SPOONER, Sir William Henry (1897–1966)
Senator for New South Wales, 1950–65 (Liberal Party of Australia)

William Henry (Bill) Spooner, chartered accountant and founding member of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, was born on 23 December 1897 in the working class suburb of Surry Hills. He was the fifth child born to William Henry Spooner, compositor, and his wife, Maud Ann, née Dubois. Bill obtained a sound education at Christ Church School, Sydney, where in 1911 he won the Mort Prize for outstanding scholarship. In June 1915 he enlisted with the AIF, serving with the Fifth Australian Field Ambulance at Gallipoli, Egypt and later in France and Belgium. He was wounded at Ypres in 1917 and awarded the Military Medal. Transferred to the Australian Flying Corps, he returned to Australia on 21 June 1919, to be discharged on 14 August.

In 1923 Spooner graduated from the University of Sydney with a Diploma in Economics and Commerce, having joined the brewing firm of Tooth and Company in September 1921, where he was soon in charge of regional accounts. On 30 April 1924 Spooner married Catherine Vera Bogle at St James’ Church of England, King Street, Sydney. By 1929, with his salary increasing substantially, Spooner’s responsibilities centred on the Waverley Brewery, which Tooth’s had taken over that year from Resch’s Ltd. Leaving Tooth’s in 1930, Spooner joined the accountancy firm of Hungerford, Spooner & Company, of which his brother Eric was a founding partner. The manager of the firm’s accounting arm later recalled: ‘There were no advertisements for jobs—it was a matter of whom your parents knew, and whether you were a Liberal voter and a Protestant. And you had to appear on the hustings at election time to help both brothers’. Eric was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (1932–40) and MHR for Robertson (1940–43), representing the United Australia Party (UAP). In 1935 Bill had joined the Legacy Club of Sydney, placing the club’s financial affairs on a sound basis, and becoming its president from 1942 to 1943.[1]

Bill Spooner’s involvement in party politics dated from the emergence of the Liberal Party in December 1944. That he was privy to the convoluted non-Labor politics in New South Wales in 1943 and 1944 is clear from the fact that he allowed the Liberal Democratic Party (one of the New South Wales splinter groups formed as the old UAP disintegrated) to put his name forward for service on the Liberal Party’s New South Wales Provisional Executive. As a result, at an ‘animated’ meeting on 8 January 1945, Spooner became chairman of the Provisional Executive. In July, he became first president of the party’s New South Wales executive. Spooner’s determination, political perspicacity and professional grasp on financial affairs and fund-raising led to his immediately becoming a dominant figure in New South Wales Liberal politics, one who helped bring together the party’s New South Wales and federal arms. By August he was first treasurer of the federal party; from 1946 to 1949 he was chairman of the Federal Finance Committee and, from 1945 to 1953, a member of the Federal Council. During his term as state president (1945–50), he was also a member of the Federal Executive.[2]

Spooner never deviated from strict adherence to the Liberal Party principles he had helped to formulate. On 25 August 1947, in the Sydney Town Hall, he supported R. G. Menzies, then federal Leader of the Opposition, at the Liberal Party launch of an Australia-wide campaign against the Labor Government’s proposal to nationalise the trading banks. On the same day, he spoke against independents in the Parliament (such as those who had brought down the Menzies Government in 1941), affirming that ‘the future lay with two great parties standing for Liberalism and Socialism’. He referred to the various branch amalgamations (including women’s branches) in New South Wales, where, he said, the Liberal Party had a membership of over 38 000. He was a powerful advocate for financial solvency within the party: ‘It remains for every man and woman with Australia’s future at heart to help strengthen the party’s finances. Every pound counts’. From 1945 Spooner showed his determination to place party funding on firm and ‘correct’ principles. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1949, he presented a summary of these principles, which included complete independence through the party raising and controlling its own funds, and the acceptance of donations only from individual subscribers.

