ABBOTT, Macartney (1877–1960)
Senator for New South Wales, 1935–41 (Australian Country Party)

Senator Macartney Abbott believed that ‘if you can raise a man’s thoughts you can raise his achievement’. He argued that by raising the thoughts of all nations ‘you can raise the whole level of humanity and place the feet of the world upon that path leading to peace’.

Macartney Abbott was born at Murrurundi, New South Wales, on 3 July 1877, and was the second son of the solicitor, (later Sir) Joseph Palmer Abbott, and his first wife, Matilda Elizabeth, née Macartney—hence the unusual first name. His elder brother, John Henry, the author and journalist, also used the Macartney name. Macartney’s mother died when he was three years of age and his father remarried in 1883. His aunts at Maitland and his father’s family at Wingen, where he attended the local public school, were involved in his early upbringing.

Macartney Abbott, known as ‘Mac’ both within his family and in public life, came from a family closely associated with politics, with the Upper Hunter area of New South Wales, and with The King’s School at Parramatta. His father was Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 1890 to 1900, and a member of the 1891 National Australasian Convention; he was also a member of the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897–98, some of whose proceedings Macartney observed as a young man. His great-uncle, Robert Palmer Abbott, and his uncle, William Edward, also served as members of the Legislative Assembly, and he was distantly related to a Joseph Abbott, who was an MLA from 1888 to 1895. Later, Macartney’s half-brother, Joseph Palmer, served in the House of Representatives (1940–49) as did his cousin, Charles Lydiard Aubrey (1925–29 and 1931–37). For fifty-five of the years from 1872 to 1949 there was an Abbott in either the New South Wales or federal Parliament.[1]

On 16 July 1889 Macartney’s name appeared as the first registered student on the roll of the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, Shore. At the end of 1891 Macartney left for The King’s School, where he was school captain from 1895 to 1896, participating with distinction in most sports, including athletics and boxing, and in the school cadets. Completing his secondary education in September 1896, he was articled to the legal firm in which his father was a partner, and in 1900 was assigned to his cousin, J. A. K. Shaw of Scone. From 1901 to 1902 Macartney served in the Commonwealth Military Forces as a second lieutenant, taking part in a guard of honour for the Duke of Cornwall and York at the opening of the federal Parliament in Melbourne in May 1901.

After being admitted as a solicitor in November 1901, Macartney entered into partnership as a lawyer with Frederick Tout, who had been articled to Sir Joseph. The business partnership between the two lasted in one form or another (with successive offices at Sydney, Parramatta, Boorowa, and finally Sydney again) until 1933, and the short title, Abbott Tout, to which other names have been added and deleted, remains in existence to this day. On 6 September 1905 Macartney married Elizabeth Clare Hall, the daughter of a grazier. Her three brothers were old boys from The King’s School, to which a number of sons of the Abbott family were sent, one exception would be Macartney’s eldest son, William Edward Macartney, born on 15 August 1906. Macartney’s other son, Terence Kingsmill, was born on 17 November 1912.[2]

Macartney contested the December 1913 New South Wales election with the endorsement of the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association and, after defeating the former Speaker, H. Willis, took his Upper Hunter seat as a Liberal. During these years the family lived in what was then an outer Sydney area, Turramurra. At the next election in March 1917 he increased his primary vote from 50 to 55 per cent and sat as a Nationalist. As an MLA, Macartney was credited with easing the way for rural leaseholders wishing to convert to freehold.

