M.L.A. Canterbury 1887-1894; M.L.A. St. George 1394-1908 M.L.C. 1908-1932. Premier of N.S.W. 1904-1907
by Alderman R. W. Rathbone
Joseph Hector Carruthers was born on 21st December 1857 at Kiama N.S.W. one of nine children of John Carruthers, a prosperous Scottish migrant farmer and his wife, Charlotte Prince. He was educated at William Street and Fort Street Schools in Sydney, Metcalf’s School in Goulburn and the University of Sydney from which he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1876 and his Masters in 1878. He was articled to A. H. McCulloch and admitted as a solicitor in June 1879. In December the same year, at the age of 21, he married Louise Marion Roberts in St. James’s Church, King Street. They settled first in Ocean Street, Woollahra and then at Kogarah, later moving to Russell Avenue, Sans Souci.
Although slight of stature and frequently dogged by ill-health, he was an enthusiastic tennis player and represented the University at both football and cricket. It is the game of lawn bowls, however, for which he is best remembered and which he is credited with introducing into the St. George district.
He soon became involved in land speculation as a sideline to his conveyancing duties and made considerable sums of money from the land sales which followed the opening of the Illawarra Railway Line in October 1884. This he invested in grazing properties in the Central West and Monaro Regions. He was an active member of the Kogarah Progress Association, Patron of the movement working for the incorporation of Kogarah as a Municipality and Honorary Solicitor to the committee seeking the establishment of a public hospital in the area.
He first became interested in politics while still at the University when he worked for the return of the liberal Dr. Arthur Renwick for the University seat in the N.S.W. Parliament against conservative protectionist, Edmund Barton and in February 1887, was approached to stand as a Free Trade candidate for the four-member constituency of Canterbury in succession to William Judd of “Athelstane”, Arncliffe who had decided not to seek re-election. This seat covered the whole of southern Sydney from Watson’s Bay to Liverpool.
Despite his lack of political experience, he proved to be an energetic and capable. campaigner and topped the poll ahead of retiring member, William Henson, book publisher Alexander Hutchinson and race horse owner William Loyal Davis.
Of Canterbury’s four representatives Carruthers was soon marked out for ministerial preferment. A strong supporter of Sir Henry Parkes, he used his maiden speech to make a plea for the building of a tramway from Kogarah to Sans Souci and in November 1887, piloted through the House the Bill to change the name of the Municipality of West Botany to Rockdale. The same month saw him pressing for a protective fence for Arncliffe School where the cutting down of Cobblers Pinch at the entrance gates had made conditions extremely hazardous. The following year he demanded completion of the Western Outfall Sewer which at that stage was discharging into Cook’s River and acquisition of land at Kurnell for a public reserve. He was, in short, a most active and effective local member and no subject was too trivial to engage his attention. Throughout 1888 he did not miss a single sitting of the House but it was his well reasoned advocacy of Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration to settle trades union and labour disputes and for the provision of financial endowments to local government authorities which won him widespread notice and support.
The Parkes Ministry lasted until January 1889 when a revolt of his own supporters caused Parkes’s resignation and new elections. Carruthers again led the Free Trade team in Canterbury where his personal popularity ensured them the easiest of victories. When Parkes reformed his Ministry after the election, Joseph Hector Carruthers was named Minister for Public Instruction.
This was a particularly difficult portfolio because the full effect of Parkes’s Public Instruction Act of 1880 was only then beginning to be felt and existing school facilities were being strained to breaking point. Those schools which did exist were hopelessly overcrowded and new schools were needed in many rapidly expanding districts. There was a serious shortage of properly trained teachers and few facilities for secondary and tertiary education. This was a challenge that was to prove no match for Carruthers. Although, perhaps, the most harassed and closely questioned member of the Ministry, his great tolerance, patience, courtesy and understanding together with an acute intellect, unflagging industry and economical administration made him by far the most popular, approachable and respected member of the Government. During those years new schools were built at Kogarah and Hurstville and a school established at Hurstville West (Mortdale), the first mentioned being considered the finest educational building of its day. Moves were also made to establish a Teachers Training College but his most lasting monument was the establishment of our present system of technical education and the building of the Ultimo Technical College in 1891. Carruthers was also responsible for starting the School Penny Banking system and endowing the Women’s College within the University of Sydney.