Country Party historian Don Aitkin has stated that Spooner was the ‘presiding genius of the Liberal Party’s recovery in New South Wales’ and that he saw the Country Party as an anachronism. Spooner’s way of dealing with this ‘anachronism’ in the 1940s was to advocate amalgamation between the two parties, arguing that this was the only way non-Labor parties could match Labor’s strength, and proposing that the name of the new party be the Liberal Country Party. When it was clear that such political expediency had fallen on deaf Country Party ears in 1949, Spooner, as federal president, met with Magnus Cormack, to set out a plan for ‘cooperation’ with the Country Party for the forthcoming December election.[3]

With such sound credentials in the state where, in 1943, the UAP ‘had taken its heaviest casualties’, Spooner easily gained Liberal preselection for a place on the Senate ticket. At the 1949 election, he topped the poll for New South Wales, while the Liberal–Country Party Coalition won an easy victory in the House of Representatives. On 17 December he was appointed Minister for Social Services, one of five ministers in a Senate where the Government fell eight short of a majority. He had no previous parliamentary experience. He was sworn in the Senate on 22 February 1950. Spooner remained in charge of the Social Services portfolio until May 1951 (after the election following the simultaneous dissolution of both houses of Parliament).[4]

Though a ‘laborious’ speaker, he was a determined and canny political operator who could get what he wanted as a tough negotiator, or, in debate, by stating his case with deceptive simplicity. The first bill for whose passage Spooner was responsible was the Social Services Consolidation Bill 1950, which extended child endowment to include the first, or only, child in every family. The bill did not have an easy passage, bouncing back and forth between the two houses, as the ALP sought to amend matters relating to the relationship between child endowment and the basic wage. In the end, the bill was passed without amendment.[5]

In May 1951 Spooner succeeded R. G. Casey as Minister for National Development in a portfolio created in March 1950 for the planning and coordination of natural resources, and to enable the extension of national projects commenced by the previous Chifley Government. It was in this department that Spooner, despite a reputation for a more cautious approach to the portfolio than that of Casey, made his greatest impact. His responsibilities included the raft of administrative matters relating to the forwarding of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme, especially federal/state financial and legal negotiations. Arbitration issues between the Government and the Australian Workers’ Union had also to be addressed. Spooner was responsible for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Bill 1958, which approved agreements between the Commonwealth, and New South Wales and Victoria, and which covered the sharing by these two states of irrigation waters generated by the scheme, in particular those in the Murrumbidgee and Murray valleys. After an outcry on the lack of protection of water rights for South Australia in the Murray River, Menzies intervened and introduced amendments to the River Murray Waters Bill. From 1956 to 1964 Spooner represented the Commonwealth on the River Murray Commission.

In behind-the-scenes politics between the Government and the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, Spooner played a positive role, though the resultant harmony owed a good deal to the political wisdom of the authority’s chairman, Sir William Hudson, who would comment that though Spooner was, at first, ‘fairly difficult, probably due to the fact that … he couldn’t remove the thought that the Snowy Scheme had been born under a Labour Government … he later became an enthusiast for the Scheme and … could not possibly have done more to help us’. Hudson added that Spooner was thought of within the authority ‘as a bulldog, particularly when the interests of the Scheme were challenged’. Certainly, in November 1953, Spooner was defending the scheme in the face of criticism from within his own party.[6]

It was in this period of political stability, economic prosperity and burgeoning national development, all of which Spooner tended to attribute solely to the achievements of the Liberal Government, that the long-held vision of opening up the north of Australia came to be realised at both federal and state levels, Menzies later stating, somewhat dramatically, that Spooner’s name would be remembered ‘from the Ord River to the new beef roads of Queensland’. In 1958 Spooner travelled around the north of Western Australia. Back in the Senate in August, he pronounced: ‘I think it is fair to say that this Government has made a greater contribution to the development of northern Australia than has the State Government itself’. With an election in the wind, and anxious to obtain a Liberal majority in the Senate, he focused intensely on the development of the empty spaces of the north-west of Western Australia. He remained closely involved with the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, established in the East Kimberley region in the 1950s and 1960s, which, in the event, fell short of its promise, due partly to Commonwealth–state planning confusions and political manoeuvrings. On the other hand, the Grant (Beef Cattle Roads) bills of 1961 were of great importance to the meat industry in the north, as road transport replaced the cattle drovers and the trains, and Australia looked to its export market.[7]

