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Treatt, Sir Vernon Haddon (1897–1984)

by Peter Collins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Vernon Haddon Treatt (1897-1984), politician and barrister, was born on 15 May 1897 at Singleton, New South Wales, fifteenth of sixteen children of English-born Frank Burford Treatt, clerk of petty sessions, and his Sydney-born wife Kate Ellen, née Walsh.  Excelling at Young District School, Vernon completed his secondary education at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore).  He studied arts at the University of Sydney for two years.

On 7 December 1916 Treatt enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was a gunner with the field artillery.  Appointed as an acting sergeant, he embarked at Sydney on 5 November 1917 and, after training in England, joined the 6th Field Artillery Brigade in France in May 1918.  In October at Brancourt, he rolled out a telephone line while under intense fire; for his bravery he was awarded the Military Medal.  He returned to Australia in March 1919 and was discharged on 25 May with the rank of sergeant. 

Back at the University of Sydney (BA, 1920), Treatt played rugby union for the first XV and won the half-mile event in athletics.  He was awarded the 1920 Rhodes scholarship for New South Wales.  At New College, Oxford (BA, 1922; BCL, 1923; MA, 1927), he was president of the Oxford Colonial Club, gained a Blue for water polo, excelled in rugby union and won the senior half-mile run.  He was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn on 23 April 1923. 

After his return to Sydney, Treatt was admitted to the Bar on 20 March 1924.  He was sub-warden (1925-29) of his old college, St Paul’s.  Challis lecturer in criminal law (1925-59) at the University of Sydney, he co-authored, with A. E. Rainbow, The Law relating to Compensation for Injuries to Workers (1927), for many years the fundamental text on workers’ compensation law in New South Wales.

In his first foray into State politics—in 1927—Treatt, standing for the Nationalist Party in Willoughby, was defeated on preferences.  He was appointed a crown prosecutor in 1928.  In 1938 he successfully contested the seat of Woollahra in the Legislative Assembly for the United Australia Party.  He made his maiden speech on 29 June 1938, commending the government’s achievement of economic stability and, based on his own area of expertise, the introduction of the mental defectives (convicted persons) bill.  While his speech lacked theatrical flourish, it was confident and workmanlike.

Treatt was minister of justice in 1939-41 in the Alexander Mair government and in 1940 was appointed KC.  Elected deputy-leader of the State parliamentary Liberal Party and of the Opposition in November 1945, he became leader on 20 March 1946.  He retained his light athletic build and had a warm and considered manner, with deep penetrating eyes reflecting experiences from the battleground to the criminal courtroom.  He soon clashed with his Federal counterpart, (Sir) Robert Menzies.  Many people were sceptical about Menzies’ electoral prospects and, in February 1947, Treatt told Menzies that the New South Wales campaign committee wanted to concentrate on State issues and that external federal assistance was not required.  Menzies commented on this as a 'most unfortunate business' and made no promise to keep out of New South Wales affairs.

While Treatt lost his first bid to become premier when the Australian Labor Party was returned in the 1947 State election, Menzies won the 1949 Federal election.  Treatt’s campaign launch in 1950 concentrated on measures to overcome the housing shortage and to reform the coal industry.  Other election promises covered economic growth, the appointment of women to some authorities, the Eastern Suburbs railway and electoral reform.  The Labor and Liberal-Country parties won forty-six seats each; the support of two Labor Independents kept the McGirr government in office.  Loss to a mediocre and poorly led Labor party unleashed a torrent of criticism.  Failure to communicate the State Liberal policy headed the list:  Treatt’s policies were given a mere two and a half weeks exposure before election day.  While Labor emerged from the 1950 election damaged, so did Treatt.  There was much to contemplate when he took time to reflect at his two thousand-acre (809 ha) pastoral retreat Riverview, on the Fish River, Locksley.

The Menzies government slumped in popularity after introducing the 1951 'horror budget'.  Ominously, in 1952, Joe Cahill’s ALP won Ashfield from the Liberal Party in a by-election.  Relations between Treatt, the party organisation, and the general secretary, (Sir) John Carrick, remained cool.  The direct telephone link established between party headquarters and the parliamentary leader seldom rang.  Treatt’s critics portrayed him as 'introspective' and 'aloof'.

The 1953 election was a massacre for the Liberals.  Funding had largely dried up even for crucial Liberal marginal electorates, with the party contesting twenty-six fewer seats than in the 1950 election.  The primary Liberal vote dropped by almost 10 per cent.  Pat Morton, the Member for Mosman, was the first to challenge Treatt’s leadership, on 4 May 1954; the result was an eleven-all draw.  On 6 July another contest occurred, producing the same result on the first ballot.  In August Treatt wrote to his parliamentary colleagues announcing his intention to resign as leader on 10 August when—again—the parliamentary party split eleven-all, with Morton and Robin (later Sir Robert) Askin as candidates.  Treatt was re-elected to the Legislative Assembly in the 1956 and 1959 elections but, after a redistribution abolished Woollahra, was unsuccessful in contesting the seat of Bligh at the 1962 election; he felt that he had been hampered by the Liberal policy on the easing of rent controls.

The State Labor government appointed Treatt as chairman of the Local Government Boundaries Commission in 1964.  He took leave from this body when the Askin Liberal government appointed him chief commissioner (1967-69) of the City of Sydney.  As president (1965-67) of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, he rekindled his love of competitive sport.  He was knighted in 1970.

Treatt had married with Anglican rites Dorothy Isabelle Henderson on 5 June 1930 in the chapel of St Paul’s College, University of Sydney.  Divorced in 1959, he married Frankie Jessie Embleton Wilson on 16 May 1960 at the district registrar’s office, Perth.  They lived at the Locksley property.  Survived by his wife and a son and a daughter of his first marriage, Sir Vernon died on 20 September 1984 at Narrabeen and was cremated.  A son (d.1935) and a daughter (d.1944) predeceased him.  In the parliament’s condolence motion debate, Leon Punch remembered him 'as a man who was almost Premier of this State, but not quite'.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (1965)
  • M. Hogan and D. Clune (eds), The People’s Choice vol 2 (2001)
  • I. Hancock, The Liberals (2007)
  • H. Golder, Sacked (2004)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 26 September 1984, p 1413
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March 1938, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March 1946, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August 1954, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1984, p 13
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 March 1946, p 22
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 12 April 1947, p 15
  • B2458, item Treatt Vernon Haddon (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Collins, 'Treatt, Sir Vernon Haddon (1897–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/treatt-sir-vernon-haddon-15525/text26737, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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