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Colbourne, William Regis (Bill) (1895–1979)

by David Clune

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Regis (Bill) Colbourne (1895-1979), political organizer, was born on 16 December 1895 at Ultimo, Sydney, eleventh of fourteen children of Irish-born parents Richard Colbourne, labourer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Dinan. Educated at St Benedict's convent school, Chippendale, Colbourne first worked as a commercial traveller. He followed family tradition by joining the Phillip branch of the Political Labor League (Labor Party), which his father had helped to found in the 1890s. The family moved to Petersham in the 1920s and Bill became secretary of the party's local branch. Rising rapidly, he became president of both the State and Federal electorate councils and a regular and active delegate at the party's annual conferences. He was a delegate to the Federal executive of the Australian Labor Party and conference in 1929-36.

In early years a stand-up comedian in travelling shows, he met Hyacinthe Mary Burgess, a violinist, when they shared a bill; they were married with Catholic rites in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 27 April 1936. When J. T. Lang split Labor in 1931, Colbourne had become secretary of the newly established New South Wales (Federal) branch. Faced with a lack of supporters and resources and even the threat of physical violence, he fought to keep the minority party alive. Following the achievement of a precarious unity in February 1936, a condition was that Colbourne be employed as an organizer. Lang reneged and Colbourne found himself out of a job. He finally found work as a life insurance agent. Establishing the Industrial Life Assurance Agents' Union, he was its first federal secretary in 1940-51. In 1952 he became a research officer with the Federated Ironworkers' Union and next year an industrial officer with the Federated Clerks' Union.

Regaining prominence in the A.L.P., Colbourne was an alderman on Leichhardt Municipal Council in 1941-44 and 1948-50 and became a member of the State executive in 1946. His strong anti-Communism and deeply held Catholic faith meant he supported the industrial groups. When they took control of the State branch in 1952, Colbourne became president and in 1954 salaried secretary. That year he was the unsuccessful industrial group ('grouper') candidate for federal secretary, instead becoming junior vice-president.

At the 1955 Federal conference Colbourne participated in the boycott by New South Wales delegates when the 'anti-grouper' Victorian delegation was admitted. Nevertheless, he took a moderate position in the subsequent split. His fundamental loyalties were to the A.L.P. more than to the groups and B. A. Santamaria's Catholic Social Studies Movement, and he adopted the pragmatic approach that the Federal executive would always triumph over any breakaway. Colbourne's personal experiences of the consequences of disunity also meant that he strongly opposed a new schism. His position was that a compromise could be reached that would enable the groups to preserve much of their existing power base by remaining within the party.

Colbourne accepted the decision of the Federal authorities to disband the New South Wales executive in June 1956. The 'stay in and fight' line largely prevailed and there was no major split in the State. He retained his position as State secretary when a new, 'balanced' executive was set up. It had an anti-group majority but moderates, centred on the party officers, held the balance of power. Although all the other office-holders were group opponents, Colbourne was soon working closely with his new colleagues to preserve the fragile consensus.

By the early 1960s former 'groupers' and anti-group moderates had merged into a controlling right faction, personified by the partnership of Colbourne and the Australian Workers' Union secretary C. T. Oliver, A.L.P. president since 1959. Colbourne astutely kept the right-wing unions in a supportive but not interventionist role. He was Federal president of the party for twelve months from July 1961, then reverted to senior vice-president until 1971. In April 1969 he retired as State secretary after a record term. In 1970 Colbourne thwarted the readmission of Lang to the A.L.P. but reluctantly relented the next year. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1977.

Of diminutive stature and unquestioned integrity, Colbourne was described by Graham Freudenberg as 'a sturdy, obstinate, perservering cock-sparrow of a man'. He had a dour and taciturn official manner but could be charming and amusing in private company. Although a teetotaller he was a keen punter. Colbourne suffered a heart attack and died during an A.L.P. life-membership presentation ceremony at Broken Hill on 19 November 1979. Predeceased by his wife and daughter and survived by two sons, both priests of the Franciscan Capuchin order, he was buried in Rookwood cemetery after a funeral at St Fiacre's Catholic Church, Leichhardt.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • J. Warhurst (ed), Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party (Syd, 1983)
  • B. Nairn, The ‘Big Fella’ (Melb, 1986)
  • G. Freudenberg, Cause for Power (Syd, 1991)
  • B. Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? (Syd, 2001)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 1952, p 1, 15 June 1971, p 1, 21 Nov 1979, p 12
  • biography of W. R. Colbourne (typescript, 1970, State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

David Clune, 'Colbourne, William Regis (Bill) (1895–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/colbourne-william-regis-bill-12848/text23195, accessed 23 November 2017.

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