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Watt, William Alexander (1871–1946)

by John Anderson and Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 2021

William Alexander Watt (1871-1946), premier and acting prime minister, was born on 23 November 1871 at Barfold, near Kyneton, Victoria, eleventh and youngest child of James Michie Watt, a farmer who had migrated from Scotland about 1843, and his Methodist wife Jane, née Douglas, from Ireland. After James's death in 1872, the family moved to Phillip Island and some six years later settled in North Melbourne. Billy attended the Errol Street State School and was a newsboy. He joined an ironmongery, then a tannery, as a clerk, and, after ten years supporting his mother and a sister, became accountant and eventually a partner in a hay and corn store, Barwise & Co. On 21 December 1894 he married Florence Carrighan at the Presbyterian Church, Parkville; she was to die after childbirth in 1896.

'A precocious boy, a smart lad, and a clever young man', Watt had ambitions of becoming 'the complete orator', but learned to fight in Royal Park and a lasting rumour associated him with a local 'push'. He read voraciously, frequenting the Public Library, and from 1888 undertook night studies at the Working Men's College in accountancy, grammar, logic, mental philosophy and elocution. By 1893 he was secretary of the North Melbourne Debating Club. William Sydney Robinson recalled his brother (Sir) Arthur and Watt at the Parkville Literary and Debating Society addressing 'the assembled multitude, chiefly in the form of my solitary self, on political issues'. Watt also gathered friends for weekly discussions of topical questions.

He joined the Australian Natives' Association, probably before 1890. The North Melbourne team, with Watt winding up, won the metropolitan debating competition three times in the mid-1890s. A delegate (1895-1901) to annual conferences and a president of the metropolitan committee, he was famous for his recitation of 'The Man from Snowy River' at smoke-nights. From 1894 he was an executive member of the A.N.A.-inspired Australasian Federation League of Victoria and campaigned vigorously for the 'holy cause' in 1898, especially at the crucial A.N.A. conference in March at Bendigo.

In October 1897 Watt had been elected to the Legislative Assembly for Melbourne North over the fiery Labor member George Prendergast. The Age and conservative voters backed Watt in a turbulent campaign; always combative, he enjoyed the cut and thrust. Although anti-socialist, he stood for radical liberal reform of 'a social order, where the few sit on the shoulders of the many'. He was soon identified with other A.N.A. members known as the 'Young Australia' group who, indignant first with Premier (Sir) George Turner's equivocation over the Federal bill, later criticized the government's cautious land, taxation and factories legislation. In October 1899 Watt was boldly sceptical about the wisdom of sending a contingent to the South African War, but later became conventionally bellicose.

The 'Young Australia' group helped to dismiss Turner in November and Allan McLean invited Watt to become postmaster-general: he was the only city member in cabinet and, at 28, reportedly the youngest cabinet minister in the Empire; he survived a desperately hard-fought ministerial election. A capable minister who tried hard to bring about the penny post and the Pacific cable connexion, he was sometimes accused of autocracy and egotism. The realities of office tempered his radicalism but, having isolated himself from the Turner-Labor alliance, he lost his seat at the November 1900 election.

Watt stood unsuccessfully for the first Commonwealth Senate as a Protectionist, and was twice more defeated for the assembly, but helped his idol Alfred Deakin to build a national Liberal organization. Having opened an estate agency and moved to Moonee Ponds, he was returned to the assembly for Melbourne East in October 1902 and for Essendon in June 1904. He was a supporter in principle of his friend (Sir) William Irvine, but concentrated on establishing an independent position; seeing Labor as the chief enemy, he determined to bring about a two-party alignment. He still staunchly supported reform of the Legislative Council, the female franchise, further factory legislation and protection of the weak. With his friend James Arthur Boyd, he sniped at Premier (Sir) Thomas Bent. According to (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, 'The history of the Bent Ministry is a duel between Bent and Watt; for a long time Bent was invulnerable, but … he gradually succumbed'. John Murray resigned from the ministry in August 1906 and allied himself with Watt. They eventually brought down Bent on 3 December 1908 and won the following election.

After Murray became premier on 8 January 1909 in a composite ministry, largely of countrymen, Watt was treasurer almost uninterruptedly until June 1914. He was the government's driving force, even before acting as premier for six months in 1911 and before the tiring Murray passed the premiership to him in May 1912. William Baillieu, James Drysdale Brown and George Graham were leading colleagues. An expanding economy supported rural development policies, decentralization, lavish government spending and further instalments of 'state socialism'. The government swept to victory at the November 1911 election.

