ROBERTSON, Agnes Robertson (1882–1968)
Senator for Western Australia, 1950–62 (Liberal Party of Australia; Australian Country Party)

Agnes Robertson Keay was born at Stepney, Adelaide, South Australia, on 31 July 1882, only daughter of David Kelly Keay, stonemason and building contractor, and his wife Mary Ann, née Thomson. A lone girl among seven brothers, Agnes soon learnt ‘to fight’ her way ‘with them all’. Her father was a well-read social commentator and regular contributor to contemporary journals. He revelled in controversial political discussions around the family table. With a keen ear, and as a vocal participant in these discussions, Agnes readily acquired basic dialectic skills, which she would develop to her advantage. Years later in the Senate she was a formidable opponent in debate.

Reared in the Presbyterian faith, she was educated in her early years at a private school in Adelaide, and state schools in Queensland and New South Wales, where her father undertook substantial building contracts. About 1895 the Keay family moved to Western Australia and Agnes became a teacher through the monitorial system. On 1 July 1903 she married, at St Andrew’s Church, Perth, Robert Robertson, journalist and editor of the Western Mail. Thereafter she was known as Agnes Robertson Robertson.

The Robertsons made their home at ‘Bracken’, a house built by Agnes’ father, in Ventnor Avenue, West Perth. When her husband died on 24 May 1912, Agnes Robertson’s life changed dramatically. Now a widow with three small children and an uncertain income, she secured a position as the 4B class teacher at Thomas Street State School, a position she held until 1943. In inspectorial reports, her work was consistently rated as excellent. She served on the executive of the Western Australian Teachers’ Union (in 1941 she was vice-president) and was a member of the Teachers’ Appeal Board at a time when equal pay and pension rights were recurrent issues.[1]

Agnes had a great attachment for, as she said, ‘my church’—the Ross Memorial Church in West Perth—with whose establishment her husband and family had been closely associated and where she regularly worshipped and for many years taught the girls’ Bible class. In 1937 she attended the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh, and in the 1940s became Western Australia’s first Presbyterian woman lay preacher. Her beliefs were grounded in a strong protestant ethos and her opinions firmly constrained by conservatism—for her, communism was anathema. She was known to walk out when a certain minister delivered a sermon too radical for her liking.

At home her domestic problems eased when her parents came to live permanently at Bracken and her mother assumed responsibility for managing the household. Each day Agnes Robertson walked home for lunch and her habitual half-hour ‘cat nap’. She enjoyed reading, particularly ‘a rattling good yarn’, and needlework. The family welcomed friends and colleagues to the house, which remained a venue for informed discussion and musical evenings. Committed to equal rights for women, during the 1920s and 1930s Agnes’ constant mentors were the feminists, Ethel Joyner and Bessie Rischbieth, who involved her in community activities, and Florence Cardell-Oliver, who nurtured her political awareness.

With a commanding presence, always well dressed and a good speaker with a certain wit, Agnes Robertson was the consummate committee woman. She lent her name to innumerable social activities, particularly those benefiting women and children. She was an active worker for the Women’s Council of the Liberal and Country League, the Little Citizens’ League, Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association, Silver Chain Homes for the Aged, Silver Chain District and Bush Nursing Association and the Women Writers’ Club. She was on the councils of the Presbyterian Ladies College and the Presbyterian Home for the Aged, co-founder of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union and a member of the Lay Preachers’ Association. She supported the State Progressive Education League, State Nutrition Committee and, as secretary of the Free Milk Council, she instigated the free milk in schools scheme in Western Australia. Her interests extended to the influential Women’s Service Guild and she was a patron of the Fremantle Ladies Highland Pipe Band, the Lady Mitchell Memorial Children’s Library, the Aldersyde Historical Association, Australian Maltese Association and several sporting clubs. After her retirement from teaching, she was part-time secretary of the Presbyterian Children’s Homes. In the early 1960s, the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs established, in her honour, the Agnes R. Robertson Education Fund.[2]

In 1947 the Liberal and Country League (the Liberal Party under another name) offered Agnes Robertson, then aged sixty-five, a place on the Senate ticket. At the 1949 federal election, she became the Western Australian Liberals’ first, and the state’s second, woman senator. Robertson took her seat in the Senate on 22 February 1950. With another ‘freshman’, as she described Senator Ivy Wedgwood, she was one of four women in the Senate.[3]

In her first speech in the Senate on 8 March 1950, Robertson ranged over areas in which she had been involved at the community level in Western Australia. These included rights for women, foreign affairs, education (in which she considered the Commonwealth must come to the aid of the states), social services (especially for the aged), and ‘sympathetic’ immigration, without having Australia ‘flooded’. She started by acknowledging her role as a citizen of the Commonwealth elected to represent ‘both men and women’. She declared that as a widowed family breadwinner she had gained the ‘experience of seeing life from the man’s point of view as well as from the woman’s’. She paid a tribute to ‘those honorable senators of my sex who have pioneered the way for women in this chamber’. She foreshadowed the areas in which she would continue to take a particular interest, which included the achievement of peace in an atomic age and national defence in the face of encroaching communism. She concluded with a party appeal to patriotism: ‘I appeal to all citizens of this great country to co-operate with us so that our ideal of democracy may be realized’.

