MASSY-GREENE, Sir Walter (1874–1952)
Senator for New South Wales, 1923–38 (Nationalist Party)

Walter Massy-Greene’s name did not officially include a hyphen until March 1933. Prior to that date, anyone searching for him in Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates will find him under the name of ‘Greene’. He was born on 6 November 1874 at Grove Lane, Camberwell, Surrey, England, the second son of Julia Eamer, née Sandeman, and John Greene, who variously described himself as a brewer and a man ‘of independent means’, and who is reputed ‘to have gone rapidly through two fortunes’. Young Walter, whose health was considered fragile, was educated at Lynton House College, Oxfordshire, and apparently came to Australia for his health. By 1891 it seems the family was settled in Tasmania, where Walter worked at a sawmill and as a farmhand in the north, the outdoor life leading to an improvement in his health. After the family took up land in Kyneton, Victoria, Walter worked as a labourer on a nearby farm before joining the Bank of New South Wales in Melbourne. Around 1895 he volunteered to serve in a hardship post—Kalgoorlie. After two years of adventure he was transferred to the bank’s Sydney office, and then to the Lismore branch. He returned to farming and in due course acquired a property on which the bank had foreclosed. By 1902 he was farming near Nimbin with his two brothers.[1]

From 1907 to 1909 Massy-Greene served as founding president of the Terania Shire Council. Joining the Liberal League in 1910, he was elected MHR for Richmond, New South Wales, a seat he would hold continuously for the next twelve years. Massy-Greene commenced his first parliamentary speech with a plea for the Government to provide adequate telephone services for those in the bush. But more importantly, he showed from the outset that his interests lay largely with matters of trade and finance. He was deeply suspicious of government intervention in banking and currency—these beliefs remained constant throughout his career. In 1910 he attacked the Australian Notes Bill, which authorised a convertible paper currency to be controlled by the Commonwealth. He pointed out that government issue would not be any more ‘stable’ than the existing currency. He accused Prime Minister Fisher’s Labor Government of desiring to garner revenue: belief in state-issued paper money was a kind of ‘national alchemy’ derived not from experience but from theory.

The following year Massy-Greene was among those members of the Opposition who opposed the Commonwealth Bank Bill which, when enacted, authorised the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank. What would happen, he wanted to know, if, in the likely event of another depression, depositors rushed the bank, but the Government had spent all its reserves? While he tended to agree with a comprehensive Commonwealth banking scheme, he considered the establishment of a Commonwealth bank to take over the work of the savings banks ‘would cripple the States financially’. In the rowdy debate that followed Alfred Deakin’s motion to have a select committee inquiry into the bill, Massy-Greene was suspended, after which the entire Opposition walked off the floor of the House of Representatives.[2]

Massy-Greene was appointed Liberal Whip in 1913 and Nationalist Whip after the formation of the Nationalist Party in 1917. In March 1918 he was appointed Honorary Minister with particular responsibility for price-fixing and was one of the two honorary ministers who worked with the members of the newly created Council of Trade and Commerce. With Labor focusing on prices and profits, Massy-Greene, as an influential figure in Cabinet discussion, was in the front line at Question Time in the House.

On 17 January 1919 Hughes appointed Massy-Greene Minister for Trade and Customs. (As a Deakin Protectionist, Massy-Greene had earlier criticised tariffs such as those on New Zealand white pine, which he opposed on the grounds that there was a current shortage in Australia of pine needed for the manufacture of the all-important butter-box.) In August he introduced the Customs Bill aimed at tightening up customs procedures. After the bill lapsed Massy-Greene used the existing Customs Act to require licences for the importation of various goods ranging from chocolates and hosiery to steel. He frequently referred to the ‘lessons’ of wartime when Australia could not meet the need for ‘canned food’ because there was no ‘tin plate’.

In March 1920 he introduced the new tariff schedule. The duties were designed, said Massy-Greene, to allow Australia to develop industries which would make it prosperous, self-reliant in war, and replete in foreign exchange. We must cease, he told the House, exporting greasy wool and ‘bringing it back’ as clothing. The tariff would assist new industries (especially in the metals sector) and the repayment of war debts. To do this, a substantial increase in duties was proposed, except on goods produced in the United Kingdom for which tariffs rose only slightly. According to Ulrich Ellis, Massy-Greene had ‘with distinction, piloted through the House the most comprehensive and controversial tariff schedules in its history’. On 6 July 1921 he introduced the Tariff Board Bill, which despite stiff opposition from the Labor Party, the right wing of the Nationalist Party and the Country Party (who opposed the growth of executive power) became law, though the Senate restricted the Act’s duration to two years. This was followed by the Customs Tariff (Industries Preservation) Bill—anti-dumping legislation dependent for its operation on the existence of the Customs Tariff Act and for its administration on the approval of the Minister.[3]

