SCOTT, Malcolm Fox (1910–1989)
Senator for Western Australia, 1950–71 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Malcolm Fox Scott, who entered federal politics at thirty-eight from a background in farming, business and local government, served for over twenty-one years in the Senate, two as Government Whip, and a further two as a minister. Malcolm was born on 11 May 1910, at Bridgetown, Western Australia, the second child and eldest son of Thomas Scott, a Scottish migrant, and Ada Margaretta, née Fox. After trying his hand at banking, droving, shearing and goldmining, Thomas took up farming in Western Australia in 1898. He settled thirteen miles from Bridgetown, on the Blackwood River at Winnejup Ford, a near-virgin block of 1000 acres, which he began to develop as an orchard and grazing enterprise.[1]

Malcolm’s schooling began at Winnigup State School. He went to Bunbury High School for one year before attending Scotch College, Perth, from 1925 to 1927, where he shone in athletics. He returned to the farm with the aim of managing it with his ageing father. The 24- acre orchard produced apples and pears, principally for export. Originally forested with red gum, the soil was good diorite. Progressive clearing was carried out and an adjacent property added.[2]

On 9 December 1936 at St Paul’s Church of England Bridgetown, Scott married Nancy Elizabeth Ozanne, the daughter of a local orchardist. They would have five children. When his father died in 1939, Malcolm assumed full management of the property, and eventually added 4000 sheep for wool and meat, plus a small herd of cattle. During World War II, he became involved in the experimental growing of flax. Earlier, he had persuaded his father to buy a half share in a pastoral property running cattle in the far north of the state. Ever the entrepreneur, Malcolm, with his brother, launched into pearling, operating six luggers out of Broome, where the company built their own boats. Scott later became an investor in various mining ventures. He also engaged in the manufacture of cultured pearls. This diversity of experience led one journalist to write: ‘You name it, [Scott’s] done it’.[3]

In the late 1930s, Scott became active in local organisations, such as the Farmers’ Union branch, the Fruitgrowers’ Association and the Bridgetown Agricultural Society. In 1939 he was elected to the Bridgetown Road Board, and was chairman from 1946 to 1950. In addition, he became deputy chairman of the south-western ward of the Road Boards Association of Western Australia. During World War II he served in the 5th Battalion Volunteer Defence Corps. Towards the end of the war he became a member of the Australian Labor Party, probably because he supported Curtin’s wartime policies and admired both Curtin and Chifley as leaders. Later, he claimed that he was not active in the ALP, nor a convinced socialist; in fact he found the Labor habit of addressing each other as ‘comrade’ somewhat embarrassing.[4]

With Chifley’s 1947 plan to nationalise the banks, Scott’s admiration turned to antagonism. He chaired a meeting of Bridgetown residents protesting against the proposal, and was elected to a committee to raise funds for the fight against nationalisation. He decided to enter Parliament to have an effective voice on such policies. Presenting himself at the Liberal Party office in Perth, he told Clive Palmer, general secretary of the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party, that he wanted to nominate for the House of Representatives seat of Forrest at the next election. Asked if he was a member of the party, Scott had to reply: ‘No’. ‘We can fix that,’ Palmer reportedly said, and enrolled him. Scott nominated for preselection but lost to Gordon Freeth and was endorsed as a Senate candidate instead by the Liberal and Country League, as the Western Australian arm of the Liberal Party was now called. So little did he know of government that only then did he discover that a senator’s term was of six years duration. With the party machine behind him, Scott undertook door-to-door canvassing in both country and city, calling on community leaders and bank managers to enlist support.[5]

At the federal election of December 1949 he was elected a senator. He was returned in four more elections, heading the Liberals’ Senate team for three of them. A party meeting prior to the opening of the federal Parliament in February 1950 gave Scott his first glimpse of Canberra. Having moved his family to Perth, he took up residence at the Hotel Kurrajong. About ten days after the election he met Robert Menzies, who told him that speaking would be his main asset, and that he should train himself in that art. Scott developed a high regard for Menzies, especially for his habit of listening to everybody in the party room—‘but he would make up his own mind, I guess’. Sworn in the Senate on 22 February 1950, Scott was somewhat overawed, and amazed at how little he knew. He realised that he would have to start from scratch to learn this ‘new trade’. In the crowded conditions at the ‘old’ Parliament House, he shared an office with Senator John Grey Gorton. Having been drawn into politics by his opposition to bank nationalisation, Scott revisited this issue in the debates over the Commonwealth Bank Bills of 1950 and 1953, condemning the Labor Party’s intention to control the banking system ‘by fair means or foul’, and supporting government measures to protect the Commonwealth Bank from nationalisation through the establishment of a board of directors and the separation of the trading bank from the central bank.[6]

