-Greene's 'political grasp of the situation provided the example of inflexible purpose and unflagging energy; and restored his colleagues' faith in the venture'. His qualities as an outstanding industrial leader were matched by his flair for industrial relations. At Burnie his innovations in employee welfare, formulated by (Sir) Gerald Mussen, were among the 'most original and advanced of their kind' in Australia.

After he left the Senate Massy-Greene maintained liaison with government departments on behalf of his companies, and appeared for them before the Tariff Board, once sharply reminding its chairman that he had established the board and was entirely familiar with its powers and precedents. During World War II he was a chairman of the Treasury Finance Committee, deputy chairman of the National Security Capital Issues Advisory Board, and member of the Defence Board of Business Administration. In October 1940 he led the Australian delegation to the Eastern Group Supply Council in New Delhi, co-ordinating the British Commonwealth war effort. He was a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne in 1939-49, and a foundation member of the council of the Institute of Public Affairs from 1944.

Massy-Greene had married Lula May Lomax of a Tenterfield pastoral family at St James' Church, Sydney, on 6 February 1915. The family moved from Nimbin in 1923 and lived at Manly and Mosman, then in Toorak, Melbourne, from the early 1930s, Massy-Greene working with a small secretariat from Collins House. He had a hobby-farm near Berwick and was a keen saltwater fisherman. He died in Freemasons' Hospital, East Melbourne, on 16 November 1952 after a gall-bladder operation, and was cremated. His wife, two sons and a daughter survived him. He left his estate of £31,672 to his family. His son (Sir) Brian became a very prominent company director.

Of medium height, slim and very erect with clean-cut features and quiet eyes, Massy-Greene retained a sandy colouring until late in life. Something of the aura of a lost leader surrounds him, based on widespread acceptance that he failed to become prime minister by a hair's breadth. Page, with little reason to like him, recognized him as 'an outstanding parliamentarian and a man of great capacity'. His dual ascendancy in politics and industry is unusual in the Australian experience.

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • C. D. Kemp, Big Businessmen (Melb, 1964)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • C. Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne (Lond, 1965)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 Nov 1921
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 16 Jan 1930
  • William Morris Hughes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • James Hume-Cook papers (National Library of Australia)
  • C. D. Kemp papers (National Library of Australia)
  • John Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Nov 1952
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Massy-Greene, Sir Walter (1874–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/massy-greene-sir-walter-7512/text13101, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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