PROWSE, Edgar Wylie (1905–1977)
Senator for Western Australia, 1962–73 (Australian Country Party)

Edgar Wylie Prowse, farmer and politician, was born at Mount Kokeby in the Western Australian wheat belt on 22 March 1905, one of two surviving sons of the nine children of Albert (‘Ab’) Edward Cornwall Prowse, policeman and farmer, and Maud Helena Grace, née Quarmby, both from New South Wales. Encouraged by Ab’s brother John Henry (Jack), who had settled in Western Australia, the Prowse family had moved from Mittagong, New South Wales, to Mount Kokeby in 1904. Maud and the children lived for a time in the Perth suburb of Subiaco before joining Ab and Jack at Wallatin station at Doodlakine, which they had jointly acquired in 1910. Edgar’s uncle Jack was Mayor of Subiaco in 1905, and of Perth in 1913 and 1914, and a Country Party member of the House of Representatives for Swan (1919–22) and Forrest (1922–43).

Edgar was educated at Subiaco and Doodlakine primary schools. A scholarship took him to Northam High School. In 1923 he attended the University of Western Australia, where he was an active member of the University’s debating and rowing clubs, and was elected as an undergraduate representative to the University Guild in 1924. After taking a year off to assist on the family property, Prowse completed a Bachelor of Science (Agriculture) degree in 1927, before returning to Doodlakine to take up farming full time. On 18 February 1933 Prowse married Lucy Cherry at Claremont Methodist Church, Perth. The couple had six children. Lucy had been an office worker in Perth, and Edgar met her when she was visiting her sister at Baandee, near Doodlakine. Edgar and Lucy lived on a part of the family property known as Omagh, where they grew wheat and ran sheep, and Edgar developed an interest in horses.

After graduating, Prowse wrote on agropolitics for the Perth Daily News and for the Wheatgrower. In 1931 he declared that ‘the tendency evident in Australian politics to sacrifice principle for the sake of party doctrines is morally wrong’ and criticised those who ‘blindly [followed] party dictation regardless of the common good’. Years later he amplified these views. A strong Methodist, he believed that while the fundamental Christian message, to love your neighbour as yourself, should be ‘the rule of life’, no Christian should push rigid views advocated by any church or religious leader in politics or elsewhere. He emphasised the value of reasoned dissent, the importance of perspective, and that ‘judgment and timing are necessary in all political actions’. His interest in politics had been stimulated by his early liking for history, and by his uncle supplying the family with copies of Hansard covering his twenty-three years in the House of Representatives.

Founding president of the Doodlakine branch of the Wheatgrowers’ Union, Prowse remained an executive member until 1947. He was elected vice-president of the Wheatgrowers’ Union (later the Wheat and Woolgrowers’ Union) of Western Australia in 1931, and served regularly on the state executive. After the union amalgamated with the Primary Producers’ Association to form the Farmers’ Union in 1946, Prowse was elected a vice-president of the new local branch in January 1947. In common with many farmers, Prowse experienced severe hardship during the Depression. An advocate for the orderly marketing of wheat, in 1931–32 he helped to organise a ‘strike’ by farmers when the price of grain dropped to an all-time low.[1]

During World War II, Prowse, who had almost no sight in his right eye, became a lance corporal in the Volunteer Defence Corps. With a severe shortage of farm labour, he was left alone with his father, a cousin and one employee to manage the large wheat, sheep and stud stock farm. In addition he had to maintain his own property. From 1945 until 1949 he served on the Kellerberrin Road Board. He maintained his interest in debating, coaching junior teams and adjudicating at competitions.

In 1949 Prowse purchased Tachbrook, a farm at Darkan in lusher country south of Doodlakine, moving his stock and plant to Darkan by train, and a further eleven miles by trucks and horse-drawn transport. There, on 600 acres partly cleared and 2000 acres of bushland, he bred shorthorn beef cattle, Corriedale sheep, Welsh Mountain ponies and Arab horses. Fascinated by genetics, Prowse possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of thoroughbred bloodlines. Wool and beef were the main sources of income, while wheat was sown on land as it was cleared. In 1951 he was chairman of the WA branch of the Australian Corriedale Association.