He took a particular interest in national development, becoming chairman of party committees on national development and mining. Scott claimed that these committees were significant in persuading the Menzies Government to lift the embargo on iron ore exports in 1960, opening the way for greater mineral exploration, and that this was one of his principal achievements in Parliament. In 1957 he told the Senate: ‘I have travelled in nearly all the States of the Commonwealth and have seen many of the large mines. I have talked to prospectors and mining people, who have consistently told me that the Government is not giving the right incentives to ensure maximum production by the mining industry’. When the Government introduced the Gold-mining Industry Assistance Bill in 1956, Scott lobbied for a greater subsidy for small producers. An enthusiastic supporter of oil exploration subsidies, he appealed to the Government to adopt tax deductions for shareholders who subscribed capital to Australian oil search companies, in order to encourage investment in the industry. Both these suggestions were incorporated into subsequent legislation.[7]

Scott was a tireless advocate for the development of the north-west of Western Australia, enthusiastically supporting the building of transport infrastructure and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. In 1958 he toured the region with Menzies and the Minister for National Development, Senator Spooner. Spooner and Scott did not always see eye to eye, tussling in the Senate over the development of a deep water port at Black Rock, near Derby––in Scott’s view ‘a complete waste of money’. Believing that the Western Australian Government lacked the financial resources to develop the north-west, he declared that he would ‘like to see the State hand over the whole of the Kimberleys … to the Commonwealth for inclusion in the Northern Territory’. His farming background and business interests enabled him to speak knowledgably on the beef, wool, flax, pearl shell and cultured pearl industries.[8]

In 1966 Scott won the party position of Government Whip in the Senate. Although by this time he was a member of several significant Senate committees, he saw this as a promotion: ‘It is the most important position that one can attain without becoming a Minister’. His oral history interview contains a useful dissertation on the duties of a whip. With the absence of a government majority in the Senate between 1966 and 1968, it was crucial for the Senate to have a hard-working and tough whip, able to gently persuade or negotiate with recalcitrant government backbenchers and/or members of the Democratic Labor Party. It was the job for a good party man, and Scott did it well.[9]

Following the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt in the sea at Portsea in December 1967, Scott played an active role in the Liberal Party’s choice of John Gorton as party leader and therefore Prime Minister. He had maintained a close association with Gorton, regarding him as an able debater, who could analyse the essentials of an issue and communicate in a way others could understand. In hindsight he came to doubt the wisdom of the choice. Nonetheless, his loyalty brought a reward when Gorton offered him the portfolio of Customs and Excise, despite his preference for National Development. He later confessed to the enjoyment of the perks of ministerial office––greater influence as well as more money and the use of a government car. Appreciative of the hard work and political impartiality of senior bureaucrats, he cherished a warm regard for his principal adviser, the Comptroller General of the Department for Customs and Excise, Alan Carmody, who it seems showed him how to do the job.[10]

On his own telling, Scott was a conscientious minister, finding he now had to spend a greater amount of time in Canberra after sitting hours. The work necessitated considerable travel around Australia and the reading and assimilation of large amounts of information. He also represented in the Senate the ministers for national development, shipping and transport, civil aviation, and the interior. The journalist Alan Reid said that D. E. Fairbairn (Minister for National Development) ‘was driven to complain several times about clumsy, inaccurate, or misleading answers given by Scott on National Development matters’. The impression given by Scott himself was that he found his ministerial responsibilities burdensome, leaving little time for his lifelong favourite relaxation, a game of golf. Also burdensome was the censorship of literature and films, then a highly controversial aspect of his portfolio, though he was dependent to a great extent on the recommendation of the National Literature Board of Review. His attitude was: ‘I just don’t believe in showing the sex act on the screen. I never have, and I’ll stand by that’.[11]

In October 1969 Scott came under scrutiny over the $2 million sale of a Western Australian manganese mine in which he was a major shareholder. The chairman of the purchasing company was Liberal MHR Dr Malcolm Mackay. Scott’s most testing issue as minister concerned the resignation of a customs officer who had been found guilty of improper conduct under the Public Service Act. Scott and his department had been criticised by members of the Liberal Party and ALP for providing this officer, who had links with ASIO, with special treatment. This included finding him a position in the private sector in Sydney, despite Scott’s stated conviction of the ‘gravity’ of the offence. Subjected to intense questioning in the Senate, Scott was perceived to have a ‘thin capacity for the parliamentary cut and thrust of Ministerial Office’. In his biography of Gorton, Alan Trengove commented that the circumstances of this case contributed to ‘the enormous strain under which John Gorton carried out his duties in his first fifteen months in office’. Scott was removed from the ministry in November 1969.[12]

In March 1970 Scott lost preselection for the Senate, which meant that his term concluded on 30 June 1971. Press comment at the time attributed the loss to anti-Gorton sentiment in Western Australia, and in particular to Scott’s perceived ‘support of Gorton policies considered “centralist” in WA’. Scott later reflected: ‘a lot of Members of the Parliament are centralists at heart but they don’t say it, because there is too much opposition. I am a centralist too. I don’t believe in State Governments’.

