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Sir Richard Layton Butler (1885–1966)

by Suzanne Edgar and R. F. I. Smith

This article was published:

Richard Layton Butler (1885-1966), by unknown photographer

Richard Layton Butler (1885-1966), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4585

Sir Richard Layton Butler (1885-1966), premier, was born on 31 March 1885 at Yattalunga near Gawler, South Australia, second son of (Sir) Richard Butler, grazier and premier, and his first wife Helena Kate, née Layton. After education at Mallala and the Adelaide Agricultural School, he farmed and managed the stock and station firm, Butler, Shannon & Co., at Hamley Bridge, before taking up grazing at Kapunda and Balaklava. On 4 January 1908 he married Maude Isobel Draper at North Adelaide. He gained debating experience in country literary societies and model parliaments, and as an early member of the Liberal Union.

In 1915 Butler was elected to the House of Assembly for Wooroora, but lost his seat in 1918 through his support for conscription. He then managed the Farmers' Bulk Grain Co-operative Co., but in 1921 won back Wooroora and held it till 1938. He learned to study parliamentary papers and acquaint himself with the State industrially and financially, rather than make frequent speeches in the House.

In 1925 Butler became party whip; two months later his financial ability and 'pugnacity' gained him the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Federation in place of Sir Henry Barwell. In April 1927 he led the party to electoral victory and became premier, treasurer and minister of railways, despite his lack of ministerial experience. Although a country member he was not aggressively rural. His policy speech had deplored the deficit, excessive taxation and the costs of the 44-hour week; he promised to restore sound finance and abolish illegal off-course betting in hotels.

The main achievements of this first Butler government were the Drought Relief Act, 1927, and the Debt Adjustment Act, 1929 — attempts to assist the depressed rural sector. Industrial policy was severe: Butler felt that people should work harder. A 1929 strike by waterside workers resulted in their suppression by a special police force which could call up 3000 men within one week to handle emergencies. Later that year the government attempted to organize a referendum to ratify Saturday afternoon closing of hotels. This, supported by all Protestant and Anglican churches and temperance groups, incensed the powerful United Licensed Victuallers' Association and many who favoured off-course betting. The U.L.V.A. organized against the government and contributed to its electoral defeat in April 1930. By then the grave economic situation had led Liberal organizers to persuade Butler that it would be no bad thing if Labor had to handle the Depression. L. L. Hill's government administered the harsh Premiers' Plan, but collapsed under internal dissension, and Butler again won the election and became premier, treasurer and minister of immigration on 18 April 1933.

Following the merger of the Liberal and Country parties in 1932 in the Liberal and Country League, Butler was forced to include weak ex-Country Party members in his cabinet. Moreover the L.C.L. philosophy of independence for individual members made it difficult for Butler to dominate the parliamentary party and ensure strong cabinet government. Neither cabinet nor any other group could command the loyalty of all the party, which was further divided by its conflicting interest groups outside parliament.

Butler was tactless and impetuous. Although diligent in mastering reports, and convivial and broadminded, he worked in sudden bursts and sometimes gave offence to interest groups by his choice of words. However, by tough bargaining with the Commonwealth, which resulted in extra grants to the State, he was able to prune the deficit and reduce government spending in 1933-34 to the lowest level since 1925-26. South Australia was the first to balance its budget after all States had agreed on this goal in 1930.

Primary industry became the cabinet's main problem: no session passed without legislation or proposals to aid that sector, yet actual benefits to farmers were few. The L.C.L. was divided over how extensively government should assist the depressed wheat and dairy industries; finally the conservative view prevailed and the resentful wheat farmers in the marginal lands continued to languish. The main organ of aid was the Farmers' Assistance Board, but it was administered stringently, in accordance with the ministry's frugal policy; the board's supervisory, inquisitorial role alienated many. Those few farmers whom the board deemed economically sound were assisted by the Primary Producers Debts Act of 1935 to prevent their position deteriorating. Butler was unable to establish a bulk-handling scheme for wheat, and he consistently and trenchantly opposed all the Commonwealth's attempts to set up a compulsory wheat pool. When in 1938 the State government leaders agreed to implement a home-consumption price-plan, Butler claimed it as a personal victory. He also opposed Commonwealth plans for rationalization of butter production. With regard to milk controls and prices, his cabinet was humiliated by being forced by one faction to introduce legislation and frustrated by another group opposing it.

Butler was more successful in attracting secondary industry to the State, a policy he had been advocating since 1929. He became an ardent supporter of J. W. Wainwright, under-treasurer and auditor-general from 1934, who argued strongly that only secondary industry could make economic expansion possible. The important firm of Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd, employers of 4000 men, threatened to move their factory to Melbourne while Butler was overseas in 1935. On his return he quickly granted them the desired aid and concessions to prevent the move. In 1937 the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. was offered sites and other valuable incentives to build a blast furnace at Whyalla. Similarly, Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd established a plant at Port Adelaide, and British Tube Mills Ltd and Stewarts and Lloyds Ltd were likewise attracted. Legislation was passed in 1937 to establish a statutory non-profit-making body, the South Australian Housing Trust, with a grant to build cheap homes for working people. With leading firms, the government supported the foundation of an Industries Assistance Corporation of South Australia Ltd, and underwrote Cellulose (Australia) Ltd to manufacture paper by a new process from the State's pinus radiata plantations. The interlocking of public and private interests, with the government responding to pressures from, but never adversely affecting, private interests, characterized Butler's industrialization programme.

