COLLETT, Herbert Brayley (1877–1947)
Senator for Western Australia, 1933–47 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party; Liberal Party of Australia)

Herbert Brayley Collett, librarian and distinguished soldier, was born on 12 November 1877 at St Peter Port, at Guernsey in the Channel Islands. He was the son of Frank Collett, auctioneer, and his wife, Laura Augusta, née Wedlake. Herbert was nearly seven when his family emigrated on the SS Glen Goil to Western Australia, disembarking at Fremantle on 11 October 1884. Educated privately and at Perth Grammar School, in 1891 he commenced work as a ‘Library Boy’ at £3 a month in Perth’s Victoria Library (now the Battye Library) where he was described as ‘the son of the late Frank Collett’. By 1901 he was ‘sub-librarian’ to J. S. Battye, a position he held with various responsibilities from 1901 until 1933, including during World War I, when he was on active service overseas.From an early age Collett demonstrated his enthusiasm for military service, joining the Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers as a private in 1894. By the time of the inauguration of the Commonwealth in January 1901 he had reached the rank of captain and was in command of a Western Australian contingent at the Federation ceremonies in Centennial Park in Sydney. He served a term as adjutant to the 1st Battalion in the Western Australian Infantry Brigade and between 1903 and 1906 he was militia adjutant to the 11th Australian Infantry Regiment. In 1907 he attended a course for senior military officers at the University of Sydney, and in 1908 assumed command of the regiment with the rank of lieutenant colonel.[1]

Collett, who served at Gallipoli, in Egypt and Sinai, and in France, was appointed to the AIF on 23 April 1915, when he was placed in command of the 28th Battalion, a position he held until July 1916, when he was wounded in action at Pozières. Evacuated to England, after a period in hospital he commanded the Training Brigade of the 4th Division before returning to France in October 1917, where he resumed command of the 28th until March 1918. During this second period in France he also commanded the 7th Infantry Brigade. He was promoted to colonel on 1 June 1918. Back in England again, he was in charge of demobilisation of Australian troops at No. 2 Command Depot at Weymouth prior to his discharge from the AIF in September 1919. Collett was mentioned in despatches and awarded the DSO in 1917, the CMG in 1919, and the VD, and promoted to brevet colonel in the Australian Military Forces. In April 1919 he completed a form of biographical detail for the Australian War Records Section in London. The final part of the form invited a response to the period of service in the AIF considered the most important or interesting. Collett answered in part: ‘Gallipoli. As being the first experience of war. On the knowledge there gained a sound estimate was made as to the value of the Australian as a soldier’.[2]

After the war Collett continued to combine his career as a librarian with service in the Australian Military Forces. Returning to the State Library in Perth, he became keeper of its war records. During this time he wrote a fine account of the history of the 28th Battalion, published by the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia. As a part-time soldier, he commanded the 22nd Infantry Brigade from 1920 to 1921 and the 13th Infantry Brigade until 1927. He was an aide-de-camp to the Governor of Western Australia from 1920 to 1922, and to the Governor-General from 1922 to 1926. From 1929 he was honorary colonel of his old battalion.

He had joined the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) immediately after the war. Between 1925 and 1933 Collett was an active and highly political president of the Western Australian branch. A determined and informed lobbyist, he secured funds for the construction of the state war memorial in Perth’s Kings Park, despite a lack of governmental enthusiasm for the project. He helped lay the groundwork for the construction of the league’s state headquarters at Anzac House in Perth. He took up the cudgels with the league’s federal president, Sir Gilbert Dyett, whom he considered should have been replaced by Sir John Monash. Loosely allied with branches in Victoria and South Australia, he led the Western Australian branch against the particular strategies employed by Dyett in opposing the Scullin Labor Government’s (ultimately unsuccessful) proposal in 1929 to replace preferences for ex-servicemen with union preference.[3]

When the West Australian, in April 1933, reported the Mitchell Government’s recommendation that Collett fill the casual vacancy previously held by Sir Hal Colebatch, its story focused on Collett’s status as war hero and his work for the RSSILA, with the headline: ‘Colonel Collett Selected. Service in War and Peace’. Only slight mention was made of his work for the Public Library of Western Australia or his position as assistant general secretary of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery. Chosen by the Governor-in-Council on 6 April, Collett became a senator on 6 April 1933, his appointment confirmed by a joint sitting of the Western Australian Parliament in July. He was re-elected as a Western Australian Nationalist for a six‑year term in 1934, and for the UAP in 1940, although federally he was part of the UAP from its establishment in 1931.

