CARROLL, William (1872–1936)
Senator for Western Australia, 1926–36 (Australian Country Party)

William Carroll, wheat farmer, was one of a number of rural activists who helped to create the Country Party and who, by entering the federal Parliament in the 1920s and 1930s, changed the Australian political landscape. Born in the Western District of Victoria, at Garvoc, in the Shire of Warrnambool, on 3 January 1872, he was the son of Scottish-born James Carroll, and his wife Mary, née Larkin, from Ireland. Their third child, and the second son of eight surviving children, William attended the state school at Horsham in the district where his father farmed. James Carroll later became the secretary of Wimmera Shire, where Will first turned to farming. Will later recalled growing wheat in the Wimmera district and considering himself well paid when he received ‘2s. 6d or 2s. 8d a bushel’. When drought added to Victoria’s hard times, he went to Melbourne for employment, and on 30 March 1898 at 114 Park Street, West Brunswick, married, in accordance with the rites of the Presbyterian Church, Annie Jane Nicholson, the daughter of a military officer.[1] With a brother, Carroll took ship for Western Australia in May. Living first at Fremantle, he and his wife moved to Kalgoorlie where, in 1901, he found employment at the gold mines. He nearly lost his life at the Perseverance mine in 1903 when a rope snapped and he was buried in a vat of crushed ore.

A gentle, quietly spoken man of medium height, Carroll won respect for his probity as well as his good sense. ‘We all come into this world to find that everything in it is owned by others’, he observed. ‘We have to find a place for ourselves, and we do so without a great deal of friction.’ He was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1907. After a spell as a pole-cutting contractor, in 1910 Carroll purchased land at Tammin, a small wheat-belt town to the east of Northam. Makeshift living in tents was no bar to social gatherings. Local church services were held at the family lean-to, which also served for a time as temporary state school premises. After Carroll joined the Western Australian Primary Producers’ Association (PPA) and became active in rural politics, his farm was a centre for political meetings and, during World War I, for money-raising evenings for the Australian Comforts Fund.

While a member of the council of the PPA, Carroll unsuccessfully contested the Western Australian Legislative Assembly seat of Avon in 1917, standing as an independent Country Party representative. In 1922 he campaigned unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Senate. In the meantime drought had forced him into bankruptcy and the abandonment of farming, but he remained at the centre of Western Australia’s divided rural politics. Following the resignation from the Legislative Council of H. P. Colebatch Carroll was elected in a by-election for the seat of East Province on 11 August 1923, but was defeated at the general election in 1924. In November 1925, having acted as general secretary of the PPA in the interval, he captured a Senate seat. He thus became the Country Party’s first Western Australian senator, doubtless aided by the Bruce–Page Government’s federal pact between the Nationalist and Country parties, which did away with three-cornered contests. Carroll took up his seat on 1 July 1926. In September he was a delegate to the first meeting of the Australian Country Party Association, formed the previous March at a conference of which he had been a member. The ill health that dogged him was to prevent much travel back to Western Australia, causing him to settle with his family in Sydney some time after the Parliament’s move to Canberra in 1927. A fluent and effective speaker, Carroll was aided by a phenomenal memory. Like many of his colleagues he was familiar with a wide range of literature, but was credited with being able to ‘quote about half the Bible verbatim, and knew all of Shakespeare’. Both sources, as well as many lesser ones, made pertinent appearances in his speeches.[2]

Carroll’s political views were simply expressed and strongly defended. He frequently reminded the Senate that he had been elected on a platform of tariff reduction, and lost no opportunity to rail against what he perceived as excessive protection for manufacturing interests. Contrasting the lot of the manufacturer with that of the vulnerable agriculturalist, he referred to ‘a view privately held by a great number of people . . . that country people are a long-eared, patient lot of burden bearers’.[3]

An implacable defender of the maternity allowance, he had no such appreciation of any measure that he conceived interfered with personal or political responsibility. The Commonwealth Shipping Line he wished to see abandoned because of the impropriety of a government engaging in commercial competition with its own population. Depression measures he supported if they promised to preserve the national reputation, cut expenditure and meet obligations—Sir Otto Niemeyer’s approach was preferable to that of Jack Lang’s in New South Wales.[4]

