LAWRIE, Alexander Greig Ellis (1907–1978)
Senator for Queensland, 1965–75 (Australian Country Party; National Country Party)

Alexander Greig Ellis Lawrie (known as Ellis) was born at Lorn, near Maitland, New South Wales, on 19 June 1907, the son of Alexander Greig Lawrie, a grazier, and his wife Ilma, née Norrie. His great-grandparents, James and Jean Lawrie, had emigrated from Dunfermline, Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1850, under the aegis of Reverend J. D. Lang. Establishing a tobacco farm and manufactory at Halton on the Allyn River, north of Paterson in the Hunter Valley, Lawrie’s family took up a nearby grazing property, Bonnington Park, probably in the 1870s. This enterprise was sold in 1916, after a Queensland pastoral venture had proved most successful. Lawrie was educated at the Rockhampton Grammar School (1916–17) and, from 1918 to 1921, at Scots College, Sydney. At fourteen, he joined his father in developing Booralong, a property adjacent to another purchase, Evergreen, a 30 000-acre grazing property at Westwood, west of Rockhampton. It was here that large-scale clearing of brigalow, the eradication of prickly pear, ringbarking, pasture improvement, dry land cotton farming and the evolution of a Devon beef cattle stud would occur over the next sixty years.[1]

Lawrie’s political career broadly paralleled that of most, if not all, successful conservative country politicians. A member of the Fitzroy Shire Council for thirteen years, he served on the Rockhampton harbour and hospital boards. He joined the Australian Country Party in 1945, later chairing the Westwood branch. He was an executive member and vice-president of the Central Coastal Graziers’ Association of Queensland (CCGA), and chaired the CCGA’s Gogango branch from at least 1952 until 1965. Lawrie was also a councillor of the United Graziers’ Association of Queensland from 1956 to 1960.[2]

Working his way through Country Party ranks, he was chairman of the Callide electorate council and vice-president of the state branch of the party from 1956 to 1960. Between 1960 and 1964, at a time when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was consolidating his position prior to becoming premier of Queensland, Lawrie was state president of the Queensland Country Party, serving also as a member of the Federal Council, Federal Executive and the Queensland State Central Council, but never wielding the power and authority of his successor, Sir Robert Sparkes. Nevertheless, quasi-political experience gained during sterile negotiations to unite Queensland’s primary producers, involvement in Sir William Gunn’s wool marketing schemes, dairy industry restructuring, turmoil over beef cattle prices, Britain’s entry into the European Common Market and American agricultural protection, had all provided him with invaluable experience and information. Lawrie always took great interest in local, state, and federal preselection contests and was successfully elected to the Senate on 5 December 1964, the Country Party having previously engaged in considerable manoeuvring to ensure that he obtained the number two spot on the Liberal–Country Party Coalition ticket in Queensland, despite attempts by the Liberals to secure his demotion.[3]

In the Senate Lawrie seldom deviated from his principal preoccupations. Almost all of these, apart from his major commitment to the complete abolition of state and federal death duties, were infused with the need for further territorial occupation of northern Australia by Europeans. This, he believed, would prevent the invasion of the area by Asian forces spearheading the ‘onward march of Communism’. Paradoxically, the attitudes of this Cold War warrior were somewhat at odds with his support for the Asian Development Bank and for making fresh contacts with the emerging east Asian states. Lawrie also believed that ‘strong’ black communities would provide a barrier from invaders from the north and was favourably inclined towards Aboriginal ‘improvement’ along settlement lines.

Lawrie was a principal advocate of the economic growth of North Queensland at a time of unprecedented national development. The construction of beef roads, the continued regulation of the sugar industry, pasture improvement, mineral exploitation, bauxite mining at Weipa, Mount Isa expansion, the Gladstone alumina refinery, and the Blackwater and Moura black coal deposits all secured his advocacy, as did railway gauge standardisation, and telecommunication services. He was an active patron of the University College of Townsville (known as James Cook University from 1997) and, with considerable perspicacity, promoted North Queensland tourism.[4]

Margaret Elizabeth Hayes, a teacher at St Faith’s Church of England School, Yeppoon, who married Lawrie at the school’s chapel on 11 May 1939, became an influential organisational and cultural figure in her own right, as well as a skilled political partner. Her plea for country women to ‘foster an interest in politics’, to avoid a vacuum ‘filled by ideologies alien to our traditional standards of freedom and decency’, was reinforced by her position from 1957 to 1963 as secretary/treasurer of the women’s section of the Queensland Country Party and by her daughter Edith’s role as treasurer of the Young Country Party (YCP). Margaret had been a founder of the YCP, and served for its first five years as liaison officer. Her sponsorship of Aboriginal artist Joe Rootsey and her pioneering fieldwork resulted in her award-winning 1970 publication, Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait. Between 1965 and 1968 Margaret recorded and translated songs and stories for her publication. She acquired a working knowledge of two Torres Strait Island languages and commissioned illustrations by island artists. Her studies into Aboriginal language and culture confronted and softened endemic North Queensland racial attitudes and stereotypes. The Lawries were generous hosts at Evergreen, and travelled constantly to agricultural and pastoral shows, conferences, horse races and debutantes’ balls. As Ellis remarked in 1974: ‘In these days of changing customs a Debutante Ball is a little bit of old world pageant … they are, nevertheless, a sheer delight’.[5]