During six years as a government backbencher Collett served on the Regulations and Ordinances Committee from October 1934 to October 1935 and again from December 1937 to May 1939. Not surprisingly, he was a member of the Library Committee, serving from 1935 to 1947. His relatively few parliamentary speeches emphasised defence and repatriation issues within the context of his strong affection for, and feeling of identity with, Britain. He applauded the Commonwealth Grants Commission for its attempts to compensate for the financial disabilities imposed by Federation, while expressing a preference for the revival of the Interstate Commission as provided for in the Commonwealth Constitution. He also expressed his relief that secession had not featured significantly in the 1934 federal election campaign, suggesting that Western Australia’s difficulties had arisen through a lack of tact and diplomacy on the part of the Commonwealth Government.[4]

In his first speech, in December 1933, Collett stated: ‘My experiences have not bred in me any affection for war. I have seen too much suffering’. He urged that ‘every possible avenue be explored in the search for lasting peace’. During the Abyssinian crisis in 1935 he supported sanctions against Mussolini, arguing that these were in accordance with Australia’s undertaking to uphold the League of Nations, and later defended Neville Chamberlain and the Munich settlement.[5] While not denying the value of forward defence, he doubted the wisdom of despatching expeditionary forces overseas without careful consideration as to where and how they should be used. In 1938 he explicitly rejected conscription for overseas service. Twelve months later he was faced with having to defend the Government’s decision to form the second AIF. Reiterating his earlier view that Australia should follow ‘whatever strategy Great Britain decides upon in fighting the battles of the Empire’, he stated sadly that in 1938 he had not contemplated ‘such a condition of affairs as prevails today’. Insisting that defence was not just a ‘matter for experts’, he outlined his own defence strategy in detail, emphasising the need to defend Australia.

On domestic affairs Collett supported the Lyons Government’s National Health and Pensions Insurance Bill 1938, though cautioning about the likely cost. With powerful women’s organisations (including those in Western Australia) in the shadows behind him, he supported pensions for single mothers, accepting the feminist argument that it was unreasonable for the whole ‘onus . . . of immorality’ to be placed on women.[6]

Collett’s ministerial career began in April 1939 with the death of Joseph Lyons and the formation of the first Menzies Ministry. For over two years, he served as Minister Without Portfolio Administering War Service Homes and, from 14 March 1940, as Minister Assisting the Minister for Repatriation. It was in the latter position that he piloted through the Senate repatriation legislation extending repatriation benefits to members of the forces serving in World War II. Collett went on to serve as Minister for Repatriation, first in the Menzies Ministry from 26 June to 29 August 1941 and then in the short-lived Fadden Government until 7 October. He also held the post of Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister in Charge of Scientific and Industrial Research from 14 August to 28 October 1940.[7] Collett’s last major speech as minister was a ministerial statement in which he detailed the history of repatriation benefits in Australia, dating from the first War Pensions Act in 1914. Concluding with a reference to the part played by the returned soldier organisations, Collett urged the younger members of the existing forces to ‘seek wisdom where wisdom has been born of the many tribulations of their older brethren of 1914–18’.[8]

Following the defeat of the Fadden Government in October 1941, Collett returned to the Opposition benches where he spoke more frequently than in his pre-ministerial days. He served on two committees, namely the special all-party Joint Select Committee on the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act from 1942 to 1943, and the Joint Committee on War Gratuity from 1944 to 1945, from which flowed the War Gratuity Act of 1945. In 1941 he had served as chairman of the Western Australian War Industries Committee. Despite Treasury opposition, which feared similar requests from Tasmania and Queensland, the committee was successful in recommending the establishment of the Western Australian Industry Expansion Commission. Under the chairmanship of F. R. E. Mauldon, the commission was appointed by the Curtin Government in 1943 to advise the Commonwealth on ‘measures necessary to ensure the fullest use’ of the state’s industrial resources.[9]

Collett consistently returned to particular topics, notably the need for employment preference for ex-servicemen and for a uniform standard gauge railway track across the continent. His views on the former issue were often linked to attacks on trade union ‘tyranny’. He was highly critical of the Chifley Government’s banking bills. Issues affecting the returned servicemen organisations were always prominent in his speeches, and he rejected out of hand allegations that the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA, formerly the RSSILA), was a party political organisation, claiming that the ‘basis of the league . . . is the comradeship formed by men who shared the dangers of war’.

From 1942 to 1944 he was President of the Western Australian National Party. During his Senate career he had written regular political articles for the Nationalist. In April 1943 Collett was the only Western Australian to be a signatory to a dramatic letter to the United Australia Party leader, W. M. Hughes, from seventeen senators and MHRs who styled themselves the National Service Group. It was this action that ultimately led to the establishment of the modern Liberal Party.