On the home front, Robertson would continue to draw attention to the Cinderella status of Western Australia and to urge substantive support for education, roads, hospitals, water schemes and decentralisation. She abhorred strikes, was ambivalent about the 40-hour week and on 27 June 1951 declared it was ‘time that the Labour party had a good spring cleaning’. Home-making and the rising cost of commodities were high on her agenda. On 15 March 1950 she asked if the Government would consider the establishment of a ministry of housekeeping. As in her first speech she emphasised a range of social welfare needs, especially concerning children. She continued to promote the free milk in schools scheme, both for its nutritional value to children and as a fillip for the dairy industry. Increasingly aware of the growing drug problem, in 1952 she advocated the banning of heroin in Australia. Robertson’s political philosophy was essentially a manifestation of her religious and social conscience. She did not hesitate to remind the Senate ‘that the Word of the Old Book is still true: “Righteousness exalteth a nation”’.[4]

Robertson was much concerned with the ‘tangled skein’ of world affairs, wherein her main interest would be directed to Asian and Pacific regions, particularly through the Colombo Plan. ‘I believe’, she told the Senate in 1952, ‘that a new civilization is arising in the Pacific’. She considered the term ‘White Australia’ to be ‘abominable’, and stated that Australia should make clear ‘to the Asian people that the policy which we have so successfully tried out is not a racial but an economic one’. An advocate of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill of 1950, she believed that Australia could save the Pacific countries from ‘being handed over, body and soul, to Communist Russia’. She spoke of the need for ‘powerful and willing friends’, and of the United Nations World Health Organization whose work she observed in Malaya, Hong Kong and the Philippines. She agreed with Senator Gorton that Australia was now ‘the strategic point in the Pacific’. For several years she was the leader of Australian delegations to the annual conferences of the South-East Asia Pan-Pacific Women’s Conferences. In October 1956 she became the first woman appointed to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.[5]

It was when leading a women’s delegation in Manila prior to the 1955 election that she was shocked to learn she had been dropped from the Liberal ticket because of her age—she would be eighty at the end of the next electoral term. Unbowed and resilient, in September Robertson switched allegiance to the Country Party (then using the name Country and Democratic League), who gave her first place on its Senate ballot paper. She pursued a vigorous forty-day campaign in rural areas, averaging three speeches a day and at least one reception, in addition to personal visits. Back in the city, through a series of radio broadcasts, she relayed her message into thousands of households. Her platform was based on the threat of communism, equality in the standard of living, improved scientific methods of production and subsidies for primary industry, as well as support for wheat stabilisation and increased overseas markets. Campaign slogans included the following: ‘Anti-Labor Women Voters—This will probably be your last chance for many years to have a woman represent you in the Senate. Stand by this woman’.

At the polls, anti-communist Labor preferences gave Robertson a ‘last‑minute victory over the [male Liberal] candidate . . . endorsed in her place’, and she became the Country Party’s first woman senator.[6] In an editorial headed, ‘A Woman of Some Importance’, the Sydney Morning Herald, critical of Prime Minister Menzies’ attempt to deny her candidature because of her age, hazarded the view that it would now be Senator Robertson’s vote, not her age, that would count. But for the most part Robertson remained an unqualified supporter of the Menzies Government, though in June 1956 an exception occurred when she voted in support of an Opposition amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The amendment, which was not successful, opposed compulsory retirement, at age sixty-five. She was, she said, opposed to throwing Australians on ‘the human scrapheap’.

Towards the end of her term she made an impassioned plea for the conservation of Australia’s building heritage, urging support for the emergent national trusts in Australian states. When Robertson cited a number of buildings at threat, such as the convict-built barracks in Perth, she was reminded by Senator Maher of her father’s involvement in the construction of Queensland’s treasury building. She had not stood for the 1961 federal election, but spoke in the Senate for the last time during the adjournment in May 1962, when she confessed to not having been able to make as much difference in the Senate as she had hoped. To the last she continued to be a lobbyist for women’s issues, asking a question on the exclusion of women as jurors in the Northern Territory, a matter which was then referred to the Attorney-General.

