ELLIOTT, Robert Charles Dunlop (1884–1950)
Senator for Victoria, 1929–35 (Australian Country Party)

Robert Charles Dunlop Elliott (known as R. D.) was a businessman and newspaper proprietor, active in Country Party politics. He was born on 28 October 1884 at Kyneton, central Victoria, the fourth surviving child of Robert Cochrane Elliott, a grocer from Northumberland, England, who fell on hard times, and his wife, Maria Jeanette, née Williamson, a native of Inverness, Scotland. Young Robert received a rudimentary education at Kyneton State School. The Bread and Cheese Club of Melbourne, of which he became a member, chronicled him as having been ‘educated in the rough seas of hard experience, having left State School to earn a living at 11½ years of age’.

Elliott’s first job was as messenger boy in a Queen Street office in Melbourne. He went on to join the Royal Bank of Australia, then worked for an insurance company, but soon was thinking of striking out on his own. He invested his all in a trip to the United States of America and to England and, as a result, on his return to Melbourne, established himself as an Australian representative for British business. From then on his business enterprises seemed unstoppable, though not all-consuming. Between 1905 and 1911 he served as a lieutenant in the militia. On 5 April 1913, at ‘Willyama’, Balaclava Road, in the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava, Elliott, who now described himself as a ‘manufacturer’, married Hilda, the intelligent and capable daughter of Theodore Fink (eminent Victorian solicitor and parliamentarian, and newspaper proprietor). The couple were married in accordance with the rites of the Australian Church.

Tall, good‑looking, ambitious and immensely energetic, by 1924 Elliott was directing or owning companies dealing in roofing materials, millinery, seeds, stationery, insurance and civil construction, including bridge-building and hydro-electric schemes. He became chairman of the Civil Engineering Construction Company, responsible for the construction of the Sugarloaf-Rubicon Hydro-Electric Scheme (the Sugarloaf Powerhouse was at Eildon Weir). He had farming interests in the Western District and built bridges over the Barwon River at Geelong and several, it seems, over the Murray. Though he centred his activities in rural Victoria, his commercial interests spread also to Tasmania and New South Wales.

In 1924 Elliott, in partnership with the Country Party leader, Earle Page, and P. G. Stewart, MHR for the Victorian seat of Wimmera (1919–31), acquired virtual proprietorship of the Sunraysia Daily, one of the principal newspapers in the Mallee district. By the late 1940s Elliott owned, or jointly owned, a large cluster of other Victorian country newspapers—the Castlemaine Mail, Shepparton Advertiser, Swan Hill Guardian, Wentworth Evening News, Albury Banner, Yarrawonga Chronicle, Cobram Courier, Maryborough Advertiser, Cohuna Farmers’ Weekly and Wangaratta Chronicle. From 1932 he controlled the radio station, 3MA. He was a director of Western Newspapers Group and of Australian United Press, and a foundation director of the Australian Provincial Daily Press Association. He was also a delegate at imperial press conferences in 1930 and 1935 in London and South Africa respectively. His commercial enterprises were directed from his Collins Street office where he shouted orders into a phone or across his desk, ‘the perfect picture of a tycoon in action’.[1]

Elliott’s involvement in politics probably dates from the formation of the federal Country Party early in 1920. His media influence in rural Victoria would have made him a great asset to the party, which soon adopted a strong public relations program. Certainly from the federal election of December 1922 (which left the Nationalist Party in a precarious position) Elliott was at the centre of Country Party politics. As a close associate of Earle Page, he was a participant in the quaintly clandestine meetings between key figures in the Nationalist and Country parties that took place in Melbourne prior to the downfall of the Hughes Government. On 6 February Elliott picked up Page at North Melbourne railway station, where the Sydney to Melbourne express made an unplanned stop to allow Page to disembark, thereby avoiding the press patiently awaiting him at Spencer Street. Elliott—or his chauffeur—then drove Page to Stanley Bruce’s flat in Toorak. Three days later Hughes resigned as Prime Minister and the Nationalist–Country Party coalition, the Bruce–Page Government, was formed.