An active member of the Country Party, known in Western Australia as the Country and Democratic League (CDL) from 1944 until the 1960s, in 1944 Prowse was invited by the party to stand for the Legislative Assembly seat of Avon at the next election, but declined, citing family reasons. He was general president of the Western Australian branch from 1957 to 1962, served on the party’s Federal Council from 1957 until at least 1960, and was a member of the Federal Executive from 1958 until 1962. As president of the CDL, Prowse tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Western Australian Liberal and Country League (LCL) not to run a separate Senate team to the CDL. He was, however, firm in maintaining its opposition to amalgamation with the LCL. At the federal election of 9 December 1961, Prowse was placed at the top of the party ticket and won the fifth Western Australian vacancy. Sworn in the Senate on 7 August 1962, he was re-elected in 1967.[2]

Prowse delivered his first speech in the Senate on 22 August 1962. He addressed issues of concern to primary industry: declining wool export prices, the importance of goldmining, the need for greater water resources, and the negative effects of high interest rates on development schemes. He concluded by expressing concern at the gradual erosion of rural representation in some electorates through the incorporation of outer metropolitan areas into those seats.

An issue particularly dear to his heart was the superphosphate bounty, reintroduced by the Menzies Government in 1963. In Prowse’s words, this was ‘not a hand-out to the farmers’ but ‘a national investment that will add greatly to our export income’, and in 1968 he was again effusive in support of an increase in the level of the bounty. On other occasions Prowse argued for drought bonds to enable farmers to receive tax concessions so that ‘instead of buying oats in a period of good income’, they ‘could put by a similar amount as a financial reserve’. He was delighted when a drought bonds scheme was introduced in 1968. In July 1967 Prowse urged the Government to increase overseas borrowing rather than relying solely on private investment flowing into Australia. Five years earlier, he had contended that Australian industry was better served by the use of subsidies than by tariff protection. He argued for the abolition of death duties, ‘one of the most indefensible of all taxes’. In 1970 he joined some Liberal colleagues in crossing the floor in support of a Democratic Labor Party amendment to the Estate Duty Assessment Bill, which proposed further relief from estate duties. In 1971, after Sydney Negus had been elected to the Senate on an anti-probate duties campaign, Prowse proposed the introduction of a capital gains tax as an alternative form of taxation to death duties.[3]

Prowse had become a member of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances on first entering Parliament in 1962. In November 1962 the committee considered the removal of regulations prohibiting the importation of literature deemed ‘blasphemous, indecent or obscene’, to be replaced by regulations allowing their importation at the discretion of the minister. The majority of the committee recommended the disallowance of the regulations, stating that it should be the ‘written law’, not ministerial discretion, which controlled the importation of such works. Prowse was a lone dissenting voice, arguing for untrammelled ministerial discretion. He believed that the exercise of ministerial responsibility was at stake. As long as the minister alone had full responsibility, he could call upon a range of advice to make a sound decision, but should the discretion be limited in any way, it might transfer power away from the elected representative ‘to a body which was not responsible to the Parliament’. In the same debate, making reference to the use of a ‘tribunal’ or censorship board, he argued that any outside body ‘with authority to decide what universities should or should not teach, is repugnant to our idea of the way in which universities should function’.

Prowse was a vigorous opponent of the unsuccessful 1967 ‘nexus’ referendum proposal to alter the numerical balance between the Senate and the House of Representatives, appearing on television to argue the ‘no’ case, and declaring that the ‘real purpose’ of the proposal was ‘to denigrate the Senate’.[4]

Prowse was especially interested in legislation designed to facilitate home ownership, speaking regularly in support of home savings grants, and in 1965, the Housing Loans Insurance Corporation. He was the only Country Party senator to vote for the abolition of the death penalty when the party allowed a free vote on the Opposition’s bill introduced in the Senate. He spoke at length, explaining how his views had changed through careful study of the matter, and examination of his conscience. He concluded that: ‘Unless we can achieve a concept of regard for human life that is strong enough to prevent us from adding to violence by committing further violence, there is little hope that civilisation can ever achieve the ultimate abolition of the concentrated violence of war’.

In 1973 he spoke against Prime Minister Whitlam’s decision to abolish tertiary fees as imposing a load on the general taxpayer, advocating scholarships instead. One of his last actions in the Senate was to carry an amendment to a motion proposing a joint sitting of Parliament to consider immediate action to plan a new parliament building on Capital Hill. Prowse’s amendment affirmed his emphatic agreement with the substance of the motion but rejected the mechanism of a joint sitting to achieve it. He believed that a joint sitting could ‘denigrate the status, significance and role of the Senate’.[5]

Prowse, who served as Chairman of Committees from 1971 to 1973, resigned his Senate seat due to ill health, with effect from 31 December 1973. In a valedictory speech Senator McManus acknowledged Prowse’s ‘impish sense of humour’. After leaving politics, Prowse, who had been awarded life membership of the Country Party in 1974, resided in Albany and managed a Murray Grey beef cattle stud on a 150 acre farm at Elleker. An active member of the Middleton Beach Bowling Club, he sought to establish equal voting rights for women in the club. In the Methodist and later Uniting Church he had served for many years as a parish councillor, lay preacher and circuit steward. He played a prominent role in the construction of the Darkan Methodist Church, including the provision of 19 000 bricks made on the Prowse farm.

