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Stewart, Percy Gerald (1885–1931)

by K. M. Haig-Muir

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

Percy Gerald Stewart (1885-1931), farmer and politician, was born on 18 October 1885 at Footscray, Melbourne, son of William Stewart, master mariner, and his wife Isabella, née Farrington, both Victorian born. After leaving Yarraville State School, he worked at a bottle factory, then as a 'water-joey' on the Mildura railway line and a shepherd in the southern Mallee. In 1905 he joined a British cargo ship and obtained his master's certificate, but suffered such debilitating malaria that he left the sea and travelled in Europe and Canada before returning to Australia in 1909. Having worked as a farm labourer, in 1913 he selected a 'green' Mallee block at Carwarp in north-west Victoria which he later sold when he moved to Eastern View at Carwarp West. On 17 April 1916, at Yarraville, Stewart married Edith Catherine Roberts with Methodist forms.

During World War I Stewart volunteered three times for active service but was rejected on health grounds. His interest in scientific farming led him to pioneer new cropping techniques for semi-arid regions and to work closely with the Department of Agriculture and other groups in improving yields from light Mallee soils. From the early 1920s until 1931 he wrote a weekly article on Mallee farming for the Mildura Sunraysia Daily; in 1924 in partnership with R. C. D. Elliott and Ethel, wife of (Sir) Earle Page, he bought this newspaper and was its chairman in 1924-31.

Having observed the political power of the Canadian grain growers' associations, Stewart was keen to organize similar groups in Victoria. In May 1916, when president of the Carwarp Progress Association, he invited delegates from kindred organizations to a conference at Ouyen to discuss the formation of a Mallee farmers' union. Learning of a similar project led by Isaac Hart and J. J. Hall, he joined with them to found the Victorian Farmers' Union, forerunner of the Victorian Country Party. At its first annual conference in September 1916 Stewart was appointed to the central council. In November 1917 he won the seat of Swan Hill to become one of four V.F.U. representatives in the Legislative Assembly.

'One of the few genuinely radical leaders of the early Country Party', the thin and lanky Stewart was an ascetic individualist who set great store by his principles. Convinced that the V.F.U. could best serve farmers by remaining independent from other parties, after 1918 he sat next to the Labor opposition and frequently voted with them. Stewart's intransigence, combined with his electoral popularity, created a problem for his own party which was then canvassing coalition with the Nationalists. In October 1919, however, he resigned and won the Federal seat of Wimmera which he was to hold until his death. One of five original members of the Federal parliamentary Country Party, Stewart was also one of the three managers appointed to look after its interests. He took a leading role in negotiations that led to the formation of the Bruce-Page government in late 1922. Offered a choice of two portfolios in that administration, he chose works and railways (February 1923–August 1924) which included presidency of the River Murray Commission. He was therefore able to accelerate such major national projects as the Hume water storage, while improving roads, postal and telephone facilities in the Wimmera and Mallee. He also helped to establish the dried fruit and citrus industries in the Murray Valley, and he assisted in the provision of domestic water and irrigation in north-west Victoria. Initially opposed to the notion of a Federal capital at Canberra, Stewart was to alter his view and to advocate that it be built quickly and economically. On 28 August 1923 he turned the first sod on the site of Parliament House.

After a bitter quarrel with Page, Stewart resigned his portfolio in August 1924 in protest against a pact between Bruce and Page which gave electoral protection to sitting members. To Stewart, this deal violated fundamental Country Party principles, and unjustly restricted electors' choice of candidates. In March 1926 he and others resigned from the V.F.U. over the issue of (State) composite governments. Stewart and (Sir) A. A. Dunstan then organized the Victorian Country Progressive Party. A radical group with its power base in Bendigo and the Mallee, it effectively held the balance of power in Victoria during the latter 1920s. Stewart urged compulsory nation-wide wheat pools and guaranteed prices for grain. He publicized his campaign widely in country newspapers, hoping to achieve a growers' organization big enough to combat the influence of banks, grain merchants and fertiliser companies. The first branch of the Victorian Wheat-growers' Association was formed at Ultima in November 1928: within twelve months a thriving movement existed.

The Victorian split was partly over fundamental party doctrines, but it also involved personal rivalries. The dispute between Page and Stewart was so bitter that Page campaigned against Stewart in the 1928 and 1929 elections. Both times Stewart was easily returned, but he rarely spoke in the House after his argument with Page. As the rural depression deepened, even party conservatives became radicalized; the two factions reunited late in 1930.

Stewart consistently took a radical line and often voted with Labor even after reunification of the V.C.P. The sole Federal representative of the V.C.P.P., he became a close personal friend of W. M. Hughes, despite their political differences. They were the only non-Labor members to oppose the sale of the Commonwealth Shipping Line in 1927. In March 1929 Stewart was the only Country Party member to support Labor's proposal for a Federal wheat marketing scheme; in September he voted against the abolition of the Federal arbitration system, thus helping to bring down the Bruce-Page government. Stewart strongly supported Scullin's 1930 'Grow More Wheat' campaign and endeavoured to compel him to ratify a guaranteed price for wheat despite overwhelming political and economic difficulties. Nevertheless, Stewart backed the Melbourne Agreement (1930) which split the Labor Party. Apart from local-area issues, he concentrated his political attention on tariff reductions, compulsory wheat pools, 'orderly marketing', guaranteed prices, a rural bank, grain bulk-handling, mortgage relief and lower freight rates for primary produce.

Stewart was an excellent debater with a keen analytical mind. Although often abrupt and aggressive, and at times bitter, he was a highly persuasive speaker. His 'frail figure and sensitive, remarkably intelligent face' stood out among his colleagues. A thorn in Page's side until the last, Stewart was said never to have worried about losing his seat in parliament because he always had another waiting on his plough. He had long suffered from poor health and on 15 October 1931 died at Woomelang of pneumonia. He was buried in Carwarp cemetery after a State funeral. His wife survived him. Stewart's memorial at Red Cliffs was unveiled by Hughes in 1937.

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • U. R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • Farmers Advocate, 20 Nov 1919
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Oct 1931
  • Sunraysia Daily, 16, 17 Oct 1931, 13 Aug 1937
  • Times (Donald-Birchip), 12 June 1984
  • private information.

Citation details

K. M. Haig-Muir, 'Stewart, Percy Gerald (1885–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-percy-gerald-8669/text15161, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 2 August 2014.

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

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