William Watt (Australian politician)

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William Watt
William Watt (cropped).jpg
Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives
In office
28 February 1923 12 January 1926
Preceded by Elliot Johnson
Succeeded by Littleton Groom
Treasurer of Australia
In office
27 March 1918 27 July 1920
Prime Minister Billy Hughes
Preceded by John Forrest
Succeeded by Joseph Cook
24th Premier of Victoria
In office
22 December 1913 18 June 1914
Preceded by George Elmslie
Succeeded by Alexander Peacock
In office
18 May 1912 9 December 1913
Preceded by John Murray
Succeeded by George Elmslie
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Balaclava
In office
5 September 1914 5 July 1929
Preceded by Agar Wynne
Succeeded by Thomas White
Personal details
Born(1871-11-23)23 November 1871
Barfold, Victoria, Australia
Died13 September 1946(1946-09-13) (aged 74)
Toorak, Victoria, Australia
Political partyVictorian Liberals (to 1914)
Commonwealth Liberal (1914–1917)
Nationalist Party (from 1917)
Florence Carrighan(m. 18941896)

Emily Seismann(m. 1907)

William Alexander Watt (23 November 1871 13 September 1946) was an Australian politician. He served two terms as Premier of Victoria before entering federal politics in 1914. He then served as a minister in the government of Billy Hughes from 1917 to 1920, including as acting prime minister during World War I, and finally as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1923 to 1926.


Early life

Watt was born on 23 November 1871 in Barfold, Victoria, a rural locality near Kyneton. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Jane (née Douglas) and James Michie Watt, a farmer. His father was born in Scotland and arrived in Australia in 1843, while his mother was born in Ireland. Watt's father died the year after he was born, and the family subsequently moved to Phillip Island. Six years later they moved to Melbourne, where Watt began his education at the Errol Street State School (now North Melbourne Primary School). He left school at a young age, finding work as a newsboy and later as a clerk at an ironmongery and a tannery. In 1888 he began attending night classes in accountancy at the Working Men's College. He qualified as an accountant and eventually became a partner in a "hay and corn store". Watt was secretary of the North Melbourne Debating Club and served on the executive of the Australasian Federation League of Victoria. He was prominent in the Australian Natives' Association and campaigned for federation, becoming a protege of the Victorian liberal leader Alfred Deakin. [1]

State politics

In 1897 Watt was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly for North Melbourne, defeating Labor's George Prendergast (another future Premier), but at the 1900 election Prendergast recaptured the seat. In 1902 he was returned for the safe liberal seat of East Melbourne, holding that seat until 1904, when he shifted to Essendon. In 1899 he became Postmaster-General in the short-lived government of Allan McLean, then sat out Thomas Bent's government, returning to office under John Murray in 1909 as Treasurer, a post he held until 1912. By that time he was leader of the "urban" faction of the Liberal Party, opposed to Murray's rural-dominated government. When Murray resigned as Premier on 12 May, Watt succeeded him.

In December 1913 the rural faction, now led by Donald McLeod, moved a successful no-confidence motion in Watt's government, with Labor support. McLeod expected to become Premier, but instead the acting Governor, Sir John Madden, sent for the Labor leader, George Elmslie, who formed Victoria's first Labor government. This forced the Liberal factions to re-unite, and a few days later Elmslie was duly voted out and Watt resumed office. Frustrated by his inability to overcome the factionalism of the Victorian Liberals and pass any effective legislation, Watt resigned as Premier in June 1914, allowing Sir Alexander Peacock to re-assume the Liberal leadership.

Federal politics

At the 1914 federal election Watt was elected Liberal member for the seat of Balaclava. He became a leading member of the Nationalist Party when it was formed in 1916 under the leadership of Billy Hughes, and in 1917 he was appointed Minister for Works and Railways in the Hughes Government. By now he had moved away from his earlier liberalism and was regarded as a hard-line conservative.

