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Stevens, Sir Bertram Sydney Barnsdale (1889–1973)

by John M. Ward

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Bertram Sydney Barnsdale Stevens (1889-1973), by unknown photographer

Bertram Sydney Barnsdale Stevens (1889-1973), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 32570

Sir Bertram Sydney Barnsdale Stevens (1889-1973), accountant and premier, was born on 2 January 1889 at Redfern, Sydney, seventh surviving child of English-born John Stevens, carpenter, and his Victorian wife Sarah Ann Lucas, née Barnsdale. Educated at Fort Street Model School, Stevens was employed as a clerk with the Sydney Municipal Council in 1905. From 1908 he was deputy town clerk of Manly and from 1912 a clerk in the Department of Local Government. At Annandale on 18 April 1914 he married Edith Lillie Anderson; they were to share a happy family life.

His rise was rapid. By 1920 Stevens was a Public Service Board inspector and in 1924, aged 35, became under-secretary and director of finance at the State Treasury. In his new post Stevens soon clashed with the redoubtable Labor premier and treasurer Jack Lang and, although supported by the Public Service Board, resigned in 1925 rather than have his authority diminished by reorganization of duties. Resignation endowed him with an aura of martyrdom and opened the door to politics. In 1927 he became an alderman on Marrickville Municipal Council. With (Sir) Thomas Bavin's help, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a Nationalist representing Croydon. With a reputation for efficiency and probity, Stevens stood for private enterprise and good administration. A strict Methodist (in early life a lay preacher), he was also a teetotaller and never smoked.

By driving Stevens out of the Treasury Lang had made a formidable enemy and given the National Party an energetic and ambitious leader. In Bavin's ministry (formed in October 1927) Stevens was assistant treasurer until April 1929, then treasurer and minister for railways to November 1930. The businessmen who dominated party finances were already grooming him for leadership, but some Nationalists preferred the experienced Bavin—despite his ill health and distrust of the All for Australia League—to the combative newcomer.

Late in March 1932 Stevens became leader of the United Australia Party. On 13 May Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed Lang and commissioned Stevens to form a ministry, although Stevens had only thirty-five supporters including fifteen Country Party members in a House of ninety. At the elections Stevens campaigned triumphantly in the names of law and order, sound finance and reduced unemployment. He won a record victory with sixty-four seats in coalition with the United Country Party led by Lieutenant-Colonel (Sir) Michael Bruxner.

Stevens' major problem on taking office was not so much unemployment and the Depression as law and order under the Constitution. In 1933, after Lang's attempts to swamp the Legislative Council, the Stevens-Bruxner ministry secured public and parliamentary approval for the first major reform of the Upper House since 1861. In the name of democracy, the council—consisting of sixty members elected for staggered terms of up to twelve years by members of both Houses voting as one electorate—was made safe against Labor for many years (until 1949). Only the assembly could initiate money bills and council's power to amend appropriation bills was restricted. Disagreements over other bills were to be settled by conference and referendum. The people supported this measure by 716,938 votes to 676,034. Following the report of the royal commissioner Harold Nicholas, in 1935 the government gratefully allowed the New States proposal to lapse.

Adhering to the Premiers' Plan, Stevens used relief work to mop up the worst extremes of discontent and demoralization. He wanted to demonstrate that government and the economic system could operate in the interests of the majority of the people. The possibility that wages paid to relief workers might retard full economic recovery was less important to him than were the self-respect and political outlook of the 200,000 adult men unemployed in June 1932.

Although Stevens abolished the family endowment tax, the coalition valued the family and absorbed family endowment claims into general revenue. The most public problem was that of landlords and tenants, creditors and debtors. While Lang had been premier, parliament had legislated to protect mortgagors and tenants. Stevens' Moratorium Act of 1932 (extended in 1936 and again in 1939) did not provide a complete moratorium, but it did restore confidence among both creditors and debtors. The building of new houses for rent markedly increased. The Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Act allowed rents that had been compulsorily reduced to be increased and, on evictions, provided a basis that the courts used to favour the landlord. Stevens was criticized within his own party, especially by Sir Thomas Henley, formerly a supporter of the New Guard, for allowing so much governmental control of private property to continue.

The 1935 electoral campaign was conducted on a basis of continuing to save the state and society from the ravaging attacks of Labor under Lang. There were difficulties in taking this position. Within the U.A.P. voices like that of A. Spencer Watts, past president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, complained that industry and commerce were still over-taxed and that free enterprise was not being given its chance to restore prosperity. Why had Stevens not balanced the budget in priority to every other objective? Stevens had his own doubts. More than any other leading Australian politician of his time he valued the advice of economists and of academics. He was among the first political leaders in Australia to be aware of what Keynes was advocating; Keynes's teachings increasingly suited his conviction that public finance was an instrument and a servant, not an altar on which social stability and human happiness should be sacrificed: was a balanced budget really the highest good? Another problem for Stevens was that he never persuaded himself that Labor could, or should, be for ever consigned to the 'howling political wilderness', as some of his party hoped. A practical man, who consulted professional students of politics and economics, Stevens admitted to his friends that New South Wales had a strong natural bent towards Labor. That he did not attempt to shatter Labor was counted against him by some of his own party. So was his growing interest in wider aspects of social and political problems.Like (Sir) Robert Menzies, he did not travel overseas until relatively late in his career. For Stevens 1936 was a year of revelation that he communicated to his colleagues in a series of able reports and letters, both circular and private. He had deepened his understanding of unemployment and the economy, had become a firm believer in Empire development and had had his interests turned towards foreign affairs and the prospect of another world war. Henceforth his hopes—already bent on a wider field of service in Canberra—grew and were encouraged by powerful figures in the U.A.P., especially in Victoria, and from 1939 by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

