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Frank Joseph Scott Wise (1897–1986)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Frank Joseph Scott Wise (1897-1986), agricultural adviser, premier and administrator of the Northern Territory, was born on 30 May 1897 at Ipswich, Queensland, third child of English-born parents Charles Edward Wise, salesman, and his wife Emily Gertrude, née Gordon. Educated at Rosalie, Mount Gravatt and East Brisbane primary schools and Queensland Agricultural College, Gatton, he worked on a family farm from 1913 until joining the Queensland Department of Agriculture in May 1917 as a farmhand at the Roma State farm. After service in Brisbane he became a field officer in 1920, serving at Kairi on the Atherton Tableland and at the Home Hill Research Station near Ayr. On 12 June 1922 at St John’s Church of England, Cairns, he married Elsie Dorothy Hunter (d.1943). Seconded (1923-24) to the Western Australian Department of Agriculture to report on cotton-growing in the West Kimberley district, he then farmed (1924-28) at Gympie, Queensland.

In 1928-29 Wise served as special commissioner to the North Australia Commission reporting on the potential for tropical agriculture in the Northern Territory and the north of Western Australia. Returning to Western Australia, as adviser on agricultural development in the north-west in 1929-33 he was largely responsible for the establishment of the irrigated banana-growing industry in the Carnarvon region. A member of the Australian Labor Party since 1920, he stood unsuccessfully in 1930 for the North Province seat in the Legislative Council. In 1933 he contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Gascoyne against its long-serving member, Edward Angelo. Wise won, converting Gascoyne to a safe Labor seat until his resignation in 1951.

A stockily built man who from an early age needed glasses, Wise soon made a name as a cogent debater and sound administrator. He was appointed minister for agriculture and the north-west in March 1935. In July 1936 he shed responsibility for the north-west but added police (until March 1937) and education (until April 1939) to his portfolios, and was minister for lands and agriculture from April 1939 until July 1945. He was a delegate for the Western Australian Tobacco and Cigar Union to a triennial national conference in 1935 and served on several parliamentary committees. On 11 November 1944 at Christ Church, Claremont, he married with Anglican rites Patricia McCormick, a nursing sister.

Gaining national recognition for his administrative competency, Wise was appointed by the Commonwealth government to chair (1943-46) the Rural Reconstruction Commission, laying the foundations for primary production policy after World War II. At the State level he oversaw the 1944 legislation transforming the State-owned Agricultural Bank, then regarded as little more than a debt-collecting institution for farmers recovering from the 1930s Depression, into the Rural and Industries Bank with a charter to support postwar development in both primary and secondary industry.

When the premier, John Willcock, resigned on 31 July 1945, Wise was his party’s unanimous choice as successor. He confronted challenging problems. Public and private infrastructure was run down because of the Depression and wartime shortages. Primary and secondary industries established to meet war requirements had an uncertain future in peacetime. Militancy was gaining ground in several industrial unions, so that strikes disrupted the State’s transport and electricity systems, already coping with deteriorating equipment. In the Pilbara district Aboriginal station workers, encouraged by Don McLeod, a non-Aboriginal social reformer, walked off their jobs. The Wise government showed no sympathy for the unrest, but it was symptomatic of pressures for social change. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Liberal Party of Australia, founded in 1945, was giving new credibility to an ageing Opposition.

At the State elections in 1947 the Wise government was narrowly beaten by a coalition of the Liberal and Country parties led by (Sir) (Duncan) Ross McLarty. Wise resigned the premiership on 1 April 1947 and became leader of the Opposition. Respected by his opponents, he was appointed chairman of a select committee into the Land Sales Control Act (1948) and another investigating the Kauri Timber Company Agreement Bill (1950), but he missed the challenges of administration. His party having lost another election in 1950, he was glad to resign his seat in July 1951, when offered the position of administrator of the Northern Territory by the new federal minister for territories, (Sir) Paul Hasluck.

Wise served as administrator until 30 June 1956. Despite their different political backgrounds he worked well with Hasluck. Between them they built up an efficient senior public service, with strong Western Australian representation. Wise tended to leave the shaping of Aboriginal policy to Hasluck, concentrating on the economic rehabilitation of the Territory. Considerable progress was made in the rebuilding of Darwin, still showing damage from wartime bombing, and in the creation of new townships, such as Batchelor and Elliott. Improved roads assisted in reviving fortunes of the pastoral industry. Uranium mining was developed at Rum Jungle. An American syndicate organised by Allan Chase attempted large-scale rice-growing at Humpty Doo. The venture was eventually unsuccessful, but Wise retained enough faith to encourage the Western Australian government to back Chase in a second venture in the Esperance district. This, too, ran into difficulties.

Within weeks of his resignation an unexpected by-election enabled Wise to re-enter Western Australian politics in September 1956 as Labor member for North Province in the Legislative Council. The premier, his former colleague Bert Hawke, appointed him minister for industrial development, local government and town planning in November 1958, but on 21 March 1959 the Hawke government was defeated at an election. Wise never again held ministerial office, though he was leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council from July 1962 to June 1966. He is the only person to have led a major party in both houses of the West Australian parliament. His last noteworthy assignment before retirement in May 1971 was as Western Australian representative at the general conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Canberra in 1970.

Unlucky to spend the second half of his parliamentary career largely in Opposition, Wise promoted goals for the economic development of Western Australia and the Northern Territory that commanded a large measure of bipartisan support. Colleagues of all political shades had a good opinion of him. He twice refused a knighthood, but was appointed AO in 1979. Survived by his wife and their son and three daughters and the son and two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 29 June 1986 at Cottesloe and was cremated after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Stannage (ed), A New History of Western Australia (1981)
  • B. Oliver, Unity is Strength (2003)
  • D. Black and G. Bolton, Biographical Register of Members of The Parliament of Western Australia, vol 2, revised edition (2004)
  • West Australian, 30 June 1986, pp 3, 14, 1 July 1986, p 8, 4 July 1986, p 2
  • F. J. S. Wise taped reminiscences (State Library of Western Australia & National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Wise, Frank Joseph Scott (1897–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 May, 1897
Ipswich, Queensland, Australia


29 June, 1986 (aged 89)
Cottesloe, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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