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Smith, William Henry Laird (1869–1942)

by R. P. Davis

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

William Henry Laird Smith (1869-1942), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

William Henry Laird Smith (1869-1942), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23505856

William Henry Laird Smith (1869-1942), electrician and politician, was born on 15 September 1869 at Westbury, Tasmania, one of six children of John Smith, wheelwright and later telegraph contractor, and his wife Elizabeth, née Laird. He was educated in state schools in Victoria and Tasmania and at Devonport Grammar School, then qualified as an electrician with a Devonport firm. Tall, athletic and powerfully built, he became an assistant overseer on Tasmanian Government Railways' telegraph lines at 22 and two years later an indoor machinist. In 1902 his work took him to Hobart where he joined a debating society. Already an official in the Amalgamated Engineers' Union, in 1907 he joined the Workers' Political League, becoming president of its Denison branch in 1909.

In 1910 Laird Smith won the Federal seat of Denison for Labor from the Liberals, retaining it easily in the 1913 and 1914 elections. Widely read on political and social issues and reputedly able to quote passages of Adam Smith 'with a fluent accuracy which stuns the listener', he advocated taxation of unimproved land values, a Commonwealth Bank to loosen private control of the money supply, and an Australian navy. In parliament he acknowledged an intellectual debt, inter alia, to Karl Marx. In 1911 he was a parliamentary representative at the coronation of King George V. He was a member of the parliamentary public works committee (1914-20), and the electoral law royal commission (1913-14). In this period he seems to have played little part in the Tasmanian Labor organization; only in 1913 was he a delegate to State conference, and he never held State party office. On 14 December 1915 he married Mabel Ellen Russell in Hobart with Congregational forms; they had no children.

When W. M. Hughes replaced Andrew Fisher as prime minister in 1915, Laird Smith became his devoted follower and in the 1916 plebiscite infuriated many old allies by campaigning for conscription alongside (Sir) Joseph Cook, the former Liberal prime minister. In November Laird Smith followed Hughes as one of the party minority out of the Labor caucus room. An assistant minister in Hughes's next administration, he was dropped in February 1917 to make way for the ex-Liberals. He fought and retained Denison as a Nationalist in the 1917 Federal election, complaining that Tasmanian Labor had rejected him without a hearing. Smith was now extremely bitter in his public opposition to Labor.

In February 1920 he was appointed honorary minister assisting naval administration, and, in July, minister for the navy. The Royal Australian Navy was then being scaled down and it was Laird Smith's task to achieve this without impairing its efficiency. He adopted the argument that a small mobile force of cruisers and submarines would be more useful in defending Australia's extended coastline than slower battleships. Though an admitted landsman, he endeavoured to learn of rank-and-file conditions by accompanying the fleet on manoeuvre, and boasted to his constituents that he had brought the largest fleet ever to deploy in Tasmanian waters. He maintained that, despite a cut of £80,000 from the naval budget, he had raised the pay of lower-deck sailors by £100,000. According to a parliamentary colleague W. M. Marks, Laird Smith was 'the best Minister for the Navy Australia ever had'. Another Nationalist, J. M. Fowler, referred to his 'brilliant and statesmanlike qualities'; even the Opposition was impressed as he trimmed the sea-going fleet to three cruisers, two sloops, four destroyers, three submarines with their parent ship, and one yacht, accepting with Hughes Australia's continued dependence on British naval power.

In December 1921 Hughes ruthlessly dispensed with both Laird Smith and the navy ministry to bring new blood into his ailing government. Smith remained loyal, though he did express subsequent regrets about 'the enormous reductions proposed in the Navy' after the Washington Treaty. As an electrician he was enthusiastic about the government's controversial wireless deal, confident of the ability of Amalgamated Wireless of Australasia Ltd to link Australia to Britain.

At the election of December 1922 Laird Smith was challenged by a Labor candidate and two fellow Nationalists of Liberal rather than Labor antecedents. While accepting the Nationalist platform which included such Labor tenets as White Australia and compulsory arbitration, he claimed continuing allegiance to the 1902 Federal Labor platform. Forgetting Marx, he rejected the 1921 Labor socialization objective and its revolutionary preamble. Though supported by Hughes as the official Nationalist, he was badly beaten.

Laird Smith then moved to Burnie where he appears to have returned to his trade as an electrician; he later established himself as a farmer. He became a strong advocate of farmer organization and helped to found the short-lived Agricultural Bureau of Tasmania. He was the first chairman of the Potato Marketing Board. His opposition to financial monopolies encouraged him during the Depression to join the Douglas Credit organization at the same time as many Labor leaders were influenced by Social Credit. In the 1934 Federal election, together with another Social Creditor, he challenged the United Australia Party prime minister, Joseph Lyons, in the Wilmot electorate. As no Labor candidate was nominated, the accusation that a deal had been done with Social Credit seems well founded. Though Lyons was re-elected, the way was opened for Smith's return to Labor. At the Burnie Labor conference of 1938, dominated by Premier Albert Ogilvie's challenge to the Federal party to accelerate rearmament, Laird Smith, after some heated discussion, was restored as a new member, without continuity.

Laird Smith died dramatically on 21 October 1942, on a platform at Burnie, after moving a vote of thanks to a Labor minister. He was buried in Wivenhoe cemetery, Burnie, with Anglican rites, but he had Christian Science connexions. His wife Hermione Elsie, née Boldt, whom he had married on 29 March 1922 at St Kilda, Melbourne, survived him. They had adopted a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 4 July 1912, 8 Mar, 27 Aug 1913, 18 Nov, 2 Dec 1921, 20 Dec 1922
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1920-21, 4, p 73
  • PTHRA, 25, no 4, 1978, p 119
  • Daily Post (Hobart), 17 Mar, 15 Apr 1910, 11 Apr 1917
  • Punch (Melbourne), 16 Nov 1911, 14 Dec 1919
  • World (Hobart), 10 Oct, 21 Nov, 22 Dec 1922
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1922, 22 Oct 1942
  • Advocate (Burnie, Tasmania), 12 Mar 1938, 22, 24 Oct 1942.

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'Smith, William Henry Laird (1869–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-william-henry-laird-8490/text14935, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 November 2014.

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

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