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Robertson, Agnes Robertson (1882–1968)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Agnes Robertson Robertson (1882-1968), by Camera Craft

Agnes Robertson Robertson (1882-1968), by Camera Craft

State Library of Western Australia, 007405D

Agnes Robertson Robertson (1882-1968), schoolteacher and politician, was born on 31 July 1882 at Stepney, Adelaide, daughter of David Kelly Keay, a stonecutter from Scotland, and his wife Mary Ann, née Thomson. A lone girl among seven brothers, Aggie soon learned 'to fight my way with them all' and became a vocal participant in political discussions around the family table. She was educated at a private school in Adelaide, and at state schools in Brisbane and New South Wales where her father undertook substantial building contracts. The Keays moved to Western Australia about 1895. Agnes qualified as a schoolteacher through the monitorial system. At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Perth, on 1 July 1903 she married Robert Robertson, a 29-year-old journalist.

When her husband died of tuberculosis in 1912, Agnes Robertson's life changed dramatically. A widow with three small children, and an uncertain income, she joined the Education Department and taught Class 4B at Thomas Street State School, Subiaco. Inspectors consistently rated her work as excellent. She served on the executive (vice-president 1941) of the Western Australian Teachers' Union and was a member of the Teachers' Appeal Board at a time when equal pay and pension rights were recurrent issues. Although she enrolled at the University of Western Australia, she did not complete a degree, but turned her attention to church and community affairs. She regularly worshipped at the Ross Memorial Presbyterian Church, West Perth, and for many years taught the girls' Bible class. In 1937 she travelled to Edinburgh to attend the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and in the mid-1940s became Western Australia's first Presbyterian woman lay preacher.

Robertson's domestic problems had eased when her parents came to live with her and her mother assumed responsibility for managing the household. Each day Agnes walked home for lunch and her habitual half-hour 'cat nap'. She enjoyed needlework and reading, particularly a rattling good yarn. During the 1920s and 1930s her constant mentors were Ethel Joyner and Bessie Rischbieth, who involved her in community activities, and (Dame) Florence Cardell-Oliver, who nurtured her political awareness. With her commanding presence, eloquence and a certain wit, Mrs Robertson proved a consummate committee-woman. In the wider community she lent her name to innumerable social activities—particularly those benefiting women, children, the disabled and the aged—and held high office in the Women's Council of the Liberal and Country League of Western Australia.

Following her retirement from teaching in 1941, Robertson served as part-time secretary of the Presbyterian Children's Homes. In 1947 she accepted the offer of a place on the L.C.L.'s ticket for the Senate. Elected in December 1949, she was the L.C.L.'s first (and the State's second) woman senator, taking her seat on 22 February 1950. In her maiden speech she foreshadowed the areas in which she would show a particular interest, among them the 'tangled skein' of world affairs, peace in an atomic age, and national defence in the face of encroaching communism. As a staunch supporter of (Sir) Robert Menzies' government, she gave unqualified backing to the Communist Party dissolution bill (1950) and consistently defended the government's budgets, including the so-called 'horror budget' of 1951 which she described as a 'courageous' measure.

While leading a women's delegation in Manila in 1955, Robertson was shocked to learn that she had been dropped from the Liberals' ticket because of her age. In September she switched her allegiance to the Country and Democratic League, which gave her first place on its Senate ballot paper. Pursuing a vigorous forty-day campaign in rural areas, she averaged three speeches a day, in addition to a series of broadcasts on radio. Labor preferences gave her 'a last-minute victory over the candidate the Liberal Party had endorsed in her place'. She was the Country Party's first woman senator. In October 1956 she was the first woman appointed to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. For several years she led Australian delegations to annual conferences of the Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association.

Robertson drew attention to the Cinderella status of Western Australia and advocated substantial support for education, roads, water projects and decentralization in that State. She was pleased in September 1957 to support an amendment to the Gold-mining Industry Assistance Act (1954-56) which would benefit Western Australia, but disheartened in May 1958 that assistance under the Western Australia Grant (Northern Development) bill was a mere £2.5 million. In 1962 she made an impassioned plea for conserving the nation's heritage: she named a number of buildings under threat (including the convict-built barracks in Perth) and urged support for the National Trust of Australia.

The senator addressed other major issues ranging from industrial relations to social welfare. She abhorred strikes, appeared ambivalent about the 40-hour week, advocated the banning of heroin, and continued to promote free milk in schools, both for its nutritional value to children and as a fillip for the dairy industry. Her political philosophy was essentially a manifestation of her religious and social conscience. Defying the risk of being considered old-fashioned, she never hesitated to remind the Senate 'that the Word of the Old Book is still true: ''Righteousness exalteth a nation''.

Throughout her parliamentary years Robertson occupied the same room at the Hotel Kurrajong and rarely missed a sitting in the House. A tall, imposing woman, with dark hair greying by the time she reached the Senate, she wore pearls, pastel-coloured ensembles, a contrasting corsage and sensible laced shoes. She lived by her Christian beliefs. When her god-daughter was orphaned, she took her into her home as a foster child. Robertson died on 29 January 1968 at Mount Waverley, Melbourne, and was cremated; her son and two daughters survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1950, p 481, 1952, p 513
  • Presbyterian (Perth)
  • 1 Jan 1934
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 16 Mar 1956
  • Eastern Recorder, 27 June 1957
  • West Australian, 31 Jan 1968
  • Education Dept (Western Australia), 3512/1.46, A. R. Robertson (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • MN 1070/3306A/45, A. R. Robertson (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Robertson, Agnes Robertson (1882–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-agnes-robertson-11540/text20591, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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