WEBSTER, James Joseph (1925–2022)
Senator for Victoria, 1964–80 (Australian Country Party; National Country Party)

James Joseph Webster was born on Flinders Island, Tasmania, on 14 June 1925, the youngest of three sons of Leslie Leeder Webster and Eileen Dorothy, née Thorne. Leslie Webster was a farmer, chairman of the local butter factory, Justice of the Peace and a shire councillor. In 1929 the family moved to Dunhelen, a farm at Greenvale near Melbourne, where they lived for many years. James was educated first at state schools and later at Caulfield Grammar School where he was a student at the outbreak of World War II. With two brothers at the war, he managed the family farm, and joined the Air Training Corps at Essendon, achieving air crew status. He took courses at the YMCA in Melbourne in salesmanship, public speaking and accountancy, going on to study accountancy at Melbourne Technical College. In 1950 he became an associate of the Federal Institute of Accountants.

After the war, James joined a firm of timber merchants, J. Turner & Sons, becoming a delegate to the Australian Timber Workers’ Union. Later he was a clerk in charge of a log mill in Orbost, and then worked as a tallyman on the Melbourne wharves, joining the Waterside Workers’ Federation. In 1948 Webster joined J. J. Webster Pty Ltd, a timber hardware and plumbing business founded by his grandfather in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. The company was a substantial enterprise and had built most of the sewerage and draining systems from Elsternwick to Beaumaris. In 1954 Webster became a director of Lords Holdings Limited, a wholesaler of hardware and builders’ supplies.

At the age of twenty-one Webster had become an elder of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria and a delegate to the Presbytery of Melbourne West. He was a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and, from 1962, a charter member of the Rotary Club of Caulfield. He was a member of the Board of the Victorian School for Deaf Children from 1954 to 1974. He served as President of the Board of General Purposes of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. Webster was also a member of the influential West Brighton Club, whose membership included R. G. Menzies.[1]

James’ father was a Country Party member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1944 to 1947. James himself became a member of the Young Country Party in 1940. Later he was junior vice-president and then senior vice-president of the Victorian branch of the Country Party and was its president in 1963 and 1964. He served on the party’s Federal Council from 1960 to 1964. Webster was an unsuccessful Country Party candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Broadmeadows at the state elections in 1955.[2]

On 9 December 1964, at a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament, Webster was chosen to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate occasioned by the death of the Country Party’s Senator Wade, and at the 1966 federal poll was elected to fill the remainder of the vacancy. He was re-elected in 1967. On 11 June 1970 Webster voted against the establishment of the legislative and general purpose and estimates committees. Despite this, he was an active backbencher, and became a member of a surprising number of these committees. Like many of his Country Party colleagues, his views were, in many respects, those of a rural socialist, views that seem at odds with his staunch belief in ‘free enterprise … with the minimum of control’, as articulated in his first speech on 19 May 1965. He favoured government support for irrigation projects, tax incentives for timber plantations, subsidies for rural industries including transport costs for the distribution of petroleum products, support for the tobacco industry, access to Commonwealth housing funds for rural dwellings and subsidies for drought-affected areas.[3]

Nowhere was this conflict between rural socialism and free enterprise more obvious than in Webster’s defence of the dairy industry and his attitude to the competing claims of the butter and margarine industries. In his speeches in Parliament and statements to the media, he did not hesitate to express his opinion as to how the margarine industry had sought ‘to break the Australian dairying industry’. The persistence of his attacks on ‘dubious advertising’ by some sections of the margarine industry caused the ALP’s Senator Milliner to refer to Webster as ‘the honourable senator for margarine’.[4]