As always the Legislative Council obstructed. In 1909-10 it rejected compulsory land acquisition, radical land taxation and optional preferential voting; but it tolerated the establishment of state secondary education (Watt had vigorously supported Frank Tate) and in 1911 gave way on land taxation and preferential voting. Guided by Elwood Mead in the purchase of irrigable lands, the government furthered closer settlement which it linked with railway construction and assisted immigration. In 1911-12 it undertook a massive legislative programme, involving wholesale reorganization of public services. The Country Roads Board was established, the Melbourne Harbor Trust reorganized and electrification of suburban railways was accepted. Hospitals and charities, workers' compensation and Greater Melbourne legislation had to be delayed. Watt significantly developed 'state socialism' in Victoria—'anything the State can do for the State better than others, let the State do'—and especially the use of the statutory corporation.

Absent from February to July 1913, Watt impressively negotiated a large conversion loan in England. In 1912 many of his nominal supporters had begun to caucus as a 'country party'. Hoping to force reconstruction of the ministry, in July 1913 Donald McLeod moved a want of confidence motion and attacked in particular the transfer of government functions to 'irresponsible boards'. Watt replied with harsh invective and the countrymen withdrew. In December, however, he introduced redistribution legislation, re-valuing a metropolitan vote merely from 50 to 60 per cent of a non-metropolitan vote. Enough countrymen voted with Labor to defeat the government, whereupon Watt resigned and the Labor leader George Elmslie was commissioned. Master of the situation, Watt brought his followers to heel: Labor was defeated after one week in office and he reconstructed his ministry with additional radical Liberals. He then enacted workers' compensation legislation, but postponed redistribution, Greater Melbourne, and hospitals and charities regulation.

Watt developed his unrivalled reputation as a financier during the long negotiations between Commonwealth and States for adjustments after the initial ten-year financial agreement. His proposals at the 1914 premiers' conference concerning State debts and a national borrowing policy were far-sighted, if premature: Watt looked to unification in the distant future. Meanwhile, he fervently opposed the Fisher Labor government's attempts in 1911 and 1913 to transfer major powers by referendum, in the belief that the States must continue to control developmental policies. At the 1912 premiers' conference he took the lead in formulating proposals by the States to transfer powers voluntarily. He resisted the new Commonwealth Bank's encroachment on the State banks' activities. In 1913-14 he contributed crucially to the final difficult settlement of the Murray Waters Agreement.

Eggleston studs his account of Watt with superlatives—the dominant force in Victorian politics, a man who tackled the hard problems, a great parliamentarian, orator and debater—but Watt could be rash and sometimes lapsed into intolerance and scorching sarcasm. Roy Bridges, the Age journalist, became Watt's close friend and regarded him as 'a great Australian, generous, sympathetic, democratic, unpretentious'.

It was widely believed that Deakin regarded Watt as his successor. His oration at Deakin's funeral was to be generally regarded as superb. Just before the outbreak of World War I, 'after 48 hours self-searching', Watt yielded to party blandishments and, as an obvious potential prime minister, resigned the premiership in order to contest Balaclava and campaign for (Sir) Joseph Cook's government; he comfortably defeated John Curtin and thanked Herbert Brookes for the 'part you played in dragging me across'.

Labor's victory in September 1914 was a setback to Watt who must have expected a ministry. He threw himself into support for the war effort and, apprehensive of divisiveness, muted his criticisms of the government's war measures. His negotiations late in 1915 with (Sir) Alexander Peacock avoided a referendum by securing an offer from the premiers to transfer limited powers for the duration of the war. From July 1915 Watt was a member of the parliamentary war committee. He was already convinced that the government should introduce conscription and his fiery patriotic speeches made him the darling of the powerful Australian Women's National League. Yet his attack on Frank Brennan for 'pigeon-livered' pacifist tendencies led to Brennan challenging him to meet at a recruiting office; Watt avoided the issue.