By this time Massy-Greene’s grasp on financial matters and his political prowess had created the perception that he was destined for the prime ministership. He had taken some part in coalition negotiations between Prime Minister Hughes and the Country Party leader, Earle Page, during November and December 1921. Hughes now promised Massy-Greene the Treasury, but caved in to the push for Stanley Bruce. Massy-Greene was fobbed off with the defence portfolio and the newly created health portfolio, holding both from December 1921 until February 1923. Responsible for the reorganisation of the Department of Defence to include the Royal Australian Navy and the provision of equitable retirement allowances across all defence personnel, he had also to administer retrenchment. In the Prime Minister’s absence, he led the House, and there were plans afoot for him to become its leader.

But his political career was on the downward slope. His work on tariffs, commodity pools and price controls on meat and dairy products made him unpopular with the Country Party and the farmers in his electorate—where his attitude to the new states movement, then active in northern New South Wales, was seen as tepid. It seems he neglected his northern electorate for his national commitments and from about 1917 made his home in Melbourne. At the 1922 federal election the Country Party put up as their candidate Roland Green, an ex-serviceman with one leg whose campaign slogan read: ‘Vote for the Green without an “e” ’. All this, combined with a general swing against the Nationalists, led to Massy-Greene’s defeat on 16 December. In February 1923 Bruce replaced Hughes as prime minister.

Massy-Greene wished to return to the House of Representatives, but with his close confidant, Hughes, now on the backbench, there was little likelihood of his being offered a seat. In September, Senator E. D. Millen died and in October Massy-Greene was appointed to the resulting casual vacancy at a joint sitting of the New South Wales Parliament. Elected by the Nationalist Council, he won preselection narrowly over former senator, Josiah Thomas. In nominating Massy-Greene, the Nationalist–Progressive Premier, G. W. Fuller, pointed to the political requirements now manifest. ‘Public Affairs in . . . Australia’, Fuller said, ‘demanded the attention of men with experience and undoubted ability’.[4]

For his first ten years in the Senate Massy-Greene was a reasonably vocal senator. In June 1924 he led a ‘revolt’ of Nationalists over the financial arrangements concerning the Bruce–Page Government’s Main Roads Development Bill, agreeing with Labor’s Senator Gardiner that it was an ‘encroachment on state rights’ for federal Parliament to dictate that only new roads be built and asking the minister concerned ‘what sense there is in building new roads into the back of beyond when we already have 20 or 50 miles of impassable roads in between?’ He was particularly opposed to voting for large public expenditure in advance of the budget. He saw a central bank as being a separate entity from the savings banks and continued to oppose low tariffs. He disagreed with the anti-arbitration policies of the Bruce–Page Government (especially the proposal to abolish the arbitration court), writing sadly to Melbourne businessman Herbert Brookes: ‘The old Liberalism that Mr Deakin stood for is dying’.

Throughout his Senate years he remained deeply involved in the politics of the Nationalist Party, where he saw himself as a moderate. Writing to Hughes in 1925 he called for the creation of a new centre party. In September 1929, when Hughes and a group of his followers joined with Labor to pass a no confidence motion in the Bruce–Page Government and Canberra abounded with rumours that Hughes was plotting to form a new party, it was said that Massy-Greene was often seen in Hughes’ office. Resentment at the peremptory way in which Bruce excluded Hughes and the other rebels from the party room, combined with a dislike of the new leader of the Nationalists in the House, John Latham, led Massy-Greene to resign from the Nationalist Federation. He rejoined in December 1930, explaining to Latham that he had underestimated the latter’s abilities.[5]

While his politics remained in the centre, Massy-Greene continued to hold orthodox economic views. He was reluctant to embrace the Keynesian economics influencing the Labor Government Treasurer, E. G. Theodore, during the Depression and equally reluctant to see Australia abandon the gold standard or to embark on a new monetary system—although the latter seemed to interest him in an intellectual sense. With the advent of the Government of Joseph Lyons, Massy-Greene was again in the Cabinet as one of Lyons’ informal ‘inner cabinet’, though his interest in politics was waning. He was appointed Assistant Minister to the Treasury on 6 January 1932 and was also Minister Assisting the Leader of the Government in the Senate from 6 January to 23 June 1932. As chairman of the Loan Council (in his capacity as Assistant Treasurer) he was considered one of Lyons’ chief financial assistants. In June 1933 he was appointed KCMG, and affixed his middle name to his surname; he had been known informally as Massy-Greene for a number of years. In September he resigned from the Cabinet, and made no speeches in the Senate chamber in 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1937—a fact that attracted the attention of a journalist from the Labor Daily. Of 210 sittings from February 1932 to November 1937 Massy‑Greene was absent for 116. The story goes that one Wednesday he was met in the corridors of Parliament House by Senator Philip McBride who remarked: ‘What, Massy, surely not still in Canberra so late in the week!’