Spooner was keen to ‘sell the story’ that northern Australia was ‘a mineral province’ and that the nation possessed its own oil (it was simply a matter of time and exploration). Faced with the huge cost of importing oil, Spooner piloted through the Senate a number of Petroleum Search Subsidy bills between 1957 and 1964. The 1959 bill provided for major tax concessions for investments in oil exploration, and, accordingly, for some expansion of the Department of National Development.

Building on the ebullience of postwar Australia, and the work of the Chifley Government, Spooner attributed the success of his reorganisation of the coal industry to the Government’s emphasis on private investment and free enterprise. He claimed that the Coal Industry Act 1951 had enabled colliery proprietors to gain higher prices for coal and had provided tax concessions for improvements to coalmines, so enabling Australia to become self-sufficient for the first time in a long period. Writing in the Bulletin in 1966, M. H. Ellis referred to Spooner’s achievements: ‘his period saw industrial peace established … the industry mechanised, full employment, sub-standard coal towns brought up to standard, the export trade built to a record level, and coal prices reduced despite huge increases in wages.’[8]

Spooner’s workload was prodigious, even allowing for the able bureaucrats who assisted him, and the clearly stated Liberal policies that as a founder he had helped to formulate. The speeches he gave in the Senate covered many topics, the most significant relating to his own department. The Aluminium Industry legislation of 1960 permitted the privatisation of the Australian Aluminium Production Commission at Bell Bay, Tasmania, and allowed for the production of aluminium by, in part, foreign interests. The lifting of the embargo on iron ore cleared the way for large-scale mining in the Pilbara area of Western Australia.

Professor Geoffrey Bolton has written: ‘No mineral in the early 1950s seemed to hold out so much promise as uranium, and no shadow of doubt clouded the quest for it’. While Menzies bears the responsibility for permitting British atomic tests in Australia between 1951 and 1957, Spooner, as a member of the Cabinet, would have endorsed this decision. Though cautious about the practical aspects of generating electricity with nuclear energy at a time when the atomic production of power was mooted as being cheaper and ‘cleaner’, by 1956 he was responsible for the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, which had been transferred to his portfolio from the Department of Supply. Spooner approved nuclear research programs in Australian universities, and the provision of links with universities in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada. In June and July 1960, he represented Australia at atomic energy discussions in France, Japan, Canada, the United States of America and Britain, also visiting Vienna, where he observed the International Atomic Energy Agency at work.[9]

As housing became increasingly important in Menzies’ bid to reach the ‘forgotten people’, many of the policy issues connected with this jewel in the crown came under the national development portfolio. Retirement villages for the aged had become electorally important, as had assistance for home ownership. Housing agreements between the Commonwealth and states became a cornerstone of the Government’s policy, with Spooner closely involved with administrative detail. For instance, in June 1954, in a letter to Menzies, he expressed some apprehension about his major problem, the need to increase the supply of men and materials so that home building, as well as non-residential building, could expand without shortages and associated rising costs.

