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Ambrose Campbell Carmichael (1866–1953)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Ambrose Campbell Carmichael (1866-1953), politician, soldier and accountant, was born on 19 September 1866 in Hobart Town, son of William Carmichael, native-born commission agent, and his wife Emma, née Willson. Educated at the High School of Hobart Town (Christ College) he trained as an accountant and studied law for a time. In 1888 he went to Brisbane and worked as a teacher and legal coach; on 18 May 1891 at Wickham Terrace Presbyterian Church he married Mabel Pillinger (d.1931); they had no children. He then went on the land in the Lachlan River district in New South Wales near Lake Cargelligo. He cleared and fenced his holding for stock-breeding and helped to found the local branch of the Farmers and Settlers' Association. By 1900 the venture had failed and that year, in debt, he moved to Sydney and worked as a teacher, a journalist and as a book-keeper for O. C. Beale & Co. He became a member of the Sydney School of Arts debating club.

Campbell Carmichael joined the Leichhardt branch of the Labor Party and helped (Sir) George Beeby at the 1904 State general election. After Beeby's transfer to Blayney, Carmichael won Leichhardt in 1907 and was soon a leading parliamentarian; a forceful and, at times, a brilliant speaker, with an effective flow of sarcasm, he contributed much to the growing status of the party. When J. S. T. McGowen, as treasurer, formed the first Labor ministry in 1910 he became an honorary minister and prepared the first budget; he acted as treasurer in March-September next year. N. R. W. Nielsen's resignation in August 1911 resulted in his promotion to the ministries of public instruction and labour and industry, but he resigned in November. Next year Beeby's defection brought cabinet reshuffling and Carmichael returned to public instruction on 1 March; he was also treasurer in April-May and minister for labour and industry from December to June 1913. W. A. Holman became premier on 30 June and Carmichael remained in public instruction until he resigned on 5 March 1915. He was party treasurer from 1910 and on Labor's central executive committee in 1910-11, but was rebuked by it in 1912 when he spoke up for Beeby.

Carmichael's brief work in the labour and industry portfolio did not please Labor's industrial wing, and did nothing to dispel the belief that New South Wales was 'the storm-centre of industrial unrest in Australia'. But he introduced administrative reforms at the Treasury and, with the help of P. Board, he proved an energetic, innovative and successful minister of education, reinforcing the growing repute of the parliamentary Labor Party as an efficient manager of affairs of state: his University Amendment Act, 1912, liberalized senate representation, brought in free places and linked the school system with the university; his radical Bursary Endowment Act of the same year helped children in both church and state schools and reduced the disabilities of bush students. He reorganized the medical check-up of pupils, appointing school doctors and nurses; and he set up day-time training for apprentices at technical colleges. He reserved part of the Art Gallery's annual grant for the purchase of Australian work, and in 1914 he established the State Conservatorium of Music.

Carmichael's achievements were accompanied by some personal strain. His resignation in 1911 arose out of irritation with Holman over questions of precedence in cabinet, and belief that he was compromised by a murder charge laid against his nephew. Early in 1914 he suffered a nervous breakdown. To recuperate he took a holiday and business trip to the Continent and Britain, also seeking a director for the conservatorium. In London in June he complained that 'almost the only news cabled from Australia seems to be of frozen meat, Tasmanian apples, and strikes'; he did his best to redress the balance. But he was disturbed by war preparations and when he returned to Sydney in September he organized voluntary rifle-drilling companies. The outbreak of hostilities had unsettled the stability of the cabinet, and Carmichael's rivalry with Holman sharpened as the war exerted strong emotional pressures on him. His resignation from the ministry in March 1915 reflected his state of mind. In June he was appointed a royal commissioner to inquire into the administration of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area; after his report in October he declined the position of irrigation commissioner and decided to enlist. Holman extolled his 'high spirit of devotion to public duty'.

Carmichael announced in November that he had the support of the military and recruiting authorities to carry out his own programme 'to raise a thousand rifle reserve recruits', who would join the Australian Imperial Force with him. 'Car's' successful campaign became the talk of Sydney. He gave his age as 43 when he enlisted on 23 November. Allotted to the 36th Battalion, he was promoted from sergeant to second lieutenant on 16 March 1916 and to lieutenant on 1 August; he embarked for England on 13 May and proceeded to France on 12 November. He was wounded at Houplines on 21 January 1917 in an action for which he was awarded the Military Cross. On 2 May he became a captain and was wounded again on 4 October. He returned to Sydney in February 1918.

By then conscription had been rejected at two referendums and the Labor Party had split over it, with many expulsions, including Holman, who had formed a Nationalist ministry. Carmichael had not been involved in the disputes and in March he attended the Labor executive, explained that he favoured conscription but it was now a dead issue, and appealed for 'a great sustained recruiting campaign'. He was not expelled but gradually drifted from the party. He got the support of the new Labor leader, J. Storey, and other prominent people, became chairman of the State Recruiting Committee, and again threw himself into his self-imposed task. He raised another 'Carmichaels' thousand', and rode at their head when they left Sydney on 19 June. By late September when he arrived in France the war was ending, and he came back to Sydney on 20 February 1919.

Carmichael, still a parliamentarian, was now something of a national figure: an over-age and mercurial war hero, but with panache, courage and resource, tapping great reserves of admiration and goodwill. In March he disclosed his antipathy to 'machine politics' to his constituents, and announced the formation of the People's Party of Soldiers and Citizens, stressing the needs of returned soldiers and seeking profit-sharing. The Soldiers and Citizens' Federation backed him, but the Labor and National parties were critical. He soon found that his ideals of war service, modified by his radicalism, did not correspond with the new, complex politics of peace. After a report that his party had joined with Beeby's Progressives, he announced in January 1920 that it was independent. With two colleagues he ran for Balmain in February; they polled 8.8 per cent of the votes, against Labor's 59.6 per cent.

Carmichael set up as a public accountant and by 1922 had joined the National Party. He contemplated contesting the Federal seat of North Sydney that year, but stood aside for W. M. Hughes. In 1929 he praised the flexibility of the British system of government and agreed with P. F. Loughlin that cabinets should be selected from all parties. He died at Darlinghurst on 15 January 1953, and was cremated after a Christian Science service. His second wife, Clive Thorngate, née Weston, died five days later; they had married at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church on 4 May 1934, and were childless.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement, (Syd, 1942)
  • British Australasian, 2 July 1914, 17 Aug 1916
  • Scottish Australasian, 6 May 1919
  • Town and Country Journal, 23 Oct 1907
  • Punch (Melbourne), 3 Apr 1913
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 Mar 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Mar, 13 Apr 1918, 31 Oct 1929, 17 Jan 1953.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Carmichael, Ambrose Campbell (1866–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 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

Life Summary [details]


19 September, 1866
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


15 January, 1953 (aged 86)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.