LATHAM, Sir Charles George (1882–1968)
Senator for Western Australia, 1942–43 (Australian Country Party)

Charles George Latham, wheat farmer and influential Country Party politician, believed in firm action. During the Depression of the 1930s he once suggested to Premier James Mitchell that a fire hose be turned upon a large crowd demonstrating outside the Treasury Building in St George’s Terrace, though Mitchell, it seems, did not take his advice. Latham was born in England, at Hythe, in Kent, on 26 January 1882, the son of Thomas Latham, a coastguard officer, and his wife, Isabella, née Isum. He began his education at Frogham, in England, but following the death of his parents he went to New South Wales. Arriving in 1890 with his brothers and sisters, he went to school at Hay in the Riverina district, where he married, at St Paul’s Pro‑Cathedral (Church of England), Marie Louisa Von Allwörden, on 24 June 1903.

After several years in rural employment, Latham moved to Western Australia in 1910 to take up a homestead block and 1000 acres of newly opened‑up land at East Kumminin (renamed Narembeen in 1917) in the eastern wheat-belt. Despite needing a maximum advance from the Agricultural Bank to secure his conditional purchase, and having to cart water long distances, especially during the severe drought of 1914, Latham had doubled the size of his property by 1921. He served on the Bruce Rock Road Board from 1913 to 1914 and became the first chairman of the Narembeen Road Board in 1924.

On 14 March 1916 Latham enlisted in the AIF as a private in the 16th Battalion and served overseas from October 1916 until just before his discharge in August 1919. An acting corporal with the 4th Training Battalion from December 1916, he was promoted corporal in January 1917 and went to France with the 16th in October. He was wounded in action in March 1918 and later that year, between September and October, was attached to the United States Army. Promoted sergeant in April 1919, he returned to Australia in July.[1]

Latham had served as foundation president of the local branch of the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association, from which the Country Party originated in 1914, and in March 1921 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly representing the wheat-belt seat of York. When differences arose within the Country Party over the working of the Mitchell Nationalist–Country Party Coalition Government, Latham joined with those supporting the Premier to form the breakaway Ministerial or Majority Country Party (subsequently known as the United Party). Despite opposition from candidates favouring the official Country Party, he retained York comfortably in 1924 and 1927 before rejoining the reunited Country Party later in the same year. Following the April 1930 election, in which the six-year term of the Collier Labor Government came to an end, Latham was elected leader of the Parliamentary Country Party, a post he retained until 1942.[2]

Under Latham’s leadership the Country Party secured four ministerial posts in a cabinet of eight in the coalition government, again headed by Mitchell. As Deputy Premier, Latham was Minister for Lands, Immigration and Health throughout the three-year life of the Government. While strongly supportive of farmers seeking debt reduction during the Depression, he vigorously opposed the breakaway radical Wheat Growers’ Union, and advocated strong action to break up demonstrations of the unemployed. When the Mitchell Government was swept from office in 1933, with the loss of five ministers (including the Premier himself), the Nationalist Party was reduced to a rump of eight members, leaving Latham, as leader of the larger non-Labor Party, to take the post of Leader of the Opposition. On 7 October 1942 Latham resigned from the Legislative Assembly, having served as the Member for York for twenty-one years. On the following day he was elected at a joint sitting of the Western Australian Parliament to fill a Senate casual vacancy vice E. B. Johnston.[3]

Latham was sworn in the Senate on 10 December and made his first speech the next day during a debate on international affairs. In the course of a fifteen-minute address, Latham referred to his experiences in World War I and supported the introduction of military conscription to provide relief for those carrying the burden at the front, while condemning the ALP conference decision to refer the issue to its state executives. Subsequently, in February 1943, when the Curtin Government introduced a bill for conscription within a restricted zone in the south‑west Pacific, he entered the debate to deplore the fact that the Government was not seeking an unlimited right to deploy Australian troops wherever necessary.[4]

Latham’s pro-British outlook had emerged clearly during his first speech, as did his concern that Australian prisoners of war might be treated badly in captivity because of Australia’s restrictive immigration policies:

I am an Englishman, and proud of it. No matter what Australia does, we can never repay the Old Country for what it has done for us. It permitted us in years gone by to put on the statute-book of our national parliament legislation that we could never have enforced for one day without its help. To-day we are fighting one of the Asiatic races affected by that legislation. I am very concerned lest retaliation for our action in passing it should be visited on those of our men who to-day are prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese.[5]

During debate on the Supply Bill seven months later, in what proved to be his last speech to the Senate, he returned to the migration theme, applauding the efforts of the Attorney-General, Dr Evatt, ‘to attract to Australia people from the overcrowded parts of the Empire. I do not know,’ he said:

whether [Evatt’s] actions will have the support of his party, but I hope that he will be successful. Whatever government is in office after the elections, it will have to give consideration to increasing Australia’s population. We hear so many glib speeches about providing employment for all in the post-war period that post-war governments will have their hands full in giving effect to promises that are now being made. I emphasize the importance from a defence point of view of populating this country with a virile people.[6]