Some of Lawrie’s policies were ideologically mixed. He attempted to revive interest in E. G. Theodore’s old dream of a North Queensland steelworks processing Western Australian iron ore with Queensland black coal and limestone. He regarded potent weedkillers as essential ‘for the clearing and development of our lands’, as was superphosphate. More dams were also essential. The Fitzroy River, he considered, was ‘literally a river full of water which needs only to be pumped out’. While he supported the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Bill that would facilitate drilling for oil on the Great Barrier Reef, he was well aware of the damage that could be ‘caused by such pollution of the sea’. He was concerned with the plight of the institutionally handicapped, saw the need for Aboriginal people to become independent small business and farming proprietors on transferable freehold title, and supported humane family law.[6]

He maintained an unyielding determination to relieve propertied Australians of the need to pay death duties. Noting that rural prosperity had inflated land values, that small farmers as well as large were caught in an upwards spiral, and that they were asset rich but cash poor, Lawrie twice crossed the floor in 1970 and 1971, supporting amendments that sought to have the Government eliminate federal estate duties. Lawrie welcomed one of the last measures of the McMahon Government, the Estate Duty Assessment Bill 1972, which reduced federal duties by 25 per cent. ‘That’, he argued, ‘is the big leap forward. It will be of great help and provide a significant breakthrough for those who support the total abolition of death duties throughout Australia’. But it was as chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, which from 1972 to 1973 carried out a full enquiry into all aspects of estate and gift duties, that Lawrie made his most significant parliamentary contribution. When the committee’s report was completed in December 1973, Lawrie, Senator Cotton and Senator Margaret Guilfoyle submitted a dissenting report in which they recommended that both federal and state death taxes be abolished. After a series of reductions, the Fraser Government and Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen administration, followed by the remainder of the states, totally abolished death duties.[7]

So far as the extension of Commonwealth powers vis-à-vis the states were concerned, Lawrie was much less successful. With other Country Party members, he led a revolt against John Gorton’s offshore resources legislation on 20 May 1970. Arguing that the Senate ‘is a States House’, he opposed the Whitlam Government’s 1973 Seas and Submerged Lands Bill, arguing that Queensland alone had sovereignty over much of the Torres Strait and to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Lawrie was well aware that the Grants Commission Bill 1973 was a device to ‘short-circuit’ the states by providing Commonwealth grants to local authorities and regional instrumentalities. The resulting legislation challenged traditional power structures and created a plethora of centrally funded groups ranging from art centres to Aboriginal communities. With the rest of his Country Party colleagues, he also opposed the Labor Government’s decision not to renew the superphosphate bounty, the introduction of a change of national anthem from ‘God Save the Queen’ to ‘Advance Australia Fair’, the reduction of tariffs on imported foods, more frequent electoral redistributions and the reduction of the country quota for electorates. Above all, he stated, Labor’s measures were essentially pro-urban and anti-rural, with the central aim ‘to hasten the disintegration of our Federal system and to promote the domination of a centralist system from Canberra’.[8]

Lawrie was the sole Country Party member of the Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, which inquired into the mining, metals, share and market-rigging scandals of the minerals boom. His membership of the highly regarded Regulations and Ordinances Committee ended with his resignation on 19 August 1971, together with Senator Davidson, followed by Senator Withers on 15 September. These resignations were caused by the Senate’s disallowance, on the recommendation of the committee, of the Australian Capital Territory rules of evidence, a move the Government opposed. From 1970 to 1975 Lawrie served as a temporary chairman of committees.[9]

Afflicted by illness, Lawrie retired from the Senate in November 1975. In 1976 he was made a life member of the Queensland branch of the National Party of Australia. He died at Rockhampton on 13 December 1978. His wife survived him, as did their four children. Lawrie was buried privately in the Westwood Cemetery after a service at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Rockhampton. A Freemason, he was a member of three lodges as well as the Superior Progress Sovereign Rose Croix Lodge.

