ASHLEY, William Patrick (1881–1958)
Senator for New South Wales, 1937–58 (Australian Labor Party)

William (later William Patrick) Ashley was born on 20 September 1881 at ‘Singorumba’, a property near Hay, in the Riverina, New South Wales, where his Adelaide-born father, James, worked as a station overseer. His mother, Julia Ann, née O’Connell, was born in Ireland. After attending primary school Bill Ashley worked in Hay, at a ‘cash store’, and at the Booligal Hotel for several years before volunteering for the Boer War. With his younger brother, Tom, he went to South Africa in May 1902 as a trooper in the 5th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, but with the conclusion of the war saw no action. On his return to Australia Ashley worked in the Sydney tramways and became an official of the Tramways Union before moving to Lithgow where he entered the hairdressing and tobacconist business and was granted a billiard licence. In 1911 he was elected as an alderman to the Lithgow Council where he served almost continuously until he entered Parliament. Mayor of Lithgow in 1929 and again in 1935, he came to be described as the ‘father’ of the council. In 1937 a grandstand at the Lithgow sportsground was named after him, as was Ashley Park, Lithgow, in 1958.

It was in Lithgow that he joined the Australian Labor Party. He was Labor’s campaign manager in the district when in 1925 J. B. Chifley made his first attempt to win the federal seat of Macquarie. In 1937 Ashley was nominated by the New South Wales Labor Party (then controlled by supporters of J. T. Lang) to stand as a candidate for the Senate at the federal election of 23 October. His place at the poll, under existing electoral law, enabled him also to fill a casual vacancy, and take his place in the Senate at its next sitting. His success was due, at least in part, to Labor’s notorious ‘four A’s’ strategy under which candidates whose names began with ‘A’ were encouraged to stand in order to take advantage of alphabetical listing on the ballot paper. Thus New South Wales Labor had nominated not only Ashley but also Amour, Armstrong and Arthur. All were elected, though alphabetical listing was discontinued at the 1940 election.[1]

Ashley was sworn on 30 November 1937. An active senator, he served on several parliamentary committees, the Joint Committee on War Expenditure in 1941 being the most significant. From 1938 to 1941 he was Opposition Whip. In October 1941 he became Postmaster-General and Minister for Information in the first Curtin Government. Both were sensitive and complex wartime portfolios. The entry of Japan into World War II soon involved him in decisions that had long-term implications for Australian broadcasting. As Postmaster-General, Ashley’s responsibilities included control over the broadcasting content of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). Disagreements between Ashley and his officials led to the formation of a Cabinet subcommittee comprised of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, H. V. Evatt, the Minister for Supply and Development, J. A. Beasley and Ashley himself. Beasley’s complaint that an interview he had given on the ABC regarding America’s war strategy in the south-west Pacific had not been broadcast was one of several issues that led to a meeting between the subcommittee, officials of the ABC and the Department of Information. With tempers flaring, one senior bureaucrat accused Ashley of ‘gross neglect as Minister’. What followed was a reorganisation of the department during 1942.

Ashley had also to address the issue of overall coverage in the media on Australia and the south-west Pacific; one highly important area related to commercial news broadcasts. Following a suggestion by the ABC Chairman, W. J. Cleary, Ashley ensured that the ABC provided a news service three times a day to commercial broadcasters and that a government subsidy covered the cost of the necessary landlines. In March he announced another important propaganda initiative: ‘direct beam transmission in picture from Australia to America’, which would show the participation by United States forces in defence of ‘the Anzac area’.

Ashley was a strong advocate of the ABC remaining completely independent of commercial sources for its news broadcasts. He stood apart somewhat from those ministers who saw the national broadcaster ‘as the ideal medium for ensuring coverage of their own views’. In April 1942, when introducing the Australian Broadcasting Bill into the Senate, he said: ‘The evolution of broadcasting as a medium of public expression, and the tremendous growth in its power to mould public opinion, has given a voice to a further interpretation of democratic freedom—a freedom and impartiality of the air . . . I emphasise the value of freedom of the air’. The subsequent Act, which included provisions for commercial broadcasting, established the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Broadcasting as a statutory standing committee, and enabled the ABC to maintain some measure of freedom from political interference.[2]

In September 1943 the Information portfolio was transferred to Arthur Calwell on his election to the ministry, Ashley remaining Postmaster-General until February 1945. In 1943 Ashley had been appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate. In 1944 he was also a member of the Joint Committee on Censorship, which inquired into aspects of wartime censorship. By 1945 he was Minister for Supply and Shipping and a member of the Production Executive of Cabinet.