The early 1890’s were, however, completely overshadowed by the Great Maritime Strike which brought N.S.W. to a standstill, disruption to industry and commerce and misery in many homes. After nearly twelve months of riots, strikes, lockouts and privation, the strike collapsed and the maritime unions were crushed. It was out of this strike that the Australian Labor Party was born and when the next State Election fell due in June 1891, one of the 45 seats in which the new Party ran candidates was Canterbury. Although a number of prominent St. George families which had previously supported Carruthers and the Free Trade Party switched their allegiances to Labor, Carruthers again topped the poll by thousands. But 36 Labor candidates were successful and in the new Parliament they held the balance of power. After a short flirtation with Parkas they switched their support to Protectionist Opposition Leader, Sir George Dibbs. This caused the resignation of the Parkas Ministry. Carruthers then moved into opposition where, in true character, anything he had to say was fair and helpful to the man who had succeeded him.
The next two years were, unfortunately, to prove very difficult for him. He suffered one of his most serious bouts of ill-health and his marriage ran into difficulties when his wife became an alcoholic. This resulted in an undefended divorce suit in 1895 when Carruthers was granted custody of their daughter. Throughout 1392 and 1893 his impeccable attendance record suffered and the only time he received a mention in the press was in June 1893 when, in an impassioned and thoroughly out of character speech, he accused the Premier, Sir George Dibbs, of deliberately withholding vital information which the police needed for the prosecution of a man named McNamara whose boiling down works at Rockdale were creating a public nuisance.
Just before the 1894 election fell due the Government abolished the old multi-member electorates and created in their place 125 single member constituencies. One of the new electorates was called St. George and embraced the three municipalities of Rockdale, Hurstville and Kogarah. Although there had been some speculation that, because of the state of his health and his marital problems, Carruthers might possibly retire from politics, the calling of the election seemed to give him new heart. George. Houston Reid had replaced Parkes as leader of the Free Trade Party and with the tide flowing strongly in his favour, fought an inspired campaign. Carruthers was his chief lieutenant. The result in St. George was such a foregone conclusion that Carruthers spent the greater part of the campaign speaking in other electorates where he was in great demand. One of the issues of the election was abolition of the Legislative Council and it was during this campaign that he made his now famous retort that “Anyone who felt the need for two chambers would do well to buy a kerosene tin”. The result was a Free Trade landslide, Carruthers polling more than seventy percent of the votes cast in St. George. After the declaration of the poll from the steps Of the Rockdale Town Hall he was carried shoulder high along the main street.
When Reid formed his Ministry, Carruthers was appointed Secretary for Lands. Like Public Instruction a decade before, this portfolio had been plagued by controversy but his penchant for reform, investment experience and legal expertise made him the ideal choice for the office. His proposals for closer settlement of rural holdings were considered to be a master stroke. The life of this Parliament, however, was dominated by the push for Federation of the six Australian colonies. This movement had begun as early as 1853 but State rivalries had ensured that little progress was made towards it. French and German colonial expansion in the Pacific in the 1880’s and a critical report in 1887 on Australia’s total inability to defend itself in the event of a hostile attack gave the matter more urgency and from the time of Parkes’s memorable speech on 24th October 1889 at Tenterfield, the move towards Federation gathered momentum.
Reid had little enthusiasm for Federation for, although he genuinely believed in the linking of the six Australian colonies, he realised it could only be achieved at the sacrifice of his beloved doctrine of Free Trade. Free Trade was the means of raising revenue by low duties on consumer goods and a graduated system of personal Income tax. The opposing doctrine of Protectionism was one of little or no personal income tax but high duties on consumer goods. This was practised by the five other Australian States. Carruthers was even less enthusiastic for, as an ardent States Righter, he could see the capital of the new Commonwealth of Australia being established in Melbourne – then Australia’s largest city and Victoria dominating the new Federation. When the first Referendum was held in 1897 to approve the Federal Constitution, Reid and Carruthers refused to instruct their supporters which way to vote and as a result, most Free Trade voters abstained. The affirmative vote failed to reach the minimum figure of 50,000 required under the enabling legislation. In July 1898, Parliament having run its three year course, new elections were held and Carruthers, because of his equivocation on the issue of Federation, found himself strongly challenged in St. George by an enthusiastic Federalist, Colonel George Walker Waddell, Chief Inspector of the Australian Joint Stock Bank and Commanding Officer of the Third Regiment, N.S.W. Volunteer Infantry. Although both Reid and Carruthers were returned their majorities were greatly reduced, the Government lost ground and it was obvious that despite the fact that the voters were satisfied with the administration of Reid and Carruthers, they also wanted Federation. A second Plebiscite was held in June 1899 and this time the Yes vote reached the required figure.