Many of the central preoccupations of Latham’s short Senate career were dealt with during this speech. In particular, he spoke at length on alleged discriminatory treatment against workers who refused to join unions, and on the crippling impact of industrial awards on struggling rural industries, in this case the dairying industry. He argued for recognition of the special circumstances of primary producers in the West, as when opposing a uniform national price for meat or supporting a higher scale of fees to be paid to the growers’ cooperative, Co-operative Bulk Handling, for storage of the state’s wheat crop. He also was concerned that more efficient use be made of parliamentary time, arguing that Western Australian members had ‘no chance to return home during week-ends’ and hence the Government might try to arrange its business ‘so that we may be occupied while we are here’.[7]

Throughout his time in Parliament Latham adopted a conservative approach to expenditure, other than for war purposes. Thus, in speaking on the bill to establish the National Welfare Fund, he argued that ‘every penny that we can obtain is required for war purposes’. He claimed that the way to win the confidence of the people was ‘by convincing them that the Government is not extorting more money from them than it really needs’. On another occasion, he questioned the wartime payment to wives of enlisted men, which resulted in their earning an equivalent wage to the men they had replaced. In his view, this was inappropriate in that these women also received separation allowances and military allotments, yet without the necessity to support their spouses.[8]

After less than twelve months in the Senate, Latham lost his seat in the electoral landslide at the 1943 federal election that brought about the defeat of every sitting Western Australian non-Labor member up for re-election in either House.[9] Following three years as deputy director of the Commonwealth Loans and National Savings Organisation, he re-entered state politics at a by-election on 14 December 1946 for the East Province in the Legislative Council, and retained the seat in 1948, and (as Central Province) 1954, before retiring in May 1960 as President of the Legislative Council, which post he had held since July 1958. Between January 1952 and the fall of the McLarty–Watts Government in February 1953, he was again in the state Cabinet, as Minister for Agriculture.

During the 1950s Latham organised the financing and purchasing of the Country Party headquarters in West Perth, known as Latham House, and in 1958 he was chairman of the Save the Children Fund in Western Australia. Appointed KCMG in 1948, Latham had represented the Western Australian branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association at the silver jubilee of King George V in 1936, and he attended the second area conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Sydney in 1955.

A widower since 1946, Latham died on 26 August 1968, at Parkside Lodge Hospital in South Perth, and was cremated with Church of England rites at Karrakatta. His two sons, Arthur and Gordon, survived him, as did his grandchildren, Gaynor and Dale, and great‑grandchildren, Merrick, Kelly and Anthony. The West Australian’s profile of the 86‑year‑old ‘farmer‑knight’ reminded a new generation that Latham had come to Australia in 1891 as a nine‑year‑old orphan.[10]

David Black

[1] Countryman (Perth), 18 June 1959, p. 8; Lenore Layman, ‘Latham, Sir Charles George’, ADB, vol. 10; Iris Bristow, ‘The Latham Family’, in Pioneers of Narembeen: Their Personal Stories, Narembeen Shire Council, Narembeen, WA, 1984; Latham, C. G.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA.

[2] David Black (ed.), The House on the Hill: A History of the Parliament of Western Australia 1832–1990, Parliament of Western Australia, Perth, 1991, p. 105; B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 218–21, 281; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic, 1963, pp. 112–13.

[3] Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, pp. 167, 198; Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, p. 282; WAPD, 7 Oct. 1942, p. 715, 8 Oct. 1942, pp. 719–20, 722.

[4] CPD, 11 Dec. 1942, pp. 1772–4, 18 Feb. 1943, pp. 874–5.

[5] CPD, 11 Dec. 1942, p. 1772.

[6] CPD, 29 June 1943, p. 477.

[7] CPD, 29 June 1943, pp. 479–88, 11 Feb. 1943, pp. 532–5, 18 Feb. 1943, p. 881.

[8] CPD, 17 Mar. 1943, pp. 1845–6, 29 June 1943, pp. 482–3.

[9] Under the terms of section 15 of the Commonwealth Constitution, prior to its amendment in 1977, a senator chosen by the state Parliament to fill a casual vacancy had to face the electors at the next election for either the House of Representatives or Senate, whichever occurred first. This meant that following his defeat Latham had to vacate his Senate seat immediately.

[10] West Australian (Perth), 27 Aug. 1968, pp. 1, 12, 36.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 63-66.

LATHAM, Sir Charles George (1882–1968)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1942–43

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, York, 1921–42

Member of the Legislative Council, East Province, 1946–54; Central Province, 1954–60