COLEBATCH, Sir Hal Pateshall (1872–1953)
Senator for Western Australia, 1929–33 (Nationalist Party)

Harry (Hal) Pateshall Colebatch was born at Wolferlow, Hertfordshire, England, on 29 March 1872, migrating with his parents to South Australia at the age of six. Educated at Goolwa, he left school at fourteen and entered journalism, working from 1889 to 1895 on the Silver Age at Broken Hill. Moving to Western Australia in 1895, he worked briefly on the Golden Age and the Kalgoorlie Miner. For a mistaken report of a punch-up between two politicians in Parliament House he was temporarily barred from parliamentary journalism, but moved to the Perth Morning Herald where he was respected as a versatile craftsman. Well read, a slightly stooped figure with a Vandyke beard, which he removed before entering politics, Colebatch bore the reputation of a shrewd investor in goldmining and a champion chess player. In 1896 he married Maud Mary Saunders at St George’s Cathedral, Perth; they had two sons.[1]

In 1905 Colebatch became editor-proprietor of a leading rural newspaper, the Northam Advertiser, acting as mentor to the newly elected MLA, James Mitchell, an unfailingly optimistic advocate of agricultural expansion. Colebatch was Mayor of Northam, from 1909 to 1914. After unsuccessfully contesting the East Province in the Legislative Council at a 1910 by-election, and the Avon seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1911, Colebatch won the East Province in 1912 and was never opposed subsequently. He soon established himself as an able parliamentary debater and critic of the Scaddan Labor Government. When the Scaddan Ministry lost office in July 1916 he was an obvious appointee as leader of the Legislative Council and Minister for Education in the successive non-Labor governments of the next seven years. It was a period of party turmoil, with the Labor Party splitting over conscription and the rise of the Country Party, which in November 1923 also split itself in two. As a member of the upper house, Colebatch was to some extent insulated from factional infighting, so that the National–Country Party Coalition turned to him for leadership following the resignation of the Premier, Sir Henry Lefroy. On 17 April 1919 Colebatch formed a well-balanced ministry, bringing his old ally Mitchell out of the wilderness. His premiership lasted only a month.[2]

Since his Broken Hill years Colebatch had been an opponent of radicalism and militant trade unionism; during the conscription controversy he dismissed the scholarly Dutch-born deputy Registrar General, Wilhelm Siebenhaar, for suspected lack of patriotism. Confronted on taking office with a bitter waterfront strike, he decided to supervise personally the erection of barriers on the Fremantle wharves intended to protect non‑union labour. As it travelled down the Swan River, his launch was attacked with a hail of old iron and other missiles from the Fremantle bridge; Colebatch and his party narrowly escaped injury. Clashes between police and watersiders led to one man’s death, and a riot was narrowly averted. Colebatch was severely shaken by this episode; so was public confidence in his leadership. Although he attributed his failure to find a seat in the Legislative Assembly to the refusal of the Country Party member of a neighbouring constituency to resign in his favour, other winnable seats were available for him. He preferred to resign in favour of Mitchell on 17 May 1919 and to resume his role as deputy leader and leader of the Legislative Council, holding a variety of portfolios.[3]

Colebatch was an efficient and able departmental minister. As Acting Premier early in 1919, his handling of quarantine restrictions during the Spanish influenza pandemic had its critics but won considerable public support. He significantly increased the number of country high schools in Western Australia, although his term as Minister of Education was marked by a prolonged schoolteachers’ strike. Sharing uncritically Mitchell’s dreams of rural prosperity, he promoted the expansion of the wheat-belt into marginal rainfall areas and supported the group settlement scheme. In 1920 he was largely responsible for the creation of the Department of the North‑West, with himself as first minister and the engineer, Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, as resident commissioner. Encouragement was given to cotton growing and the expansion of the beef cattle industry, though without sensitivity to Aboriginal interests. Because of economic and environmental factors neither initiative flourished.[4]

In 1923 Colebatch was created CMG and appointed Agent-General for Western Australia in London. He promoted migration and supervised the state’s overseas loans competently. At the end of his term in 1927, he was appointed KB. Back in Australia, he edited A Story of A Hundred Years, a somewhat triumphalist account of Western Australia’s history and economy, prepared for the centenary of settlement in 1929. From 1927 to 1929 he also served on the Peden Royal Commission on the federal Constitution, showing himself a well-informed advocate of states’ rights and contributing a thoughtful, if controversial, separate memorandum on finance.[5]

At the 1928 general elections Colebatch was returned as a senator for Western Australia, taking his seat on 1 July 1929. Although endorsed as a Nationalist he gave priority to his status as a state representative, an attitude becoming increasingly old-fashioned elsewhere in Australia but in keeping with an upsurge of secessionist feeling in Western Australia. During his first years in the Senate this tendency was subordinated to opposition towards the Scullin Labor Government. A trenchant and knowledgeable upholder of financial orthodoxy, as the Depression intensified Colebatch published several articles and pamphlets on the subject. In 1929 he served on the Select Committee on the Advisability of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate and, as acting chairman, presented its reports. The committee’s recommendations were well received, a direct outcome being the establishment of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee in 1932 and the creation of the Joint Committee of Foreign Affairs by the Menzies Government in 1952, though the latter was in changed form from the original proposal. It would be 1970 before the more comprehensive system originally envisaged by the committee was adopted.[6]

