Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Slater, William (Bill) (1890–1960)

by Michael Cannon

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

William (Bill) Slater (1890?-1960), solicitor and politician, was born probably on 20 May 1890 at Wangaratta, Victoria, son of William Slater, a travelling salesman who was born in Ireland, and Marie Agatha O'Reilly (or Reilly). About 1894 William abandoned Marie, leaving her to raise three children in extreme poverty at Prahran, Melbourne. Young Bill learned to read and write, but was forced to leave school and work barefoot as a newsboy at South Yarra. Fined for bathing naked in the Yarra River, he decided to enter the law and educated himself at night in the Prahran Free Library where he met Maurice Blackburn. Both became lifelong socialists and temperance advocates.

Charity workers with the Try Boys' Society found Slater a regular job as an office-boy. In 1910 a sympathetic Mildura solicitor Percy Park employed him as a clerk and resisted occasional attempts by clients to have him dismissed because of his socialist convictions. By this time Slater was muscular and 5 ft 9½ ins (177 cm) tall. He joined the local football team and participated in four-mile (6.4 km) swimming races along the Murray River. Saving his salary, he bought a partnership in two small fruit-growing blocks near the town; the venture rarely showed a profit.

Slater regarded World War I as an inevitable outcome of capitalist imperialism and refused to join friends in volunteering for active service. After the death toll at Gallipoli mounted, however, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 December 1915 and was posted to the 10th Field Ambulance. By November 1916 he was serving in France. In intervals between carrying the dead and wounded back from the front line, he kept a diary in which he recorded 'the hellishness of war'. He inhaled mustard gas at Tissages, and on 28 July 1917 at Messines, Belgium, suffered a wound in the leg.

Sent to hospital in England, Slater agreed by cable to stand as a Labor candidate in the forthcoming Victorian general elections. The polls were held on 15 November 1917. Eleven days later he was stunned to learn that he had won the seat of Dundas in the Legislative Assembly. In February 1918 he sailed for Australia, medically unfit. Landing first in Perth, he was arrested by military police for speaking at a public meeting in support of John Curtin, but was released when he promised to return promptly to Melbourne. He was discharged from the A.I.F. on 17 May.

Blackburn appointed Slater an articled clerk in his legal firm's branch office at Hamilton. The young man rode his bicycle around the district to visit clients and the electors who had voted for him sight unseen. When he was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1922, Blackburn made him junior partner and named the firm Blackburn & Slater. In 1923 the Victorian branch of the militant Australian Railways Union offered Slater its legal work, enabling him to open his own business in Unity Hall, the A.R.U.'s building in Bourke Street, Melbourne. At the Presbyterian Church, Mildura, on 19 December that year he married Mary Gordon, a 26-year-old senior demonstrator in botany at the University of Melbourne.

In 1924 Slater became attorney-general and solicitor-general in the short-lived (July-November) Prendergast Labor government. He held the same portfolios, and that of agriculture, in the Hogan ministries of 1927-28 and 1929-32. Slater pushed through Victoria's first Adoption of Children Act (1928) and attempted (1931) to establish a solicitors' guarantee fund (eventually introduced in 1948). Even his political opponent (Sir) Robert Menzies described him as having 'a reputation for personal integrity that could scarcely be higher'. In May 1940 Slater was named Speaker of the Legislative Assembly to widespread acclaim. Curtin's Federal Labor government announced his appointment as the first Australian minister to the Soviet Union in October 1942. Resigning the Speakership but not from parliament, he flew to Russia and took office on 13 January 1943. He reported on the magnificent struggle of the Russian people against the German invaders, but falling seriously ill, relinquished his post on 15 April and returned home in June.

After Labor regained power in Victoria, Slater's close friend John Cain appointed him chief secretary, attorney-general and solicitor-general on 21 November 1945. Slater's main achievement was the strengthening in 1946 of the State's outdated Workers' Compensation Act to cover industrial diseases (such as asbestosis) for the first time. He also set up an independent tribunal to determine wages and conditions for police officers. In addition, he introduced government controls over gambling which severely reduced the financial and political power of John Wren. A massive campaign in the Dundas electorate allegedly financed by Wren contributed to Slater's defeat in the election in November 1947. The Labor Party found him a safer seat—Doutta Galla, in the Legislative Council—which he retained from 1949 until his death. In 1952-55 he was again attorney-general, with the extra portfolios of immigration and prices.

Slater had taken his brother-in-law Hugh Gordon into partnership in 1935; he retained the name Slater & Gordon after Hugh was killed in action in World War II. The firm specialized in cases involving trade unions and workers' compensation. Some of the junior partners and employees were overtly or secretly members of the Communist Party of Australia; a number of them figured prominently in the Petrov affair. Slater held that his colleagues' political views were their own business. For all that, the firm's radical reputation attracted many briefs from communist-led unions. In the mid-1950s Slater was forced to refute whispering campaigns which 'branded him as associating with Catholics, Freemasons and Reds all at the same time'. His own political philosophy remained that of gradual reformism towards the hoped-for utopia of socialism.

Suffering from cancer, Slater died of a coronary occlusion on 19 June 1960 in South Melbourne and was cremated with Unitarian forms; his wife, and their daughter and two sons survived him. Members of the Police Association (Victoria)—for which he had acted as honorary solicitor—blocked every intersection on the route from the St Kilda funeral parlour to the crematorium at Springvale to ensure an easy transit for the cort'ge.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Cannon, That Disreputable Firm (Melb, 1998), and for bibliography
  • Slater papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Slater memorabilia (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Cannon, 'Slater, William (Bill) (1890–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/slater-william-bill-11709/text20929, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2014.

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

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