PIESSE, Edmund Stephen Roper (1900–1952)
Senator for Western Australia, 1950–52 (Australian Country Party)

Edmund Stephen Roper Piesse, farmer and businessman, was the first of the ‘squires of the Katanning district’ to be elected to the federal Parliament. His father and three of his uncles had served in the Western Australian Parliament at various times from self-government in 1890 to 1935.[1]

Piesse was born at Katanning, the centre of a developing mixed farming district in the Great Southern Region, on 5 January 1900, the son of Arnold Edmund Piesse, merchant, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Chipper. When his mother died two years later (leaving three children), and his father subsequently remarried, Edmund, at the age of ten, was sent to board at the Anglican Guildford Grammar School till 1917. Playing in the school’s first eleven for three years, he became a corporal in the cadets, and, in his last year, a prefect. Having gained his Junior Certificate in 1916, he left school to manage the family property, ‘Langaweira’, at Katanning, his sick father having moved to England with his second family. On 14 June 1918 Piesse enlisted in the AIF, serving an uneventful few months as a private in the 3rd General Service Reinforcements. Leaving for England on 29 October 1918, he returned on 20 December 1918 and was discharged on 10 January 1919.[2]

Working as partner and stud master at his father’s merino stud at Langaweira, he became closely involved in local affairs. He was a member of the Katanning Agricultural Society from 1920, serving as president from 1933 to 1942. He arranged special exhibits at the royal agricultural shows in Perth to feature the produce of the Great Southern Region. From the late 1920s he was active in organising Toc H, a British community service organisation, in the southern districts, and became a member of its state executive. He was a member, and for a time secretary, of the local Committee of Repatriation, which liberally assisted returned men to take up farming, and joined the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia. As a sportsman, he represented the town in football, cricket, tennis, golf and polo.[3]

Piesse’s interest in politics grew out of this local and regional involvement and the family tradition established by his uncles and father. Arnold Piesse had been the Member for Katanning in the Legislative Assembly from 1909 to 1914, and again from 1930 to 1935, after his return from England in 1925 to live with his son at Langaweira. In 1930, as a popular independent, Arnold had soundly defeated the sitting Country Party member for Katanning, then joined that party to guarantee his seat. In 1935, depressed after visiting his wife and family in England, he disappeared at sea on the return voyage to Australia.[4]

On 11 April 1936 Edmund Piesse married, in the Katanning Presbyterian Church, Mollie Dawson Longmire, a local farmer’s daughter. Their first child, stillborn in 1940, was named Arnold Edmund after his politician grandfather. A daughter, Elizabeth Margaret, was born in 1944. A year or so later Piesse dispersed his stud stock, leased the property, and moved into Katanning, where he had business and community interests. A director of the Katanning Flour Mills, and chairman of directors of the Katanning Stock and Trading Company from 1946 to 1952, he became active in the local Maternal and Infant Welfare Centre and a director on the Kobeelya Church of England Girls School board. He was elected to the Katanning Road Board and was a member of the Katanning Club and the Commercial Travellers’ Association. In 1947 he became a Justice of the Peace for the Stirling Magisterial District. Like his father before him, Edmund Piesse was widely respected as a public figure in his region, being made a life member in 1951 of the Katanning Agricultural Society, to which he had contributed so much.[5]

Piesse represented the great southern districts in the Country and Democratic League, re‑formed in 1944, and was elected to its state executive in 1947. He worked as campaign director for Arnold Potts, Country Party candidate for the federal seat of Forrest, before being nominated himself in March 1949 for the Senate. He ranked second on the Liberal and Country League–Country Party (LCL–CP) ticket for the December 1949 election.

Disclaiming his expertise in political matters, he stood as ‘just a citizen who has battled his way by hard work’. With his farming and business interests in mind, Piesse took a broad view of rural interests, arguing for the interdependence of town and country. He opposed ‘socialism and communism . . . nationalisation and regimentation’, and supported decentralisation, urging priority for water and power supplies—Katanning did not yet have a reliable water supply. Apart from the need for ‘better transport facilities . . . more telephones and better educational facilities’, the issues of particular concern were taxation, production of essential materials, soldier settlement, and the wartime wool appraisement system. He wanted to see a larger percentage of the petrol tax returned to the states for making and maintaining roads. He called for a simplification of income tax assessment and a review of indirect taxes. He complained that farmers could not use their increased incomes to improve their properties because of the shortage of essential materials. Critical of the system of land settlement for returned soldiers, he was determined to help them gain control of their farms. On the wool appraisement system, he believed that averaging farmers’ earnings for the war years was essential if they were not to suffer unfair taxation. Campaigning from north of Geraldton to Augusta in the south, including the metropolitan area, he found he was widely known. He was the third Western Australian senator to be elected in 1949, and the fifth in April 1951 when he faced election again following the simultaneous dissolution.[6]

In Canberra, Piesse complimented the Menzies Government on its attention to ‘a well-balanced pattern of decentralisation’. He emphasised the importance of providing amenities to maintain country communities, and of improving outports for the efficient handling of Western Australian produce. Conscious of Western Australia’s status as the largest, least developed state and the furthest from Canberra, he welcomed the proposed ministry of national development, especially in regard to plans for the north-west. The proposed review of the taxation laws pleased him, but he called for a greater effort, especially from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in controlling rabbits.