Lawrie was the quintessential Queensland grazier. A very large, fleshy, suntanned man with a ready smile, infectious laugh and rolling gait, he ate with gusto. Yet he was a very gentle and quiet man, loyal, tolerant and compassionate, one who ‘was prepared to debate the issue rather than the personalities’. As Ken Wriedt [q.v. Tas.] remarked: ‘I often heard it said around the chamber that the only way Ellis Lawrie could hurt anybody would be by sitting on him’. Yet his excellence as a North Queensland advocate and his service at the very heart of the Country Party should not obscure his invaluable services to property and capital displayed by his dogged and successful mission to eliminate Commonwealth and subsequently state death duties.[10]

D. B. Waterson

[1] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 24 Sept. 1892, p. 1; Author interview with James Scott Lawrie, Halton, 14 June 2002; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 4 Oct. 1945, p. 3; Maitland and Daily Mercury, 19 May 1916, p. 8; Queensland Country Life (Brisb.), 7 Apr. 1960, p. 2; Grace Johansen, Pioneers to Prosperity: A History of Fitzroy Shire 1853–2003, Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 2003, p. 45.

[2] The editor acknowledges the assistance of Pamela Adams, Fitzroy Shire Council; Rockhampton Harbour Board, Annual reports, 1959/60–1962/63; Queensland Country Life (Brisb.), 7 Apr. 1960, p. 2; A. G. Lawrie Papers, UQFL 200, box 15, Fryer Library, UQ; United Graziers’ Annual, 1952–65; Queensland Country Life (Brisb.), 10 Dec. 1964, p. 1.

[3] Countryman (Brisb.), June 1954, p. 4, Apr. 1956, p. 7, Apr. 1960, p. 3; Australian Country Party, Federal Council and Federal Executive minutes, 1961–64, Sir John McEwen Papers, MS 4654, boxes 72–3, NLA; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 21 Feb. 1964, p. 4; Lawrie Papers, UQFL 200, Fryer Library, UQ.

[4] CPD, 1 Sept. 1965, pp. 268–72, 30 Mar. 1966, pp. 348–9, 11 Mar. 1970, p. 207, 28 Feb. 1967, pp. 132–3, 31 Aug. 1967, pp. 411–12.

[5] Countryman (Brisb.), Oct. 1957, p. 5, Dec. 1957, p. 4; Queensland Country Life (Brisb.), 1 Aug. 1963, p. 25; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 17 Apr. 1958, p. 14; Countryman (Brisb.), Apr. 1958, p. 7; The author acknowledges the assistance of Dinah Johnson, UQP; Townsville Daily Bulletin, 22 May 1971, p. 2; Myths and Legends of Torres Strait, collected and translated by Margaret Lawrie, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1970, p. xix; Diary, 1974, Lawrie Papers, UQFL 200, Fryer Library, UQ.

[6] CPD, 30 Aug. 1967, pp. 394–5, 12 Apr. 1967, p. 746, 25 Aug. 1966, p. 140, 7 Nov. 1967, pp. 2248–50, 14 Nov. 1968, p. 2025, 11 Sept. 1968, pp. 547–8, 28 Nov. 1968, p. 2574, 19 Nov. 1974, p. 2528.

[7] CPD, 31 Aug. 1967, p. 411, 7 May 1970, pp. 1245–6, 14 May 1970, p. 1493, 18 May 1971, p. 1983, 11 Oct. 1972, pp. 1460–3; CPP, 287/1973, pp. 32–3; Willard H. Pedrick, ‘Oh, To Die Down Under!: Abolition of Death and Gift Duties in Australia’, Tax Lawyer, vol. 35, no. 1, 1981, pp. 115–17, 129.

[8] Queensland Times (Ipswich), 22 May 1970, p. 2; Peter Howson, The Howson Diaries: The Life of Politics, ed. Don Aitkin, Viking Press, Ringwood, Vic., 1984, p. 640; CPD, 30 May 1973, p. 2074, 6 June 1973, pp. 2392–3, 12 Mar. 1974, pp. 200, 202, 16 July 1974, pp. 162–4, 1 Oct. 1974, p. 1541.

[9] Australian (Syd.), 3 Apr. 1971, p. 5; Senate, Journals, 19 Aug. 1971, p. 653; CPD, 19 Aug. 1971, pp. 193–4.

[10] CPD, 20 Feb. 1979, pp. 2–5; Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 14 Dec. 1978, p. 1, 16 Dec. 1978, p. 1.

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. 338-342.

LAWRIE, Alexander Greig Ellis (1907–1978)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1965–75

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1965–71

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1965–71, 1974–75

Select Committee on Air Pollution, 1968–69

Estimates Committee B, 1970–73

Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, 1970–75

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1971–72

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1971–75

Estimates Committee A, 1972

Estimates Committee C, 1973–74

Publications Committee, 1973–75

Estimates Committee F, 1974–75

Estimates Committee E, 1975