Colebatch took a prominent part on the Senate Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill (comprised entirely of Opposition senators), siding with the majority, which approved the concept in principle if it was strictly apolitical and introduced at an appropriate time in the future. During 1931 he supported a 20 per cent cut in federal government expenditure and proved a vigilant watchdog against government overspending. He strongly opposed high tariffs, and was president of the Melbourne-based Tariff Reform League. However in July 1931, he openly dissociated himself from moves among the Opposition majority in the Senate to restrict supply to the Scullin Labor Government.[7]

With the return of the Lyons United Australia Party Government in December 1931 some thought Colebatch an obvious choice for the ministry, but Western Australia already had one Senate representative in the veteran Sir George Pearce, and Colebatch missed out. Perhaps he was too independent-minded. In March 1932 he criticised the Government’s legislation allowing the Commonwealth to garnishee revenue from New South Wales to recompense interest payments made by the federal Government on New South Wales bonds. Colebatch was no admirer of Lang’s policy of default, but he was even more concerned at creating a precedent for federal inroads on the powers of the states. Non-Labor governments, he said, had done more to reduce the powers of the states since Federation than the avowed unificationists on the Labor side.[8]

Holding these views, he supported the secessionists in Western Australia. During the run-up to the referendum on 8 April 1933 Mitchell, once more Premier, appointed Colebatch to a second term as Agent-General in the expectation he would argue the cause in London. Secession secured a 66.2 per cent ‘yes’ vote, but Mitchell was defeated; however the incoming Labor government confirmed Colebatch’s appointment. He had resigned from the Senate on 20 March 1933. In London in 1934 Colebatch led the delegation that presented the British Parliament with the secession petition in a large jarrah casket. In May 1935 a joint committee of the British Parliament ruled that following the Statute of Westminster (1931) it had no power to receive the petition. The movement was already collapsing in Western Australia. Colebatch remained Agent-General in London until 1939, dabbling a little in British finance and politics. He was well regarded by the press magnate, Lord Rothermere, of the Daily Mail, and in other Conservative circles, and gave discreet assistance to the goldmining magnate, Claude de Bernales, in promoting his projects. After retirement he became a director of some of de Bernales’ companies.[9]

Returning to Perth he was elected to the Legislative Council as member for the Metropolitan Province in 1940. He now lived in Perth’s only ten-storey block of flats. His first wife died in 1940, and on 21 December 1944 he married Marion Frances, daughter of his Legislative Council colleague (Sir) Frank Gibson; they had one son, Hal Gibson Pateshall. In Parliament Colebatch took the role of an increasingly reminiscent elder statesman, milder than   before in his opposition to the state Labor Government. He won his party’s disfavour by supporting a mild amount of franchise reform for the upper house and was denied preselection at the 1948 election. At seventy-six years of age he ran as an independent and was defeated. His last years were troubled by litigation arising out of his directorships in the de Bernales companies. He died in Perth on 12 February 1953, and was awarded a state funeral, and buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta Cemetery. He was survived by Marion and his three sons, Hal Clarence Saunders and Gordon Lindsay of his first marriage, and the seven-year-old Hal.[10]

Colebatch was perhaps less influential in federal politics than his abilities deserved because he was identified with Western Australian sectionalism. His advocacy of economic doctrines such as low tariffs and tightly controlled government spending, then unfashionable but back in vogue at the end of the twentieth century, were supported by a thoughtful analytical quality often lacking in political argument; and his courteous debating manner usually gained him a hearing. Colebatch was the nearest thing to an intellectual in politics in the Western Australia of his era.

Geoffrey Bolton

[1] B. K. de Garis, ‘Colebatch, Sir Harry (Hal) Pateshall’, ADB, vol. 8; J. S. Battye (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol. 1, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, 1912, p. 325; The Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 2, Grolier Society of Australia, Sydney, 1912, p. 449; David Black (ed.), The House on the Hill: A History of the Parliament of Western Australia 1832–1990, Parliament of Western Australia, Perth, 1991, pp. 412–14, 477–8; ‘Truthful Thomas’, Through the Spy-Glass: Short Sketches of Well-Known Westralians As Others See Them, Praague & Lloyd, Perth, 1905, p. 86; Leonard W. Matters, Australasians Who Count in London and Who Counts in Western Australia, Jas. Truscott & Son, London, 1913, p. 192; WAPD, 12 Aug. 1947, pp. 128–9; SMH, 4 Jan. 1927, p. 12; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 24 May 1912, p. 5.