Plagued by an unruly and discontented back-bench, in 1935 Stevens had ruthlessly disposed of the deputy leader, Reginald Weaver, by reconstructing the ministry without him. Even before Stevens left to go abroad, he had been troubled by the ambitions of his protégé Eric Spooner, deputy leader of the U.A.P., who thought that Stevens conceded too much to the Country Party and contrasted Stevens' amicable relations with its members with his stern rule of the U.A.P. Matters simmered during Stevens' absence: Spooner resented Bruxner acting as premier. In 1938 Stevens brought forward the elections and in the ensuing cabinet reconstruction passed over Spooner for the Treasury. Early in 1939 Spooner challenged Stevens' leadership over unemployment relief policies.

Resigning from the ministry in July, Spooner led an attack on Stevens, alleging that the premier was concealing the true state of public finances and bearing harshly on the unemployed; such a stand constituted a call for a new financial policy and appealed to party members who distrusted Stevens' uncertain orthodoxy on balanced budgets. On 3 August a censure motion against Stevens was carried by two votes in the assembly; he immediately resigned the premiership. He possibly expected to be again premier once the party had taken stock. His successor Alexander Mair, together with Bruxner—who had refused to serve under Spooner—and much of the press encouraged Stevens' hopes.

After resigning, Stevens set up in practice as a consulting accountant and remained closely in touch with politics and business. Sleek in appearance, with very short hair and a pronounced widow's peak, Stevens 'worked with almost fanatical energy and dedication' yet was considerate to his personal staff: 'A birth, a sickness of a staff member or wife, would bring him personally to the hospital with a huge bunch of flowers from his own garden'.

With his lively interest in primary and secondary industry, in railways and in shale oil, few premiers had been as energetic as Stevens in promoting development. No other premier, unless it were William Holman, had shown so strong an interest in foreign affairs and in defence. Stevens laid it down that in public works priority should be given to those of defence value. In Planning for War and Peace (1939), a small book published shortly after resigning the premiership, he set out principles for economic policy during and after the war which had begun within a month of his leaving office. In 1940 he published a pamphlet, The Next Year in the Pacific, outlining the problems of Australian foreign policy. Throughout his public life Stevens produced a steady stream of books, articles, pamphlets and reports, mostly written with the assistance of young graduates and distinguished university staff, but all of them bearing the imprint of his own thinking, literary style and ambition for public service. In 1937 Stevens had the statutory grant for the University of Sydney increased to £100,000 a year; he was also active in founding New England University College.

His hopes of entering Federal politics ended in 1939 with the death of Lyons, who had been willing to have Stevens in his cabinet and even to accept him as his successor. Menzies, the new prime minister, recognized Stevens' abilities, praised him publicly, saw him as a rival, and rebuffed him. Stevens resigned his seat in the Legislative Assembly in August 1940, but was decisively defeated for the Labor electorate of Lang at the Federal elections that year and effectively quit politics.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1941, Stevens went to New Delhi as Australian representative on the new Eastern Group Supply Council. There he threw himself into war work with immense efficiency and developed a lifelong sympathy with the Indian people. Returning to Australia in 1942, he resumed his accountancy practice, took an interest in matters of public policy and helped to found the India League of Australia. He came out strongly in public against Dr Bert Evatt's 'powers' referendum, likening the proposals to Fascism. In 1948, after visiting Britain, Europe, India and Malaya, he again supported Empire migration and investment. In 1958 he advocated modifying the White Australia policy by a quota system. That year he completed an important survey of local government in New South Wales on behalf of the Local Government Association.

A great sadness overshadowed Stevens' later years. His health, previously so robust, declined. Predeceased by his wife, he died in a nursing home at Concord West on 24 March 1973 following a long illness; accorded a state funeral, he was buried with Methodist forms in the Garden of Peace cemetery, Pine Grove. A son and two daughters survived him. Before his death Stevens tasted to the full the ingratitude that sustained public service can engender. He died a poor man, an almost forgotten premier.

In retrospect he has appeared as an outstandingly good administrator with the foresight and vision of a true statesman. He was not, however, so good as a politician. He spent only twelve years in parliament, ten of them in office and seven as premier which was then a record for New South Wales. His political career spanned the struggle against Lang and, when the danger was removed, Stevens could no longer sustain his own ascendancy.

Select Bibliography

  • Notable Citizens of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 27 May 1973, pp 3937, 3989
  • Today (Melbourne), 16 Apr, 6 Aug 1932
  • Australasian, 18 July 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Oct 1927, 4 May, 6 Aug 1932, 26-29 Mar 1973
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Stevens, Sir Bertram Sydney Barnsdale (1889–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stevens-sir-bertram-sydney-barnsdale-8650/text15125, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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