Prowse died at Darkan on 2 June 1977, his wife and children surviving him. He was buried in the Allambie Park Cemetery, Albany. Prowse was a reflective man whose values and opinions were carefully considered and rationally argued. He did not approve of parliamentarians who played for safety, avoiding controversy and contributing little to debate. To him, the claims of conscience were paramount, and he was not afraid to deviate from party or majority opinions he regarded as ill-founded.[6]

David Black

[1] The editor acknowledges the information and assistance provided by Trevor Prowse; Irwin Prowse, From Cornwall to the Colonies: A Prowse Chronicle, 1760–1990, I. Prowse, Merimbula, NSW, 1992, pp. 222–4, 228–9; Kellerberrin: One Hundred Years. More Than One Hundred Stories, 1901–2001, Shire of Kellerberrin, WA, 2001; Betty Carter, ‘Prowse, John Henry’, ADB, vol. 11; The editor is indebted to Jeanette Carnduff, Northam Senior High School, and to Mim Congdon, Archives and Records Management Services, UWA; Daily News (Perth), 3 July 1967, p. 15, 10 Dec. 1931, p. 9; Wheatgrower (Perth), 16 July 1931, p. 1, 25 June 1931, p. 2, 23 Jan. 1936, p. 14, 8 Dec. 1932, p. 8, 7 Aug. 1946, p. 1; CPD, 5 Mar. 1974, p. 11.

[2] Prowse, E. W.—Defence Service Record, B884, W75867, NAA; The editor is indebted to Gemma Stewart, Shire of Kellerberrin; Prowse, From Cornwall to the Colonies, p. 228; Prowse diary, 9 Feb. 1949, 5, 7, 9 Mar. 1949, mfm G24548, Prowse Papers, MS 5351, NLA; WA (Perth), 2 Aug. 1957, p. 8; Daily News (Perth), 3 July 1967, p. 15; West Australian Democrat (Perth), June 1962, p. 4; CPD, 5 Mar. 1974, p. 10; National Country Party News (Perth), June 1977, p. 2; Letter, Prowse to the Hon. Garnet Barrington Wood, Dec. 1944, mfm G24552, Prowse Papers, MS 5351, NLA; WA (Perth), 1 Aug. 1956, p. 8, 15 Nov. 1960, p. 2.

[3] CPD, 22 Aug. 1962, pp. 390–3, 27 Aug. 1963, pp. 233–4, 29 Oct. 1963, pp. 1548–50, 11 Sept. 1968, p. 539, 2 Sept. 1965, p. 325, 21 Mar. 1968, pp. 265–6, 2 Mar. 1967, p. 258, 25 Oct. 1962, pp. 1148–9, 14 May 1970, pp. 1487–8; Senate, Journals, 14 May 1970, pp. 105–6; WA (Perth), 9 Dec. 1970, p. 1; CPD, 14 Sept. 1971, pp. 711–12.

[4] CPP, S1/1962; CPD, 27 Nov. 1962, pp. 1499–501, 7 Mar. 1967, pp. 310–11; Daily News (Perth), 3 July 1967, p. 15.

[5] CPD, 20 May 1964, pp. 1364–6, 8 Apr. 1965, pp. 382–4, 31 Mar. 1965, pp. 213–17; Senate, Journals, 4 June 1968, p. 106; CPD, 4 June 1968, pp. 1383–8, 5 June 1973, p. 2340, 21 Aug. 1968, pp. 189–92, 8 Nov. 1973. p. 1696; Senate, Journals, 15 Nov. 1973, pp. 486–8.

[6] CPD, 5 Mar. 1974, pp. 10–11; National Country Party News (Perth), June 1977, p. 2; WA (Perth), 3 Jan. 1974, p. 3; The editor is indebted to Gary Bartholomeusz, Middleton Beach Bowling Club, Albany; WA (Perth), 15 Nov. 1960, p. 2; Daily News (Perth), 3 July 1967, p. 15; WA (Perth), 3 June 1977, p. 24.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 505-509.

PROWSE, Edgar Wylie (1905–1977)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1962–73

Chairman of Committees, 1971–73

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1962–65

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1962–71

Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures, 1967

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1968

Select Committee on Water Pollution, 1968–70

Estimates Committee D, 1971

Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, 1971

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1971–72

Estimates Committee A, 1971–72, 1972–73

Standing Orders Committee, 1971–73

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1972–73

Joint Committee on Prices, 1973