In 1928, as the Victorian Country Party exploited agrarian discontent in its bid to gain an effective political voice, Elliott stood for the North-Western electorate in the Victorian Legislative Council, but was narrowly defeated by another Country Party candidate. With the Depression deepening, and the Country Party toying with the idea of regional ‘units’ with representation in the Senate, he turned his attention towards the federal Parliament, about to move from Melbourne to Canberra. At the federal election of November 1928, Elliott was elected as senator for Victoria under a joint ticket, in keeping with the Country Party pact of 1925, as were E. B. Johnston and W. Cooper.

On 14 August 1929 Elliott joined the first batch of elected senators to be sworn in the provisional Parliament House in Canberra (some senators filling casual vacancies had been sworn earlier). As the Argus wryly observed, he brought with him into the Senate, ‘a remarkable diversity of metropolitan and country business and agricultural interests, some of great importance to country development’. In a Senate unfriendly to the newly elected Scullin Labor Government, Elliott was one of the five Country Party senators within the large Nationalist–Country Party Opposition, a fact which may have encouraged him to describe the Senate as ‘the most democratic chamber on the face of this earth’.[2]

His political philosophy was based on ‘free trade within the British Empire’ as expounded by the newspaper magnate, Lord Beaverbrook. Elliott was convinced that this was the key to developing Australia’s natural resources and particularly its export industries. He opposed the high tariff wall of the Scullin Government. He discoursed against Australia’s ‘looking in policy’, which worked against the effective distribution of wheat. And he constantly reiterated the theme that it was the initiative of the private individual that ensured a country’s success, accusing the Scullin Government of ‘subsidising idleness’ by its unemployment payments during the Depression.

Elliott emphasised that he did not support unrestricted world trade. ‘The Australian ship of freedom’, he told his fellow senators, ‘is moored to the British Empire’. In 1930 he published a treatise, The Empire Crusade: Advantages of Empire Trade to Australia, in which he referred to Lord Beaverbrook and ‘his Crusaders’. By now Elliott himself had become something of a crusader. ‘The Empire Crusade’, he wrote, ‘is vital to Australia. Our prosperity is menaced, for foreigners are closing their markets against Australia and the Empire . . . Let us infuse new life and hope into Australia and the Empire’. He enthusiastically supported the Customs Tariff (Canadian Preference) Bill 1931, and the United Kingdom and Australia Trade Agreement Bill of 1932. Over the latter he waxed lyrical: ‘We stand to-day at one of the great turning points in history’.[3]

Elliott’s criticisms of the Scullin Government’s economic and unemployment policies tended to follow those of the Nationalist leader, George Pearce. Anxious to avoid another election, Elliott, like other Opposition senators, was cautious in his opposition to the Commonwealth Bank Bill of 1929. Later, in 1933, he suggested drafting unemployed men into industrial camps, and, supposing himself to be the ‘only dairy-farmer’ in the Senate, supported the Dairy Produce Bill that provided assistance to the industry.

He remained one of Page’s close confidants. After the defeat of the Scullin Government in December 1931 Page stayed with the Elliotts (as he had done previously) when he went to Melbourne to discuss whether or not the Country Party would be included in the new ministry of Joseph Lyons. And it was in the Elliott’s Toorak house that Country Party leaders gathered for a post‑mortem after meeting with Lyons. By this time it was clear that the Country Party had little choice but to endeavour to influence policy rather than press for ministerial positions in the forthcoming Lyons ministry.

The tariff issue would dominate the remainder of Elliott’s Senate career. With no requirement of loyalty to a political coalition with the United Australia Party, and following the low‑tariff policy set by Page, Elliott, with other Country Party and some UAP senators, went on the attack against the Lyons Government’s tariff policy. Singling out the UAP’s A. J. McLachlan, he said:

I wonder whether this lack of real belief affects . . . also the members of the National Parliament. My thought is that it does, and particularly affects those members of the Government who are sponsoring the tariff measure now before the Senate . . . I approach the discussion of this whole subject with an innocent, simple, and inquiring mind, full of wonder and bewilderment. When in Opposition, in 1931, Senator McLachlan . . . spoke with all the fervour of an evangelistic advocate, and described the tariff proposals of the Scullin Administration, which, I might add, were not quite so bad as the present schedule, as the illegitimate creation of a man who had not grasped even the fundamentals of economics.

