CLOTHIER, Robert Ernest (1877–1964)
Senator for Western Australia, 1938–50 (Australian Labor Party)

Robert Ernest Clothier was ‘one of the most loyal members the Australian Labour Party ever had’. He was, according to Senator McKenna, ever about the party’s business. R. G. Menzies observed that Clothier was ‘tremendously popular’ with a considerable genius ‘for a warm and friendly human approach’, adding that he found himself ‘wondering occasionally whether he was on my side or not’. Clothier was socially conservative: ‘I am disgusted when I listen to some of the jazz bands included in the [Australian Broadcasting Commission’s] programmes. Their performances remind me of Chinese music’. He was a trades union moderate, and a Western Australian Labor representative whose first speech expressed a determination that never faltered—to do his best by the electors of Western Australia and ‘loyally to discharge that mission’.

He was born at Bulimba, Brisbane, Queensland, on 26 March 1877, the son of a Glaswegian stonemason, Frederick Robert Clothier, and his twenty-year-old, locally born wife, Clara, née Pashew. After primary education at Coorparoo, a little German town with ‘good citizens’, he was apprenticed to a Danish bootmaker, subsequently being employed in E. T. Neighbour’s Brisbane boot factory, where his superior was his future Senate colleague, J. S. Collings.

In 1904 he crossed the continent to Perth, which was then benefiting from minor gold discoveries, and a wheat and timber boom, marrying, at St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, 22-year-old Ethel May Gluyas, the daughter of a miner, on 18 January 1905. After practising his trade, he selected a small wheat farm but more ‘by luck than good judgment’ had left farming by 1914.[1]

From then onwards, however, Clothier took a concerned interest in the plight of those Western Australian closer settlers who were trying, often unsuccessfully, to survive in what historian Geoffrey Bolton has defined as ‘a fine country to starve in’. Returning to Perth, Clothier was foreman of Berryman and Company’s boot factory, and subsequently secretary of the now moderate Bootmakers’ Union. He later recounted that on assuming control he found one corner of the union’s office filled with Russian propaganda, but that within half an hour he had destroyed ‘every bit of that literature’. Later, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, he repeated he had no time for Communism, Fascism or Nazism. He even anticipated a later ‘Pacific Solution’ by suggesting that it ‘would be a good thing for this country if the Government could secure an island in the Pacific and deport every Communist in Australia to it’.

For many years the secretary of the Friendly Societies’ Association of Western Australia, Clothier was, as chief ranger of the Western Australia branch of the Australian Order of Foresters, an early advocate for the reafforestation of the diminishing karri and jarrah forests, once stating that there ‘should be an act of parliament providing for the planting of two trees for every one cut down’.[2]

Clothier’s parliamentary career began in April 1933 with his election to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly for the constituency of Maylands, a north-west and lower middle-class suburb of Perth. He defeated J. Scaddan, the ex-Labor premier, but now Nationalist Minister for Mines and Railways, with a majority of 656 in a poll of 6480 voters. The Depression had hit hard in a state suffering from unbalanced development through excessive small-scale agricultural adventures, large-scale assisted immigration, declining mining and construction activity and disastrous wheat and wool prices. Clothier, part of the swing that put state Labor into government for the next fourteen years, campaigned on unemployment, government cuts to relief, education and Scaddan’s unpopular Lotteries (Control) Bill under which private lotteries and newspaper guessing competitions were curtailed. Reflecting the rural orientation of the two large outer states, Queensland and Western Australia, Clothier declared:

I believe our primary industries constitute the principal prop of the State. Were it not for the success of the farming industry, the industries in the metropolitan area would not be worth the walls enclosing them. I should like to see those who work so hard . . . particularly those in the wheat areas, get everything they deserve.

A foe of ‘St George’s Terrace’ agri-businessmen, Clothier proposed schemes to place young men on the goldfields, to better the wages and conditions for young female domestic servants, to provide more money for education and the provision of a full medical degree at the University of Western Australia, as well as preference for unionists and local public works; the latter ranged from the great Maylands drain to railway crossings, and to tramcar steps for elderly ladies. These were all an ambivalent part of his conviction that the federal Government was ‘not a patch on any Government in this State, whatever party may be in power’. Three years later, Clothier was defeated by a popular real estate agent, the Independent Nationalist, H. V. Shearn. The majority, after conservative preferences were exhausted, was much the same for Shearn as it had been for Clothier three years earlier.[3]

Western Australian Labor held on to power. Clothier was appointed a storeman in the Water Supply Department but was more generously rewarded for faithful service to the ALP with a spot on the 1937 Senate ticket. The three Labor candidates, Clothier, J. Cunningham and J. M. Fraser, won. Labor was revitalised in the Senate. Although Clothier did not speak frequently, his major concerns never left him: ‘I have been sent here’, he stated in his first speech on 7 October 1938, ‘by the electors of Western Australia to do my best on their behalf’. This meant support for Western Australian manufacturing industries, the relief of unemployment, help for some farmers, assistance for working class housing (he considered large blocks of flats would be the slums of the future), the transfer of all public education from the states to the Commonwealth and the expansion of technical education. Most of these issues ultimately dovetailed neatly into the Curtin and Chifley governments’ postwar reconstruction plans.