Particularly dear to his heart was the camaraderie, which he saw as intrinsic to participation in the armed services. That enthusiasm was matched only by the intensity of his loyalty to Britain and to Western Australia. Quoting the RSSAILA, he referred to the belated ratification of the 1931 Statute of Westminster as weakening ‘the present ties that bind Australia to the Mother Country’. He thought that the statute would destroy sovereign communities, and affirmed that ‘Western Australia does not desire to be merged with the other 94 per cent of the population of the Commonwealth’ and that it feared being governed solely from Canberra. One of his last acts in the Senate was to plead for the issue of a postage stamp commemorating the centenary of the birth of Sir John (later Baron) Forrest, Western Australia’s first premier, with whom, he said, he had been personally acquainted. The stamp eventually appeared in 1950, after both the centenary and Collett’s death.[10]

Collett died on 15 August 1947, less than seven weeks after leaving the Senate, following his defeat at the September 1946 election. His funeral service was held at St George’s Cathedral, Perth. It was here on 20 April 1904, that he had married Annie Eliza Whitfield who, with the two sons of the marriage, Francis and Laurie, survived him. Members of the RSSAILA organised the service in the Cathedral and lined the entrance to the Karrakatta Cemetery where he was buried in the Anglican portion. An active Freemason and patron of the Totally and Permanently Disabled Soldiers’ Association of Australia, Collett was a man who inspired respect rather than affection but never lost his enormous concern for the welfare of the men he led. He was a stickler for protocol and established values, but nevertheless was prepared to challenge authority when he felt the cause was just.[11]

David Black

[1] David Black, ‘Collett, Herbert Brayley’, ADB, vol. 8; West Australian (Perth), 9 Oct. 1934, p. 14; Information received from Steve Howell, Battye Library, LISWA; J. S. Battye (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol. 1, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, 1912, p. 531; CPD, 30 Mar. 1944, p. 2330; West Australian (Perth), 16 Aug. 1947, pp. 10, 11.

[2] Collett, H. B.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France 1916, A & R, Sydney, 1939, pp. 603, 643; Biographical details, Colonel H. B. Collett, AWM183, AWM.

[3] Information received from Steve Howell, Battye Library, LISWA; Colonel H. B. Collett, The 28th: A Record of War Service with the Australian Imperial Force, 1915–1919, vol. 1, Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 1922; Henry K. Kahan, The 28th Battalion Australian Imperial Force: A Record of War Service, South Perth, 1968; Reveille (Syd.), 1 Oct. 1933, pp. 7, 29; Arundel Dene, The History of the Returned Sailors’ & Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, part 2, Melbourne, RSSILA, 1938, p. xxi; G. L. Kristianson, The Politics of Patriotism, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 51, 57–9.

[4] West Australian (Perth), 6 Apr. 1933, p. 14; Senate Registry File, A8161, S54, NAA; CPD, 31 Oct. 1934, p. 64, 13 Oct. 1943, p. 418, 23 Oct. 1935, pp. 954–6, 29 Nov. 1935, p. 2207, 23 Oct. 1934, p. 8, 31 Oct. 1934, pp. 66–7.

[5] CPD, 1 Dec. 1933, pp. 5334–7, 13 Nov. 1935, pp. 1515–17, 19 Sept. 1945, pp. 5548–9.

[6] CPD, 1 Dec. 1933, p. 5336, 30 Nov. 1938, p. 2280, 1 Dec. 1939, pp. 1942–3, 30 Nov. 1938, pp. 2279–85, 22 June 1938, pp. 2461–4.

[7] CPD, 31 May 1940, pp. 1782–4.

[8] CPD, 17 Sept. 1941, pp. 269–79.

[9] CPP, Joint Committee on the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act, reports, 1943, Joint Committee on War Gratuity, report, 1945; CPD, 20 July 1945, p. 4327, 21 Aug. 1941, pp. 64–5, 21 Nov. 1941, pp. 690–1, 896; Western Australian War Industries Committee, A620, item W7/1/10, CP117/3, item 86, A1308, item 772/1/85, Western Australian Industry Expansion Commission, A989/1, item 1943/735/149, NAA.

[10] CPD, 24 Sept. 1942, p. 826, 13 Oct. 1943, p. 415, 30 Mar. 1944, p. 2319, 3 & 4 June 1942, p. 2008, 2 Oct. 1945, pp. 6186–7, 30 Mar. 1944, p. 2320, 4 July 1945, pp. 4013–16, 28 June 1945, p. 3781; Nationalist (Perth), Dec. 1942, pp. 1, 3; Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942–1945, AWM, Canberra, 1970, pp. 357–8; CPD, 9 Oct. 1942, p. 1560, 30 Mar. 1944, pp. 2328–31, 20 Mar. 1947, p. 895.

[11] CPD, 15 Oct. 1947, pp. 734–5; Listening Post (Perth), Aug. 1947, pp. 2, 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. 41-45.

COLLETT, Herbert Brayley (1877–1947)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1933–47

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1940

Minister Without Portfolio Administering War Service Homes, 1939–41

Minister Without Portfolio in Charge of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1940

Minister Without Portfolio Assisting the Minister for Repatriation, 1940–41

Minister for Repatriation, 1941

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1934–35, 1937–39

Library Committee, 1935–47

Joint Select Committee on the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act, 1942–43

Joint Committee on War Gratuity, 1944–45