His principal policy interest centred on upholding the wheat industry and in particular the Western Australian wheat industry. As the Scullin Government endeavoured to tie government assistance to the establishment of wheat pools, it faced a divided Senate. In July 1930 Carroll spoke against the Wheat Marketing Bill. He objected to the bill imposing financial responsibilities that could disadvantage Western Australia. He found a somewhat tenuous parallel to the Government’s proposal in the biblical story of ‘Prime Minister’ Joseph in Egypt ‘long, long ago’. When Senator Thompson intervened to ask what the ‘country party’ in Egypt had to say to Joseph, Carroll dryly replied: ‘The “country party” was foolish enough to be taken in by his proposals, but they deeply regretted their gullibility afterwards’. After an attempt to have the bill adjourned, Carroll, with his Western Australian colleague, Senator Johnston, ensured the bill’s defeat by voting against it. Carroll continued to take an active part in the tortuous debates on the wheat industry until a Wheat Bounty Act was passed in October 1931.[5]

Carroll was well versed in the history of Federation to which he often referred during the movement for secession in his state. Unlike Senator Johnston, he publicly rejected secession as a constructive answer to Western Australia’s problems, but when secessionists were attacked in Parliament as ‘rebels’, fiercely and cogently presented a justification for their position. Such fair dealing in controversy, and patent sense of justice—even over far less momentous issues—endeared him to his colleagues as much as the ‘wicked sense of humour’, which reputedly had ‘Senators from both sides in fits of laughter’.[6]

Carroll was a member of the Commonwealth delegation of the Empire Parliamentary Association that visited Canada in 1928. On his return he became a member of the Select Committee on Beam Wireless Messages from Australia to England, and the following year a member of the Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill. He was a temporary chairman of committees from February 1932 until May 1936. For a number of years he was the unofficial leader of the Country Party in the Senate, developing a reputation as a wise counsellor whose ‘tact, diplomacy and general understanding helped his colleagues out of many difficult situations’. Earle Page became a close friend, and family tradition has it that Carroll would have been offered a portfolio in the second Lyons ministry of 1934, had it not been obvious by then that his health was breaking down. Be that as it may, Carroll had provided Page with a close link, via the PPA, with grassroots politics in the West; perhaps his election to the Senate had been his reward.

Carroll, who had been returned for a second term in the Senate in 1931, died in office on 30 May 1936, at his Sydney home in Concord. He was survived by his wife, three sons, Donald, William and Robert, and a daughter, Marjorie. The personal tributes in both houses of the federal Parliament, paid with sincerity and affection, recognised a courageous man, ‘just and honorable in all his dealings’, but it was committed to record by the President of the Senate, Patrick Lynch, that ‘the better I knew him, the more I loved him’.[7]

Margaret Steven

[1] Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, pp. 332–5; West Australian (Perth), 1 June 1936, p. 6; CPD, 10 Nov. 1927, p. 1187.

[2] Kalgoorlie Miner, 13 May 1903, p. 4; CPD, 14 July 1926, p. 4100; Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, pp. 137–8; B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 286–7, 335; Earle Page, Truant Surgeon, ed. Ann Mozley, A & R, Sydney, 1963, pp. 172–3, 389–90; Australian Country Party Association, Minutes of First Meeting of Central Council, 30 Sept. 1926, Ellis Papers, MS 1006/31–1, NLA; CPD, 29 Sept. 1932, p. 925; Information from Carroll’s granddaughter, Dr E. Haydon, Waramanga, ACT, and from Carroll’s grandson, Mr R. Christison, Tammin, WA.

[3] CPD, 13 Dec. 1929, pp. 1274–5, 20 Mar. 1929, pp. 1514–15, 13 Mar. 1930, pp. 63–7, 18 Mar. 1927, pp. 663–6.

[4] CPD, 8 July 1931, pp. 3521–3, 29 Sept. 1932, p. 927, 10 Nov. 1927, p. 1184, 4 Dec. 1930, pp. 947–8, 15 July 1931, p. 3887, 24 Feb. 1932, pp. 192–6.

[5] Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929–1949, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1963, pp. 17–18; CPD, 2 July 1930, pp. 3506–18, 24 July 1930, p. 4551; Senate, Journals, 4 July 1930; CPD, 30 Apr. 1931, pp. 1464–5, 31 July 1931, pp. 4801–2, 23 Oct. 1931, pp. 1163–5, 30 Oct. 1931, pp. 1379–80.

[6] CPD, 7 June 1933, pp. 2136–41, 10 Sept. 1936, p. 4.

[7] CPD, 10 Sept. 1936, pp. 3–5, 13–14; B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 286–7; SMH, 2 June 1936, p. 8; Information from Dr Haydon.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 30-32.

CARROLL, William (1872–1936)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1926–36

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, East Province, 1923–24

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1929

Select Committee on Beam Wireless Messages from Australia to England, 1929

House Committee, 1929–36

Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, 1930