Hal Colebatch

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Sir Hal Colebatch

Portrait of Sir Hal Colebatch (cropped).jpg
12th Premier of Western Australia
In office
17 April 1919 17 May 1919
Preceded by Sir Henry Lefroy
Succeeded by Sir James Mitchell
ConstituencyEast Province (Legislative Council)
Senator for Western Australia
In office
1 July 1929 20 March 1933
Succeeded by Herbert Collett
Personal details
Born(1872-03-29)29 March 1872
Wolferlow, Herefordshire, England
Died12 February 1953(1953-02-12) (aged 80)
Political party Nationalist
Spouse(s)Mary Maude Saunders (d. 1940) [1]
Marion Frances Gibson

Sir Harry Pateshall Colebatch CMG (29 March 1872 12 February 1953) was a long-serving and occasionally controversial figure in Western Australian politics. He was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Council for nearly 20 years, the twelfth Premier of Western Australia for a month in 1919, agent-general in London for five years, and a federal senator for four years.


Early life

Hal Colebatch was born in Wolferlow in Herefordshire, England, on 29 March 1872. His family migrated to Australia in 1878, settling at Goolwa in South Australia. Colebatch left school in 1883 at the age of 11, because his father could not afford to continue his education. He then found work as an office boy and junior reporter for a local newspaper, the Norwood Free Press. When this paper collapsed, he worked for a series of short-lived papers on the South Australian goldfields. He worked for the Petersburg Times and the Laura Standard. [2] In 1888, he moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales, where he worked for six years as reporter for the Silver Age. There, he reported on a number of strike meetings in 1892, and was subsequently summoned as a Crown witness in the prosecution of some strike leaders.

In 1894, Colebatch migrated to Western Australia to take up a position as reporter on the Coolgardie newspaper Golden Age. After the collapse of the Golden Age the following year, he moved to Kalgoorlie to report on the Kalgoorlie Miner. In 1896, he moved to Perth to join the Morning Herald as mining editor and chess editor. Colebatch was a keen chess player at this time and, in 1898, he won the state title, thereby becoming Western Australia's third chess champion. On 29 April 1896, Colebatch married Mary Maude Saunders in Perth. [1]

In 1898, Hal Colebatch telegraphed to the Kalgoorlie Miner a report on a fist-fight in the state parliament between two members. Information on the fight had been provided by a police inspector who had been on duty in the House, and had been instructed to brief reporters. The information was greatly exaggerated. However, by the time Colebatch discovered this fact, the telegraph office was closed. The Kalgoorlie Miner ran the story on the front page.

The premier, Sir John Forrest, was furious about the report because of its potential effect on investment in the state. The government subsequently sued the proprietors of the Kalgoorlie Miner for publishing a libel, but the case was unsuccessful. Forrest then ordered Colebatch to be barred from the press gallery. On 19 October, the sergeant-at-arms forcibly ejected Colebatch and, the following day, the latter indicated his intention to sue for assault. Colebatch subsequently received plenty of support in the House from members who felt that he had been unfairly treated; and, shortly afterwards, his suspension was lifted.

In Northam

In 1904, Colebatch moved to Northam, where he bought the Northam Advertiser. He ran the paper until 1923, when he gave it to his sons as a reward for their war service. He would continue contributing to the paper for the rest of his life.

In Northam, Colebatch met and became friends with James Mitchell. Colebatch encouraged Mitchell to stand for parliament and, in 1905, he managed Mitchell's successful campaign for election to the Legislative Assembly seat of Northam. Mitchell would hold the seat until 1933, and this would later prevent Colebatch from contesting the lower house seat himself. From 1909 to 1912, Colebatch was the mayor of Northam. In February 1912, he formed a Northam branch of the Liberal League.

In Western Australian politics

Colebatch c. 1921-1923 Hal Colebatch.jpg
Colebatch c. 1921-1923

In 1910, Colebatch unsuccessfully contested a by-election for the then upper-house rural seat of East Province. The following year, he contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Avon but was again unsuccessful. On 14 May 1912, he was elected to the Legislative Council seat of East Province in a by-election. There, he played a key role in the Legislative Council's persistent opposition to much of the more radical legislation put forward by John Scaddan's Labor government. When Scaddan's government fell in 1916, Colebatch was appointed Colonial Secretary and minister for education in Frank Wilson's government. The following year, he became deputy premier under Henry Lefroy. That year also, he oversaw the establishment of the first high schools in regional Western Australia.

The Spanish flu crises

In the latter half of 1918, Spanish flu was sweeping the world but had not yet broken out in Western Australia. As minister for health, Colebatch was responsible for quarantine. This presented a series of challenges. Late in 1918, with Lefroy absent and Colebatch acting as premier as well as health minister, the troopship Boonah returned to Western Australia carrying soldiers infected with the Spanish flu. Colebatch was required to maintain a balance between the conflicting requirements of maintaining an effective quarantine while treating and repatriating the returned troops. Once the Boonah crisis was over, Colebatch was widely seen to have handled it responsibly and effectively.

Early in the new year, another crisis eventuated when the Spanish flu broke out in Victoria and South Australia. Both states initially declined to declare infection and close their borders, so Colebatch closed Western Australia's borders unilaterally. His decision greatly angered the acting prime minister William Watt, but he was strongly supported in Western Australia.


On 17 April 1919, Lefroy resigned as premier, and Colebatch succeeded him. He remains the only premier of Western Australia to have governed from the Legislative Council, having done so on the understanding that an Assembly seat would be found for him. Colebatch continued as colonial secretary and minister for education, and also took on the treasury and railways portfolios. He brought Mitchell into the ministry as minister for lands.