The failure of the conscription plebiscite and the Labor split in November 1916 led Watt, Irvine and James Hume Cook to work for a national government. The non-party National Referendum Council (of which Watt had been joint secretary) was a useful basis for a 'Win-the-War' party. The process took ten weeks. Sir John Forrest, Irvine and Cook all claimed leadership: Watt knew it had to be Billy Hughes, and threatened Cook with the secession of Victorians from the Liberal Party. The National Federation was launched in Melbourne on 9 January 1917; the Liberal Party was finally coerced on 8 February and the National ministry was formed on 17 February. Watt had been chief architect and drafter of policy.

Hughes preferred Watt as treasurer, but was obliged to give Forrest the post: Watt had to be content with works and railways, and saw the transcontinental railway through its final stages. He supported Hughes in holding the second conscription plebiscite and in the fiasco of charging Tom Ryan with conspiracy. When Hughes kept his pledge to resign, Watt advised Governor-General Munro Ferguson not to commission Forrest with whom he had repeatedly clashed in cabinet. After Hughes resumed office, he and Watt conspired to make Forrest a lord; once Forrest resigned, Watt at last became treasurer on 27 March 1918, having acted for a month. In April Hughes and Cook sailed for London. Watt was acting prime minister, eventually for sixteen months.

Almost his first action was to introduce a formal agenda for and minutes of cabinet meetings. In order to ensure Stanley (Viscount) Bruce's success at the Flinders by-election in May, in return for the withdrawal of the Farmers' candidate he promised and later carried out introduction of preferential voting. Cabinet accepted General Sir William Birdwood's recommendation of (Sir) John Monash as commander of the Australian Corps. Late in the year Watt abruptly gazetted Jens Jensen out of the ministry after an adverse royal commission report on defence expenditure. He quickly pulled the Nationalist politicians together and conciliated Labor by modifying coercion to stimulate voluntary recruitment. Leading a weak and weary ministry while in precarious health, he brought comparative calm to government, but told Hughes several times that he hoped he would soon return to relieve him.

Watt had found both the Treasury and the Prime Minister's Office in confusion. War finance was in a parlous state and a huge debt was mounting for Britain's maintenance of Australian troops. In July he insisted that the premiers stop borrowing and reduce public works. His austere budget heavily increased taxation; he introduced a bill, abandoned with the peace, that required subscription to war loans according to means. Fearful for the future, he continued austerity during 1919. His concern for State rights was now subordinated to the needs of the nation.

Hughes, in England, had often taken initiatives without consultation. Watt, however, was also tactless and inconsiderate, and their acerbic exchanges in hundreds of often delayed ciphered cables inevitably led to friction, especially over extension of the wool agreement with the British government and wheat sales. After the Armistice innumerable issues of external policy arose which the government had not discussed before Hughes's departure. Watt and the cabinet became increasingly concerned about the prime minister keeping them uninformed and about his public confrontations with the Imperial government. They backed him when Lloyd George accepted President Wilson's Fourteen Points without consulting the Dominions, but, sensitive to Imperial ties, resisted his assertion of particular Australian interests and his campaign for separate Dominion representation at the peace conference: Hughes took no notice. Watt established a Pacific branch of the Prime Minister's Department under Edmund Piesse, without consulting the prime minister. Hughes began selling Commonwealth ships, without notifying Watt. Cabinet joined Hughes in opposition to Wilson's insistence on League of Nations control of German colonies, but preferred Imperial annexation and Australian administration to Hughes's demand for Australian annexation. In response to Hughes's offensive attitude to Japan, Watt issued a statement of admiration for Japan's conduct as a British ally. Hughes and Watt had developed a deep antagonism. After Hughes returned in August 1919, Watt had to be persuaded to continue in the government beyond the December election.

A supercilious Munro Ferguson at first was restive about Watt's casual methods, his limited appreciation of the governor-general's constitutional role and his disinclination to take the award of honours entirely seriously. He eventually came to admire Watt's broad-mindedness and his 'grasp of the financial and commercial situation … he is extremely reasonable and a very pleasant man to discuss business with. He can see both sides of a case and his judgement can be relied on'. It was doubtful if even Hughes had rendered better war service.

In April 1920 Watt sailed for England for vital financial negotiations. Meanwhile Hughes pursued negotiations on wool, without informing him. In June Watt resigned as treasurer, in a distraught state: 'I was credentialled to London as a Minister Plenipotentiary, but upon my arrival had no greater powers than a messenger boy'. On his tardy return in October, he delivered a detailed self-defence in parliament, charging Hughes with deliberately setting out to destroy a rival, but was generally disregarded. Watt had married Emily Helena Seismann at Essendon on 24 April 1907 and had five young children for whom he was anxious to provide. He had refused a knighthood, partly because he considered he had inadequate means to live up to it, but had delighted in his appointment as privy counsellor in 1920; he was also made commander of the Légion d'honneur.