He did not stand for the federal election of October 1937, completing his term in June 1938. But he remained active in the affairs of government. In 1939 he was a Menzies Government appointment as chairman of the Treasury Finance Committee (later serving on the Board of Business Administration). He also served on the National Security Capital Issues Advisory Board. He headed up Australia’s delegation to the 1940 Eastern Group Supply Conference in New Dehli that led to the establishment of the Eastern Group Supply Council, responsible for coordinating war supplies to Commonwealth forces.[6]

One reason for his frequent absence from the Senate during his last four years can be found in the devotion of his energies to company directorships and various business enterprises with which he became increasingly involved. After losing his seat in the House of Representatives, Massy-Greene had become involved with the Baillieu family in various pastoral companies. This led to his involvement with the Collins House industrial empire. He possessed the grasp of detail, the energy, and the utter refusal to accept setbacks that made him a highly successful board chairman of ‘a staggering number of companies’. These included Associated Pulp and Paper Mills, Electrolytic Zinc, Metal Manufacturers, Dunlop Rubber, and Felt and Textiles Corporation (which included subsidiary companies dealing in goldmining). He was a member of the boards of North Broken Hill, New Broken Hill Consolidated and Yarra Falls. He was director of the British-Australian Cotton Association and of Austral Silk and Cotton Mills and was subsequently on the board of Bradford Cotton.

Despite the fact that he was a senator for New South Wales, by the 1930s Massy-Greene seems to have been accepted as part of the Melbourne establishment. He was a member of the University of Melbourne Council from 1939 to 1949 and deputy chancellor (1945–47). He was also chairman of the council’s finance committee (1942–49). In 1944 he became a foundation member of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Victoria, one of the forces behind the establishment of the Liberal Party. The IPA’s first director, C. D. Kemp, records that he forwarded almost everything he wrote for the IPA to Massy-Greene, who made detailed comments, but that the latter’s insistence on ‘the maximum of private investment and the minimum of public investment’ ensured his isolation on the modishly Keynesian IPA council. Massy-Greene was also uneasy about the full employment objective that the IPA’s manifesto for postwar reconstruction, Looking Forward (1944), espoused. He considered government control of monetary policy to be unsound and was disturbed at the ascendancy of government activists such as H. C. Coombs. Characteristically, he regarded communism in business, rather than ideological, terms: the ‘reds’ were more a brake on production than a threat to ‘our way of life’.

When Hughes died on 28 October 1952, Massy-Greene wrote to Dame Mary: ‘I too feel lonely now that my old friend is gone. I am the sole survivor of the Cabinet which gathered around the table in Melbourne when your loved husband carried out the apotheosis of his wonderful career’. Massy-Greene himself died in Freemason’s Hospital, East Melbourne, less than a month later, on 16 November. A state funeral was held at St John the Evangelist, Toorak, and he was cremated at Springvale Cemetery. On 6 February 1915 he had married Lula May Lomax, the daughter of a grazier of Tenterfield, at St James’ Church of England, Mungindi, New South Wales. Massy-Greene lived at 3 Heyington Place, Toorak. His wife, and children, John Brian, Garth Sarsfield and Gillian Anne, survived him.

Massy-Greene’s views on many issues had remained those of an early Commonwealth Protectionist. He considered that confident, professional men of affairs such as himself could steer Australia on a sensible middle course between the extremes of capital and labour.[7]

Andrew Lee 

[1] C. J. Lloyd, ‘Massy-Greene, Sir Walter’, ADB, vol. 10; C. D. Kemp, Big Businessmen: Four Biographical Essays, Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne, 1964, pp. 87–9; SMH, 17 Nov. 1952, p. 2; Table Talk (Melb.), 16 Jan. 1930, p. 13; Punch (Melb.), 17 Nov. 1921, p. 2.