Reid continued on as Premier and Carruthers as his Minister for Lands where his never failing courtesy, firmness and fairness enabled him to resist the pressures from interested groups without giving offence to anyone but above all else he remained the local member extra-ordinary. His remarriage in January 1898 to Alice Burnett of Bexley, whose father was the Superintendent of Mails, only added to his immense popularity. In April 1899, Reid reconstructed his Ministry and Carruthers was promoted to the portfolio of Colonial Treasurer, the second most senior ranking position in the Cabinet after Reid himself but he was only to hold this office until September when the Labor members combined with Opposition leader, Sir William Lyne, to bring down the Government.
The year 1900, saw him devoting more and more time to his growing family and entertaining extensively at his new home, “Ellesmere” in Vista Street, Sans Souci. He was also able to concentrate on his flourishing legal practice and although he was still a persistent questioner, he spoke only briefly in the House.
The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act received Royal Assent on September 17th 1900, one of the last acts of the dying Queen Victoria and Australia was officially declared a Nation on January 1st 1901. The first election for the Federal Parliament was set down for 29th and 30th March and a great scramble ensued to contest the new Federal electorates. The whole of the St. George district along with Sutherland, Canterbury, Marrickville and Newtown was located in the Federal Electorate of Lang and it was assumed that Carruthers would be the Free Trade candidate for this seat but Carruthers had other ideas and there was quite a little pique expressed locally when he stated flatly that he had no interest in Federal politics and had no intention of-deserting St. George for the rarefied atmosphere of the Federal Parliament. Premier Lyne was elected for Hume and Opposition leader Reid for East Sydney. This meant both major Parties in N.S.W. were left leaderless. John See succeeded Lyne as Premier and proposed a composite government consisting of representatives of all three Parties. This was flatly rejected by the other two.
When the Free Trade Party came to replace Reid, Carruthers appeared to be the logical choice but to everyone’s surprise it preferred the ailing Charles Alfred Lee, Member for Tenterfield who had served briefly as Reid’s Minister for Justice and Secretary for Public Works. Carruthers had favoured a composite government and had badly misjudged the feeling of his own Party on the matter. He was plainly disappointed and when State Elections were set down for July 1901, he seemed to have little heart for the fight. The Free Trade Party or as it had now become, the Liberal Party, began to fear that Carruthers was running dead and St. George could well be lost to the Labor Party. Despite his reluctance to campaign and a bitterly cold wet winter’s day, his supporters turned out in sufficient numbers to give him a comfortable win.
See continued to lead a Protectionist (now called Progressive) administration backed by Labor and in the months that followed, we see Carruthers in an entirely different role. Aggrieved at having been passed over for the leadership of his Party, he voted against his own leader on the question of reducing the size of the N.S.W. Parliament and featured in an ugly affray with Government members when the question of extending the franchise to women came before the House. Carruthers claimed women had not asked for the vote and their influence was more paramount in the home. In any case, he maintained, it would be necessary to provide separate polling places for women which would be both costly and inconvenient. Works Minister E. W. O’Sullivan described Carruthers’s speech as “ingenuous and leavened with crystallised conservatism” whilst Labor leader McGowan claimed he had no backbone and the barbed tongued John Norton, accused him of being the greatest confuser of issues of all time.
In September 1902, Liberal leader Lee resigned and this time, Carruthers was the unanimous choice of his Party. He immediately set the Liberal Party away from Free Trade V Protectionism and based it on anti socialism and reform. N.S.W. was experiencing its worst drought in many years, unemployment was rising and O’Sullivan’s grandiose public works were placing an intolerable strain on the State finances. The Peoples Reform League had been formed which demanded a reduction in the number of members of Parliament, curtailment of overseas borrowing and general economy of administration. When the Premier declared St. Patrick’s Day a public holiday in order to consolidate his support among the State’s large Irish Catholic population,the worst outbreak of sectarianism the State had ever experienced took place and resulted in the formation of the Protestant Defence Association led by the fiery Presbyterian prelate, Rev. W. M. Dill Macky.
Under the name of the Liberal and Reform Party, Carruthers now embraced most of the principles of the Peoples Reform League. In total contrast to his attitude only a few months before, he wielded the Opposition into a solidly united unit exhibiting a toughness and a political astuteness which amazed even his closest friends. He toured the country forming branches of the Liberal and Reform Party and attracted many converts from the Progressive Party. Carruthers also realised the potential danger of the Labor Party which he trenchantly described as “a bunch of parasites fastened onto the backs of the country’s workers” and sought to pin many of the criticisms of the Government on the fact that it was being held captive by Labor.