His departure from the Legislative Assembly was of his own making, and provides evidence of his idealism and regard for probity. Describing himself as a ‘wholehearted conscriptionist’, Macartney nevertheless opposed the holding of the second national referendum on conscription, scheduled for 20 December 1917, and refused to ‘take the platform’ in support of a ‘yes’ vote. The reason for this was that Abbott felt morally obliged to abide by his vow to support the decision of the people of his Upper Hunter electorate who had emphatically voted against conscription in the first referendum. Not surprisingly, his position was mischievously misinterpreted, and to forestall misuse of his stand by the anti-conscriptionists he declared that if, in the second referendum, Australia turned down conscription and his Upper Hunter electors also voted ‘no’ he would retire from Parliament altogether. Both results occurred and Macartney, true to his word, resigned on 10 May 1918. His parliamentary opponents were incredulous and unsympathetic and even Macartney acknowledged that his action might be regarded as ‘quixotic’. A cousin told him he was a fool—but would not allow any outsider to say so. His seat was retained by the Nationalists at the by-election held on 21 May 1918.[3]

After his resignation from the Assembly, Macartney continued with his law practice in Sydney, though his public interests extended beyond the law. He was associated with the National Roads Association from 1920 to 1922 and the subsequent formation of the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) in 1923 and 1924. His firm was engaged in 1925 to offer free legal advice to NRMA members and in 1929 this was extended to include acting for members in traffic cases. His personal involvement in this legal activity for the NRMA lasted until the 1940s. He was also a councillor of The King’s School during the 1920s and president of the Old Boys’ Union from 1929 to 1930.

In 1927 he purchased a farming property, ‘Tooloogan Vale’, in the Scone district, which he operated with a manager. Throughout the 1920s he had been active in the new states movement, lobbying against the ‘evil’ of ‘centralisation’, especially around Scone and Muswellbrook. At a meeting in Hunter Street, Sydney, in November 1921 he helped instigate the Sydney-based New States of Australia League, which supported new states movements in northern New South Wales and the Riverina, and in 1922 he became the league’s president. At the All Australia Conference in Albury in September he declared that ‘Government from a distance has always failed all over the world and is failing throughout Australia’.[4]

In 1928 Abbott put his name forward for preselection for the Nationalist Party’s New South Wales Senate team but was narrowly defeated by Josiah Thomas. In 1931, following the merger of the Nationalist Party with the All for Australia League and others to form the United Australia Party, he contested the federal seat of Martin as a UAP candidate. The battle was mostly between himself and another UAP candidate, former New South Wales Premier, W. A. Holman, who had won the Nationalist endorsement prior to the merger. According to H. V. Evatt in his study of Holman, Abbott was ‘a dangerous rival with some personal prestige’, which led Holman to make ‘strange appeals for the reactionary vote’ in an attempt to outbid him in the so-called ‘silver-tail’ areas. Holman won, but Evatt indicates that Abbott could have defeated Holman on preferences and infers that Holman’s conservative opponents, out to destroy him politically, may have seen Abbott as representing the means through which this was to be attempted.[5]

At the 1934 federal election, Abbott won the third Senate vacancy for New South Wales. He stood as a Country Party candidate on a joint United Australia Party–United Country Party ticket, thus gaining an electoral advantage but maintaining his Country Party identity. The Australian Country Party Monthly Journal hailed his victory as proof that Country Party sentiment was growing all over New South Wales, the evidence being the increase in Abbott’s first preference vote over that of Senator Hardy in 1931. Some time after the election the Country Party historian, Ulrich Ellis, described Abbott as ‘a keen New Stater, and as a lawyer, the only one the Country Party ever possessed, he was welcomed by his colleagues’.

Abbott’s term commenced on 1 July 1935 and he was sworn in on 23 September. While he spoke on subjects with a rural orientation—tobacco, tariffs, wool, the trawling industry, the greater use of shale oil deposits, land titles, citizenship and insect pests, he does not appear to have been an advocate in the Senate for new states. He was, however, an advocate for universal peace. The Senate, he said, could be ‘an effective mouth-piece’ for treating ‘the great general disease affecting the world’ of which ‘local problems’ were but symptoms. In a 1943 letter to Evatt (in which he was wholehearted in his praise of Evatt’s work for the United Nations), he commented: ‘During my whole term as a member of the Senate I devoted myself more to questions of world settlement and global welfare than to any of the lesser party questions.’ This was true.[6]