Following Curtin’s death in July Ashley kept his existing portfolios in the Cabinet of the new Prime Minister, his old friend, Ben Chifley. In September, waterside workers placed a ban on Dutch shipping bound for what was then the Netherlands East Indies and Ashley, as Minister for Supply and Shipping, responded in the Senate. The incident raised issues concerning communist influence in trade unions and Australian attitudes towards emerging nationalism in south-east Asia that would occupy the Labor Government for the next four years. Ashley said he did not want to see the whole Australian waterfront embroiled in a dispute of another country, and with Chifley and Calwell worked closely with the Dutch authorities to ensure that the ban did not hold up essential supplies. In 1946 he became Leader of the Government in the Senate.[3]

He was probably at his best as minister of the newly created portfolio of shipping and fuel. He was appointed in April 1948, with responsibility, not only for supervising industrial relations in the shipping and stevedoring industries, but also for the production and distribution of coal and the import and allocation of liquid fuels and petroleum products. In December he played a prominent and successful part in guiding through the Parliament the legislation that provided for the re-establishment of the government shipping line, sold off by the Bruce–Page Government in 1928.[4]

Industrial relations deteriorated rapidly in postwar Australia, and Ashley struggled to maintain peace in his areas of responsibility. In 1947 he toured the coalmining regions of New South Wales, making every effort to avoid dispute through discussion, though in February his talks with stevedoring unions over annual leave claims failed to end a series of stoppages. In September he had more success with negotiations that removed the threat of power blackouts in Melbourne and Adelaide. Then in 1948 he was involved in negotiations with Queensland seamen about overnight watch pay. The New South Wales coalmining industry, however, provided him with his biggest problems. In March he was a central figure in the establishment of an advisory committee under the jurisdiction of the Joint Coal Board, aimed at improving labour relations. Subsequently he attended a ‘secret’ meeting with the New South Wales premier, and with members of the Australian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation and the Joint Coal Board, but nothing of consequence resulted from either of these initiatives.

In April 1949 the Government launched an advertising campaign to urge unions to use conciliation instead of direct action. In May the ALP Federal Executive (with Chifley in the shadows) agreed that conciliation and arbitration be used instead of direct action in settling the disputes. Ashley then became part of the negotiating team between the Government, the industry and the unions. He declared that the federal Government would not countenance direct action. He was also reported as stating that the Government would provide financial assistance for long-service leave in the industry, a promise that Chifley later withdrew. With the strikes crippling the coalmining industry in mid-1949, Ashley stood with Chifley as the Government toughened its stance against the unions. Funds of the communist-controlled Miners’ Federation were frozen under the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act 1949; some leaders were imprisoned and troops were sent to work open-cut mines. Chifley’s determination not ‘to bend to brute force’ was a departure from the more conciliatory tactics adopted in the early stages of the dispute by Ashley, then as now, his leader’s loyal lieutenant.[5]

Ashley’s portrait in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook indicates a man not likely to shift from the line of duty. As Minister, and as Leader of the Government in the Senate, he held responsibility for much of the key industrial legislation of the Chifley Government. This included the Coal Industry Act 1946 (creating the Joint Coal Board and Coal Industry Tribunal), the Stevedoring Industry Act 1948, the Coal Production (War-time) Act Repeal Act 1948 and the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1949. In 1949 he served also as Acting Minister for the Army—from 11–23 January and again from 28 March to 27 April. In October 1949 he introduced the unpopular Liquid Fuel (Rationing) Bill, which resulted in the reintroduction of rationing until August 1950, largely on the grounds that increased imports of petrol would affect Australia’s dollar reserves. Strenuously opposed by the Opposition, the bill was amended in the House of Representatives to a two-month rationing period. Nevertheless the issue helped bring down the Chifley Government.[6]

With Labor’s defeat at the December 1949 poll, Ashley became Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, heading up the Labor majority that delayed the passage of the Menzies Government’s Communist Party Dissolution Bill. During this tumultuous period he successfully proposed an amendment to protect the right to trial by jury. After the simultaneous dissolution in April 1951 the growing ideological struggle within the Labor Party caused Ashley to lose the leadership position to his former deputy, Senator McKenna. He was defeated again in 1954.

In the confrontation that led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party on a national basis in 1957, Ashley stood firmly with those opposing what they saw as undue Catholic influence in party affairs. Despite his own Catholicism, he consistently supported the Leader of the ALP Opposition, H. V. Evatt, in his public opposition to the groupers. He also linked up with Ward (a traditional left-winger who saw himself as a successor to Evatt) and was one of the principal parliamentary organisers of the Labor left who opposed the anti-communist arm of the Catholic Church known as The Movement. In 1955 the split in Labor ranks (and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party) placed Ashley’s preselection for the Senate in danger. In a Caucus brawl in September, Ashley, who alleged that Labor branches in New South Wales were being stacked against him, invited the Opposition Whip, Fred Daly, MHR, to ‘settle the argument out on the lawn’! Regrettably history does not record what, if anything, happened on the lawn, but at the federal election in December, Ashley, a highly successful campaigner in rural New South Wales, was elected at the top of the poll, though he did not again lead the Senate.[7]

Bill Ashley died in office on 27 June 1958 at Sydney Hospital. On 5 July 1921 he had married Theresa Ellen Malony at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. Theresa survived him, as did the only child of the marriage, Valerie (Mrs Healey), and five grandchildren. Ashley was afforded a state funeral that was attended by 600 mourners. At the time of his death he and his wife were living in the Sydney suburb of Coogee (at 21 Baden Street). After a service at Coogee, in St Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church, he was buried at Randwick Cemetery. It was reported that he left an estate of £3533. Ashley had retained close connections with his native Hay where he continued to attend ‘Back‑to‑Hay week’, and was remembered for his support of the establishment of the Hay munitions factory during the war and of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, which brought water to the ‘thirsty plains’ he knew so well.