Dill Macky’s Protestant Defence Association also grew spectacularly and began to infiltrate the Liberal and Reform Party to such a degree that many Catholic Liberal voters were forced into the ranks of the Progressive and Labor Parties.
Early in 1904, Sir John See resigned as Premier and was replaced by Thomas Waddell but practically the whole of 1904 was given over to party pre-selection ballots for the State Election due in August. No party had more difficulty with these than Carruthers’ Liberal and Reform Association. The number of seats in the Legislative Assembly had been reduced from 125 to 90 and this meant many sitting members faced one another in party pre-selection ballots. Protestant and Temperance elements exerted great influence in Liberal ballots whilst the U.L.V.A. (United Licenced Victuallers Association) was active in Labor ones. Hordes of independents, independent Liberals and Unendorsed Liberals plagued the official Party and vote splitting in the first past the post system of voting threatened to cost Carruthers any hope of defeating the combined Progressive-Labor forces.
Carruthers campaigned like a man possessed. The Government was in deep trouble and when the numbers went up on election night, the Liberal and Reform Party had won a narrow majority of the 90 seats. The Progressive Party had been decimated and for the first time in N.S.W. Labor became the official Opposition. Carruthers offered to fuse his Party with the remnants of the Progressives to create a united front against Labor but this was rejected.
He now found himself both Premier and Treasurer and imposed an iron discipline on his Ministry and his parliamentary members. Taking advantage of the better seasons, he implemented measures of economic recovery, aided business, reformed the civil service and cut rail freights. He extended local government to all sections of the State except the sparsely populated Western Division, improved the State’s financial standing overseas and set up the Government Savings Bank of N.S.W. But his period as Premier was no bed of roses. His economies did not go far enough for the more extreme elements of the Reform Association and the large expenditure for public works provided in his 1904 budget brought bitter criticism from that quarter. Failure to act on the liquor question brought down upon his head the considerable displeasure of the Temperance Alliance and his enlightened industrial policy drew criticism from manufacturing interests who claimed he was trying to placate the Labor Party.
Carruthers, however, could be a very determined man and refused to be bullied by the extremists. During 1905 his government built up an impressive list of achievements. The Education Department was reformed and the first Teachers Training College established. The celebration of Empire Day was introduced. The Burrinjuck Water Conservation Scheme was commenced and Local Option Polls re-introduced. Carruthers balanced the State’s budget and general prosperity ensued. At the same time he incurred the wrath of the Protestant Defence Association when he appointed a number of Catholics to prominent positions in the Public Service and raised it to fury when he flatly refused to bring in legislation to compel convents to open their doors for public inspection and to bring Catholic industrial establishments under the Industrial Act. He also offended many Methodist supporters In his own electorate by declining to take action against Chinese market gardeners who worked on Sundays.
He successfully withstood the backwash of the Royal Commission into the Administration of the Lands Department which revealed widespread irregularities in land deals by Lands Minister, W. P. Crick, during Sir John See’s term as Premier.
Throughout 1906, Carruthers plugged doggedly on ignoring criticism of the management of the Railways Department, refusing to be rushed into hasty decisions, always steering the middle path. He amended the Gaming and Betting Act provoking a head on collision between the “Sports” and the “Wowsers”, passed the Murrumbidgee Canals Construction Act which allowed the development of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area and provided the money to allow sewerage to be extended to the Illawarra Suburbs. He induced the banks to lower their interest rates to encourage investment, began work on the Mitchell Wing of the State Library and established chairs of Agriculture and Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney.
Carruthers was, however, constantly vilified by the Sydney Morning Herald which took every opportunity to denigrate hi:s achievements and to ridicule him personally. He had made it very clear from the commencement of his administration that he, and not the editor of this journal would dictate what legislation he put before the parliament. He was also criticised by a number of members of the Legislative Council who represented the manufacturing interests and did not endear himself to them when he snapped that he was thinking of abolishing this Chamber as it was nothing more than a haven of rest and replacing it with a panel of newspaper editors.
Despite these detractors, he kept the parliamentary Liberal Party and the outside organisation solidly behind him and vigorously defended his administration at every turn. In May 1907 he succeeded in fusing his Party with the Progressives and brought Progressive Leader, Waddell, into his ministry as Colonial Secretary and in September, he faced the people of N.S.W. for their verdict. The Protestant Defence Association, The Temperance Alliance, the Manufacturing Interests and the Sydney Morning Herald were left with no alternative but to support the Labor Party or to hold their peace. Labor accused the Government of being nothing more than the voice of the Methodist Church. Dr. Dill Macky said Labor was the voice of Rome. Cardinal Moran advised all Catholics to vote against any candidate wearing the endorsement of the Protestant Defence Association. Voting was particularly heavy and Labor made some gains in the suburbs but the tighter and more disciplined Liberal organisation picked up a number of seats lost on a split vote in 1904 and the Government found itself returned with a substantially increased majority.
