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Watson, Sir Henry Keith (1900–1973)

by Harry C. J. Phillips

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

Sir Henry Keith Watson (1900-1973), businessman and politician, was born on 22 August 1900 at Southern Cross, Western Australia, son of William Henry Watson, a Victorian-born storekeeper, and his wife Martha Elizabeth, née Smith, who came from South Australia. Educated at Cottesloe and Claremont State schools, Perth, Keith joined the taxation branch of the Commonwealth Treasury as a clerk in 1915. He left in 1922 to establish a business in Perth as a taxation consultant and public accountant. On 17 November 1926 at the Hardey Memorial Methodist Church, Cottesloe, he married Edith Wilson Symonds.

Vice-president of the State National Party in 1933, Watson had stood three times for the House of Representatives seat of Fremantle as an Independent (1928 and 1931) and a Nationalist (1929). In 1929 he was elected an associate and in 1946 a fellow of the Institute of Incorporated Secretaries. A director (1932-72) and chairman (1951-71) of the Perth Building Society, he was president (1951-68) of the Western Australian Permanent Building Societies' Association.

As a co-founder (1930) and later chairman of the Dominion League of Western Australia, Watson helped to prepare the State's case for secession. He was a central figure in the 1933 referendum campaign that resulted in a clear majority of electors voting to withdraw from the Commonwealth. In 1934-35 he was a member of the delegation that presented the petition for secession to the British parliament in London, where it was rejected. Remaining vehemently committed to States rights, he labelled the Commonwealth Grants Commission (founded in 1933) 'an anti-secessionist committee'. He rallied opposition against referenda to increase Federal government powers over marketing, aviation, rents and prices and criticized the High Court of Australia for its expansive interpretation of Commonwealth powers exemplified in the Uniform Tax case (1942).

In 1941 at a by-election, Watson contested the Legislative Council seat of Metropolitan Province for the National Party, losing by one vote. He won the seat at another by-election in May 1948. By then he was vice-president of the State Liberal Party. Quickly becoming adept at using standing orders, he challenged virtually every form of government regulation which had been established during World War II, even measures supported by his own party. He opposed government ownership of industry, because it 'completely [sapped] the fibre of our national life' and led to 'inefficiency'. As the leader of a ginger group of Liberal Party 'no-controllers', he often forced the government to engage in protracted debates. He defended the restrictive franchise of the Legislative Council. When universal franchise was introduced for that chamber before the 1964 election, he argued that the State's constitution should be amended to give the Upper House equal power with the Legislative Assembly in respect of all money bills.

Chairman (1959-68) of W. Thomas & Co. (W.A.) Ltd, Watson held directorships with Western Australian Insurance Co. Ltd (1949-60), Western Press Ltd (1951-55) and George Weston Foods Ltd (1967-70). He was a member of the Nedlands Golf and Dalkeith Bowling clubs. In 1968, the year in which he retired from parliament, he was knighted. Survived by his wife and their son, Sir Keith died on 13 January 1973 at Bentley, Perth, and was cremated. Their two daughters had predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Pervan and C. Sharman (eds), Essays on Western Australian Politics (Perth, 1979)
  • C. T. Stannage (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • B. Moore, A Superior Kind of Savings Bank (Perth, 1989)
  • D. Black (ed), The House on the Hill (Perth, 1991)
  • Parliamenary Debates (Western Australia), 10 Aug 1948, p 282, 5 Aug 1964, p 60
  • University Studies in Western Australian History, 111, no 2, 1958
  • West Australian, 28 May 1935, 15 Jan 1973.

Citation details

Harry C. J. Phillips, 'Watson, Sir Henry Keith (1900–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-sir-henry-keith-11977/text21469, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 July 2019.

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

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