GUTHRIE, James Francis (1872–1958)
Senator for Victoria, 1920–38 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party)

James Francis Guthrie was born on 13 September 1872 at Rich Avon near Donald, in Victoria, the youngest son of Thomas Guthrie and Mary, née Rutherford. His parents had been pioneer pastoralists in the Northern Territory, had developed a valuable merino stud and owned extensive lands in several Australian states. After education at Geelong College James spent six years as an office boy, initially unpaid, at Dalgety and Company. This was followed by two years in England, working in woollen mills at Bradford and elsewhere. He then returned to Dalgety’s as a recognised authority on wool and was rapidly promoted until becoming manager at the Geelong mills. In 1902, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, New Zealand, he married Mary Isobel Wright, daughter of one of Dalgety’s strongest competitors, John Thomas Wright, and his wife, Mary. In the following year Guthrie became seriously ill with anthrax; at one stage he was given up for dead, but he survived after the amputation of one leg. Crutches diminished neither his activity nor his great interest in sport.[1]

In 1919 Dalgety’s approved his nominating for the Senate as a Nationalist candidate. Although a farmer and a member of the Victorian Farmers’ Union, he was opposed by the union’s candidates, which led Punch to comment that ‘the Union is not looking for the support and help of men who really and conscientiously belong to the class which the Union says it represents, but . . . is working for political achievements, and trying to gain political victories quite apart from its printed and stated objects’. Guthrie was successful, serving in the Senate until 1938, but there seemed to be frequent tensions between his occupation there and his work for Dalgety’s. There were rumours that he was about to leave the Senate, but in 1928 he retired from Dalgety’s and was given a generous pension and a retainer as Australian adviser to their London board; both lasted until his death in 1958.[2]

On leaving Dalgety’s, Guthrie stated he would be giving his whole time to the Senate, but his attendance in Parliament was irregular and he did not participate in many of the most controversial debates on measures to cope with the Depression, particularly under the Scullin Government. This may have been related to his dislike of Canberra, for he had always opposed moving to the ‘bush capital’. In 1923 he expressed the hope that moss would continue to grow on Canberra foundation stones, maintaining that ‘we can make quite as good, or as bad, laws in Sydney, or in Melbourne, as we could if this Parliament were transferred to the bush’. He described Canberra as ‘a windswept, cold, miserable place, in poor country that would not keep a bandicoot’.[3]

Guthrie was a protectionist, but in his own words, a ‘sane’ one. He considered that high tariffs benefited only rich manufacturers, who were able to profiteer with high prices, but brought no advantages to primary producers or consumers. He saw the tariff of 1921 as ‘protectionism run stark raving mad’, predicting it would drive country people to the cities and make millionaires into multi-millionaires. He moved to reduce the tariff on textiles because, as a director and shareholder of woollen mills, he knew higher tariffs were unnecessary and would force up the cost of clothing and, therefore, of wages. He wanted also to see all woollen goods required by Australians manufactured in Australia. He boasted that his clothes were made entirely of Australian wool and considered it unpatriotic for Australians to dress otherwise. He urged them to lead the world and recommended campaigning against the manufacture and use of artificial silk or rayon.[4]

Guthrie saw the sheep and wool industry as the ‘backbone of Australia’ and loved to quote figures stressing its importance. At one time he participated in a family company to manage his father’s properties, but his own sheep breeding differed from his father’s concentration on merinos, for he excelled in the breeding of Corriedale sheep and founded the Australian Corriedale Sheepbreeders’ Association. His stud was an international success, but he supported a ban on the export of all stud sheep. He knew the ban would weaken his business, but believed the export of merinos had benefited Australia’s competitors in Russia and, particularly, in South Africa.[5]

Guthrie was an ardent believer in closer settlement, arguing that Australia could support far more sheep and far more people. He criticised the failure of successive governments to attract more migrants to settle on the land, but was anxious such migrants should be British and was worried that an influx of southern Europeans into Queensland as canegrowers might reduce the percentage of the Australian population from British stock to less than 98 per cent. He felt that Australia was the worst advertised country in the world, for the publicity it received abroad was usually only about natural disasters. He hoped the development of civil aviation and wireless would improve communication and attract a greater number of British migrants. He stressed the need to advertise and display Australian wool, woods and meat.[6]