Acting prime minister

In March 1918 Watt was appointed Treasurer, and became in effect Hughes's deputy. When Hughes left Australia for London in April, Watt became Acting Prime Minister, a position he held until Hughes returned from the Versailles peace conference in August 1919. It was during his time as Treasurer that Watt opined that the war effort was best served by "...putting the country into the hands of a Committee of Public Safety. It is doubtful if a democracy can fight a great autocracy." [2] During this period he also had the portfolio of Trade and Customs. For his service as Acting Prime Minister, Watt was appointed to the Imperial Privy Council in the 1920 New Year Honours, [3] entitling him to the style "The Right Honourable".

He was a trusted figure in Melbourne business circles and shared the dissatisfaction that most conservatives felt at the increasingly erratic and autocratic way Hughes ran the government. He also disliked Hughes personally and felt that Hughes had not acknowledged his efforts as Acting Prime Minister. Although he remained loyal in public, he was keen to leave Hughes's ministry, and was seen by many as Hughes's likely successor.

Later years

Watt later in his career William Alexander Watt (cropped).jpg
Watt later in his career

In April 1920 Hughes dispatched Watt to London on a financial mission. Watt was in poor health, and his suspicion that Hughes was trying to get him out of the way was aggravated by Hughes's habit of communicating directly with the British government over the head of Watt, who was supposedly his representative. Watt was appointed Australia's representative at the Spa Conference on War reparations, but when Hughes cabled that Watt was not to agree to anything without consulting him, Watt complained that he was being treated like "a telegraph messenger." After an acrimonious exchange of cables, Watt resigned as Treasurer and returned to Australia.

Watt spent the next two years on the back bench. At the 1922 elections he supported rebel former Liberals in Victoria who opposed Hughes and stood against Nationalist candidates: one of these, John Latham, won the seat of Kooyong from the Nationalist member. After the elections, the newly formed Country Party held the balance of power, and used it to force Hughes's resignation. Watt was passed over for leadership of the new coalition government in favour of the Treasurer, Stanley Bruce. As a consolation prize Watt was elected Speaker, a position he held until 1926. Although was not happy about the demands on his time made by the move of the federal parliament from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927, [4] he re-contested his seat at the 1928 federal election, but resigned from parliament nine months later, on medical advice. [5]

Later life

Watt and his second wife Emily (nee Seismann) William and Emily Watt.jpg
Watt and his second wife Emily (née Seismann)

Watt was chairman of a several companies which operated out of his base in Collins House, Melbourne, including the Silverton Tramway Company and Qantas. He was partly disabled by a stroke in 1937 and died in his home in Toorak, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters. [1]


  1. 1 2 Anderson, John (1990). "Watt, William Alexander (1871–1946)". Australian Dictionary of Biography . Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 9 November 2007.
  2. Moore, Andrew (1995). The Right Road? A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, Australia. p. 24. ISBN   0 19 553512 X.
  3. "No. 31712". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1919. p. 2.
  4. "Mr. Watt's Future". The Argus. 26 November 1927. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
  5. "Mr. Watt M.H.R.: To Resign Shortly". The Argus (1929-07–03). Retrieved 18 December 2015.

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Victorian Legislative Assembly
Preceded by
George Prendergast
Member for North Melbourne
Succeeded by
George Prendergast
Preceded by
John Deegan
Member for East Melbourne
Succeeded by
Samuel Gillott
District created Member for Essendon
Succeeded by
Maurice Blackburn
Political offices
Preceded by
John Murray
Premier of Victoria
Succeeded by
George Elmslie
Preceded by
George Elmslie
Premier of Victoria
Succeeded by
Alexander Peacock
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Sir Elliot Johnson
Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives
Succeeded by
Sir Littleton Groom
Preceded by
Agar Wynne
Member for Balaclava
Succeeded by
Thomas White
Political offices
Preceded by
Patrick Lynch
Minister for Works and Railways
Succeeded by
Littleton Groom
Preceded by
John Forrest
Treasurer of Australia
Succeeded by
Joseph Cook
Preceded by
Jens Jensen
Minister for Trade and Customs
Succeeded by
Walter Massy-Greene