SMITH, Miles Staniforth Cater (1869–1934)
Senator for Western Australia, 1901–06 (Free Trade)

Miles Staniforth Cater Smith, administrator, soldier, author, explorer and farmer, was a colourful and controversial character. Usually known as Staniforth Smith, he was born on 25 February 1869 at Kingston, Victoria, to English-born parents, William John Smith, a farmer, and Margaret Gomersall, née Charlesworth. After education at St Arnaud Grammar School, Smith studied engineering, for a time, at Melbourne University. Employed in the Melbourne office of Goldsbrough, Mort & Co. in 1896, he moved to the burgeoning Western Australian goldfields. First working as a bookkeeper for C. R. Knight and Company in Coolgardie, he went on to Kalgoorlie where he was employed for Reuter’s Telegram Company. Becoming a member of the West Kalgoorlie Progress Committee, he attacked civic duties with vigour. After only two years there, he was elected to the Municipal Council, becoming mayor of Kalgoorlie (1900–01). He became also a Justice of the Peace.

Smith’s success in local government, together with his active participation in the federation movement in Western Australia, proved an effective springboard into federal politics, for in the first election for the Senate in 1901 he topped the poll against sixteen other candidates.[1]

As a Free Trader, Smith was necessarily in opposition to the Barton and later Deakin governments, although he was sympathetic to much of the nation-building legislation, and indeed veered at times towards protectionist policies. In 1904, he supported the Labor Government of J. C. Watson; an indication that his sympathies were less than wholly conservative having also occurred during the debate on the capital site in 1901. Smith was keen to have the capital site well away from existing towns in order that the establishment of the capital could become an exercise in land nationalisation.

Like other Western Australian senators, he campaigned for a trans-Australia railway; he supported the introduction of old-age pensions and the need for an Australian navy. More surprisingly, he was a precocious advocate of the introduction of decimal currency to replace the ‘archaic and obsolete’ pounds, shillings and pence, a supporter of equal pay for women in the public service, and argued in debate on the Naturalisation Bill of 1903 that since men were not to lose citizenship if they married aliens, neither should women.[2]

In an era of general and robust support for a White Australia policy, Staniforth Smith earned what to later generations is the dubious distinction of being dubbed by historian, Russel Ward, ‘perhaps the most rabidly racist member of either House’ of the first Commonwealth Parliament. He was certainly one of the first off the mark, pressing hard in debate on the Post and Telegraph Bill of 1901 for mail subsidies to be restricted to shipping lines using wholly white crews, regardless of whether they were registered in Australia. This was a controversial proposal because it would hit hard at the major British shipping lines, P & O and Orient, and hence would be unpopular with the British Government. It led Smith to aver: ‘If we want to keep alive the love of the Empire, if we want to make Australia remain proud of the Empire to which we belong, we shall only do so by love and affection, and not by deferring in everything to the British Government’. He opposed the education test, as he wanted exclusion to be solely on the basis of colour. When the vote came unexpectedly, he was annoyed that he was absent from the chamber; one authority suggests that he had been enticed out to get a haircut.

On other occasions, he argued that no more Kanakas should be imported and those already in Australia should be deported, even those who had families in this country; that absolutely no coloured immigrants should be admitted and that coloured persons already in Australia should not be eligible for naturalisation. In justification of such hardline policies, he claimed that ‘the Caucasian races cannot mingle with the Mongolian, the Hindoo, or the negro’. Quoting an anthropological expert, he added that half-castes lost fertility and their progeny were ‘always wretched and miserable’.[3]

Smith was one of the few parliamentarians to take a serious interest in the debates on the future of Papua, visiting the Territory as well as the Malay States and Java as he took up an assiduous study of tropical agriculture. Although he had earlier favoured Papua becoming a Crown colony, he defended its acquisition by Australia on defence grounds, and suggested that from the point of view of cultivation, the land there was superior to that in Australia. The indigenous people he claimed to be ‘superior’ to the ‘Australian Aborigine’, but nevertheless insisted that they should be protected.

Smith’s knowledge of the Territory, its potential and its problems, led to his name being put forward as a possible first lieutenant-governor, an appointment favoured by such diverse and influential individuals as the Liberals’ Joseph Cook and Labor’s J. C. Watson. Despite Smith’s lobbying, Alfred Deakin deemed otherwise, appointing Hubert Murray. Smith, who bowed out of the Senate at the end of his term in 1906, accepted the lesser position of Commissioner for Lands and Surveys and Director of Agriculture, Mines and Public Works. During Murray’s absence, Smith acted as administrator. By 1908, he ranked effectively as deputy. On one such occasion in 1910–11, he led what appears to have been an ill-prepared, but important journey of exploration into the interior. During the expedition, which became lost for several weeks, Smith’s carriers died. Despite the fact that the expedition was considered a failure, Smith was awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.[4]

In January 1916, Staniforth Smith enlisted in the AIF as warrant officer in the 44th Battalion, was commissioned as lieutenant in September 1916, but was wounded in June 1917, and thereafter saw out the war on staff duties in England. In 1919, he was appointed MBE. Colleagues would remember him as a plucky intelligence officer, who ‘never shirked the front line’.His experiences led him to write a short account of Australian campaigns in the war that included an introduction by Professor Ernest Scott.