The relationship between Menzies and Spooner may have had its shaky moments (there were rumours to that effect, and Menzies’ dislike of brother Eric may not have helped), but there was no doubt that Bill Spooner was one of the Prime Minister’s right-hand men. In 1950 Menzies had obtained overseas funding for national development and, two years later, Spooner attended the Commonwealth Financial and Economic Conference in London. Spooner was responsible for getting a considerable amount of legislation through the Senate, not only for his own portfolios, but for portfolios held by ministers in the House of Representatives. This was especially difficult between 1956 and 1959 when the Liberal–Country Party Government lacked a majority in the Senate. Between September 1954 and January 1955, he was Acting Minister for Trade and Customs during the absence of Senator O’Sullivan. In September 1962 he served as Acting Prime Minister during Menzies’ absence overseas, though it is unlikely that Spooner ever held aspirations for the prime ministership.[10]

The description of him by federal Liberal politician Sir Percy Spender, as a loyal party man, seems fair, and is borne out by political journalist Don Whitington, who wrote, in 1956:

Spooner is a big, distinguished looking man with a deep, impressive voice and a strong jaw. He is painstaking and cautious as an administrator, to the occasional annoyance of his advisers. That policy, while causing some delays, has enabled him to avoid most of the pitfalls that trap the unwary. He is blunt and uncompromising when he sees no merit in a proposition, and is regarded as a ‘tough nut’ by those seeking special favors. In the Parliament, he speaks slowly, seldom commits himself, is never spectacular, but treats the Opposition courteously though firmly.

But Spooner was not always as ‘dull’ as the above implies. Speaking at Island Bend Recreation Hall (in the Snowy Mountains region) in support of a candidate for the 1954 House of Representatives election, he lauded Liberal Party policy, and Menzies in particular, with undisguised passion—‘the pages of history are being turned over in our lifetime … I make the claim that in truth [ours] is a stirring story of Australian progress … it would be a most unthinking, a most imprudent nation which changed its Government at a time like this’. He was thrilled at the way ‘the great men of the rest of the world’ (the Churchills and the Edens) ‘deferred to our Prime Minister’. And finally he claimed that a Labor Government would ‘cut the throat of the Snowy Mountains Scheme and everybody associated with it’.

Always ready to promote the Government’s role in ‘providing a climate for private capital’, he used the media carefully and well, and was a frequent broadcaster. In 1956 he narrowly lost the party ballot for deputy leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party to Harold Holt, but became Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and, in 1959, Leader of the Government in the Senate. Also in 1959, he was a member of the Australian delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in Canberra. Spooner took his responsibilities as Senate leader with the utmost seriousness. In 1961, following discussions with the Clerk of the Senate, Rupert Loof, he successfully moved that in order to have sufficient time for adequate debate on the estimates, the Senate should resolve itself into a committee of the whole before the budget bills were passed by the House of Representatives. This procedure foreshadowed the closer scrutiny of the estimates committees established in 1970. In May 1964, on behalf of the Government, he proposed that appropriation bills for works and services should be amalgamated with the appropriation bills for the ordinary annual services of the Government. He emphasised that the Government’s purpose was merely one of simplification of procedures, a ploy that did not convince the bevy of backbench Liberal senators such as Senators Cormack, Scott, Mattner, and McKellar, who considered themselves far more parliamentary than many on the government benches. They overturned the decision, arguing that the proposal threatened the constitutional right of the Senate to decide what were ordinary annual services and what were capital works and services, and to amend the latter.

As Senate leader, Spooner seems to have handled government party meetings in the Senate firmly, perhaps too much so for the feisty Senator Nancy Buttfield, who, in 1959, spilled the story of his disallowance of her motion to form an all-party select committee on tourism to the Adelaide News. Buttfield remained unimpressed by Spooner, and by his closeness to Menzies. She later claimed that he had no ‘political nous’, and ‘always had to go and ask Menzies what to do’.[11]

Spooner was appointed KCMG in January 1963 and, on 10 June 1964, he resigned from the Cabinet. On 14 July 1965, then halfway through his six-year term, he resigned from the Senate, having previously given assiduous attention to the timing of his departure in relation to the casual vacancy. He was zealous in ensuring that a Liberal took his place. On retiring, Spooner became chairman of directors of a number of companies—Duly and Hansford Ltd, Mutual Acceptance Company Ltd, Hoeschst Chemical (Australia) Ltd, and a director of Mercantile and General Re-insurance Company of Australia Ltd. In the New Year’s Honours of 1966, he was appointed a member of the Privy Council. Menzies, himself nearing the end of his long parliamentary career, referred to Spooner’s ‘immense capacity for work’.