Webster had already shown that his interests were broader than the politics of farming. He was a consistent supporter of the Australian film and television industries. In 1970 he made extensive and positive comments on the Australian Film Development Corporation Bill 1970, and the following year suggested that an assistant minister be appointed to the minister in charge of broadcasting and television. He supported the Labor Government’s establishment of the Film and Television School in 1973 and the Australian Film Commission in 1974. Webster was a frequent visitor to Papua New Guinea (PNG). As a member of the New Guinea Committee of the National YMCA, he played a leading part in the establishment of the YMCA in PNG. He had once sailed ‘a 50 foot yacht 3000 miles from Melbourne to Rabaul’, and had walked over a great deal of PNG and New Britain. He supported independence for PNG, but believed a sound economic base to be a prerequisite.[5]

Senator Webster was involved in two High Court cases. In 1974 the Senate, in which the Opposition had a majority, had twice rejected several bills passed by the House of Representatives. Acting on the advice of the Whitlam Government, the Governor-General dissolved the Senate and the House of Representatives, in accordance with the procedure specified in section 57 of the Constitution to resolve legislative deadlocks between the Senate and the House of Representatives, and a general election took place for both houses. When the deadlock persisted after the election, the Governor-General convened a joint sitting of both houses to vote together on the disputed bills. At this stage, Cormack and Webster sought an interlocutory injunction in the High Court to restrain the joint sitting from voting on the bills on the grounds that section 57 restricted a joint sitting to voting on one proposed law and did not contemplate a deadlock involving several bills passed on different occasions.

In a unanimous judgment the full High Court rejected the argument, in effect making it clear that the government of the day could accumulate a stockpile of bills that failed to pass in the Senate before proceeding to a double dissolution under the section. Another feature of the case was that five of the six judges observed that after the completion of the law-making process specified by section 57, the court could hold invalid any proposed law that had not fulfilled the requirements of the section.[6]

In March 1975 the Melbourne Age published an article and an editorial stating that the family company, J. J. Webster Pty Ltd, of which Webster was managing director, secretary, manager and a shareholder, had been awarded two government contracts for the supply of timber items. According to the newspaper, this was an apparent breach of section 44(v) of the Commonwealth Constitution, which disqualified from membership of the federal Parliament any person having direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Commonwealth Public Service. The offending member was also liable to heavy daily penalties under section 46 of the Constitution. The newspaper asserted that a breach of section 44(v) could occur inadvertently.

The allegation was brought to the notice of the Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, which in turn referred it to the Senate. Webster resisted a strong body of opinion that he should vacate his place, maintaining that he had not committed any breach of the Constitution. In the course of debate in the Senate he stated that if section 44 were to apply to his circumstances it called into question a whole range of contractual arrangements between members of Parliament and the Commonwealth Public Service. The Senate resolved to refer the matter to the High Court sitting as a Court of Disputed Returns. In a landmark decision Barwick CJ, sitting alone, held that Webster was not in breach of the Constitution. He pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, the purpose served by the constitutional provision was not to ensure that members of Parliament did not take advantage of their positions to obtain favours from the Crown. Instead it was to preserve the independence of Parliament from the Crown by preventing a government contractor being influenced by the Crown on other matters. The section applied only to executory agreements to be performed over a substantial period of time.

The Chief Justice held that the company did not have any standing or continuing agreement with the public service at the relevant time. It had on foot offers to the public service that amounted to no more than standing offers to supply goods which the public service might order on specified occasions. Only then did a binding agreement exist and it was fully performed when the goods were supplied. Such an agreement did not amount to an agreement which the section prohibited. Had the court decided that the constitutional clause applied to all categories of contracts with the Crown, for example tenancy agreements and accommodation arrangements, Senator Webster would not have been the only Commonwealth parliamentarian in breach of the Constitution.[7]

The High Court case was not the only threat to Webster’s political career. In 1973, with the Liberals ascendant in Victoria, Webster was placed in the precarious third place on the joint Liberal–Country Party ticket for the 1974 election. Nevertheless the elections following double dissolutions in 1974 and 1975, at which a lower quota of votes applied than for ordinary half-Senate elections, ensured that Webster would be returned. Elected Chairman of Committees in March 1974, Webster went on to serve as Acting President of the Senate in November/December 1974. He became leader of the National Country Party in the Senate in 1976.

