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Price, Sir Leslie Victor (Les) (1920–1996)

by Denise K. Conroy

This article was published online in 2020

Sir Leslie Victor Price (1920–1996), farmer and grain-marketing leader, was born on 30 October 1920 at Toowoomba, Queensland, elder child of Herbert Victor Llewelyn Price, a locally born farmer, and his English-born wife Sarah Evelyn, formerly Fisher, née Blytheway; she had a son from her first marriage. The family moved around the Darling Downs. Les attended Geham State School (1926–28), near Toowoomba, and, while staying with an aunt in Brisbane, Windsor State School (1932). By 1936 the Prices were farming near Dalby. Les drove tractors and serviced machinery and, in the months between planting and harvesting, worked on road maintenance contracts.

Having served part time (1938–40) with the 25th Battalion and the 11th Light Horse Regiment, Citizen Military Forces, Price volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II. Enlisting on 29 April 1940, he qualified first as a flight mechanic and then as a fitter. He maintained aircraft in New South Wales at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School, Narromine (1940–41), and in Queensland at No. 3 Service Flying Training School and No. 5 Aircraft Depot, Amberley (1941–42 and 1943), and No. 8 SFTS, Bundaberg (1942–43). On 11 February 1942 in a Church of England ceremony at Christ Church, Bundaberg, he married Lorna Agnes Collins, a nurse from Yamsion, north-east of Dalby. In September he was promoted to leading aircraftman, in which rank he was demobilised on 3 January 1944. His parents had moved to Yamsion. He worked their farm and cut timber from the property to build a motor garage at nearby Bell, which he ran with a friend. The business did not last, so he returned to what he knew best—farming grains.

Committed to the principle of cooperative, orderly marketing of agricultural produce, Price joined the Queensland Graingrowers’ Association in 1952, progressing from Bell branch delegate in 1956 to vice-president (1961–65) and general president (1966–77). Based at Toowoomba, the QGGA expanded rapidly under his leadership, transforming itself from a farmers’ organisation into ‘a 6000-member grain marketing giant with an annual turnover of nearly $100 million’ (Chronicle 1976, 1). He was also chairman of the Queensland Producers’ Federation and a member (1968–77) of the State Wheat Board (SWB). In addition, he presided from 1972 to 1974 over the Australian Wheatgrowers’ Federation, the industry’s peak body, ‘strengthening its influence with government’ (Chronicle 1996, 3). Appointed OBE in 1971, he was knighted in 1976 for his achievements in marketing and advocacy on behalf of growers.

In 1971 Price had become the SWB’s representative on the Australian Wheat Board (AWB), at a turbulent time in the latter’s existence. A statutory non-profit marketing organisation, the board compulsorily acquired the whole wheat harvest at a guaranteed minimum price to growers and sold it to domestic and international buyers. Its monopoly formed part of the national wheat stabilisation scheme, which had protected growers from disastrous price fluctuations since 1948. By the 1970s, however, the scheme was subject to increasing criticism. Advocates of free markets were calling for reduced government intervention in the economy, arguing that regulation caused inefficiencies. Moreover, after the record 1968–69 season, the government had imposed quotas on farmers to prevent overproduction, and some growers resented the restrictions. Price believed this measure to have been ill-considered. Proving impossible to administer effectively and equitably, the quotas were suspended in 1975.

The Federal government appointed Price as chairman and chief executive officer of the AWB in 1977. Possessed of an ‘extremely forceful personality,’ he ‘unequivocally demonstrated his determination to exercise both functions’ (Whitwell and Sydenham 1991, 239), taking firm control of the board’s management. In 1979 and 1980 the Senate standing committee on finance and government operations and the Commonwealth auditor-general found shortcomings in the board’s financial management and reporting. This adverse attention provided Price with justification to reorganise the AWB’s staff and improve its professionalism. He hired graduates in accounting and economics to manage finances more efficiently, especially budgeting—which had been long neglected—and the board’s extensive operations in money markets. To counteract aggressive competition from other wheat exporting countries, he engaged additional personnel with specialist marketing skills.