For a short time, he entertained the idea that he might stand as an independent, but this would have required breaking his promise to the Liberal Party not to stand in opposition to an endorsed candidate. Instead, he returned to his family and business interests. A pastoral property of 21 000 acres east of Esperance was now managed by his son. Closer to his Perth suburban home was a vegetable oil processing factory, which he had taken over in 1967 and to which he came to devote several days a week.[13]

Scott died on 1 June 1989 at his Booragoon home. A state funeral was held at the Anglican Church of St Michael, Mount Pleasant, Perth, on 7 June. Scott was remembered as a good servant of his party through which he had made an impact on government policies. Speaking in 1971, Senator Murphy, then Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, said of him: ‘I and my colleagues, and I think the whole chamber, take him to be a man of unimpeachable integrity’.[14]

John Ferrell

[1] Malcolm Scott Fox, Transcript of oral history interview with John Ferrell, 1986–87, POHP, TRC 4900/76, NLA, pp. 1:2, 1:5–6, 1:8–10.

[2] Winnigup attendance, Cons. 1497, item 1917/1897, SRWA; The editor is indebted to Alistair Courtney, Scotch College, Perth; Scotch College Reporter (Perth), Dec. 1925, p. 24; Scott, Transcript, pp. 1:9, 1:13, 2:17, 2:24, 3:6, 3:11.

[3] SMH, 6 Sept. 1969, p. 18; Scott, Transcript, pp. 3:26, 3:28, 4:14, 4:16–18, 5:16, 6:7; Daily News (Perth), 27 Feb. 1968, p. 2.

[4] Scott, Transcript, pp. 5:17, 5:19, 5:22, 6:4–5, 6:22, 7:1–2, 7:6; Bridgetown Advocate, 29 Dec. 1949, p. 5, 12 Jan. 1950, p. 1, 19 Jan. 1950, p. 4; WA (Perth), 30 Sept. 1949, p. 9; Malcolm Fox Scott—Defence Service Record, B884, W70673, NAA; CPD, 4 June 1952, p. 1328.

[5] Scott, Transcript, pp. 5:11, 6:23–5, 7:6–7; Blackwood Times (Bridgetown), 31 Oct. 1947, p. 6, 21 Nov. 1947, p. 1; WA (Perth), 11 June 1949, p. 9.

[6] Scott, Transcript, pp. 7:9–10, 7:13, 7:17–18, 7:22; CPD, 24 May 1950, p. 3059–61, 18 Mar. 1953, pp. 1238–40.

[7] Scott, Transcript, pp. 8:7–8, 12:12; Who’s Who in the Gorton Government: 54 Reports on the Gorton Ministers and their Principal Advisers, [Maxwell Newton, Canberra, 1968], p. 63; CPD, 24 Oct. 1957, pp. 769–70, 16 May 1956, p. 753, 30 Oct. 1957, pp. 997–8, 16 Oct. 1957, p. 607, 3 Dec. 1957, pp. 1673–4, 12 Aug. 1959, p. 57.

[8] CPD, 30 Sept. 1952, pp. 2270–1, 5 Aug. 1954, pp. 71–4, 10 Mar. 1960, p. 93, 25 May 1965, pp. 1212–17, 27 Aug. 1958, pp. 269, 271, 291, 15 May 1959, p. 1492, 13 May 1958, p. 984, 28 Apr. 1960, pp. 649–52, 3 Sept. 1957, pp. 107–9, 26 Mar. 1953, pp. 1542–5, 17 Sept. 1953, pp. 102–4, 8 May 1956, pp. 561–2.

[9] WA (Perth), 9 Mar. 1966, p. 8; Scott, Transcript, pp. 10:9–14; Australian (Syd.), 27 Feb. 1968, p. 2.

[10] Scott, Transcript, pp. 11:5–10, 12:5; Ian Hancock, John Gorton: He Did it His Way, Hodder, Sydney, 2002, pp. 62, 134, 143, 160; Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1971, p. 25; Paul Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 149, 157, 160–1; WA (Perth), 27 Feb. 1968, pp. 1, 8.

[11] Scott, Transcript, pp. 11:11–12, 11:14; Reid, The Gorton Experiment, p. 200; SMH, 6 Sept. 1969, p. 18.

[12] Sunday Observer (Melb.), 19 Oct. 1969, p. 1; Reid, The Gorton Experiment, pp. 39, 200–4; CPD, 6 Mar. 1969 (R), p. 457, 16 Apr. 1969, pp. 830–1, 26 Feb. 1969, p. 114; AFR (Syd.), 7 Mar. 1969, p. 32; Alan Trengove, John Grey Gorton: An Informal Biography, Cassell Australia, North Melbourne, 1969, p. 212.

[13] AFR (Syd.), 25 Mar. 1970, p. 18; Reid, The Gorton Experiment, p. 389; Scott, Transcript, pp. 11:7, 12:9, 12:17, 13:2–3.

[14] WA (Perth), 2 June 1989, p. 68, 6 June 1989, p. 28, 3 June 1989, classified liftout p. 5; CPD, 5 June 1989, pp. 3291–2, 12 May 1971, pp. 1710–11.

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. 473-478.

SCOTT, Malcolm Fox (1910–1989)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1950–71

Minister for Customs and Excise, 1968–69

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1950–62

Select Committee on Road Safety, 1959–60

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1959–65

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1965–66

Estimates Committee E, 1970–71

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1970–71