Spooner died in Manly Hospital, Sydney, on 14 July 1966. A state funeral was held at St James’ Church, King Street. Sir William Hudson was one of the pallbearers. Spooner was survived by Vera and their three children. In the House of Representatives, the new Prime Minister, Harold Holt, referred to Spooner’s lifetime of service as ‘impressive in its mere recital’.[12]

Helen Boxall

[1] Graeme Starr, ‘Spooner, Sir William Henry’, ADB, vol. 16; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Joseph Waugh, Archivist, Christ Church St Lawrence, Sydney; Spooner, William Henry—Defence Service Record, B2455, NAA; Tooth & Company, Salaries book, 31 Mar. 1922, 1 Jan. 1930, N60/352, NBAC, ANU; Audrey Armitage, 100 Years: Smith, Johnson & Co. to KMPG: 1895 to 1995, KMPG, Sydney, 1995, pp. 127–31; E. Hilmer Smith, History of the Legacy Club of Sydney, Legacy Club of Sydney, Sydney, 1950, p. 313.

[2] Ian Hancock, National and Permanent? The Federal Organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia, 1944–1965, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 36, 45; John Cramer, Pioneers, Politics and People: A Political Memoir, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1989, pp. 77–9; SMH, 9 Jan. 1945, p. 4, 15 Mar. 1945, p. 5; Louise Overacker, Australian Parties in a Changing Society: 194567, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 176, 210; SMH, 2 July 1945, p. 4, 29 Aug. 1945, p. 5; Liberal Party of Australia, Federal Secretariat, Records, MS 5000, boxes 177, 188, 204, NLA; Sir Robert Menzies Papers, MS 4936, box 415, folders 43–4, 46–49, NLA.

[3] SMH, 26 Aug. 1947, p. 5; A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, vol. 2, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 1999, p. 70; SMH, 3 July 1946, p. 10, 18 Dec. 1945, p. 5, 2 Nov. 1949, p. 1; Graeme Starr, The Liberal Party of Australia: A Documentary History, Drummond Heinemann, Richmond, Vic., 1980, pp. 112–13, 116, 120–4; Don Aitkin, The Colonel: A Political Biography of Sir Michael Bruxner, ANU Press, Canberra, 1969, pp. 251, 255.

[4] Gerard Henderson, Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia, rev. edn, Harper-Collins, Pymble, NSW, 1998, p. 71.

[5] Peter Howson, The Howson Diaries: The Life of Politics, ed. Don Aitkin, Viking Press, Ringwood, Vic., 1984, p. 149; CPD, 15 Mar. 1950, pp. 751–7.

[6] Frank Cain, Menzies in War and Peace, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1997, p. 50; Siobhan McHugh, The Snowy: The People Behind the Power, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, 1989, pp. 103, 105–6; Lionel Wigmore, Struggle for the Snowy: The Background of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, OUP, Melbourne, 1968, pp. 171–6, 187; CPD, 16 Apr. 1958, pp. 506–12, 8 May 1958, p. 919; Nancy Buttfield, assisted by June Donovan, Dame Nancy: The Autobiography of Dame Nancy Buttfield, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1992, pp. 121–2; CPD, 23 Sept. 1958, pp. 512–14; Sir William Hudson, Transcript of oral history interview with Mel Pratt, 1971, TRC 121/5, NLA, pp. 1:1/4–5; SMH, 16 Nov. 1953, p. 5.