But Elliott’s criticisms of the Government went one step too far. In August 1933, an article in his Castlemaine Mail was highly critical of the Lyons Government over its decision to withhold a Tariff Board report on sales tax until after the presentation of the budget. The article stressed that ‘by keeping Parliament, and through it, the people, in ignorance of the contents of an important report, the Ministry is arrogating to itself dictatorial powers, which it was never intended should be conferred upon a Cabinet’. Worse, it suggested party funds could have a bearing on the case. The mild-mannered Lyons took umbrage, claiming that he had been charged with ‘dishonesty and corruption’.[4]

Despite elements of political ineptitude, Elliott left an important mark on the Senate. At heart a democrat, he was committed to the Senate’s role as a house of review. He was one of many who, since Federation, have complained of the Senate receiving ‘insufficient time’ for detailed consideration of legislation and paid meticulous attention to this not unimportant work of a legislator, as can be seen in his contribution to the Insurance Bill of 1932. It was his belief that the Senate should ‘be something more than a nozzle through which the legislation of the lower chamber passes almost automatically’ that led to his motion in December 1929 for the appointment of a select committee to report on the possible establishment of a Senate standing committee system. The motion was successful and Elliott went on to serve, at least for a time, as chairman. While two of the committee’s subsequent recommendations—the referral of legislation to committees and the establishment of a foreign affairs committee—were not accepted until much later, a third, the establishment of a standing committee on regulations and ordinances, was approved in March 1932. Elliott, who had expressed concern that ‘long lists of rules and regulations’ were ‘never perused by honorable senators’, served as a founding member of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee.[5]

In 1934 Elliott, with four other Victorian federal members of the Country Party, rejected the state central council’s demand for a conformity pledge, which required that candidates for election stand down if not officially endorsed. All sitting federal members from Victoria, including Elliott and W. G. Gibson, refused to sign the pledge. Elliott, running, without official endorsement, for the Country Party, was beaten when Gibson ran against him on a joint UAP–CP ticket. Elliott was reported as saying he had been excluded from the Senate ticket ‘because the political machine did not want in Parliament any individual who had a mind of his own’. While this no doubt had some truth, the Castlemaine Mail’s allegations of corruption in the Lyons Government had alienated any support Elliott may have hoped for from the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he had put up a stout fight, travelling around the Victorian countryside in a ‘covered in motor waggon’. In August 1934, a month before the federal election, Elliott had issued a ‘railway ticket’, identical in appearance to those of the Victorian Railways, but bearing the words: ‘Elliott (1) to The Senate—First Return’. When several of these were presented at the barriers the railways commissioners were not amused.[6]

After his defeat Elliott continued in the limelight. In June 1935 a press photograph shows him as a passenger on the first commercial flight between England and Australia. His devotion to empire preference never wavered. During World War II he became Lord Beaverbrook’s special assistant in London, serving during the period of the latter’s appointment as British minister of aircraft production (1940–41). Beaverbrook, so it seems, stated that he was in Elliott’s debt for the latter’s ‘untiring and valiant labours’. Returning to Australia in 1941 Elliott chaired the Contracts Advisory Panel on munitions contracts and the War Investigation Committee (Navy). For this work, he received a CMG in 1942. In August 1943 Elliott unsuccessfully contested the seat of Deakin for the House of Representatives as an independent.[7]

Elliott had long been a supporter and patron of the arts. He promoted the financing of tours of the National Gallery of Victoria. As vice-president of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra he played a major role in establishing the orchestra’s concert series. In 1944 he and his wife donated their valuable collection of modern British paintings to the city of Mildura; this formed the nucleus of a collection that led to the establishment of the city’s art gallery. Elliott was also a trustee—albeit a controversial one—of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria from 1924, and treasurer for some years to 1940. He was a National Gallery trustee following the gallery’s 1944 and 1945 reorganisation.

He died on 6 March 1950 at his home at 15 Lansell Road, Toorak. After a service at St George’s Presbyterian Church, Toorak, he was cremated at Springvale. Hilda, who became chairman of directors of the Elliott Provincial Newspaper Group, survived him. There were no children. Four years after his death, People magazine ran an article on Hilda Elliott, a Christian Scientist, and now respected as a businesswoman in her own right. The article included a description of the former senator as a visionary who liked ‘to expound his dogmatic views and theories without being answered back’, and as a dynamic personality who would pack his bags and ‘sail or fly’ to England or the United States of America without notice.

