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William Patrick (Bill) Ashley (1881–1958)

by David Lee

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Patrick Ashley, n.d

William Patrick Ashley, n.d

Australian War Memorial

William Patrick (Bill) Ashley (1881-1958), politician, was born on 20 September 1881 at Singorambah, near Hay, New South Wales, son of James Ashley, a native-born overseer, and his Irish wife Julia, née O'Connell. Bill attended primary school at Hay and went to South Africa in May 1902 as a trooper in the 5th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse; the unit saw no action and returned in August. Having set up as a tobacconist at Lithgow, he married Theresa Ellen Maloney on 5 July 1921 in St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney. Ashley was the local organizer of Ben Chifley's unsuccessful campaign in 1925 to win the Federal seat of Macquarie for the Labor Party, and later served as an alderman and mayor of Lithgow.

In 1937 he entered the Senate as a member of Jack Lang's 'Four A's' team: these candidates had been nominated partly because their surnames would appear at the top of the ballot paper. Closely interested in the welfare of the State's coalminers, Ashley argued in parliament that Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies possessed ample powers to settle a dispute which had led the miners to strike in 1940. When Labor came to office on 7 October next year, Ashley joined John Curtin's government as postmaster-general and minister for information. Sponsoring the Australian broadcasting bill in 1942, Ashley endorsed the existing system by which a national broadcasting service (financed by listeners' licence-fees) competed with commercial radio stations. His administration of the troublesome information portfolio brought him into conflict with the Australian Broadcasting Commission and with the public relations sections of other departments. Acting in concert with Jack Beasley and Bert Evatt, he encouraged the A.B.C. to develop an independent news service and issued instructions that coverage be directed towards Australia and the South-West Pacific.

Following Curtin's decision to make Arthur Calwell minister for information, on 21 September 1943 Ashley became vice-president of the Executive Council. On 2 February 1945 he was appointed minister for supply and shipping: inter alia, the portfolio entailed responsibility for the matériel requirements of the armed forces, except munitions. After the 1946 election he had the additional duty of leading the government in the Senate. Prime Minister Chifley rearranged the ministry on 6 April 1948, giving Ashley the new Department of Shipping and Fuel: it entailed the supervision of shipping, stevedoring and associated industrial relations, of the production and distribution of coal, as well as of the import and allocation of liquid fuels and petroleum products.

Chifley relied on Ashley to resolve industrial disputes during the reconstruction of the stevedoring and coal industries. Ashley's intervention in mid-1948 averted a coalminers' strike; his efforts, however, in 1949 were less successful. In May he informed union representatives that the Commonwealth government would give financial support to a scheme for long-service leave. In June the miners were incensed to learn that government involvement amounted to nothing more than levying an excise on coal to fund a scheme which would be awarded by the Coal Industry Tribunal and which had the potential to involve industrial discipline. The issue contributed to the ensuing strike, the handling of which cost the government dearly. Ashley had implemented Chifley's policy of buying petrol from British oil companies to assist postwar economic recovery in Britain. When British suppliers could not meet Australia's needs, Ashley introduced the liquid fuel (rationing) bill in 1949. In the election campaign that year he challenged Opposition claims that rationing could have been avoided; despite his crusade, the government was defeated.

Ashley served as leader of the Opposition in the Senate in 1950-51 and remained a senator for the rest of his life. A member of Eddie Ward's left-wing faction, he supported the efforts of Chifley and Evatt in 1950 to shore up Labor's stand against the Communist Party dissolution bill. He favoured an internationalist foreign policy based on support for the United Nations. In the tumultuous years preceding the 1954-55 split in the Labor Party, he allied himself with Evatt against the right wing. Living at Coogee, Sydney, Ashley was a man of simple tastes and regular habits who set store by punctuality and was 'neatness itself in person and dress'. He died on 27 June 1958 in Sydney Hospital and, after a state funeral, was buried in Randwick cemetery; his wife and daughter survived him. Senators on both sides expressed admiration for his tough and combative style in debate and his unfailing sense of humour.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • G. C. Bolton, Dick Boyer (Canb, 1967)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • J. Hilvert, Blue Pencil Warriors (Brisb, 1984)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Syd, 1984)
  • T. Sheridan, Division of Labour (Melb, 1989)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1940, p 365, 1942, p 577, 1949, pp 1808, 1876
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate, Commonwealth), 1958, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 1958
  • Dedman papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

David Lee, 'Ashley, William Patrick (Bill) (1881–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Patrick Ashley, n.d

William Patrick Ashley, n.d

Australian War Memorial

Life Summary [details]


20 September, 1881
Singorambah, New South Wales, Australia


27 June, 1958 (aged 76)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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