In December 1975 Webster was appointed Minister for Science in the Fraser Government, continuing in the portfolio when it became Science and the Environment in December 1978. Webster encouraged Australian long-term involvement in the Antarctic and was a strong supporter of an agreement negotiated with the USA and New Zealand for a cooperative air transport system to Antarctica. He twice visited Australian bases and the South Pole. Webster Bay in the Australian territorial section of the Antarctic was named in his honour. He welcomed the restructuring of the CSIRO in 1979. As early as 1966, he had expressed an appreciation of the CSIRO and its benefits for rural industry.[8]

With Fraser’s support for environmental issues, Kakadu was declared a national park during Webster’s tenure of the science and environment portfolio, an act that had the strong support of Labor’s Senator Mulvihill, and whaling was banned in Australian waters. Webster assumed responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, whose principal function was to recommend areas within the Great Barrier Reef region for declaration as part of the marine park, an event that occurred when the ‘Capricornia Section’ was proclaimed in October 1979. The proclamation had been delayed earlier in the year by the intervention of the Minister for National Development, Liberal MHR Kevin Newman, on the matter of drilling for oil in the Great Barrier Reef. Newman’s actions had received considerable media attention in 1977 and 1978.

In May 1979 the Opposition managed to obtain correspondence between Webster and Newman, in which Newman suggested that it would be desirable if two drilling permits were processed before the Capricornia Section of the marine park was proclaimed. In the Senate two no confidence motions were moved against Webster. The Government was further embarrassed on 31 May when Webster and Newman gave ‘contradictory answers to identical questions in their respective chambers’ on whether or not proclamation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was delayed to allow for oil drilling. The issue was finally laid to rest by Fraser’s declaration, in the House of Representatives in June, of an indefinite ban on further exploration for petroleum in the Great Barrier Reef. Newman later explained in the House of Representatives that owing to a war-caused loss of hearing he had misunderstood the question from the outset. The incident caused a stir in Government ranks, with the National Country Party keen to protect Webster.

In September 1979 the Liberal Party’s state executive in Victoria put Webster third on the joint party ticket, which, as in 1973, would have placed his re-election prospects in jeopardy. In January 1980 Webster resigned from the Senate to become Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand, a post he occupied for some four years before resuming farming and business interests in Victoria.

In 1989 he and his wife, Jean Elizabeth, née Drake, whom he had married on 5 March 1957, were divorced. On 27 May 1993 he married Jeanette Edgeworth Hillis at St Michael’s Uniting Church, Melbourne. There were four sons of the first marriage.

Webster was a hard-working backbencher and a meticulous minister, reputed to have been in the habit of carrying a ten centimetre pile of briefing papers into the Senate. He adopted a businessman’s approach to the work of the Coalition Government, while remaining an astute Country Party politician, who spoke frequently for, and to, his electorate. As the Australian observed in 1979, Webster had survived ‘a lengthy court battle aimed at taking him out of the Senate, slipped into the ministry almost by chance, and resisted a number of Liberal Party demands that he be replaced’.[9]

Jack E. Richardson

[1] The editor acknowledges assistance received from the following institutions in Melbourne: Caulfield Grammar School, RMIT (Dessie Panayi), CPA Australia (Kerrie Ludekens), UMA, and the United Grand Lodge of Victoria; Countryman (Melb.), 15 Sept. 1966, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 25 June 1975, p. 14; Peter R. Murray and John C. Wells, From Sand, Swamp and Heath: A History of Caulfield, J. & D. Burrows for the City of Caulfield, Blackburn, Vic., 1980, p. 204; Victorian School for Deaf Children, Annual report, 1973–74.

[2] Countryman (Melb.), 28 Apr. 1960, p. 4, 4 May 1961, p. 2, 26 Apr. 1962, p. 2, 25 Apr. 1963, p. 2, 15 Apr. 1965, p. 5; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Meredith Dickie, State Director, The Nationals, Melbourne; CP, Federal Council minutes, 1960–64, Sir John McEwen Papers, MS 4654, boxes 71–2, NLA.