Elliott had been a businessman first and a senator second. He had said as much in the Senate: ‘Prosperity is created by producers and traders so that politicians can take the credit’.[8]

Brian Wimborne

[1] Leonard B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, [1970], p. 185; H. W. Malloch, Fellows All: The Chronicles of the Bread and Cheese Club, Bread and Cheese Club, Melbourne, 1943, p. 209; Ellis Papers, MS 1006/3–2, NLA; Table Talk (Melb.), 8 Nov. 1928, p. 13; Argus (Melb.), 7 Nov. 1928, p. 18; VPP, Reports of the State Electricity Commission on Sugarloaf-Rubicon Hydro-Electric Scheme, 1922, 1925–29; Earle Page, Truant Surgeon, ed. Ann Mozley, A & R, Sydney, 1963, p. 54; L. R. Gardiner, ‘Elliott, Robert Charles Dunlop’, ADB, vol. 8; People (Syd.), 13 Jan. 1954, pp. 27–8.

[2] A Little Country Doctor, Pam. JAFp SOC 1082, NLA; B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 189–91, 295; Argus (Melb.), 7 Feb. 1923, p. 19; Fighting Facts for Country Party Speakers, no. 3, Pam. JAFp SOC 1083, NLA; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, p. 157; Argus (Melb.), 7 Nov. 1928, p. 18; CPD, 14 Aug. 1929, p. 1, 5 Dec. 1929, p. 751.

[3] Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, pp. 162–4; CPD, 14 Mar. 1930, pp. 150–5, 25 June 1931, pp. 3001–3, 22 July 1931, pp. 4187–8, 21 July 1931, p. 4096; A. J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1972, p. 272; R. D. Elliott, The Empire Crusade: Advantages of Empire Trade to Australia, Melbourne, 1930, pp. 3, 5; CPD, 21 July 1931, pp. 4093–7, 17 Nov. 1932, pp. 2476–87.

[4] CPD, 11 Dec. 1929, pp. 990–2, 21 Nov. 1933, pp. 4790–2, 7 Dec. 1933, pp. 5942–3; Page, Truant Surgeon, pp. 218–21; CPD, 6 June 1933, pp. 2093–101, 14 June 1933, pp. 2320–1; Castlemaine Mail, 19 Aug. 1933, p. 2; Argus (Melb.), 21 Aug. 1934, p. 8.

[5] CPD, 25 June 1931, p. 3001, 25 Feb. 1932, pp. 264–7, 5 Dec. 1929, pp. 745–65; CPP, Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, reports, 1930; CPD, 17 Mar. 1932, p. 1224, 5 Dec. 1929, p. 747.

[6] Australian Country Party Monthly Journal (Syd.), 1 Aug. 1934, p. 6; Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, pp. 204, 207, 226; Argus (Melb.), 10 Aug. 1934, p. 10; Australian Country Party Monthly Journal (Syd.), 1 May 1934, p. 5; Argus (Melb.), 23 Aug. 1934, p. 10.

[7] Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, facing p. 246; Alan Wood, The True History of Lord Beaverbrook, Heinemann, London, 1965, pp. 191, 266; S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942–1945, AWM, Canberra, 1977, pp. 427, 429; Argus (Melb), 1 Jan. 1942, p. 1.

[8] The editor is indebted to Julian Bowron of the Mildura Art Gallery; Table Talk (Melb.), 8 Nov. 1928, p. 13; Sunraysia Daily (Mildura), 23 Sept. 1944, p. 1; Bulletin (Syd.), 28 Dec. 1949, p. 11; Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968, pp. 101, 172, 176, 185–7, 193, 225; Harold Herbert, ‘The Art Collection of Senator R. D. Elliott’, Art in Australia, 15 Feb. 1935, pp. 23–37; Argus (Melb.), 7 Mar. 1950, pp. 1, 5; Age (Melb.), 7 Mar. 1950, p. 1; The Times (Lond.), 7 Mar. 1950, p. 9; People (Syd.), 13 Jan. 1954, pp. 27–8; CPD, 25 June 1931, p. 3003.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 110-115.

ELLIOTT, Robert Charles Dunlop (1884–1950)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1929–35


Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1929–35

Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise

of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, 1929–30

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1932–35

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1932–35