His pet subject was the need for a uniform railway gauge between Fremantle and Brisbane instead of the four existing bottlenecks, whose inadequacies and dangers, which Clothier anticipated and recognised, were disclosed during World War II, but not remedied until long after his departure from the Senate. Less effective and popular were his pleas for substantial munitions and shipbuilding facilities for Western Australia, the placing of male and female war‑workers on an even footing with returned servicemen, the abolition of the gold tax and the confiscation of all wartime profits. On a lighter note he lobbied frequently for a new post office at the Perth suburb of Inglewood, a facility that was finally completed the year after he was defeated. A staunch supporter of Curtin, ‘the Napoleon of the Pacific’, Clothier became more national, and more of a centralist as the war and problems of finance, health, repatriation and increased Commonwealth strength and power altered old verities.[4]

He does not seem to have been a keen committee man, his membership of the 1941 Joint Committee on War Expenditure lasting only from July to November, though he did see out five years on the Senate’s Regulations and Ordinances Committee. He was, however, Government Whip in the Senate from October 1943 to October 1949. Defeated at the federal election in December, he served as Opposition Whip from February 1950 until his Senate term concluded at the end of June.

Predeceased by his wife and son and survived by his married daughter, Eileen Thompson, Clothier died in the Royal Perth Hospital on 31 May 1964. He was cremated at the Karrakatta Crematorium after an Anglican service. He had lived for sixty years in Western Australia; his loyalties to Queensland, where relatives owned large sugar plantations, had long since replaced by the concern he showed in the Senate for the needs of Western Australia’s wheat growers, and the small retail grocers disadvantaged by Commonwealth–Queensland restrictions on imports of raw sugar.

In appearance Clothier had the square, glasses-framed face of his Ayrshire ancestry. In manner affable and courteous, he made few enemies and many friends, a reflection of the small-scale social and political society of Western Australia. In essence, he was a true political cobbler who stuck to his last. An effective Whip and assiduous in his attendance in the Senate chamber, he was more than a mere party official rewarded for services rendered. But he was never a member of that rather small but sometimes scintillating elite that carried the Senate forward at a time of its apparently limited role and powers.[5]

D. B. Waterson

[1] CPD, 11 Aug. 1964, pp. 28, 9, 23 Oct. 1947, p. 1189, 7 Oct. 1938, p. 537, 17 June 1948, p. 2160, 9 Sept. 1948, p. 320, 26 Sept. 1944, p. 1357.

[2] CPD, 26 Sept. 1944, pp. 1356–8, 10 Dec. 1940, pp. 671–2; G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1972; West Australian (Perth), 28 Oct. 1937, p. 20, 10 Apr. 1933, p. 14; CPD, 19 Apr. 1940, p. 193, 21 May 1947, p. 2640, 23 Oct. 1947, p. 1192.

[3] West Australian (Perth), 10 Apr. 1933, p. 14; C. T. Stannage (ed.), A New History of Western Australia, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1981, pp. 240, 247–58; West Australian (Perth), 30 Jan. 1936, p. 18; WAPD, 31 Oct. 1935, p. 1458, 20 July 1933, pp. 51–2, 11 Aug. 1934, p. 105, 8 Aug. 1935, pp. 136–8, 30 Nov. 1933, p. 2230, 1 Oct. 1935, p. 961; West Australian (Perth), 17 Feb. 1936, pp. 16, 19; N. F. Byrne, ‘The Western Australian Electoral System, 1917–1956’, University Studies in Western Australian History, vol. 3, no. 4, 1960, pp. 5–56.

[4] West Australian (Perth), 28 Oct. 1937, p. 20; CPD, 7 Oct. 1938, p. 537, 13 Sept. 1939, pp. 455–6, 20 Aug. 1940, p. 393, 26 Nov. 1941, pp. 865–8, 26 Sept. 1945, p. 5871, 9 Mar. 1950, pp. 547–9, 27 Sept. 1938, pp. 202–3, 8 Mar. 1950, pp. 481–3, 8 Dec. 1938, p. 2959, 7 Oct. 1938, pp. 534–5, 29 Sept. 1942, pp. 1015–20, 27 June 1941, p. 540, 25 Nov. 1941, p. 787, 10 Mar. 1943, p. 1437, 9 June 1949, p. 740, 29 Sept. p. 1016.

[5] West Australian (Perth), 2 June 1964, p. 16, CPD, 22 June 1950, pp. 4760–1, 16 May 1940, pp. 875–6; For photographs of Clothier see relevant editions of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Handbook.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 60-63.

CLOTHIER, Robert Ernest (1877–1964)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1938–50

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Maylands, 1933–36

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1938–43

Joint Committee on War Expenditure, 1941

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1944–49