PLAIN, William (1868–1961)
Senator for Victoria, 1917–23, 1925–38 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party)

William Plain, farmer, was born in Howford, Peeblesshire, Scotland, on 11 March 1868, the eldest son of James Plain, ploughman, and his wife Christina, née Naismyth. At age thirteen William began work as a ploughboy. In 1890 he arrived in Australia and settled in Victoria where he remained, except for two years from 1897 when he worked in Western Australia. He was a sharefarmer at Lake Hindmarsh and Hopetoun in the Mallee for eight years during the 1890s, and again at Hopetoun and Willaura in 1902. His early years in Australia were ‘full of hardship and bitter disappointment. Year after year Fate seemed to fight against him in his efforts to become a successful farmer’. He turned his hand to many jobs, including railway construction and clearing land, in order to earn a living.[1]

Plain’s experiences as a sharefarmer led to an interest in closer settlement and land policies, and thus to his involvement in public affairs. He was president of the Wyckliffe Road Political Labour Council and vice-president of the Willaura debating society. He developed an interest in legislation that would provide for the purchase of private estates and their subdivision into small farms and, as president of the Wyckliffe Road (Willaura) Land Resumption Association, and the Willaura Progress Association, pressed for the extension of closer settlement. In 1907, in a practical affirmation of his political position, he successfully applied for an allotment on the new Lara Closer Settlement Estate, near Geelong. Next year, on 29 December 1908, Plain was elected to the Victorian Parliament as the Labor member of the Legislative Assembly for Geelong.[2]

As a member of the Assembly, Plain’s preoccupations were consistent with his pre-parliamentary experience. His major interests and concerns were with the problems of farmers, and he quickly became Labor’s spokesman on settlement and rural development policies. In 1911 he was appointed a member of the Select Committee on the Marketing and Transportation of Wheat, which in 1912 became the Royal Commission on the Marketing, Transportation and Storage of Grain. In December 1913 he was briefly Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, President of the Board of Land and Works, Minister of Water Supply, and Minister of Agriculture in the thirteen-day Elmslie Government. Back in Opposition, he was a member of the Royal Commission on Closer Settlement (1914–16).[3]

By late 1916, however, Plain had fallen out with the Labor Party over the matter dividing many others in Australia at the time—conscription for World War I. The Parliamentary Labor Party in Victoria contained all shades of opinion from the avowedly pacifist to the enthusiastic supporters of conscription. Plain was one of the latter group. Playing a prominent role in the first referendum campaign, he was expelled from the Labor Party in September 1916. In December he was made a member of the Victorian State Recruiting Committee. Plain also played a leading role in the formation of the National Federation, serving as president of its Victorian branch from 1917 to 1925, and as president of the National Federation itself from 1919 to 1926 (earning himself the title, ‘Father of the Federation’).[4]

In March 1917 he resigned from the Victorian Parliament to stand for the Senate as a Nationalist. Plain won a seat in the subsequent election, held on 5 May 1917, as did the other two Victorian Nationalist candidates, George Fairbairn and William Bolton. While his committee service included membership of the Joint Standing Committee on Public Works (1920-23), his contributions to debate in the Senate chamber were relatively sparse. Plain preferred to make his mark in a less obtrusive way:

I have been for sixteen years a member of Parliament, and in connexion with every grievance which I considered required attention I have gone in the first place to the Minister concerned, and I am in a position to say that during the whole term of my political life I have never asked a Minister, State or Federal, for anything in reason that was not granted to me. That will account for much of my silence as a member of Parliament.[5]

Plain brought to the Senate some lessons learned while a member of the Victorian Parliament. Supporting soldier settlement as part of the Government’s repatriation proposals, he nevertheless urged caution lest the mistakes of closer settlement be repeated. He reiterated the recommendations of the Victorian Royal Commission on the Marketing, Transportation, and Storage of Grain by asking the federal Government to adopt the bulk handling of wheat. Throughout his time in Parliament Plain was ‘chiefly concerned to protect the interests of the small grower’.[6]

Defeat at the general election of December 1922 did not end his political career. In July 1924 he was selected by the National Federation to contest a Senate casual vacancy, caused by the death of Labor’s Senator Barker, but at a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament was defeated by the Labor candidate, J. F. Hannan. He was preselected as a Senate candidate for the November 1925 election, but in the interim was chosen, at a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Senator Russell. In September, Plain retired from the presidency of the Victorian branch of the National Federation, explaining that ‘his Parliamentary duties would prevent his seeking re-election to the position’. He declined re-election to the presidency of the federal organisation at the fourth interstate conference in October 1926.[7]

Successful at the federal elections of November 1925 and again in 1931, Plain served as Chairman of Committees between July 1926 and June 1932. (He had served as a temporary chairman of committees in 1923.) His speeches in the Senate were almost entirely confined to support for wheat farmers, from whose cause he never wavered. He was quite sympathetic to the attempts of the Scullin Government to deal with the plight of wheat farmers in the early Depression years, supporting marketing pools and guaranteed prices in opposition to some of his Nationalist–UAP colleagues. On the other hand, he regarded the Lyons Government’s 1932 response to the situation—of giving assistance to farmers strictly according to their individual means—as unnecessarily complicated and humiliating. He believed that farmers should be protected in the same manner as manufacturers—on an industry-wide basis.[8]

Plain was defeated at the general election of October 1937. In his last speech in the Senate in 1938, he welcomed the National Health and Pensions Insurance Bill, describing it as the ‘most humane legislation that has yet been placed before this Parliament’. He was anxious that the legislation ‘be placed on the statute-book’ before he left the Senate. He had been a senator for some eighteen years.

