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Hill, Lionel Laughton (1881–1963)

by Ray Broomhill

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Lionel Laughton Hill (1881-1963), by Falk

Lionel Laughton Hill (1881-1963), by Falk

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4083

Lionel Laughton Hill (1881-1963), premier, was born on 14 May 1881 at Victoria Square, Adelaide, son of Thomas Henry Hill, farmer, and his wife Gertrude, née Hurst. He was educated until 12 at Maitland and at Adelaide public schools. 'Slogger' Hill played league football, representing the State, and also excelled at other sports. He worked first at a city chaff merchant's and then at the government's railway workshops. In 1901-14 Hill was secretary-treasurer of the Boilermakers' Assistants' Union; he attended business college at night to equip himself for white-collar work, and became secretary of the State branch of the Australian Tramway Employees' Association in 1910-24 and the union's federal president in 1912-24. On 18 April 1908 he had married Elma Evelyn Attrill, a dressmaker, in Holy Trinity Church.

In 1915 Hill entered the House of Assembly as the Labor member for East Torrens. Next year he became president of the Anti-Conscription Council. In 1917 he resigned his seat to contest unsuccessfully the Senate election, but next year won the State seat of Port Pirie. He was president of the party's State branch in 1917-18. Although a slow thinker and unimpressive orator, with the election of a Labor government in 1924 Hill became commissioner of public works, and minister of education and industry in John Gunn's ministry. When Gunn resigned in August 1926 Hill became premier, treasurer and minister of education. Little important legislation was passed. Next April the Liberals regained office under (Sir) Richard Butler.

In April 1930 Hill led Labor in a runaway electoral victory and became premier and treasurer again. Butler considered his defeat no bad thing. The Depression had already deepened dramatically and the government was in a parlous financial situation. Repayment of interest on overseas borrowings of the 1920s for public works absorbed nearly half the State's 1930-31 income. In such a situation Hill endorsed the deflationary economic approach of the visiting Bank of England adviser, Sir Otto Niemeyer. The subsequent Premiers' Plan of June 1931 involved reductions in government spending, public works and wages, and was opposed by most of the labour movement.

Hill was seen as having little grasp of economics. He was guided by leading Adelaide businessmen and Governor Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven rather than by party advisers. (Sir) Lloyd Dumas, editor of the Advertiser, (Sir) Walter Young and other businessmen accompanied him to the premiers' conferences of 1930 and 1931. Hill's alliance with Dumas dismayed the Labor Party.

Within six months of being elected the government was at loggerheads with the Trades and Labor Council and the party. Before the election Hill had promised 'Work for the Workless; Land for the Landless and Equitable Taxation for all', but now he seemed to many supporters to have little commitment to Labor principles.

The government staggered from crisis to crisis. Long-running unrest between the shipping companies and the Waterside Workers' Federation had resulted in 1929 in the introduction of volunteer labour backed by a citizens' militia. The Trades Hall urged Hill to remove the 'scabs'. Instead, in September 1930, he passed a Public Safety Preservation Act which gave the police extraordinary powers. On the advice of the commissioner of police, Brigadier Raymond Leane, Hill stated that the purpose was to 'smash Communism'.

Unemployment was rising, eventually to 35 per cent in 1932. The government had established the Unemployment Relief Council but the relief was meagre and administered as humiliating food ration tickets. Then, as a further economy, beef was removed from the rations and replaced by inferior mutton. This led to the largest demonstration of the Depression in Adelaide. The 'Beef Riot' of 9 January 1931 was a watershed in the deterioration of relations between the government and the unemployed, who marched to the Treasury to protest. Hill's refusal to see them ignited a battle between police and demonstrators.

As early as 10 July 1930 the A.L.P. State Council had carried a motion viewing with grave concern Hill's economic policy. Eventually in August 1931 it expelled him and his cabinet from the party for supporting the Premiers' Plan. Hill remained premier and leader of an unofficial Parliamentary Labor Party minority government, supported by the Opposition.

Hill and others attempted to form a 'national' government, a move endorsed by some Adelaide businessmen and by the national backers of the United Australia Party, who favoured having a former Labor premier leading a conservative coalition. Others within the two parties were sceptical: some of Hill's colleagues disliked associating with the Opposition, thereby removing any chance of returning to the A.L.P. The Liberal leaders, while ostensibly considering an alliance, despised Hill and believed they would win the following election with or without him.

The unofficial agreement between Hill and the newly formed Liberal and Country League, reached in August 1932, collapsed and the L.C.L. planned to run for the coming election alone. Meanwhile the government continued ineffectually. Hill was unable to arrange his pre-selection in Port Pirie, then Burra, then East Torrens, and also quarrelled with cabinet. So, on 8 February 1933, with his 'bullocking way of pushing through difficulties', he arranged to be appointed agent-general in London. He forced exceptionally generous financial terms upon cabinet, resigned the premiership on 13 February and departed for London. Robert Richards briefly succeeded him as premier.

In April the P.L.P. and A.L.P. fared badly in the election: Butler's return as premier began thirty-two years of L.C.L. government. On 10 April the auditor-general found that £1077 paid to Hill was 'not legally justified' and in the crown solicitor's opinion it was the government's 'constitutional duty' to recover it. The scandal exercised parliament until October: Hill repaid the money. Then complaints about his administration of the London office began. Hill was asked to resign and did so in August 1934, receiving £4300 compensation.

In 1935 Hill returned home, keen to re-enter politics for the L.C.L. In 1936-44, having been appointed by the Lyons government, he chaired in Sydney the Australian Capital Territory's Industrial Board at £552 a year. He subsequently conducted a business in Sydney until 1958 when he returned to Adelaide. In 1961 he was elected to the Kensington and Norwood council. Hill died on 19 March 1963, survived by his wife, daughter and son, and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £1785.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Dumas, The Story of a Full Life (Melb, 1969)
  • C. R. Broomhill, Unemployed Workers: A Social History of the Great Depression in Adelaide (Brisb, 1978)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1933, 1934
  • Today (Melbourne), 1 Dec 1932
  • University Studies in History, 4 (1963-64), no 2
  • Labour History, 1970, no 17 and 1976, no 31
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 Mar 1915, 13 Sept 1917, 19, 24 Aug 1926, 10 May 1933, 20 Mar 1963
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 Jan 1918, 8 Sept 1930, 15 Dec 1932
  • News (Adelaide), 7 Apr 1924
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Sept 1929, 23 Jan 1935
  • Mail (Adelaide), 25 Jan 1958
  • R. Pettman, Factionalism in the A.L.P.: A South Australian Case Study, 1930-33 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1967)
  • S. R. Whitford, An Autobiography (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Ray Broomhill, 'Hill, Lionel Laughton (1881–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/hill-lionel-laughton-6671/text11485, accessed 25 September 2017.

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