Though seeming to be, almost inevitably, the next prime minister, Watt had muffed the chance. Over the next two years he veered between deciding to leave politics for a business career and making a last throw for high office. In 1918-19 he had been incapacitated for weeks with heart trouble and nervous tension. His health now improved. A lone wolf, he attacked Hughes's wool policy, and Cook's and Bruce's budgets, and rarely attended party meetings. He lost all credibility with Nationalist politicians who looked to (Sir) Walter Massy-Greene as Hughes's likely replacement. Watt was behind much Victorian criticism within the party in 1922, but publicly remained aloof from the anti-Hughes Liberal Union. He often conferred, however, with (Sir) Earle Page, an admirer who saw him as a possible leading colleague in the future.

When Hughes was deposed early in 1923 in favour of Bruce and Page, Watt was feared as too much of a danger to leave free on the back-benches: he was offered and accepted the speakership for one term. By this stage Watt was essentially a conservative Imperialist who opposed equal status of the Dominions with Britain. The radical Victorian Deakinite strain disappeared as an influence in Commonwealth politics. He was a very successful Speaker, quick, decisive and popular; his weekly afternoon teas helped to promote 'fruitful social intercourse between the parties'. In 1926 he resumed sniping against the government, yet his stature was such that his party endorsement was renewed. He was active in debate in 1927 over the Financial Agreement with the States which he eventually accepted; in 1944, in his preface to Deakin's The Federal Story, he finally declared himself a unificationist. After parliament moved to Canberra, he attended less than half the sitting-days and spoke rarely. On medical advice, he resigned his seat in July 1929.

From 1922 Watt had been chairman of Australian Farms Ltd which aimed to attract migrants with capital; it was liquidated in 1925. As chairman, he saw Dunlop-Perdriau Rubber Co. successfully through the Depression, but declined a governing directorship. From his base in Collins House, he was also chairman of the Aeolian Co. (Aust) Ltd, British Dominion Film Ltd, Jalan Kebun Rubber Co., Taranaki Oil Fields Ltd, Rolfe & Co. Ltd and of the local boards of Silverton Tramway Co. Ltd and Zinc Corporation Ltd, and a director of QANTAS Empire Airways Ltd and other companies. During the Depression he was notably sympathetic to the unemployed and workers suffering wage-cuts. A member of the Imperial Federation League, he was first Victorian president of the English-Speaking Union and revered King George V and Queen Mary. He was never happier than when watching Test cricket as chairman of the Melbourne ground trustees.

With deep-set eyes, Watt had a broad, pugnacious face and was clean-shaven. Known in middle age as William, Will or Willy (never as Bill), he began to compensate for his early teetotalism and remained a pipe-smoker. His manner was breezy, his humour witty though mordant, his aplomb marred by fits of temper; his intimates included W. S. Robinson (to whom he was 'always a wonderful friend and helper'), W. L. Baillieu and William Holman, and he had many Jewish friends. A fine player of bridge, he was a convivial member of the Yorick, Athenaeum, West Brighton and Victoria Golf clubs; he disliked pomp, formality and attending Government House. He was a masterful parent. A stroke in 1937 partly disabled him. An agnostic, he died at his Toorak home on 13 September 1946 and was cremated; his wife, two sons and three daughters survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £37,256. Portraits by Emanuel Phillips Fox and William Longstaff are held in the Savage Club, Melbourne, and in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • R. Bridges, That Yesterday Was Home (Syd, 1948)
  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • F. C. Green, Servant of the House (Melb, 1969)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 26 July 1906, 29 July 1909, 23 May 1912
  • Table Talk, 1 Nov 1928
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 May 1912
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1938
  • J. S. Anderson, W. A. Watt: A Political Biography (M.A. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • J. Hume Cook, Recollections and Reflections: The Story of My Life, (typescript, 1935, National Library of Australia)
  • Brookes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Groom papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Makin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

John Anderson and Geoffrey Serle, 'Watt, William Alexander (1871–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2021, accessed online 29 July 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 12

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