In the area of social reform, in which opposing pressure groups also attempted to force his hand, Butler was cautious. He had learned in his first premiership that aiding the churches to suppress bookmaking and drinking was administratively impossible and electorally unpopular. He publicly defended the rights of men whose work was 'hard' and 'dirty' and whose 'outlet is often to have a drink or to pick a winner'. Church and temperance groups interpreted his lack of action, on these issues and on their demand for Bible-reading and religious instruction in state schools, as active encouragement of the forces of evil. They mounted a vociferous moral crusade against the government and against licensed betting shops prior to the 1938 election.

Butler's unpopularity had been mounting since his introduction of a bill to extend the life of the parliament to five years in 1933. The proposal had drawn widespread opposition and had finally been passed only as a trial measure; attempts to ratify it permanently had foundered on his inability to control the dissentient forces within his party. Even early in 1934 there had been press rumours of a 'realignment of the Ministerial members for the purpose of displacing Mr Butler'. In 1937 the Wheatgrower had revealed that back-benchers tried to dismiss him from the leadership. At the election in April 1938, in spite of repeated successes in balancing the budget, he and the Liberals faced dislike and disillusion with party politics. They lost their absolute majority: in a House of 39 seats the L.C.L. won 15 and independents won 13. Faced with defeat the Liberals closed ranks and unanimously re-elected him to the leadership. Supported by independents, Butler continued as premier.

However his political career was faltering. When the member for the Federal seat of Wakefield, C. A. S. Hawker, died in an air crash, Butler was induced to seek election in his stead and resigned on 5 November. In an intense, somewhat spiteful campaign the 'so confident' ex-premier was defeated by Labor candidate Sydney McHugh. Although he tried to re-enter politics, claiming that like Kipling 'he could wait and not get tired by waiting', he never succeeded. The L.C.L. refused him preselection again. On the opening of additions to Parliament House in 1939 he wryly quoted the adage, 'Fools build houses for other people to live in'.

As premier Butler had maintained good relations with his civil servants. He depended heavily on Wainwright to carry out the policy of prudent government spending dictated by the Depression. Agriculturists came to distrust him. They resented his affinity with the Chamber of Manufactures and industrialists such as (Sir) Edward Holden, Essington Lewis and Harold Darling. Butler's concern to do his best for the State, combined with detailed proposals from civil servants and industrialists, had fired his most effective policies. However his personal efforts had been marked by limited ideas and lack of authority. Although he had been premier for a record term of over eight years, he was handicapped by his party's lack of cohesion and did not develop the office to the extent achieved by his notable successors, Sir Thomas Playford and D. A. Dunstan.

Butler was knighted in 1939. During and after World War II he was a director of Emergency Road Transport for South Australia and chairman of the Liquid Fuel Control Board. Later he was a director of Cellulose (Australia) Ltd, Adelaide Cement Co. Ltd, the Adelaide Electric Supply Co. and the Electricity Trust of South Australia. He never varied his country-bred habit of rising at six to work in his garden before going to the office. He died of cerebro-vascular disease in Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, on 21 January 1966 and, after a state funeral and service at St Andrew's Anglican Church, Walkerville, was buried in Evergreen Memorial Park cemetery, Enfield. Butler was survived by his wife, a daughter and a son; his estate was sworn for probate at £566.

Select Bibliography

  • T. J. Mitchell, ‘J. W. Wainwright: the industrialisation of South Australia, 1935-40’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, May 1962
  • S. Dyer, ‘Farm relief in South Australia during the great depression’, JHSSA, 2 (1976)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1925
  • Observer (Adelaide), 26 Dec 1925, 2 Jan 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Aug, 24 May 1929, 21 Feb, 12 May, 28 Sept 1934, 13 Dec 1938
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5, 17 Aug 1937, 8 June 1939, 22 Jan 1966
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 27 Mar 1965
  • R. F. I. Smith, The Butler Government in South Australia, 1933-1938 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1964)
  • M. J. Thompson, Government and Depression in South Australia, 1927-1934 (M.Ec. thesis, Flinders University, 1972)
  • J. Lonie, Conservatism and Class in South Australia During the Depression Years 1929-1934 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1973)
  • A. D. Blatcher, Consensus and Revision: The Non-Labor Political Parties in South Australia, 1932-1944 (B.A. Hons thesis, Flinders University, 1974)
  • PRG 129 (State Records of South Australia).

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Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and R. F. I. Smith, 'Butler, Sir Richard Layton (1885–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Layton Butler (1885-1966), by unknown photographer

Richard Layton Butler (1885-1966), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4585

Life Summary [details]


3 March, 1885
Gawler, South Australia, Australia


21 January, 1966 (aged 80)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.