On 14 November 1935 Abbott moved in the Senate that the Government should request that an ‘International Thought Exchange’ (a scheme to further world peace through the compulsory teaching in schools of an international language) be placed on the agenda of ‘the next General Assembly of the League of Nations’. While some members of his family considered the scheme a ‘foible’, Abbott’s idealism was respected in the Senate. Labor’s Senator Arkins interjected that the motion suggested that ‘all humanity is the honorable senator’s party’, a view with which Abbott was in total agreement. Later Abbott was persuaded by the Leader of the Government in the Senate to drop his original motion in favour of one proposing the presentation of an address to King Edward VIII calling for ‘a world convention’ on the International Thought Exchange. After a fascinating debate, which touched on Esperanto and H. G. Wells, the resolution passed on 24 September 1936, and was conveyed to the Palace. Nothing more seems to have been heard of it.

Connected with Abbott’s resolution to the King was his establishment of a parliamentary branch of the Fellowship of International Understanding. Those who inscribed their signatures on parchment for the foundation roll included the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, the Leader of the Opposition, John Curtin, and former Labor Prime Minister, J. H. Scullin. In contrast to today’s non-involvement of Senate officials in causes that might be construed as even semi-political, the parchment was signed by the Clerk of the Senate, G. H. Monahan, and a future Clerk of the Senate, R. A. Broinowski.[7]

Macartney proposed also a ‘one world-armament commonwealth’ to which all arms would be surrendered and which would promote peace and good order. The resolution was not voted on before his retirement, but he continued to promote the concept after he left the Senate. In both the thought exchange and armament resolutions Macartney was at pains to explain and defend the Senate’s ‘inherent right, whether with government approval or disapproval’ to express its opinion ‘in regard to any motion submitted by a private member’.

Macartney was a member of the Church of England, and admired all religions. On one occasion, following representations from some eight hundred Christian Scientists, he agreed to move an amendment to the National Health and Pensions Insurance Bill exempting members of the Christian Science Church from the payment of compulsory medical benefit contributions. He withdrew his amendment after obtaining a satisfactory response from the Government.[8]

Abbott, who served on the Joint Committee on the Bankruptcy Act during 1935 and 1936, and the Senate Regulations and Ordinances Committee from 1935 to 1937, supported the proposal that the latter be provided with a paid legal adviser and pressed this idea with the then Attorney-General, R. G. Menzies. Macartney also supported proposals that an all-party Senate committee be established to review international treaties to which Australia might become a signatory. He remained scrupulous in his regard for probity. On one occasion in 1939 he announced his intention of abstaining from a vote on a resolution proposing an inquiry into the Sydney General Post Office by the Public Works Committee because a junior partner in his legal firm was associated with a tenderer.[9]

At the election held on 21 September 1940 Abbott was defeated, his term expiring on 30 June 1941. He continued with his legal career, including his work for the NRMA, and only officially retired as a solicitor in 1957 at the age of eighty. He died in Scone, at the Scott Memorial Hospital, on 30 December 1960, and after a service at St Luke’s Church of England was buried in Murrurundi Cemetery. Survived by his wife and sons, his family remembered him as kind and gentle, one who loved whimsy and possessed a strong sense of the ridiculous. One family member recalled that he had ‘a lovely soft speaking voice’ and delighted in telling stories to his grandchildren.[10]

Either because of the passage of time since his retirement or the fading links with former parliamentary and party colleagues, his death went unnoticed by the Senate. When the Parliament resumed in 1961 his passing did not attract the usual condolence motion. Perhaps this biographical entry will rectify that omission.

Denis Strangman 

[1] Macartney Abbott, An International Thought Exchange as a Road to Peace, Canberra, 1935, p. 4; Edwin J. Brady, Australia Unlimited, George Robertson, Melbourne, c. 1918, pp. 853–8; Information supplied by Gail Abbott (granddaughter); DT (Syd.), 2 Apr. 1949, p. 13; Hilda and C. L. A. Abbott Papers, MS 4744, box 13, NLA.

