GIBBS, William Albion (1879–1944)
Senator for New South Wales, 1925 (Australian Labor Party)

The Commonwealth Parliamentary handbook’sphotograph of Senator Gibbs shows a dapper figure, replete with Homburg. Gibbs was selected by the New South Wales Parliament to fill the Senate casual vacancy created by the sudden death of John Power, who had been selected after the death of Allan McDougall. Gibbs’ tenure covered less than eight months—from 1 April to 13 November 1925. His departure was marked by acrimony in the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party and his career, though brief, reveals something of the factional struggles which convulsed the party in the period.

Like John Grant before him, Gibbs came to parliamentary prominence through the Labor Party machine. He was assistant state secretary of the Party from 1915 until his elevation to the Senate in 1925, and was a valued member of the AWU ascendancy at that time. From 1922 to 1923, he edited Labor News. His social background was unlikely for a Labor Party activist. Gibbs was born in Melbourne at Lillian Cottage, Station Street, on 5 July 1879, the son of Frederick Gibbs, ‘lime-keeper’ and later solicitor, and Mary Ann, née Martin. His parents were people of some substance, and he was educated at King’s College, Fitzroy.

He campaigned in the Boer War from 1901 to 1902 as a member of the Victorian Bushmen, but after returning to Australia drifted into mining work around Cobar, New South Wales, and thus into the labour movement. From 1911 to 1914, he was an organiser for the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of New South Wales. The job clearly had its hazards. The Association’s minute book for 1913 records the executive’s endorsement of ‘the action of Mr Gibbs in issuing summons for assault against Polkinghorne the manager of the Mt Boppy Mine’. Gibbs would soon volunteer for service in World War I, serving with the 2nd Battalion at Gallipoli and in Egypt before being invalided back to Sydney in 1916.

His organising skills in forming the Returned Soldiers’ No‑Conscription League of Australia won him election to the job of assistant secretary of the Labor Party, which he took soon after John Grant had left the general secretary’s position in 1915. Gibbs ran unsuccessfully for the state seats of Allowrie in 1917 and St George in 1920. His selection by the New South Wales Parliament for a Senate casual vacancy came unexpectedly when Power died in January 1925. Like Power, Gibbs was appointed on the basis that he would serve only the remainder of the term before the next election and that, as the Labor leader, J. T. Lang, said, he would ‘under no circumstances . . . be a candidate’ at the 1925 Senate election. Lang, however, strongly supported Gibbs for the casual vacancy, making much of Gibbs’ war service.

His selection, determined by the casting vote of the President of the Legislative Council, Labor’s Frederick Flowers, was a close thing as he initially received the same number of votes as that of his Nationalist rival, Josiah Thomas. Another rival was the Gallipoli veteran, Percy Phipps Abbott, who was mounting one of his crusades against casual vacancies being chosen from among those of the same party as the previous incumbent. The President gave as the first reason for his decision the fact that ‘Mr Gibbs is a returned soldier’. This led the Australian Worker to comment that ‘no doubt his soldiering record enticed the support of some capitalistic Jingoes who otherwise would have voted against him’.[1]

Gibbs’ period of service in the Senate was bound to be brief, though not without impact. He entered a depleted Caucus in which he was necessarily a minor figure. But in the Senate, he spoke often and sharply across a range of subjects. He berated the Government for the haste with which it was seeking to amend the Navigation Act in order to deal with industrial trouble on the waterfront. He supported the White Australia policy. He was in favour of the Government’s proposal to assist primary producers through the establishment of a rural credit branch of the Commonwealth Bank—a reform which, he pointed out, emanated from the ALP’s platform. However, he argued that the principle should be extended to all Australians.

Gibbs pressed the claims of the unemployed, particularly returned soldiers, and championed trade union solidarity—‘injury to one is injury to all’. He gave senators the benefit of his experience as a mining union official and in August 1925, during debate on the Peace Officers Bill, unsuccessfully moved an amendment which would have permitted peace officers to obtain search powers only under warrant of the High Court.[2]

Gibbs appears to have enjoyed being a senator, perhaps in part because the salary of £1000 more than doubled his previous earnings. In fact, he was so eager to retain his place in the Senate that in late 1925, he nominated for the Labor ticket even though places had already been determined. When a preselected candidate dropped out, he managed to secure nomination as an ALP candidate. This was a bold but perhaps foolish move, for he thus broke his promise to Lang. Lang unceremoniously commanded the state executive to withdraw Gibbs’ preselection, which it did. Gibbs, who was New South Wales delegate to the Federal Executive from 1922–26, returned briefly to the Labor office, but left the assistant secretary’s position a few months later. He stood unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives seat of Parkes in December 1931 as the ‘official Labor’ (anti-Lang) candidate.

Gibbs died on 17 August 1944 at his home in Belmore, Sydney, and was buried in the Roman Catholic Cemetery, Rookwood. His fellow members of the Gallipoli Legion of Anzacs were invited to attend the funeral. On 27 June 1906, at Cobar, he had married, with Roman Catholic rites, Ellen Blanche née Emery, who survived him, as did his two children, Frederick, and Marjorie.[3]

Geoffrey Hawker

 


[1] Bulletin (Sydney), 9 April 1925, p. 20; Labor Daily (Sydney), 17 December 1924, p. 4; AWU Records, N117/1468, minute book, 11 December 1913, Butlin Archives, ANU; NSWPD, 1 April 1925, pp. 136–147; Australian Worker (Sydney), 8 April 1925, p. 1.

[2] CPD, 15 July 1925, pp. 1020–1021, 16 July 1925, pp. 1062–1066, 3 September 1925, pp. 2147–2148, 16 July 1925, p. 1281, 20 August 1925, p. 1550, 17 July 1925, pp. 1307–1311, 31 August 1925, pp. 2048–2049.

[3] SMH, 9 October 1925, p. 12; Bulletin (Sydney), 9 April 1925, p. 20.

 

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. 72-74.

GIBBS William Albion (1879-1944)

National Library of Australia
nla.pic-an23419680-v

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1925

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1925