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Paterson, Thomas (1882–1952)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thomas Paterson (1882-1952), farmer and politician, was born on 20 November 1882 at Aston, near Birmingham, England, son of Scottish parents George Paterson and his wife Elizabeth Mitchell, née Donald. He was educated at King Edward's Grammar School, Birmingham, and Ayr Grammar School. After his father's death in 1897 terminated his schooling, he joined his father's former employer Morton's footwear firm as a salesman and became a branch manager in England and Scotland. He resigned in 1908, then worked on a farm to gain experience and attended the Dairy School for Scotland at Kilmarnock. On 17 November 1908 he married Elsie Jane Tyrrell at Guildford, Surrey, and next day embarked for Melbourne with his wife, mother, youngest brother and a cousin, arriving on 31 December.

Paterson joined two brothers who had preceded him at Springfield near Romsey where they established a successful dairy and, later, a mixed farm conducted on advanced principles. Tom also bred Clydesdale horses. In 1916 he joined the Springfield branch of the recently formed Victorian Farmers' Union. Elected vice-president of the V.F.U. in 1920 and chief president in March 1922, he was active in forging links with country townspeople, chairing a conference in Melbourne in November 1922 which led to the formation of the Victorian Country Party.

Paterson stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1919 and for a State seat in 1920 but in 1922 he won the Federal seat of Gippsland, defeating G. H. Wise with the aid of Labor preferences. Early in 1923 he used his influence in the V.C.P. to win support for the formation of the Bruce-Page coalition. An energetic back-bencher, he was a member (1923-26) and chairman (1926) of the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts. During 1925 he travelled widely to win support for the 'Paterson Plan' which aimed to provide a bounty for export butter by raising the domestic price. Denounced as 'Paterson's Curse' by opponents, the scheme operated from 1926 to 1933 and provided £20 million for the depressed dairy industry. It was replaced by a compulsory Commonwealth-State scheme in 1934.

Paterson was minister for markets in 1926-29 with the additional portfolios of transport (1928-29) and migration (1926-28). As deputy leader of the parliamentary Country Party (1929-37) he was involved in the abortive negotiations with the United Australia Party after the 1931 elections, sharing Page's view that Lyons's 'take it or leave it' offer of three portfolios without any policy undertakings was unacceptable. Unswervingly loyal to Page, he rejected Lyons's overtures to join the cabinet in 1932 and made it clear that he would not challenge Page's leadership. After the death of Page's son in 1933 Paterson served as acting leader for several months. In November 1934 Paterson and Page negotiated the coalition with Lyons that included Paterson as minister for the interior (1934-37).

A conscientious administrator, he visited the Northern Territory twice (the main street of Tennant Creek was named in his honour) and took a keen interest in oil exploration. As a result of his maladroit handling of the controversy provoked by the decision to refuse entry to Australia of Mrs Mabel Freer in 1936, Paterson stood down from the ministry after the 1937 elections and resigned his party's deputy leadership. However, he remained prominent in Country Party politics. In 1934 Paterson and other sitting members had refused to sign a pledge not to enter composite governments without permission from the V.C.P.'s central council. In 1937 (Sir) John McEwen, who had signed, replaced Paterson as minister for the interior and was then expelled by the party's central council. McEwen's case came before an emotion-charged V.C.P. conference in March 1938 at which Paterson resigned from the party and led one hundred McEwen supporters in forming the Liberal Country Party, loyal to the Federal party. An energetic speaker and canvasser for the new party, Paterson retained Gippsland in 1940 but he was prominent at the 1943 conference which finally healed the rift between the V.C.P. and L.C.P.

Deteriorating health and growing revulsion at the viciousness of conservative Federal politics (he failed to dissuade Page from his vitriolic attack on (Sir) Robert Menzies in 1939) brought about Paterson's retirement in 1943. He took up directorships in the Phosphate Cooperative Co. of Australia and the Wheatgrowers' Corporation. An elder of the Presbyterian church, he changed parishes in 1941 because he disapproved of a minister's pacifist views. He was, nevertheless, a patient and kindly family man, scrupulously honest in financial matters. Paterson died of coronary vascular disease at his Melbourne home on 24 January 1952 and was cremated after a state funeral. His wife and elder son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Country Party Monthly Journal, 1 Nov 1934, 1 Feb, 1 Apr, 1 May 1938
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 1 Apr 1938, 16 Apr 1943, 1 Feb 1952
  • Farmers' Advocate, 15 Feb 1923
  • Liberal Country Times, 12 Aug 1938, 24 Feb 1939
  • Victorian Country Party Central Council, Minutes, 28 July 1937
  • U. Ellis papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Paterson, Thomas (1882–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paterson-thomas-7974/text13887, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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