[7] Speech by Senator Spooner at Island Bend Recreation Hall, 17 May 1954, M3759, 50, NAA; Press release, ‘Statement by the Prime Minister: Resignation of the Minister for National Development’, 2 June 1964, PM no. 39/1964, Spooner Papers held by D. Spooner; CPD, 27 Aug. 1958, pp. 270–1; Sir William Spooner, ‘The Developing North: The Commonwealth’s Increasing Role’, 25 May 1964, Biographical cutting file on William Spooner, NLA; B. R. Davidson and Susan Graham-Taylor, Lessons from the Ord, Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards, NSW, 1982, pp. 51–2; CPD, 25 Oct. 1961, pp. 1459–62.

[8] Typed notes on Liberal philosophy to encourage free enterprise, Spooner Papers held by D. Spooner; CPD, 18 Feb. 1959, p. 49, 28 Nov. 1957, pp. 1572–6, 12 Aug. 1959, pp. 45–7, 7 Sept. 1961, pp. 451–5, 14 May 1964, pp. 1163–6, 27 Aug. 1958, p. 274, 10 Aug. 1954, pp. 103–7; Bulletin (Syd.), 23 July 1966, pp. 18–19.

[9] CPD, 29 Nov. 1960, pp. 1807–12, 2 Dec. 1960, pp. 1965–7; Geoffrey Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia: The Middle Way, 1942–1988, vol. 5, OUP, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 93, 95; CPD, 13 Mar. 1958, pp. 171–2, 25 Aug. 1959, pp. 241–4, 17 Aug. 1960, pp. 40–6.

[10] Peter Tiver, ‘Liberals’ Ideas on Social Policy’, in Cameron Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism: Essays in Twentieth Century Political History, ANU Press, Canberra, 1979, pp. 320–1; Joint Government Policy Speech 1951 given by the Rt. Hon. R. G. Menzies, 3 April 1951, M2576, 3, NAA; CPD, 27 Apr. 1955, pp. 33–4, 7 June 1956, pp. 1303–7; Letter, Spooner to R. G. Menzies, 22 June 1954, M2576, 4, NAA; Martin, Robert Menzies, p. 155; SMH, 1 Sept. 1962, p. 1.

[11] Percy Spender, Politics and a Man, Collins, Sydney, 1972, p. 303; Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 109; Speech by Spooner at Island Bend, 17 May 1954, M3759, 50, NAA; Marian Simms, A Liberal Nation: The Liberal Party and Australian Politics, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982, pp. 58–60; Starr, The Liberal Party of Australia, pp. 173–4; SMH, 27 Sept. 1956, p. 3; CPD, 27 Sept. 1961, pp. 654–5, 681–2; Derek Drinkwater, ‘Rupert Loof: Clerk of the Senate and Man of Many Parts’, Papers in Parliament, Department of the Senate, Nov. 1996, pp. 109–11; J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edn, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, pp. 383–4; CPD, 12 May 1964, pp. 1067–88; Buttfield, Dame Nancy, p. 112; Nancy Buttfield, Transcript of oral history interview with Clyde Cameron, 1984, TRC 1688, NLA, p. 2:1/70.

[12] CPD, 11 Aug. 1964, p. 3; Press release, ‘Statement by the Prime Minister’, 2 June 1964; SMH, 15 July 1965, p. 5; Senate Registry File, A8161, S256, NAA; Correspondence relating to Spooner’s resignation, 1965, Spooner Papers held by D. Spooner; AFR (Syd.), 12 Feb. 1965, p. 8; SMH, 1 Jan. 1966, p. 1; Age (Melb), 15 July 1965, p. 3; SMH, 15 July 1966, p. 1, 19 July 1966, p. 5; CPD, 16 Aug. 1966 (R), p. 3.

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. 387-393.

SPOONER, Sir William Henry (1897–1966)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1950–65

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1958–64

Minister for Social Services, 1949–51

Minister for National Development, 1951–64

Leader of the Government in Senate, 1959–64

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1959–64