Quotas had opened up a division between growers. The majority continued to support orderly marketing but some concluded they would be better off selling their wheat independently and did so, on the domestic black market. Concurrently, the movement against government regulation gathered momentum; reports by the Industries Assistance Commission in 1978 and 1983 both recommended that the AWB’s monopoly on the domestic market should be removed. In 1984 legislation was enacted empowering the board to issue permits for growers to sell directly to stock feed buyers. Eventually, Price would come to accept that full deregulation of the domestic market, implemented in 1989, had been inevitable; but he never lost his faith in growers combining to sell their produce collectively.

During Price’s term, an average of eleven million tonnes of wheat and flour per year were exported, China being the biggest customer. From the mid-1980s the European Communities and the United States of America used government subsidies and other predatory tactics in a battle to increase their shares of the market. Price protested that the subsidies were ‘economic lunacy’ (New York Times 1985, 13) and declared that the ‘market was being “mauled” by’ the belligerents; his tenure was coming to an end and he ‘said he was sorry to be leaving the board while the wheat industry was in a state of crisis’ (Watson 1986, 29).

On sales missions overseas, Price would, at times, go to his hotel room to ‘write a report,’ his expression for taking a nap before an evening of exhausting hospitality, a practice some ‘customer countries used as a wearing down process prior to negotiations’ (Nicol 1996, 15); the hosts admired his apparent stamina. His ‘gift of striking the deal that was fair to all’ (Nicol 1996, 15) made him respected in the industry throughout the world. With his quiet confidence, adroit management, and immense knowledge of grain-marketing, he was ‘one of Australia’s truly great farming leaders’ (Nicol 1996, 15).

Price retired on 31 March 1986. The Queensland Country Life newspaper conferred on him its national rural achiever award for 1985. An enthusiastic Freemason, he had been master (1956–57) of the Bell lodge and was honoured with the rank of past deputy grand director of ceremonies by the United Grand Lodge of Queensland. He was five feet ten and a half inches (179 cm) tall and of medium build. When young, he had been a keen tennis player—at Yamsion, where he met his wife-to-be, the Prices lived next to her family, who owned and built tennis courts. With the Dalby Gun Club, he was a champion clay pigeon shooter who was reported to have narrowly missed selection to represent Australia in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Later, he enjoyed golf and boating. His frequent absences abroad and absorption in his work left little time for family life. He and his wife lived in Melbourne during his term as AWB chairman. After retiring, he moved to Toowoomba and took up a directorship of Elders QGGA Grain (Elders Grain) Pty Ltd, but subsequently returned to Melbourne. Sir Leslie died on 18 May 1996 at Richmond, and was buried in the Toowoomba Garden of Remembrance lawn cemetery. His wife and their son and two daughters survived him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Chronicle (Toowoomba, Qld). ‘Knighthood for Tmba’s Les Price.’ 1 January 1976, 1
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba, Qld). ‘Australian Grain Industry Loses a Stalwart.’ 21 May 1996, 3
  • Lauder, Ros, Archivist, United Grand Lodge of Queensland. Personal communication
  • Marriott, R. S. (Dick), and Gus McLean. Going With the Grain: A History of Queensland’s State Wheat Board. Toowoomba, Qld: State Wheat Board, 1991
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 22384
  • New York Times. ‘Wheat Sales Complaint.’ 26 September 1985, Section D, 13
  • Nicol, Alex. ‘Champion of Wheat Industry Reform.’ Australian, 10 June 1996, 15
  • Price, Robert. Personal communication
  • Queensland Country Life (Brisbane). ‘Grain Industry Mourns Leader.’ 23 May 1996, 4
  • Watson, Ron. ‘Campaign to Overturn Government Policies: NFF Aims for $10M to Boost Fighting Fund.’ Canberra Times, 2 April 1986, 29
  • Whitwell, Greg, and Diane Sydenham. A Shared Harvest: The Australian Wheat Industry, 1939–1989. South Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia, 1991

Additional Resources

Citation details

Denise K. Conroy, 'Price, Sir Leslie Victor (Les) (1920–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/price-sir-leslie-victor-les-28993/text36266, published online 2020, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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