Plain continued with his business interests. He was chairman of directors of Southern Cross Motor Fuels and a director of New South Wales Associated Blue Metal Quarries and of the Union Investment Company. He was a founding member of the Victorian Pipe Band Association, and also served for many years as chieftain of the Comunn na Feinne, a Scottish cultural society. Indeed, one of his few parliamentary questions concerned the right of the Victorian Scottish Regiment to wear the kilt.[9]

William Plain died at Geelong on 14 October 1961, and was buried at the Western Cemetery, Geelong. He had married Anna Bertha Rosalia Wiederman on 6 April 1904 in a Methodist ceremony, and at his death was survived by his wife, six sons, James, Sidney, Norman, John, Gordon and Ronald, and four daughters, Freda, Jean, Flora and Nancy.

Catherine Jones

[1] J. Whelen, ‘Plain, William’, ADB, vol. 11; ‘Memories of my Political Life: Interview with Senator the Hon. Wm Plain’, Popular Politics, 16 Aug. 1926, p. 14; Argus (Melb.), 27 Mar. 1917, p. 6.

[2] Ararat Advertiser, 12 July 1904, p. 2, 15 July 1904, p. 3, 19 Aug. 1904, p. 2, 30 Aug. 1904, p. 4; Willaura Farmer, 29 June 1906, p. 3, 12 Oct. 1906, p. 3, 9 Nov. 1906, p. 3, 15 Feb. 1907, p. 4, 17 May 1907, p. 2; William Goeman, Margaret Peacock and David Wheeler (comps), The History of Willaura and District 18351985, Willaura School Centenary Committee, Willaura, Vic., 1985, pp. 62, 74, 188.

[3] VPD, 11 Feb. 1909, pp. 123-5, 24 Nov. 1909, p. 2504, 8 Aug. 1911, pp. 484-5, 6 Aug. 1912, pp. 581-7, 1 Oct. 1914, pp. 1857-8, 10 Aug. 1915, pp. 1714-21, 19 Sept. 1916, pp. 1466-7; VPP, First progress report from the Select Committee on the Marketing and Transportation of Wheat, 1911, Reports of the Royal Commission on the Marketing, Transportation and Storage of Grain, 1913, Reports of the Royal Commission on Closer Settlement, 1915, 1916.

[4] Raymond Wright, A People’s Counsel: A History of the Parliament of Victoria 1856–1990, OUP, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 138–40; Argus (Melb.), 22 Sept. 1916, pp. 6, 8, 28 Sept. 1916, p. 7; Geelong Advertiser, 28 Sept. 1916, p. 3; Argus (Melb.), 12 Dec. 1916, p. 7, 10 Jan. 1917, p. 8, 11 Jan. 1917, p. 6, 29 Mar. 1917, p. 8; George Foster Pearce, Carpenter to Cabinet: Thirty-Seven Years of Parliament, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1951, p. 144; L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger 19141952: William Morris Hughes: A Political Biography, vol. 2, A & R, Sydney, 1979, pp. 240-2; Argus (Melb.), 23 Sept. 1925, p. 27.

[5] Argus (Melb.), 29 Mar. 1917, p. 8, 2 July 1919, p. 9, 6 Dec. 1922, p. 20; CPD, 4 Oct. 1922, p. 3115.

[6] Argus (Melb.), 20 Mar. 1917, p. 7, 28 Mar. 1917, p. 10; Geelong Advertiser, 14 Apr. 1917, p. 7, 25 Apr. 1917, p. 4; CPD, 11 July 1917, pp. 11-14, 26 July 1917, pp. 498-9, 27 July 1917, pp. 595-6, 577-9, 4 Oct. 1922, p. 3114, 3 Aug. 1921, pp. 10701-3, 1 Sept. 1921, pp. 11482, 11529, 24 Sept. 1920, p. 4969, 4 May 1921, p. 8002.

[7] Argus (Melb.), 5 July 1924, p. 32, 9 July 1924, p. 21, 23 July 1924, p. 19, 21 July 1925, p. 6, 6 Aug. 1925, p. 10, 7 Aug. 1925, p. 12, 26 Aug. 1925, p. 19, 23 Sept. 1925, p. 27, 29 Oct. 1926, p. 13.

[8] CPD, 1 July 1926, p. 3685, 3 July 1930, pp. 3616-22, 10 July 1930, pp. 3976-7, 17 Dec. 1930, pp. 1610-11, 30 July 1931, p. 4769, 31 July 1931, p. 4800, 23 Oct. 1931, p. 1168, 1 & 2 Dec. 1932, pp. 3391-2, 3419-21, 7 & 8 Dec. 1933, pp. 5992-3.

[9] CPD, 23 June 1938, p. 2568, 29 June 1923, p. 503; ‘Digest’ Year Book of Public Companies of Australia and New Zealand, Jobson’s Investment Digest, Sydney, 1928, pp. 137, 160, 171; Plain file, ADB, ANU; Geelong Advertiser, 16 Oct. 1961, p. 1; CPD, 27 Nov. 1929, p. 265.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 96-99.

PLAIN, William (1868-1961)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1917–23, 1925–38

Chairman of Committees, 1926–32

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Geelong, 1908–17

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1917–22

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1920–23

Joint Select Committee on Electoral Law and Procedure, 1926

House Committee, 1926–29

Standing Orders Committee, 1926–32, 1935–38

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1935–38