[2] The editor is indebted to Lismore City Council for information; CPD, 7 July 1910, pp. 191–5, 11 Aug. 1910, p. 1471, 12 Aug. 1910, pp. 1502–13, 21 Nov. 1911, pp. 2893–907; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, pp. 95–6, 138; CPD, 17 Dec. 1914, pp. 2201–6.

[3] SMH, 27 Mar. 1918, p. 14; CPD, 13 Dec. 1911, p. 4362, 8 Aug. 1919, pp. 11455–61; Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, p. 170; CPD, 2 Oct. 1919, p. 12938; Earle Page, Truant Surgeon, ed. Ann Mozley, A & R, Sydney, 1963, pp. 64–7; CPD, 24 Mar. 1920, pp. 700–29; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, p. 74; CPD, 6 July 1921, pp. 9718–40.

[4] Page, Truant Surgeon, pp. 59, 80–4; L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger 1914–1952: William Morris Hughes: A Political Biography, vol. 2, A & R, Sydney, 1979, pp. 498–502; Francesca Beddie, Putting Life into Years: The Commonwealth’s Role in Australia’s Health Since 1901, Department of Health and Aged Care, Canberra, 2001, pp. 15–18, 113; CPD, 18 Aug. 1922, pp. 1555–64; Letter, Frederick Sheddon to C. D. Kemp, 3 Sept. 1963, Kemp Papers, MS 1548, NLA; Table Talk (Melb.), 16 Jan. 1930, p. 13; Argus (Melb.), 22 May 1919, p. 4; Don Aitkin, The Colonel: A Political Biography of Sir Michael Bruxner, ANU Press, Canberra, 1969, pp. 34–5; New State Magazine (Tamworth), Nov. 1922, p. 5; Bulletin (Syd.), 28 Dec. 1922, p. 13, 16 Nov. 1922, p. 9; Cecil Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne: Man of Two Worlds, Heinemann, London, 1965, p. 71; Peter Heydon, Quiet Decision: A Study of George Foster Pearce, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1965, p. 90; Letter, Massy-Greene to Hughes, 28 Dec. 1922, Hughes Papers, MS 1538/16/596, NLA; SMH, 3 Oct. 1923, p. 12, 18 Oct. 1923, p. 9.

[5] CPD, 27 June 1924, pp. 1673–96, 18 July 1924, pp. 2260–70; L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank: The Development of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia 1924–1945, Melbourne at the University Press, 1951, p. 14; Letters, Massy-Greene to Herbert Brookes, 9 Sept. 1929, 19 July 1929, 2 Dec. 1929, Brookes Papers, MS 1924, 25/1206–8, 1067, 1555–7, NLA; Age (Melb.), 14 Aug. 1929, p. 11; Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger, pp. 591–2; Herald (Melb.), 26 Dec. 1930, p. 3; Letter, J. G. Latham to C. D. Kemp, 5 June 1963, MS 1548, NLA.

[6] CPD, 16 Apr. 1931, pp. 905–15, 18 June 1931, pp. 2750–9; P. R. Hart, J. A. Lyons: A Political Biography, PhD thesis, ANU, 1967, pp. 244–5, 267; C. B. Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression: A Study of Economic Development and Policy in the 1920s and 1930s, SUP, Sydney, 1970, pp. 312–33; SMH, 24 Aug. 1933, p. 9; R. S. Gilbert, The Australian Loan Council, ANU Press, Canberra, 1973, p. 204; Herald (Melb.), 3 June 1933, p. 8; Senate Registry File, A8161, S180, NAA; Kemp, Big Businessmen, p. 97; Official History 1939–45 War, Records of Paul Hasluck, 3DRL 8052/227C, AWM68, NAA; Argus (Melb.), 9 Oct. 1940, p. 5.

[7] Kemp, Big Businessmen, p. 99; Letter, Hugh Brain to C. D. Kemp, 27 Nov. 1963, MS 1548, NLA; Letter, Massy-Greene to Dame Mary Hughes, 1 Nov. 1952, MS 1538/13/1433, NLA; SMH, 17 Nov. 1952, p. 2, 6 June 1953, p. 6; Age (Melb.), 17 Nov. 1952, pp. 1, 2.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 394-399.

MASSY-GREENE, Sir Walter (1874–1952)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1923–38

Member of the House of Representatives for Richmond, NSW, 1910–22

Honorary Minister, 1918–19

Minister for Trade and Customs, 1919–21

Minister for Health, 1921–23

Minister for Defence, 1921–23

Minister Assisting the Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1932

Assistant Minister (Treasury), 1932–33

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Case of First Lieutenant W. W. Paine, 1924

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1924–25