[3] VPD, 9 Dec. 1964, pp. 2488–91; CPD, 19 Aug. 1970, p. 108; Senate, Journals, 11 June 1970, p. 190; CPD, 8 Mar. 1973, pp. 299–301, 15 Mar. 1973, pp. 488, 490, 492, 19 May 1965, pp. 939–43, 20 May 1965, pp. 1026–8, 24 Nov. 1965, pp. 1783–7, 5 May 1966, pp. 829–31, 14 Mar. 1968, pp. 115–16.

[4] CPD, 9 May 1967, pp. 1248–9, 30 May 1969, pp. 1874–5, 16 June 1970, pp. 2485–90, 20 Aug. 1969, pp. 208–12, 22 Sept. 1970, p. 759.

[5] CPD, 24 May 1965, pp. 1143–7, 28 May 1969, pp. 1641–3, 5 June 1970, pp. 2109–14, 23 Feb. 1971, pp. 258–61, 28 Aug. 1973, pp. 224–5, 23 Oct. 1974, pp. 1879–83, 11 May 1972, p. 1599; The editor is indebted to Pete Newling, YMCA Australia; Australian (Syd.), 2 Dec. 1964, p. 4; CPD, 14 Mar. 1968, p. 116, 21 Feb. 1967, pp. 26–8, 5 Mar. 1970, pp. 119–20.

[6] Cormack and Another v. Cope and Others (1974) 3 ALR 419.

[7] Age (Melb.), 21 Mar. 1975, pp. 1, 3; CPP, 182/1975; CPD, 15 Apr. 1975, pp. 981–4, 22 Apr. 1975, p. 1223; Re Senator Webster (1975) 6 ALR 65.

[8] Brian Costar and Dennis Woodward, Country to National: Australian Rural Politics and Beyond, George Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1985, p. 101; CPD, 3 Dec. 1974, p. 2999; Senate, Journals, 17 Feb. 1976, p. 8; CPD, 9 Mar. 1977, pp. 50–1, 24 Aug. 1977, pp. 453–4; Press releases, Minister for Science, 14 Jan. 1977, 17 Aug. 1977, 10 Jan. 1978, 18 Jan. 1979, 11 May 1978, Webster file, CPL; CPD, 11 May 1978, pp. 1677–84, 21 Sept. 1978, pp. 820–4, 11 Oct. 1966, p. 904.

[9] CPD, 5 Apr. 1979, pp. 1408–9; Press releases, Minister for Science and the Environment, 18 Apr. 1979, 21 Oct. 1979, Webster file, CPL; CPD, 4 Apr. 1979, pp. 1309–10, 8 May 1979, pp. 1649–69, 24 May 1979, pp. 2058–79, 31 May 1979, p. 2413, 31 May 1979 (R), pp. 2710–11, 4 June 1979 (R), pp. 2839–40, 31 May 1979 (R), p. 2747; Australian (Syd.), ‘Weekend Magazine’, 22–23 Sept. 1979, p. 2.

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. 68-73.

WEBSTER, James Joseph (1925–)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Victoria, 1964–80

Minister for Science, 1975–78

Minister for Science and the Environment, 1978–79

Chairman of Committees, 1974–75

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1965–68, 1974–75

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1965–71

Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources, 1967–71

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1968–75

Estimates Committee E, 1970–73

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1971, 1971–73

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1971–72

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1971–73

Standing Committee on Social Environment, 1971–73

Estimates Committee D, 1972, 1974–75

Estimates Committee F, 1973–74

Joint Committee on the Northern Territory, 1973–74

Select Committee on Civil Rights of Migrant Australians, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1973–75

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1974–75

Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, 1974–75

Standing Orders Committee, 1974–80

Committee of Privileges, 1975

Estimates Committee A, 1975

Joint Standing Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1975