WILSON, Sir Reginald Victor (1877–1957)
Senator for South Australia, 1920–26 (Nationalist Party)

Reginald Victor Wilson, businessman, was born at Adelaide on 30 June 1877 to James Wilson and Elizabeth Ann, née Tonkin. Wilson was educated at Riverton, where his father was a storekeeper, and Whinham College, North Adelaide. He left school at fourteen to work in stores at Happy Valley and later at Port Pirie. From 1898, he owned shops at Broken Hill and Adelaide, becoming a wealthy property owner and businessman with extensive interests across South Australia in pastoral properties, vineyards and piggeries. Wilson’s public career began in Broken Hill, where he joined the chamber of commerce and became treasurer of the Silver City show committee. In 1908, he became a councillor at Broken Hill and, after moving to Adelaide in November 1909, a councillor and then mayor (1916–18) of St Peters. He unsuccessfully contested the South Australian House of Assembly seats of Torrens for the Liberal Union in 1912, and for East Torrens, as an Independent, in 1918.[1]

Wilson was elected to the Senate at the 1919 federal election as the candidate of the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association on a joint ticket with the Liberal Union and Nationalist Party. Although he was second candidate on the joint ticket and came sixth (of seven candidates) on first preferences, a strong flow of preferences won him the third Senate vacancy after a count lasting several weeks. While Wilson never attended party meetings, he regarded himself as the spokesman for primary producers and throughout his term was described as the only Country Party representative.[2]

Wilson upheld the role of the Senate particularly as a States House: ‘I am here’, he said, ‘as a representative of South Australia; and, while I am not to be dictated to by any party, I am prepared to give effect to the ideals of the party of which I am a member’. When the Labor Party in 1922 attempted to give the Northern Territory member of the House of Representatives a full vote, Wilson moved to have the Northern Territory attached to South Australia in order to give Territorians the vote. This was narrowly rejected.

A critic of W. M. Hughes’ Nationalist Government (and of the Labor Opposition), he protested at the Government’s practice of allowing inadequate time between debate and the circulation of bills to senators. He affirmed that senators should be sufficiently informed to enable them to cast an intelligent vote on every measure, and proposed that committees be used to scrutinise all important legislation and expenditure, especially in relation to money bills.[3]

Wilson constantly argued for ‘economy’ in government expenditure and for tax reductions, particularly for the ‘capitalistic class’. He thought that to tax businessmen and farmers excessively inhibited development. He also insisted on close scrutiny of all expenditure. Wilson regarded the future capital of Canberra as wasteful, once announcing that ‘Canberra is the place where public money burns’. Introducing the second reading of the Commonwealth Shipping Bill in 1923, he opposed government control of trading enterprises such as the Commonwealth shipping line and Cockatoo Island dockyard, and supported the contracting out of government services. (During 1921, he was a member of the royal commission on the Cockatoo Island dockyard.) He disapproved of the forty-four hour week and regarded the reduction from forty-eight as a great economic waste, often comparing the comforts of urban workers with the more arduous lifestyles of men on the land.[4]

Keen to improve the lot of primary producers, Wilson took a pragmatic approach to the tariff, generally favouring lower levels of protection than those supported by the Hughes Government, particularly on farm machinery. While he upheld the quality of Australian goods, and the need for protection of developing industries, he argued that ‘competition means increased efficiency’. In 1921, he persuaded the Senate to reduce proposed tariffs on some agricultural machinery. He also supported government backing for agricultural produce pools and guaranteed price schemes.[5]

In February 1923, Wilson became a Minister without Portfolio in the newly formed Nationalist–Country Party Coalition (the Bruce–Page government), assisting Austin Chapman, MP, who held the portfolios of Health, and for Trade and Customs. Wilson’s appointment ensured that the Ministry included representation from all states, and that it was also balanced politically with six Nationalists and five Country Party members. Bruce, questioned about this in Adelaide, called Wilson a ‘gift from the gods’. Wilson also represented several ministers who sat in the House of Representatives and in this capacity was responsible for piloting a considerable amount of legislation through the Senate.[6]

In 1923, Bruce appointed Wilson commissioner of the Australian section of the British Empire Exhibition and announced that Wilson would also assume responsibility for assisted migration. In May, Bruce announced that Wilson would accompany him to the Imperial and Economic Conferences in London. Wilson remained in Britain following Bruce’s return to Australia. He began negotiations with the British Government that led to the so-called ‘Thirty–four Million Pounds Agreement’ for assisted migration from Britain to Australia, and attended the International Conference on Emigration and Immigration in Rome in 1924, as well as two preliminary meetings in London and Paris. He also travelled to Canada to negotiate a Canadian–Australian tariff preference agreement before returning to Australia. It seems that Bruce was pleased with Wilson’s work and the two became friends and political confidants. Reflecting Wilson’s close involvement in Bruce’s ‘men, money and markets’ program, Wilson became Minister for Markets and Migration at a Cabinet reshuffle in January 1925.[7]

Ultimately it was Wilson’s poor relationship with the evolving South Australian Country Party that cut short his political career. In March 1921, Wilson stormed out of an Adelaide conference, verbally resigning from the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association in protest against a proposed amalgamation with non-Labor groups.However, he continued to make donations and considered himself a Party member. Page was warned in mid-1924 that Wilson would be unable to gain preselection for the next election as his behaviour had alienated the Party membership and executive. Wilson took no remedial action and in 1925 the Country Party claimed that technically he was not a member of the Party and therefore not eligible for preselection. Wilson maintained that he had always been a member and should not be obliged to nominate, but should be automatically selected due to his ministerial office. Eventually Wilson relented in part by agreeing to rejoin the Party without conceding that he had not been a member. However, neither this nor Page’s intervention mollified the South Australian Country Party. Placed fourth on the joint Nationalist and Country Party ticket, he campaigned vigorously but with limited support from the Nationalist and Country Party, he failed to be elected despite returning a substantial first preference vote. Wilson remained Minister for Markets and Migration until 18 June 1926.[8]