Carruthers scored a personal triumph in his seat of St. George being returned by the greatest majority ever recorded in a State seat up till that time. The Labor candidate, veteran campaigner, George Black, did not even wait for the poll to be declared. But the three years of constant turmoil and criticism had taken Its toll on his never robust constitution. Two days before election day he had collapsed after addressing a meeting at Bexley. He was desperately in need of rest and suffering from increasing deafness and in the face of mounting industrial unrest and difficulty in reforming his Ministry, he resigned the Premiership and the leadership of the Liberal Party, leaving almost immediately, on an extended visit to England. His Party, the electors of St. George and the people of N.S.W. were stunned.
The Herald could hardly restrain Its glee. In a most patronising editorial It regretted his illness but declared “He has proved himself a politician of the most aggressive type, wanting in magnetism and with no remarkable amount of tact, often impetuous in his decisions but able to carry them into effect with determination”.
Whilst in London, he was offered the vacant Agent General’s position but declined although he did represent N.S.W. at the Franco British Exhibition there. He was also Invested with an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of St. Andrews and before returning to Australia was knighted by King Edward VII with the K.C.M.G. In October 1908 he resigned his beloved seat of St. George and was appointed to the Legislative Council. Not yet 52 and considerably recovered from the exhaustion which had caused his resignation as Premier, he became a most active and useful member of that Chamber. He led the Council’s opposition to the McGowan Labor Government’s proposals to tax rents and incomes from farming and grazing on freehold land but strongly supported the same government’s amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act. It was not long before he became the unofficial leader of the Non Labor forces in the Legislative Council.
With the outbreak of the First World War, he threw himself enthusiastically into War Charity work and supported W. M. Hughes’s efforts to impose Conscription. He had moved from Sans Souci to Waverley in 1909 but continued to be active in Non Labor election committees in the St. George district at each election. He supported T. J. Ley against the Nationalist Party in 1920. In 1919 and 1920 he chaired the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Agricultural Industry of N.S.W., the most extensive and in depth study of its kind ever undertaken in the State and so impressed his Party that when Nationalist Premier Holman lost his seat at the 1920 State Election, there was a strong move to draft him back into the Premiership. He served as Vice President of the Executive Council and Government Leader in the Upper House in Sir George Fuller’s ill-fated Seven Hours Ministry on 21st December 1921 and again in those positions in Fuller’s Second Ministry between 1922 and 1925.
He proved a major thorn in the side of the first Lang Government between 1925 and 1928 and showed that he had lost none of his political sagacity when, even after Lang had swamped the Legislative Council with new appointments pledged to vote for its abolition, he was able to get 50 of the 98 members to petition the Governor for its retention. He played no small part in resisting the excesses of the Second Lang Administration which finally resulted in its dismissal in May, 1932. It was Ironic that the same man who had been so savagely criticised by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1906-1907 was eulogised by that same journal in 1932 as “that bulwark against Labor extravagance”.
By now he was nearly 75 years of age and on 10th December 1932, shortly before his 75th birthday, he died peacefully at his home, “Highbury”, in Old South Head Road, Waverley. Apart from his political career he had had many other interests. He had been a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney and one of the founders of the University Union, President of the N.S.W. Chamber of Agriculture, a member of the Royal Agricultural Society, a trustee of National Park and the National Art Gallery. He was a past president of the N.S.W. Cricket Association, played bowls regularly and enjoyed fishing and shooting. He was a trustee of the M.L.C. Assurance Company, a director of the Kembla Grange and Moorefield Racing Clubs, the National Insurance Company and the Australian Widows Fund. He held extensive pastoral holdings in mid western and southern N.S.W.. For many years he had had a fascination with Captain Cook and was responsible for setting aside the Captain Cook Landing Place Reserve at Kurnell as well as being chairman of trustees of the Reserve for many years.
He was survived by his second wife, Lady Alice, three of his four sons and four daughters and lies buried in South Head Cemetery. Perhaps the most eloquent summation of the life of this outstanding man was made by Sir Henry Manning who succeeded him as Government Leader in the Legislative Council – “He looked at the world in a big way. He eschewed the small things of life and concentrated on the things that mattered. He brought to bear a most masterful hand, a most subtle intellect and a most persevering energy to every task he undertook”.
This article was first published in the December 1989 and February 1990 editions of our magazine.
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