On demobilisation in 1919, Smith accepted an invitation to become acting administrator of the Northern Territory, where he was responsible for the gazetting of Aboriginal reserves and increased government expenditure on Aborigines. However, he resigned in 1921 when his proposals for a Senate representative able to vote on Northern Territory matters were rejected. He returned to Papua as Commissioner for Crown Lands, Mines and Agriculture. His earlier hostility to Murray having apparently abated, Smith’s later years in Papua were happier than his pre-war stay there. In 1920, Port Moresby residentspetitioned the Prime Minister to replace Murray with Smith, on the basis that ‘white’ interests would be ‘safe in his hands’. However, Smith left in 1921.By 1930, he was a farmer at Kulikup in the south-west of Western Australia.[5]

At various times, he published a number of books on New Guinea and Australia’s role in World War I, although none achieved enduring significance. In 1906, he prepared, at the Prime Minister’s request, a report on the Malay States and Java.

Staniforth Smith died in Perth on 14 January 1934, and was buried in the Anglican section of the Boyup Brook Cemetery. On 4 April 1928, he married Marjorie Mary Bremer Mitchell, a niece of the former Western Australian premier, Sir James Mitchell. His wife and four young children, Margaret, James, Kenny and John, survived him. His daughter Margaret (Abbotts) later wrote a memoir of her father. Senator Pearce remembered him as ‘a general favorite with his fellow senators’. As a young man, Smith had been described as something of a Perth dandy. It was said that he could be found on the steps of the Palace Hotel ‘in a beautfully fitting grey suit, tan boots, and red tie, with a cigarette daintily held between his lips’.[6]


Brian de Garis

[1] H. J. Gibbney, ‘Smith, Miles Staniforth Cater’, ADB, vol. 11; Margaret Abbotts, One Man’s Life: Staniforth Smith, Books and Stuff, Welshpool, WA, 1994; Curriculum Vitae by Staniforth Smith, M. S. C. Smith Papers, MS 1709/885, NLA; H. J. Gibbney, ‘Smith, Miles Staniforth Cater’ in Peter Ryan (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1972, vol. 2, p. 1042; Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia, P. W. H. Thiel, Perth, 1901, p. 47.

[2] CPD, 22 May 1901, p. 164; Frank Brennan, Canberra in Crisis: A History of Land Tenure and Leasehold Administration, Dalton Publishing Company, Canberra, 1971, pp. 22-24, 115, 197; CPD, 28 June 1901, pp. 1785–1787, 22 May 1901, pp. 164–167, 21 August 1903, pp. 4009-4017, 3 June 1903, p. 416, 16 August 1901, p. 3865, 9 July 1903, pp. 1956-1957.

[3] Russel Ward, The History of Australia: The Twentieth Century, Harper & Row, New York, 1977, p. 32; CPD, 3 October 1901, pp. 5548-5551, 6 December 1901, pp. 8379-8380, 8 October 1906, pp. 6240-6241, 3 July 1903, p. 1753, 14 November 1901, pp. 7245-7249.

[4] CPD, 2 December 1904, pp. 7773-7786; M. S. C. Smith Papers, MS 1709/952, 954, 955, 971, NLA; J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1965, vol. 2, pp. 464–466; Kalgoorlie Miner, 9 November 1906, p. 4; Francis West (ed.), Selected Letters of Hubert Murray, OUP, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 49, 53, 56–58, 64–65, 77, 107; Gavin Souter, New Guinea: The Last Unknown, A & R, Sydney, 1963, pp. 96, 100–109, 171; The Times, 11 April, 1923, p. 11.

[5] Reveille (Sydney), 1 April 1934, p. 35; Staniforth Smith, Australian Campaigns in the Great War, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1919, p. viii; Staniforth Smith A1/1905/6444, 1907/4250, 1913/8866, A3/1/NT1919/4352, A6662/514, NAA; Australasian (Melbourne), 8 November 1919, p. 1000;Kalgoorlie Miner, 15 December 1919, p. 4, 7 March 1921, p. 4; Alan Powell, Far Country: A Short History of the Northern Territory, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 148, 153, 159, 168; D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, ‘So Much That Is New’: Baldwin Spencer, 1860-1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1985, pp. 314–315; SMH, 21 February 1921, p. 6; CPD, 16 September 1920, pp. 4601, 4624, 24 March 1920, p. 640.

[6] Miles Staniforth Smith, The West Australian Pearl-Shelling Industry, V. K. Jones, Perth, 1903; British New Guinea, F. W. Niven, Melbourne, 1903; Australia and the New Hebrides, reprint from Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 June 1904; Handbook of the Territory of Papua (comp.), Melbourne, 1907; Australian Campaigns in the Great War, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1919; CPP, Report by Senator the Honorable Staniforth Smith on the federated Malay States and Java … 1906; B. Jinks, P. Biskup, H. Nelson (eds), Readings in New Guinea History, A & R, Sydney, 1973 pp. 84, 88; Herald (Melbourne), 10 April 1928, pp. 1, 11; West Australian (Perth), 15 January 1934, p. 14; CPD, 28 June 1934, p. 5; ‘Truthful Thomas’, Through the Spy-glass, Praagh & Lloyd, Perth, 1905, p. 6.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 347-350.

SMITH, Miles Staniforth Cater (1869-1934)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1901–06

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1901–05

Select Committee on the Retrenchment of Major J. W. M. Carroll from the Defence Forces, 1904

House Committee, 1906