William Watt (Australian politician)
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.
|Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives|
28 February 1923 – 12 January 1926
|Preceded by||Elliot Johnson|
|Succeeded by||Littleton Groom|
|Treasurer of Australia|
27 March 1918 – 27 July 1920
|Prime Minister||Billy Hughes|
|Preceded by||John Forrest|
|Succeeded by||Joseph Cook|
|24th Premier of Victoria|
22 December 1913 – 18 June 1914
|Preceded by||George Elmslie|
|Succeeded by||Alexander Peacock|
18 May 1912 – 9 December 1913
|Preceded by||John Murray|
|Succeeded by||George Elmslie|
|Member of the Australian Parliament|
5 September 1914 – 5 July 1929
|Preceded by||Agar Wynne|
|Succeeded by||Thomas White|
|Born||23 November 1871|
Barfold, Victoria, Australia
|Died||13 September 1946 (aged 74)|
Toorak, Victoria, Australia
|Political party||Victorian Liberals (to 1914)|
Commonwealth Liberal (1914–1917)
Nationalist Party (from 1917)
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.
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.
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 ministerEdit
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." 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, 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.
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, he re-contested his seat at the 1928 federal election, but resigned from parliament nine months later, on medical advice.
Watt was chairman of 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.
- Anderson, John (1990). "Watt, William Alexander (1871–1946)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 9 November 2007 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
- 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.
- "No. 31712". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1919. p. 2.
- "Mr. Watt's Future". The Argus. 26 November 1927. Retrieved 18 December 2015.
- "Mr. Watt M.H.R.: To Resign Shortly". The Argus (1929–07–03). Retrieved 18 December 2015.
- Anderson, John Stanley (1972), "W.A. Watt: a Political Biography", M.A. Thesis, University of New South Wales.
- Browne, Geoff (1985), A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1900–84, Melbourne: Government Printer, ISBN 0724183078
- Garden, Don (1984), Victoria: A History, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, ISBN 0170058735
- Thompson, Kathleen; Serle, Geoffrey (1972), A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1856–1900, Canberra: Australian National University Press
- Wright, Raymond (1992), A People's Counsel. A History of the Parliament of Victoria, 1856–1990, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195533593
|Victorian Legislative Assembly|
| Member for North Melbourne
| Member for East Melbourne
|District created|| Member for Essendon
| Premier of Victoria
| Premier of Victoria
|Parliament of Australia|
| Member for Balaclava
Sir Elliot Johnson
| Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives
Sir Littleton Groom
| Minister for Works and Railways
| Treasurer of Australia
| Minister for Trade and Customs