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Roberton, Hugh Stevenson (1900–1987)

by Donald Boadle

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

Hugh Stevenson Roberton (1900-1987), farmer, politician and diplomat, was born on 18 December 1900 at Glasgow, Scotland, fourth of six children of (Sir) Hugh Stevenson Roberton, funeral undertaker, and a well-known composer and choir conductor, and his first wife Joan, née McGillivray (d.1907).  Educated at the West of Scotland Agricultural College, Hugh and his siblings were raised on the gospel of work and were taught to 'justify their existence'.  He migrated to New South Wales, arriving on 17 March 1922.

First working as a share-farmer growing wheat for the Scottish Australian Investment Co. Ltd on Murrulebale station, Old Junee, Roberton later leased 718 acres (290 ha) of Murrulebale land; he purchased it in 1948.  On 4 March 1926 at Mosman, Sydney, he married with Presbyterian forms Marjorie Catherine Wyllie (d.1970).  Under the pen-name 'Peter Snodgrass' he began writing in 1930 a weekly newspaper column for the Coolamon-Ganmain Farmers’ Review and, in 1932, for The Land.  In April 1931 and February 1932 in the Farmers’ Review he ridiculed Charles Hardy’s Riverina Movement.  He was to continue to write the 'Peter Snodgrass' articles for forty-two years.

In 1932 Roberton was elected leader of the Marrar subgroup of the United Country Movement.  He was an unsuccessful United Country Party candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Temora in 1938.  A member of the Farmers and Settlers’ Association of New South Wales executive (1932-42) and of the central council of the Country Party of New South Wales (1938-42), he used his Snodgrass column in 1939 to propose permanent stabilisation of wheat prices.  The 'Roberton scheme', which was attractive to small producers, received qualified endorsement after a ten-hour debate at the FSA annual conference, but was dismissed as 'discriminatory' by the association’s treasurer, H. K. Nock.  At the 1940 election Nock and Roberton were the endorsed United Country Party candidates for the Federal seat of Riverina; the Australian Labor Party’s Joseph Langtry won on preferences.  In August 1942 the Federal Labor cabinet embraced Roberton’s quota scheme.

Claiming to be 39 years old, with no previous military service, Roberton enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 16 April 1942.  He trained as a gunner and performed clerical duties in Palestine (November 1942-January 1943) before returning to Australia, where he served in the 2/3rd Tank-Attack Regiment.  In December 1944 he was discharged for employment in an essential occupation.  He published Now Blame the Farmer (1945), in which he drew attention to the environmental degradation of the land caused by farming practices.  That year he attended the FSA conference and was elected president (1946-49) from the floor.  Again endorsed for Riverina, he was narrowly defeated at the 1946 election but comfortably won the seat in 1949.

Minister for social services (1956-65), Roberton took pride in having held the portfolio for what he claimed was 'a longer continuous period than any other minister since Federation', and in having eased, but not abolished, means tests.  He was promoted to cabinet in December 1964 but was appointed three weeks later as ambassador to Ireland, the first to hold the post following the re-establishment in 1964 of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  Branding it an 'Irishman’s Rise', the Sydney Morning Herald noted that Roberton’s ministerial career had been 'marked by conscientious effort rather than spectacular achievement'.  He retired in 1968.  On 27 July 1972 at his Canberra home he married with Presbyterian forms Eileen Mary McLeod, a business executive.

A big man, 6 ft (183 cm) tall, dark haired and balding, with a walrus moustache and horn-rimmed glasses, Roberton was a witty speaker and raconteur whose broad Scots accent fortified his grandiloquence.  Blind in his later years, he died on 13 March 1987 in Canberra and was cremated after a state funeral.  He was survived by his wife and the daughter of his first marriage.  His estate was sworn for probate at $1,922,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 17 March 1987, p 883
  • Hay Historical Society, Proceedings, no 1, September 1962, p 39
  • Coolamon-Ganmain Farmers’ Review, 10 April 1931, p 3
  • Coolamon-Ganmain Farmers’ Review, 5 February 1932, p 4
  • Coolamon-Ganmain Farmers’ Review, 18 March 1932, p 1
  • Coolamon-Ganmain Farmers’ Review, 4 March 1938, p 4
  • Coolamon-Ganmain Farmers’ Review, 13 September 1940, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 1965, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January 1965, p 2
  • Canberra Times, 19 March 1987, p 13
  • R. Smith, 'Organise or Be Damned': Australian Wheatgrowers' Organisations and Wheat Marketing, 1927-1948 (PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1969)
  • M. Pratt, interview with H. Roberton (ts, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • B883, item NX95153 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Donald Boadle, 'Roberton, Hugh Stevenson (1900–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberton-hugh-stevenson-14453/text25543, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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

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