[2] Hal Pateshall Colebatch, Autobiography, unpublished typescript, LISWA; Donald S. Garden, Northam: An Avon Valley History, OUP, Melbourne, 1979, pp. 174–6, 182–5; C. T. Stannage (ed.), A New History of Western Australia, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1981, pp. 400–3; Black, The House on the Hill, pp. 103–4; B. K. de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch, MA thesis, University of Western Australia, 1962; F. K. Crowley, Australia’s Western Third: A History of Western Australia from the First Settlements to Modern Times, Macmillan, London, 1960, pp. 186–7; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, pp. 55–6; B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 123–4, 212–14.

[3] Hal Colebatch, ‘The Economic Outlook’, Pam., NLA; SMH, 30 Oct. 1916, p. 5; West Australian (Perth), 28 Oct. 1916, p. 8, 30 Oct. 1916, p. 3, 5 May 1919, pp. 4, 5; Herald (Melb.), 10 Dec. 1928, p. 6; WAPD, 21 Aug. 1919, pp. 314–18; Stannage, A New History of Western Australia, pp. 398–400; Black, The House on the Hill, pp. 104; de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch, pp. 95–110; Victor Courtney, All I May Tell: A Journalist’s Story, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1956, pp. 100–4; Crowley, Australia’s Western Third, p. 184; Northam Advertiser, 30 Apr. 1919, p. 2, 17 May 1919, p. 2; WAPD, 1 Sept. 1921, p. 566; Garden, Northam, pp. 183–5, 201.

[4] Stannage, A New History of Western Australia, pp. 398–9; Northam Advertiser, 2 Feb. 1910, p. 2, 14 Dec. 1910, p. 2, 18 Oct. 1911, p. 2; WAPD, 21 Aug. 1919, pp. 309–12, 24 Aug. 1921, p. 365; Garden, Northam, pp. 200–1; Western Mail (Perth), 20 May 1920, p. 15; de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch, pp. 16–19, 23, 61, 88–92, 116–17, 123–4; Crowley, Australia’s Western Third, p. 224; Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, The Turning Wheel, Paterson Brokensha, Perth, 1960, pp. 166–73, 211–19, 293–303.

[5] The Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 2, p. 449; CPD, 22 Nov. 1929, p. 176; SMH, 29 Oct. 1924, p. 13; Sir Hal Colebatch (ed.), A Story of A Hundred Years: Western Australia 1829–1929, Government Printer, Perth, 1929, pp. 110–21; Stannage, A New History of Western Australia, pp. 682–3; CPP, Royal Commission on the Constitution, report, 1929, pp. 294–300.

[6] To-Day (Syd.), 16 Apr. 1932, p. 13; WAPD, 11 Sept. 1946, p. 767; CPD, 22 Nov. 1929, pp. 172–82; de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch, pp. 190–1; Colebatch, ‘The Economic Outlook’; CPP, Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, reports, 1930; CPD, 9 Apr. 1930, p. 905, 1 May 1930, pp. 1310–19, 8 May 1930, pp. 1548, 1560–1, 15 May 1930, p. 1802, 14 May 1931, pp. 1909–15; Senate, Journals, 4 June 1970, 11 June 1970.

[7] CPP, Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, reports, 1930; CPD, 22 Apr. 1931, p. 1095, 16 July 1931, p. 3983, 27 Oct. 1931, pp. 1238–41, 29 Sept. 1932, pp. 901–12, 6 Nov. 1931, pp. 1515–24; de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch, p. 294; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 30, 329.

[8] To-Day (Syd.), 16 Apr. 1932, p. 13, 2 Apr. 1932, p. 3, 1 Feb. 1933, p. 3, CPD, 11 Mar. 1932, p. 1004, 3 Mar. 1932, pp. 537–47; WAPD, 11 Sept. 1946, pp. 767–8.

[9] Garden, Northam, pp. 227–8; Courtney, All I May Tell, p. 104; CPD, 25 May 1933, pp. 1750–1; de Garis, A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch, pp. 244–5, 248–58; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 297–8; WAPP, Reports of the Western Australian Secession Delegation, 1936; Hal Colebatch, Claude de Bernales: The Magnificent Miner, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 1996, pp. ix–x.

[10] Black, The House on the Hill, p. 124; Daily News (Perth), 20 Jan. 1940, p. 9; West Australian (Perth), 14 Jan. 1975, p. 10; Nationalist (Perth), Sept. 1941, pp. 5–6, Feb. 1942, pp. 3–4, Aug. 1942, pp. 3–4, Nov. 1942, pp. 3–4, Dec. 1942, pp. 7–8, May 1943, pp. 3–4, Oct. 1943, pp. 3–4; Black, The House on the Hill, p. 137; WAPD, 3 Sept. 1946, p. 565, 11 Sept. 1946, pp. 770–4; Courtney, All I May Tell, p. 104; Western Mail (Perth), 7 Aug. 1930, p. 3; West Australian (Perth), 13 Feb. 1953, pp. 2, 5, 28.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 33-36.

COLEBATCH, Sir Hal Pateshall (1872–1953)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1929–33

Western Australian Parliament

MLC, East Province, 1912–23; Metropolitan Province, 1940–48

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, 1929–30

Library Committee, 1929–33

Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, 1930–32

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1932–33