Known as ‘a man of quiet disposition and modest habits’, Piesse contributed more to Parliament by asking questions relevant to country districts than by participating in debate, though he argued for the need to make allowances in legislation for Western Australia’s particular circumstances. In debates on a series of bills designed to limit the inflationary impact of rapidly increasing wool prices, he supported the 20 per cent deduction from the sale of wool as the prepayment of tax. But he urged the Government to make special allowance for the smaller farmers of his state and to limit the scheme to one year only.

In 1952 Piesse welcomed the Government’s Land Tax Assessment Bill, recognising that local government authorities could make good use of such a tax in protecting the land from soil erosion and pests. Of particular concern to him was the invasion of the Argentine ant, an issue he zealously pursued with CSIRO and local government authorities. By then the ant had invaded some thirty square miles of Western Australia, with lesser degrees of infiltration in New South Wales and Victoria. Piesse regarded the ant as a national problem, but senators seemed more amused than convinced by Piesse’s plea, leaving him to protest that the Argentine ant was ‘not a joking matter’.[7]

Piesse took his own life at Katanning on 25 August 1952. Although a leading Anglican, he was buried according to Presbyterian rites in the Presbyterian section of the local cemetery. Fellow members and senators remembered him as ‘a strong advocate for Western Australia’.[8]

Elizabeth Kwan

[1] G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1972, p. 81; CPD, 10 Sept. 1952, pp. 1160–1.

[2] Merle Bignell, A Place to Meet: A History of the Shire of Katanning, Western Australia, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1981, pp. 188, 205, 267, 287; Information from Rosemary Waller, Archivist, Guildford Grammar School; CPD, 10 Sept. 1952, p. 1160; Piesse, E. S. R.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA.

[3] Leading Personalities of Western Australia, Paterson Brokensha, Perth, 1950, p. 199; Katanning and Districts Centenary Publication, Great Southern Herald, Katanning, 1929, p. 12; Great Southern Herald (Katanning), 18 Nov.   1949, p. 6.; Information provided by Ainslie Evans, Katanning; CPD, 10 Sept. 1952, p. 1160; West Australian (Perth), 26 Aug. 1952, p. 3, 4 Mar. 1949, p. 2.

[4] Bignell, A Place to Meet, pp. 290, 300–5; Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In, p. 81; Affidavits, Probate Office, WA.

[5] Information provided by Mrs E. S. R. Piesse; Leading Personalities, p. 199; Great Southern Herald (Katanning), 18 Nov. 1949, p. 6; 29 Aug. 1952, p. 1; Information provided by Ainslie Evans; Government Gazette, Western Australia, 4 July 1947.

[6] West Australian (Perth), 4 Mar. 1949, p. 2, 10 Dec. 1949, p. 11; Great Southern Herald (Katanning), 9 Dec. 1949, p. 3, 18 Nov. 1949, p. 6.

[7] CPD, 1 Mar. 1950, pp. 198–9, 10 Sept. 1952, p. 1160, 28 Nov. 1950, pp. 3101–3, 29 May 1952, pp. 1014–15, 5 Mar. 1952, pp. 848–9, 21 May 1952, pp. 581–2; ‘Cooperative Attack on Argentine Ant’, Rural Research in CSIRO, Mar. 1953, pp. 18–19; P. N. Forte and T. Greaves, ‘New Insecticides for the Control of the Argentine Ant in Western Australia’, Journal of the Department of Agriculture, Western Australia, Mar.–Apr. 1953, pp. 267, 272, 277, 279; CPD, 5 & 6 June 1952, p. 1556.

[8] E. S. R. Piesse—Will, Valuation of Property and Affidavit, Probate Office, WA; Great Southern Herald (Katanning), 29 Aug. 1952, p. 1; West Australian (Perth), 26 Aug. 1952, p. 16, 27 Aug. 1952, p. 20; CPD, 10 Sept. 1952, p. 1160.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 74-77.

PIESSE, Edmund Stephen Roper (1900–1952)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1950–52


Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1950–52

Standing Orders Committee, 1950–52