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Neilson, William Arthur (Bill) (1925–1989)

by Peter Boyce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

William Arthur Neilson (1925-1989), premier, was born on 27 August 1925 in Hobart, only son of Tasmanian-born parents Arthur Roland Neilson, clerk, and his wife Grace Maxwell, née Ramsay, a half-sister of (Sir) James Ramsay.  Bill attended Franklin and Bellerive State schools and (A. G.) Ogilvie High School, New Town, which prepared students in commercial subjects for the Intermediate certificate.  Leaving school at 14, he entered Commonwealth employment as a junior clerk in the Postmaster-General’s Department.  At 16 he joined the Australian Labor Party.  In November 1946 he was elected to the Tasmanian House of Assembly as a member for Franklin, the youngest serving parliamentarian in the British Commonwealth and the youngest candidate ever elected to an Australian parliament.  He was immediately elected Labor whip, a role he retained until 1955.

On 25 May 1948 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, Neilson married 18-year-old Jillian Benjamin.  The pair had eloped when Jill’s father refused to consent to the marriage because of her age.  Her mother, Phyllis Benjamin, was later a Labor member (1952-75) of the State’s Legislative Council and, as leader of the government in the Upper House (1968-69), a close colleague of Neilson.

By the mid-1950s Neilson was considered to be the State’s most promising Labor back-bencher.  Following the election in October 1956, he was sworn in as minister for the Tourist and Immigration Department, and also for forestry, in (Sir) Robert Cosgrove’s cabinet.  When Eric Reece became premier in August 1958 Neilson was entrusted with the ministry of education; for two months he was also attorney-general.  Despite his limited formal schooling, he became a confident and innovative minister of education.  Several new high schools were opened and two-year matriculation colleges were introduced.  A keen planner, Neilson absorbed information quickly and cultivated interests in Tasmanian history and literature and in the performing arts.

During the late 1960s the Reece government lost momentum and popularity and the premier relied heavily on an inner circle of ministers comprising Roy Fagan, Mervyn Everett and Neilson.  At its State conference in February 1968 the ALP elected Neilson its president.  His first challenge in the post was to argue vigorously against the expulsion of the maverick right-wing union organiser and secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council, Brian Harradine, who had claimed that 'friends of the communists' on the executive were trying to silence him.  Minister for education until the government’s defeat at the 1969 election, he resumed the portfolio after the party’s landslide victory in April 1972.

The next few years witnessed considerable turbulence within the State Labor Party, including a 'revolt' in 1973 by members of Labor Youth of Tasmania.  In April 1974 Neilson was elected deputy-premier; relinquishing education, he took on the portfolios of attorney-general, police and licensing, and the environment.  When Reece stepped down as premier on 31 March 1975, Neilson was immediately elected to the leadership by caucus, and was strongly endorsed by the outgoing premier.  The two likely rival candidates, Neil Batt and Michael Barnard, who had been active in the 'youth rebellion' against Reece, were not given the opportunity to contest the position.

As premier, Neilson also assumed the treasury and planning and development portfolios.  His first year in office was unusually difficult.  In addition to having to justify ongoing budget deficits, he was faced with the unresolved Harradine affair and the resulting conflict between the federal and State ALP executives.  The government also had to deal with the social consequences of the Tasman Bridge collapse.  Neilson was a resident of the eastern shore and among those deprived of easy road access to the city; he regularly joined the morning queue for an improvised and limited ferry service.  Highly strung, and susceptible to tension and stomach aliments, Neilson suffered nervous exhaustion through the latter phase of his premiership and in mid-1977 he proposed to cabinet that he vacate office to become Tasmania’s agent-general in London.  Stepping down as premier on 1 December, he took up the agent-general’s post in January 1978.  That year he was appointed AC.

Neilson’s bass-baritone voice and his attraction to the stage, particularly popular musicals, had offered light relief to the demands of political life, and he sometimes parried colleagues, including the Opposition leader, (Sir) Max Bingham, with cheeky verse and song.  At parliament’s farewell dinner for Neilson, Bingham suggested that one of the retiring premier’s signature tunes, 'If I were a rich man', should, in light of his forthcoming agent-general’s salary, become 'Now I am a rich man!'

During Neilson’s third year as agent-general, his successor as premier, Douglas Lowe, announced that the London post was proving too expensive to run and would be closed.  Neilson publicly challenged the decision, even though his own precarious health made it unlikely that he would serve a second term.  Back in Hobart, he became an occasional columnist and theatre reviewer for the Mercury, and retained a close interest in Labor Party affairs and Australian rules football.  He also enjoyed reading, chess and playing cards.  His last few years were marred by ill health.  Survived by his wife and their three daughters and adopted son, he died of cancer on 9 November 1989 at his South Hobart home and was cremated.  Although he admitted to no firm religious belief, Neilson had planned the proceedings for his state funeral, held at St David’s Anglican Cathedral on 13 November.

Throughout his thirty-one years as a politician Neilson had been clearly identified as a populist, who retained a close grass-roots connection with his electorate.  He enjoyed a broadly based popularity and worked hard to sustain it.  Although he entered parliament as a self-styled radical, as a minister he was seldom driven by doctrine.  Writing in the Hobart Mercury, a political journalist, Wayne Crawford, credited him with 'innate political adroitness'.  In retirement Neilson cited his handling of the education portfolio as his proudest achievement.  His portrait, painted by Clifton Pugh in 1978, hangs in Parliament House, Hobart.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania (1994)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 17 January 1978, p 2, 10 November 1989, pp 1, 8, 11 November 1989, p 3, 14 November 1989, p 1
  • Sunday Examiner (Launceston), 24 November 1985, p 13
  • private information

Citation details

Peter Boyce, 'Neilson, William Arthur (Bill) (1925–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/neilson-william-arthur-bill-14990/text26179, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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