[2] North Shore Historical Society Journal, Oct. 1973, p. 7; The King’s School Magazine, 1961; The author acknowledges the assistance of R. C. Peterson, Sydney Church of England Grammar School; S. M. Johnstone, The History of The King’s School Parramatta, The Council of The King’s School and The King’s School Old Boys’ Union, Sydney, 1932, pp. 254, 276; Letter, Peter Wilkinson to author, 7 Mar. 1995.

[3] Fighting Line (Syd.), 18 Oct. 1913, pp. 20–1; Scone Advocate, 4 Jan. 1961, p. 2; John Merritt, That Voluminous Squatter: W. E. Abbott, Wingen, Turalla Press, Bungendore, NSW, 1999, pp. 50–6, 107–8; NSWPD, 29 Jan. 1918, pp. 2203–6; C. L. A. Abbott, Family Background, the Upper Hunter Abbotts, Abbott Papers, MS 4744, box 9, NLA.

[4] National Roads and Motorists’ Association, Annual Reports, 1923, 1929, 1931—the editor acknowledges assistance from Judith Seeff, Archivist, Corporate Programs Department, NRMA; The King’s School Magazine, 1961; W. E. M. Abbott, The Contented Years: Living at Toologan Half a Century Ago, Scone and Upper Hunter Historical Society, Scone, NSW, 1987; New State Magazine (Tamworth), Oct. 1921, p. 15, Nov. 1921, p. 13, July 1922, p. 21, SMH, 3 May 1922, p. 11; New State Magazine (Tamworth), Sept. 1922, p. 10.

[5] Country Life and Stock and Station Journal (Syd.), 6 Apr. 1928, p. 7; H. V. Evatt, William Holman, Australian Labour Leader, A & R, Sydney, 1979, pp. 410–14.

[6] SMH, 13 July 1934, p. 15; Scone Advocate, 11 Sept. 1934, pp. 2, 3; Australian Country Party Monthly Journal (Syd.), Oct. 1934, p. 11; Ellis Papers, MS 1006/44, NLA; CPD, 1 May 1936, p. 1095, 22 May 1936, p. 2180, 7 June 1939, p. 1294, 14 May 1940, p. 735, 21 Aug. 1940, p. 483; Australian Country Party Monthly Journal (Syd.), Aug. 1934, p. 23; Macartney Abbott, The Key to World Security, 2nd edn, Bexley Press, Sydney, 1943, p. 2.

[7] CPD, 14 Nov. 1935, pp. 1616–21; Abbott Papers, MS 4744, box 9, NLA; CPD, 21 May 1936, pp. 2003–7, 17 Sept. 1936, pp. 214–15, 24 Sept. 1936, pp. 466–81; Macartney Abbott, The Fellowship of International Understanding: To Establish an International Thought Exchange as a Pathway to World Peace, Sydney, 1937, The Key to the Situation Now and After the War, Fellowship of International Understanding, Sydney, n.d.

[8] CPD, 23 May 1940, pp. 1157–60, 12 Dec. 1940, pp. 949–53, 25 June 1941, pp. 348–52, 17 May 1939, p. 382, 22 June 1938, p. 2448, 24 June 1938, pp. 2641–2.

[9] CPP, Joint Committee on the Bankruptcy Act, report, 1936; CPD, 14 May 1936, pp. 1714–15, 7 Oct. 1938, p. 522, 31 May 1939, p. 961.

[10] Scone Advocate, 4 Jan. 1961, p. 2; W. E. M. Abbott, Portrait of my father, typescript, n.d.; Letter, Gail Abbott to author.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 417-421.

ABBOTT, Macartney (1877–1960)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1935–41

New South Wales Parliament

Member of the Legislativ Assembly, Upper Hunter, 1913–18

Senate Committee Service

Joint Select Committee on the Bankruptcy Act, 1935–36

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1935–37

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1938–41

Select Committee on the Discharge of Captain T. P. Conway from the Australian Military Forces, 1939

Library Committee, 1940–41