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Plain, William (1868–1961)

by J. Whelen

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Plain (1868-1961), by Boz, 1917

William Plain (1868-1961), by Boz, 1917

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6456732

William Plain (1868-1961), farmer and politician, was born on 11 March 1868 in Peeblesshire, Scotland, eldest son of James Plain, ploughman, and his wife Christina, née Naismyth. Although an excellent scholar, at 13 William was put to work on the land when his parents could no longer afford to educate him. Nine years later he set out for Australia with a friend, arriving in Victoria in 1890.

Plain undertook fencing and clearing timber at Leongatha, sawmilling on Cape Otway, then harvesting and clearing scrub at Nhill. For eight years in the 1890s he was a struggling share-farmer on land owned by E. H. Lascelles at Jeparit and Hopetoun, supplementing his income by manual labour. Desperate for funds to finance a share-farming venture with a friend, he walked from Stawell to Geelong in search of work, sleeping under bridges on the way. There he worked briefly at a cement works until he could afford a passage to Perth, where he arrived with tenpence. Working on country railways and then on the goldfields at Southern Cross, he saved the money needed to sow the crop at Hopetoun and returned for the harvest, clear of debt.

Leaving farming, Plain contracted for minor public works in the Mallee. In 1902 he again rented land at Hopetoun and Willaura, and although both crops failed in the drought, he prospered from an agency at Willaura. While at Jeparit, Plain became known to the Menzies family, and met Anna Bertha Rosalia Wiederman whom he married with Methodist forms at Lake Hindmarsh on 6 April 1904.

Years of hardship convinced Plain that many share-farmers were treated little better than slaves, and from 1900 he began taking an interest in Victorian legislation to purchase private estates and subdivide them for farmers of small means. By 1904 he was chairman of the Wickliffe Road (Willaura) Land Resumption Association. As president of the Willaura Progress Association, he pressed for extension of closer settlement and in February 1907, with other Willaura share-farmers, applied successfully for an allotment on the new Lara Closer Settlement Estate.

In December 1908 Plain became Labor member of the Legislative Assembly for Geelong, and rapidly established himself as the party's chief spokesman on settlement and rural development policies, advocating particularly a land tax on large properties. As a member of a select committee, later a royal commission (1912-13), on the marketing, transportation and storage of grain, he observed farmers' problems during a time of rapid expansion and confusion in the administration of closer settlement after 1911. In December 1913, when the first Victorian Labor government took office for thirteen days under George Elmslie, Plain was minister of lands, water supply and agriculture. In opposition he was invited to join a royal commission on closer settlement in March 1914. In the next two years of gathering evidence, he urged repealing the compulsory residence requirement.

A supporter of the first conscription plebiscite, Plain became the first of three Victorian Labor parliamentarians to be expelled from the Political Labor Council. He then became secretary of the Referendum Campaign Council organizing the campaign in favour of conscription, and in September 1916 was expelled from the Parliamentary Labor Party. He continued to sit with them in opposition until March 1917 when he resigned his seat to contest the Senate for the Nationalists as a 'Britisher', convinced that he had been wrongly dismissed by a 'junta' of socialists sympathetic to the German war effort.

Embittered by his expulsion, Plain was present with Senator (Sir) George Pearce when Hughes formed the National Party in 1917, becoming its founding president as well as president of the Victorian division of the National Federation until September 1925. In later years he was known as the 'Father of the Federation'.

Until his defeat in the 1922 elections, Plain served as one of three Victorian Nationalist Senators, becoming temporary chairman of committees. With Hughes in decline, when S. M. (Viscount) Bruce asked Pearce to join the Bruce-Page government he sought Plain's advice and subsequently joined Bruce. Plain worked hard to secure electoral co-operation with the Victorian Country Party and Farmers' Union in the fight against Labor. He re-entered the Senate in 1925 on the death of Senator E. J. Russell, and from July 1926 to May 1932 was its chairman of committees. After the formation of the United Australia Party in 1931 he took little active part in parliamentary affairs. In 1937 he attended the coronation of King George VI and was defeated in the October elections.

Plain retired to his farm at Lara in 1938 and became a director of N.S.W. Associated Blue Metal Quarries Ltd (Sydney) and of the Union Investment Co. Ltd (Melbourne). In 1924 he had been elected foundation president of the Victorian Pipe Band Association, retaining that position until 1949. He was also chieftain for many years of the Comunn na Feinne Society, an organization devoted to Scottish culture. He died on 14 October 1961 at Geelong, survived by his wife, six sons and four daughters, and was buried in the Western cemetery, Geelong.

William Plain's political career anticipated and to some extent coincided with the emergence in Victoria, and throughout Australia, of the Country Party. Having committed himself to Labor before the Victorian Country Party became a political force, he found himself increasingly out of step with his more doctrinaire colleagues. He held Geelong for Labor largely on his personal following, while as a Senator he worked from the centre of the National Federation to keep Labor out of Federal government. By 1931, the Scullin government notwithstanding, his work was done.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • G. F. Pearce, Carpenter to Cabinet (Lond, 1951)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1909, p 2504, 1912, p 582
  • Geelong Advertiser, 27 July 1909, 28 Sept, 16 Nov 1916, 14, 25 Apr 1917, 16 Oct 1961
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1916, 27, 28 Mar 1917, 6 Dec 1922, 23 Sept 1925
  • J. D. Whelen, Families and Farms. Closer Settlement in Victoria, 1898-1918 (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1977).

Citation details

J. Whelen, 'Plain, William (1868–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/plain-william-8061/text14065, accessed 21 November 2017.

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