Speculation abounded over Wilson’s political future; it was rumoured that he was a candidate for Director of Migration or High Commissioner in London. Neither occurred though he was appointed KBE in 1926. It was thought that he might return to the Senate and in 1929 there was a suggestion that he would oppose Hughes in the seat of North Sydney, but he did not stand for election again.[9]

On leaving the Senate, Wilson moved to Sydney to become, until 1939, president of the Motion Picture Distributors’ Association. He was a member of the National Health and Medical Research Council from 1938 to 1946, and senior vice-chairman of the Royal North Shore Hospital board from 1938 to 1957. He was also chairman of National Press, the publishers of Smith’s Weekly (1939–57).

Wilson died at Neutral Bay on 13 July 1957 and was cremated with Anglican rites. On 12 February 1901, he had married Lily May, née Suckling, at Holy Trinity Church, Riverton. They had three children—Reginald, Audrey and Marjorie. His wife and two daughters survived him. Wilson seems to have been well liked by parliamentarians from both sides of the political fence, though in the case of his friendship with the remote Bruce it may have been, as Smith’s Weekly suggests, ‘the attraction of opposites’.[10]


David Dutton


[1] Malcolm Saunders, ‘Wilson, Sir Reginald Victor’, ADB, vol. 12; Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 January 1920, p. 7, 17 January 1925, p. 13; CPD, 13 July 1922, p. 400.

[2] SMH, 10 February 1923, p. 16; Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 January 1920, p. 7, 5 December 1919, p. 11, 13 December 1919, p. 11, 9 February 1923, p. 12; SMH, 17 January 1925, p. 16; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, pp. 59, 90, 335; CPD, 3 August 1922, p. 1049.

[3] CPD, 3 August 1922, p. 1049; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, p. 198; Senate, Journals, 1922; CPD, 13 July 1922, p. 390, 24 November 1921, pp. 13163–13164.

[4] CPD, 30 November 1921, pp. 13385–13389, 22 July 1921, pp. 10474–10475, 13 July 1922, pp. 390–405, 13 July 1923, pp. 1101–1105, 30 November 1921, pp. 13381–13382, 24 November 1921, pp. 13164–13165, 30 June 1921, p. 9545; CPP, Report of the royal commission on the Cockatoo Island dockyard, 1921; CPD, 24 November 1921, p. 13165.

[5] CPD, 19 August 1921, pp. 11128–11129; Senate, Journals, 23 August 1921; CPD, 23 August 1921, pp. 11179–11189, 9 October 1924, pp. 5380–5381, 13 July 1922, pp. 400–401.

[6] Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 February 1923, p. 12, 24 February 1923, p. 12; CPD, 28 February 1923, p. 7, 18 July 1923, p. 1177, 25 July 1923, p. 1518, 2 August 1923, p. 1992, 3 August 1923, p. 2102, 7 August 1923, pp. 2178, 2194, 8 August 1923, p. 2261.

[7] SMH, 30 April 1923, p. 8, 17 May 1923, p. 9; CPD, 14 August 1923, p. 2652, 27 March 1924, p. 54; Michael Roe, Australia, Britain, and Migration, 1915–1940: A Study of Desperate Hopes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 57; Correspondence, item MIG6 A981/1, NAA; Letter, S. M. Bruce to Wilson, 7 May 1924, A1496/1, NAA; SMH, 21 January 1926, p. 12; Register (Adelaide), 17 June 1924, p. 8; SMH, 18 October 1924, p. 16, 17 January 1925, p. 16; Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, p. 116.

[8] Register (Adelaide), 4 March 1921, p. 7; CPD, 1 March 1923, p. 108; Dean Jaensch, ‘South Australia and the Northern Territory’ in Brian Costar and Dennis Woodward (eds), Country to National: Australian Rural Politics and Beyond, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985, pp. 120–121; Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 February 1923, p. 12; Register (Adelaide), 30 September 1925, p. 9; Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, pp. 99, 127, 137, 335–336; Argus (Melbourne), 9 May 1925, p. 32; Letter, E. McIntosh to Sir Earle Page, Page Papers, MS 1633, NLA; Letter, J. Entwistle to Sir Earle Page, Page Papers, MS 1633, NLA; SMH, 9 October 1925, p. 3, 27 October 1925, p. 10; Elizabeth H. Venning, Liberalism and Liberal Organisation in South Australia 1890-1938, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Adelaide, 1967; Register (Adelaide), 15 October 1925, pp. 2, 9, 16 October 1925, p. 11, 30 October 1925, p. 9.

[9] Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 January 1926, p. 9; SMH, 21 January 1926, p. 12; Register (Adelaide), 26 January 1926, p. 9; Argus (Melbourne), 21 January 1926, p. 11; CPD, 18 June 1926, pp. 3290–3292, 25 June 1926, pp. 3540–3543.

[10] SMH, 30 June 1939, p. 10, 1 July 1939, p. 19; Sun-Herald (Sydney), 14 July 1957, p. 4; Advertiser (Adelaide), 15 July 1957, p. 3; SMH, 15 July 1957, p. 14; Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 6 February 1926, p. 2.


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. 199-202.

WILSON, Sir Reginald Victor (1877–1957)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1920–26

Honorary Minister, 1923–25

Minister for Markets and Migration, 1925–26

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1920–21

Joint Select Committee into Proposed Agreement with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, 1921–22

Select Committee on the Claims of Captain J. Strasburg for a War Gratuity, 1921–22