He appeared to see no limit to Australia’s possible development. He argued that the whole of the continent was habitable, though admitted that capital was necessary for settlement in the Northern Territory. He advocated sharefarming as the best method of settling people on the land and often boasted of his own successes with this method. He believed that primary producers had been hindered rather than helped by government. He campaigned for the end of federal land tax. He saw this as a measure, introduced for other purposes, that had become ‘an undemocratic, unfair, uneconomic tax upon capital . . . strangling our great primary industries, driving capital out of Australia’, and preventing development and contributing to unemployment. If land tax were not abolished, it should at least be remitted from land which was used for sharefarming. His preoccupation with sharefarming was coupled with a general belief that employees should receive a share of their employer’s profits and again the Senate heard many of his own experiences in practising such principles.[7]

Though a constant critic of government expenditure, he supported the creation of the Tariff Board in the hope that its activities might give consumers some share in the benefits afforded by protection. He also supported the creation of a non-political board to govern the Commonwealth Bank and hoped a similar method might be applied to the Commonwealth Shipping Line, but was more pleased when this was put up for sale. He was completely opposed to government enterprise. He advised the government on the sale of the Commonwealth Woollen Mills at Geelong and bought shares in the new controlling company. He pointed out that the mills had made profits during the war, but could not do so when they had to compete with other mills.

Despite the benefits said to be derived from public control of all means of production, distribution and exchange, Guthrie was certain that experiences of governments ‘definitely determine that privately-controlled business is of greater advantage to the people’. He attacked the example of the Commonwealth Shipping Line. He believed Hughes had been justified in establishing the line, but that it had been of no service after the war; the union bosses had done more to destroy it than all the shipping combines, and there had been no gain for primary producers. ‘I trust that the Labour party will never dream, except in a nightmare, of again committing the people of Australia to the expense of conducting a socialistic shipping line’.[8]

Before Guthrie entered the Senate he declared that he hated profiteers and Bolsheviks. He found many of both. His constant attacks on the over-pricing of textile goods by wealthy manufacturers meant that he always had profiteers to denounce, but, as industrial disputes and unrest grew, he found Bolsheviks not only within the ranks of the ALP and union leaders, but also among those who were influential in the general public. He dismissed a proposal that a non-voting senator should be elected to represent the Northern Territory, arguing this would be of no benefit to the Territory and that such a representative would be chosen by the ‘Bolshevik’ element round Darwin, not by the real developers of the Territory.

Loafers, strikers and idlers were soon included among the subjects of his hatred. It also became clear that he disliked the motion picture industry. When the Bruce–Page Government proposed a tax on cinema tickets there was considerable opposition. Guthrie supported the tax because he saw moving pictures as objectionable, declaring they ruined the eyesight of children, and were mainly for the purposes of American propaganda. Furthermore, they did not uphold the superiority of the white race, often ridiculed Englishmen and mutilated the English language; they were a luxury and could bear a small tax.

When the Scullin Government came to power, Guthrie attributed Labor’s win to the support of the ‘Yankee picture combine’. Since the Government did not control the Senate he stated that the Nationalists would give fair treatment to Labor legislation and that he was ready to support a government that gave absolute preference to Australian goods. But he argued that the election had been won on many false promises, such as reducing unemployment and legislating for a shorter working week. The Bruce–Page Government had been criticised for not prosecuting John Brown, but the new Government would not do so. Guthrie asked: ‘Surely it has not made a beloved friend of the great coal magnate as it has the Yankee picture combine!’[9]

Guthrie was completely opposed to amendments to the arbitration legislation which would have created conciliation commissioners and deleted the penal clauses against strikes. As economic conditions deteriorated he became increasingly hostile to unionists who disobeyed court awards. He argued that the miners would not work full time because they were overpaid. He applauded the efforts of volunteers to undertake the work of strikers but he feared an outbreak of violence in the cities. As the prices for wheat, wool and mutton fell he argued that this should mean cheaper bread and clothing and therefore a fall in the cost of living and in wages, but he insisted that a fall in the cost of living did not mean a fall in the wonderful Australian standard of living.[10]

With the Lyons Government in office, he accused the Scullin Ministry of having practically destroyed Australian defences. He welcomed loans to be spent on defence, advocated an increase in the building of aircraft, but opposed expenditure on uniform gauge railways, believing that the age of rail transport was passed. He also advocated government assistance for the making of Australian films and the showing of British-made films. He worked with the British National Film League as a shareholder in British Dominion Films Ltd. When the Royal Commission issued its report on the film industry, he felt his criticisms of the ‘Yankee combine’ had been justified. He worked to secure the establishment of the Australian Wool Board and the imposition of a wool levy to fund promotion and research. He served on the board from 1936 until 1945 and was active in the formation of the International Wool Secretariat in 1937.