Comments on Ashley from his contemporaries emphasise his competence, his negotiating skills and his commitment to traditional Labor values. Allan Dalziel, Evatt’s private secretary and biographer, wrote that ‘Bill Ashley was a practical, down-to-earth administrator and a shrewd party tactician’. Don Whitington, chronicler of postwar parliaments and parliamentarians, left this account:

A poor speaker, with a harsh voice distinguished by an almost grotesque Australian accent and an inability to sound aspirates, Ashley was yet one of the most successful Labor politicians of the war and postwar era. He handled several difficult and controversial portfolios . . . His principal successes, however, were as a negotiator, a role he filled many times for Chifley in behind-the-scenes talks, especially on industrial disputes. Wily, cautious, with a knowledge of men and a devastating bluntness that cut a swathe through diplomatic doubletalk, he became known as ‘Bill the Fixer’ . . . Ashley developed few of the objectionable mannerisms that stud the path of many men of all parties to the privileges of Ministerial office. He continued to drive his own car, except on official occasions. He continued to live in a small flat at a Sydney seaside suburb, to wear shabby double breasted blue suits with tan shoes, and horse racing continued to be his only spare time interest.[8]

John Graham 

[1] David Lee, ‘Ashley, William Patrick’, ADB, vol. 13; Boer War Nominal Roll Database, AWM; Riverine Grazier (Hay), 1 July 1958, p. 2; The editor is indebted to the Lithgow City Council for information; Lithgow Mercury, 12 Nov. 1937, p. 4, 24 Nov. 1937, p. 4; L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley: A Biography, Longmans, Green & Co., Croydon, Vic., [1961], p. 32.

[2] G. C. Bolton, Dick Boyer, An Australian Humanist, ANU Press, Canberra, 1967, pp. 111–12, 118–19; John Hilvert, Blue Pencil Warriors: Censorship and Propaganda in World War II, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1984, pp. 100–8; K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932–1983, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1983, pp. 94–9; Beverley Castleman, Changes in the Australian Commonwealth Departmental Machinery of Government: 1928–1982, PhD thesis, Deakin University, 1992, pp. 150–3; CPD, 29 & 30 Sept. 1942, pp. 1061–2; Press Statement, 23 Mar. 1942, item 11/436, AWM80, NAA; CPD, 29 Apr. 1942, pp. 577–82.

[3] Production Executive, Indexes and History, A2928, NAA; SMH, 16 Mar. 1944, p. 5; Margaret George, Australia and the Indonesian Revolution, MUP in association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Carlton, Vic., 1980, pp. 36–8, 102–7.

[4] Herald (Melb.), 6 Apr. 1948, p. 3; CPD, 18 Nov. 1948, pp. 3148–9, 9 Dec. 1948, pp. 4218–25, 16 Feb. 1949, pp. 336–40, 17 Feb. 1949, pp. 421–32.

[5] Tom Sheridan, Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years 1945–1949, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 162–4, 170–1, 261–4, 275–9; Edgar Ross, A History of the Miners’ Federation of Australia, Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation, Sydney, 1970, pp. 413, 421–32; Age (Melb.), 5 Apr. 1949, p. 1; SMH, 20 May 1949, p. 1; Crisp, Ben Chifley, pp. 238, 363, 349.

[6] CPD, 21 Oct. 1949, pp. 1808–11; Herald (Melb.), 21 Oct. 1949, p. 1.

[7] CPD, 15 June 1950, pp. 4321–2, 4342–3; SMH, 6 Oct. 1950, p. 4, 8 Oct. 1950, p. 4, 19 Oct. 1950, p. 6; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1984, pp. 160, 170, 282–3, 291–2, 392; Sun (Melb.), 15 Sept. 1955, p. 5; Australian Worker (Syd.), 18 Apr. 1951, p. 12; Allan Dalziel, Evatt the Enigma, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1967, p. 137.

[8] Age (Melb.), 28 June 1958, p. 1; SMH, 28 June 1958, pp. 1, 4; Herald (Melb.), 9 Dec. 1958, p. 16; CPD, 5 Aug. 1958, pp. 3–5; Riverine Grazier (Hay), 1 July 1958, p. 2; Dalziel, Evatt the Enigma, pp. 34–5; Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 430-435.

ASHLEY, William Patrick (1881–1958)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1937–58

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1943–45

Minister for Information, 1941–43

Postmaster-General, 1941–45

Minister for Supply and Shipping, 1945–48

Minister for Shipping and Fuel, 1948–49

Acting Minister for the Army, 1949

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1946–49

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1949–51

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1937–38

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1937–38

Joint Committee on War Expenditure, 1941

Joint Committee on Censorship, 1944

Select Committee on the Constitution Alteration (Avoidance of Double Dissolution Deadlocks) Bill, 1950