Within two weeks, Colebatch had yet another crisis to deal with: the Fremantle wharf crisis of 1919. The labour crisis dragged on for almost a month, culminating in one of the most violent confrontations in Western Australian history. Lumpers objected to goods being unloaded by non-union labour from the ship Dimboola. Colebatch was the target of a barrage of projectiles when he personally confronted the unionists. One of the unionists, Tom Edwards, was killed by police. Unlike previous crises, Colebatch was not seen to have handled the crisis well, and he sustained heavy criticism during and after it. [3]

On 17 May, Colebatch resigned, having been premier for exactly one month. It remains the state's shortest premiership term on record. His decision to resign was influenced by the stress of the wharf crisis and extensive subsequent criticism. However his health was an issue, and he had been unable to find a Legislative Assembly seat in a country electorate as desired. H.G.P. Colebatch (2004) also asserts that Colebatch resigned as premier because he was not ambitious and had not wanted the job in the first place.

Colebatch handed over the premiership to his friend Mitchell. He retained the public health and education portfolios, and added that of agriculture. He continued as deputy premier and leader of the government in the Legislative Council. He was responsible for the creation of a North West department and became its minister a month later. In April 1921, he relinquished agriculture and public health portfolios, instead taking on the justice portfolio. After the 1921 election, Colebatch was the only government minister in the Legislative Council, thus assuming a substantial workload.

Agent-general for Western Australia

Colebatch was appointed a Commander (CMG) of the Order of St Michael and St George in the New Year's Honours of 1923 and, shortly afterwards, resigned his seat to take up appointment as the state's agent-general in London, in which role he attracted this praise from a Perth newspaper: . . . the Agent-General (Mr H.P. Colebatch) is regarded in England as one of the most able representatives this country has ever had in London. [4] He was due to finish his term in November 1926, but an election was due in Western Australia at that time, and neither Colebatch nor the incumbent Labor government wished Colebatch to return during the election campaign. Colebatch's term was therefore extended into 1927, in which year he was made Knight bachelor and travelled widely in Europe, having a meeting with Benito Mussolini.

When Colebatch returned to Western Australia in 1927, the premier Philip Collier commissioned him to produce a book commemorating the state's centenary. A Story of a Hundred Years: Western Australia 18291929, edited by Hal Colebatch, was published in 1929.

In federal politics

Colebatch (far right) with the delegation petitioning for the secession of Western Australia. WA secession delegation.jpg
Colebatch (far right) with the delegation petitioning for the secession of Western Australia.

While he was working on A Story of a Hundred Years, Colebatch was asked by prime minister Stanley Bruce to sit on a royal commission into the Constitution of Australia. The commission travelled throughout Australia and held 198 sittings but its conclusions were of little or no consequence.

In 1928, Colebatch was elected as a federal senator. He took his seat on 1 July 1929, holding it until 20 March 1933, when he was again offered the position of agent-general for Western Australia in London. Colebatch's time as a senator was a frustrating period for him, as his advocacy of free trade as a means of international co-operation and peace was extremely unpopular at the time. His most important contribution was the establishment of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, whose purpose is to vet government regulations made by executive action without reference to parliament, to ensure that they do not adversely affect the rights of citizens. Later, he became heavily involved in the Western Australian secession campaign and, after becoming agent-general for the second time, he was asked to lead a delegation which unsuccessfully petitioned the British parliament for secession.

Later years

Colebatch's second term as agent-general for Western Australia was from 1933 until 1939. During this time, he again travelled widely throughout Europe. In 1934 the Western Australian Secession Delegation arrive in London, Colebatch made many speeches and argued for the cause. His focus was on the preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in particular the word "indissoluble" questioning as to whether the British Parliament could bind a person to a country for all time. [5]

According to his memoirs, he made contact with anti-Nazi Germans who were trying to forestall the rise of Adolf Hitler. After returning to Western Australia, he worked tirelessly to awaken Australia to the necessity of preparing for war. He was widowed early in 1940. On 11 May 1940 he was elected to the Legislative Council for the Metropolitan Province. In 1944 he married Marion Frances Gibson. He held his Legislative Council seat until the election of 1948 when the Liberal Party failed to dissuade him from nominating, and then endorsed both him and its preferred candidate, Harry Hearn, who won comfortably.

In his final years, Colebatch applied himself to writing an autobiography, which has never been published. He died on 12 February 1953 after a brief illness and was honoured with a state funeral the following day. His second wife and three sons survived him. The third son, also named Hal Colebatch, was a poet, novelist, solicitor and writer on legal and political subjects. Hal Junior wrote a biography of Hal Senior. [6]


  1. 1 2 H. G. P. Colebatch (2004) gives Hal Colebatch's first wife's name as Mary Maude Saunders; Black and Bolton (2001) as Mary Maud Saunders; and Reid and Oliver (1982) as Maud Mary Saunders
  2. "Sir Hal Colebatch". The Times and Northern Advertiser, Peterborough, South Australia . National Library of Australia. 16 December 1932. p. 2. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  3. A labour-movement account of the 'Bloody Sunday' confrontation of 4 May 1919 is given in Campbell, Margo A History of Struggle on the Wharves (1999)
  4. Perth Daily News, 3 October 1924, cited in H. G. P. Colebatch (2004)
  5. "London". Secession 1929-1939. Battye Library. Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  6. Peter Coleman, "Voice of the father" (review of Steadfast Knight), Weekend Australian, 8–9 January 2005

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Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Lefroy
Premier of Western Australia
17 April 1919 – 17 May 1919
Succeeded by
Sir James Mitchell