Guthrie was defeated at the 1937 federal election, and made an unsuccessful bid in 1940 for the seat of South-Western in the Victorian Legislative Council. He was appointed CBE in 1946, and in 1952 retired to a small farm at Kangaroo Ground near Melbourne, where he died on 18 August 1958 at the age of eighty-six, survived by his daughter, Mary Alma Gray Taylor, his wife and son having predeceased him. His funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church, Toorak Road, Toorak, followed by burial at Boroondara Cemetery. Guthrie had spent his last years writing on the history of his industry. His most important work, A World History of Sheep and Wool, was published in 1957.

Alan Barnard has described Guthrie as ‘above all else a wool man’. Guthrie certainly had spent his life, both in and out of Parliament, supporting the Australian sheep and wool industry. He was active in most organisations promoting wool, and for many years was also an active member of a large number of sporting bodies and charitable concerns. He had a particular interest in the Limbless Soldiers’ Association for which he raised much money and which he often supported in the Senate.[11]

Joan Rydon

[1]Alan Barnard, ‘Guthrie, James Francis’, ADB, vol. 9; Harry H. Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman, Stock and Land, Melbourne, 1972, pp. 111, 193–4; 500 Victorians, Maurice G. Henderson, Melbourne, 1934, p. 19; Australasian (Melb.), 17 Jan. 1920, p. 127; Pastoral Review and Graziers’ Record (Melb.), 18 Sept. 1958, p. 1031; Table Talk (Melb.), 23 Jan. 1927, p. 15.

[2] Punch (Melb.), 6 Nov. 1919, p. 766; Industrial Australian and Mining Standard (Melb.), 12 Apr. 1928, p. 343.

[3] CPD, 13 June 1923, p. 15; Cecil Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne, William Heinemann, London, 1965, p. 89.

[4] CPD, 19 July 1921, p. 10199, 12 June 1925, pp. 136–7, 20 July 1921, p. 10284, 13 June 1923, p. 29, 12 July 1923, p. 1022, 28 Nov. 1929, pp. 389–90.

[5] CPD, 8 Aug. 1923, p. 2289; Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman, pp. 193–4; CPD, 28 Nov. 1929, pp. 386–9, 7 Feb. 1929, pp. 48–51.

[6] CPD, 28 Nov. 1929, pp. 387–9, 10 Nov. 1921, pp. 12580–1, 12 June 1925, p. 139, 7 Aug. 1930, pp. 5508–9, 7 Feb. 1929, p. 45, 13 June 1925, p. 14.

[7] CPD, 13 June 1923, pp. 16–24, 16 Sept. 1920, p. 4618, 20 July 1922, pp. 625–30; Australian Statesman (Melb.), 1 Sept. 1932, p. 2; CPD, 20 Mar. 1930, pp. 297–300, 10 Apr. 1930, p. 1086, 15 Nov. 1934, p. 317, 28 Nov. 1929, p. 393.

[8] CPD, 12 June 1925, p. 136, 13 June 1923, pp. 12, 28–9, 2 May 1928, pp. 4504–5, 28 Nov. 1929, pp. 388–9.

[9] CPD, 12 June 1925, pp. 125–7, 16 Sept. 1920, p. 4620, 3 Mar. 1927, pp. 51–5; John Robertson, J. H. Scullin: A Political Biography, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1974, p. 187; SMH, 19 Oct. 1929, p. 18; CPD, 28 Nov. 1929, p. 390.

[10] CPD, 24 July 1930, pp. 4586–93, 28 Nov. 1929, pp. 390–1, 7 Feb. 1929, p. 43.

[11] CPD, 26 Aug. 1937, p. 166, 9 Sept. 1937, pp. 796–803, 11 Aug. 1926, pp. 5242–9; J. F. Guthrie, The Australian Sheep and Wool Industry, Historical Society of Victoria, Melbourne, c. 1927, Australia’s Greatest Industry, Sheep and Wool: A Brief History, Geelong, 1937, A World History of Sheep and Wool, McCarron Bird, Melbourne, 1957; J. F. Guthrie, Personal Papers, p. 31, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, ANU; Barnard, ‘Guthrie, James Francis’; Age (Melb.), 20 Aug. 1958, p. 12, 21 Aug. 1958, p. 17.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 106-110.

GUTHRIE, James Francis (1872–1958)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1920–38

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1920–29

Library Committee, 1923

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1923–38

Select Committee on Beam Wireless Messages from Australia to England, 1929