After leaving the Senate, Agnes Robertson remained at 45 Ventnor Avenue in West Perth, her home for over sixty years. She died on 29 January 1968 while visiting her younger daughter and grandchildren in the Melbourne suburb of Mt Waverley, and was cremated at a private service at Springvale. Robertson’s children, John Ross, Jessie Marion, and Chrissie (as well as a foster child, Beryl Grant), survived her. In a telegram to Jessie, herself twice a Country Party candidate for the Senate, the President of the Senate, Alister McMullin, expressed his sorrow at the death of ‘your distinguished mother’. Senator Tom Drake-Brockman recalled that the keynote to Robertson’s life was service to others, ‘such as the needy, the elderly and new arrivals in the country’. Senator McManus remembered his former colleague as ‘a woman of very firm principles’, who sat on ‘in her place on many late nights, when senators much younger than she . . . were exhausted’.[7]

Wendy Birman

[1] West Australian (Perth), 31 Jan. 1968, p. 8; Australian Women’s Weekly (Syd.), 14 Mar. 1956, p. 12; Western Mail (Perth), 1 June 1912, p. 14; Presbyterian (Perth), 1 Jan. 1934, p. 5; Wendy Birman, ‘A Woman of Some Importance: Senator Agnes Robertson 1882–1968’, Early Days: Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 11, pt 2, 1996, pp. 155–65; Department of Education staff cards—A. R. Robertson, CONS 3512/1.46, LISWA; Nationalist (Perth), Oct. 1941, p. 6.

[2] Ross Memorial Presbyterian Church West Perth, W.A. 1898—1973: 75th Anniversary Souvenir Booklet, West Perth, 1973; Daphne Popham (ed.), Reflections: Profiles of 150 Women Who Helped Make Western Australia’s History, Carroll’s Pty Ltd, Perth, 1979, pp. 122–3; Eastern Recorder (Kellerberrin), 27 June 1957, p. 1; Bessie M. Rischbieth, March of Australian Women: A Record of Fifty Years’ Struggle for Equal Citizenship, Paterson Brokensha, Perth, 1964; Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association of Australia: History of the Association Founded 1928, Canberra, 1993; Historical Record of the Work of Women’s Groups of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in all States of the Commonwealth 1840–l957, Presbyterian Women’s Association of Australia, Melbourne, 1957; Information from Mary Maude Winter, Cottesloe; Patience R. Thoms (comp.), The First 25 Years: B.P.W. Australia, Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Melbourne, 1972.

[3] West Australian (Perth), 7 Dec. 1949, p. 23; Ann Millar, Trust the Women: Women in the Federal Parliament, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 1993, pp. 55, 64, 66, 136, 175.

[4] CPD, 8 Mar. 1950, pp. 476–81, 9 Nov. 1950, pp. 2161–3, 27 Oct. 1954, pp. 1042–5, 10 Mar. 1959, pp. 279–85, 27 June 1951, pp. 448–52, 15 Mar. 1950, p. 730, 30 Mar. 1950, pp. 1359–60, 7 & 8 Dec. 1950, p. 3943, 6 Aug. 1952, p. 18, 15 Oct. 1952, p. 3073, 22 Oct. 1952, p. 3476.

[5] CPD, 28 Feb. 1952, pp. 512–15, 10 Aug. 1954, pp. 118–20, 1 June 1950, pp. 3570–4, 19 Oct. 1950, pp. 1046–8, 28 Apr. 1955, pp. 134–7, 28 Sept. 1961, p. 737; Letters, R. G. Casey to Agnes Robertson, 6 Mar. 1952, Agnes Robertson to B. M. Rischbieth, 26 May 1953, MS 2004, 5/2007A, 6/248, NLA.

[6] Age (Melb.), 29 Nov. 1955, p. 3; West Australian (Perth), 8 Sept. 1955, p. 2, 27 Sept. 1955, p. 1, 19 Oct. 1955, p. 1, 1 Dec. 1955, p. 6, 3 Dec. 1955, p. 8, 6 Dec. 1955, p. 14, 7 Dec. 1955, p. 13, 8 Dec. 1955, p. 22, 9 Dec. 1955, p. 14; CPD, 19 Oct. 1955, p. 543; Radio transcripts, 3306A/45, LISWA; Information provided by Mary Maude Winter; Records, 1924–1988, National Country Party of Australia, WA, MN 1070/3306A/45, LISWA.

[7] SMH, 3 Jan. 1956, p. 2; CPD, 19 June 1956, pp. 1641–2, 20 Feb. 1962, pp. 27–8, 17 & 18 May 1962, p. 1535, 1 May 1962, p. 984; Letter, Garfield Barwick to Senator Gorton, 8 May 1962, Senate Registry File, A8161, S234, NAA; CPD, 13 Mar. 1968, pp. 95–6; Age (Melb.), 31 Jan. 1968, p. 21; West Australian (Perth), 31 Jan. 1968, pp. 2, 8; Country News (Perth), Feb. 1968, p. 4; Information received from Beryl Grant, Agnes Robertson’s god-daughter; Telegram, A. M. McMullin, President of the Senate to Miss J. Robertson, 30 Jan. 1968, Senate Registry File, A8161, S234, NAA; CPD, 13 Mar. 1968, pp. 95–6.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 77-81.

ROBERTSON, Agnes Robertson (1882–1968)

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1950–62

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1950–62

Library Committee, 1950–62

Printing Committee, 1956–62

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1956–62