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Sir George Foster Pearce (1870–1952)

by B. Beddie

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George Foster Pearce (1870-1952), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

George Foster Pearce (1870-1952), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23378971

Sir George Foster Pearce (1870-1952), politician, was born on 14 January 1870 at Mount Barker, South Australia, fifth of eleven children of English parents James Pearce, blacksmith, and his wife Jane, née Foster. Educated at Red Hill Public School, he left at 11. He obtained farm work which he found 'hard and unpleasant' and he so much disliked the drinking habits of his fellow workers that he remained a teetotaller throughout his life. Eventually he became a carpenter in Adelaide but, losing work in the depression of 1891, moved to Perth where he found a job in his trade. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and by 1893 was actively working in the Trades and Labor Council and in its Progressive Political League.

Pearce joined a prospecting party in 1893 and spent about a year on the goldfields, chiefly at Coolgardie. Returning to carpentry in Perth, he again became active in union affairs and Labor politics. On 23 April 1897 he married Eliza Maud Barrett (d.1947). By 1900 Pearce had risen to pre-eminence in the State labour movement and was campaigning for Federation. The second West Australian Trades' Union and Labor Congress in 1900 (which he chaired) resolved that two Labor candidates should contest election for the Senate. Pearce, a free trader, was selected by the Perth Trades and Labor Council and de Largie, a protectionist, by representatives of goldfields workers. Both were returned.

What were the qualities that enabled a formally uneducated and poor young man to achieve outstanding success in a State where he had arrived less than ten years before? He was not an original or brilliant thinker or a striking personality. But he was a solid man who inspired confidence; serious, industrious, orderly in his work, attentive to detail, trustworthy, moderate and ready to pay more than lip service to principle. Pearce's beliefs and allegiances were to change radically during his life; he was to move to the right of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, it was because the personal qualities of his youth persisted and developed that he was able to contribute as he did to the public life of the Commonwealth for almost half a century. He remained a senator for thirty-seven years, for twenty-five of which he served as a minister. Thereafter he held important advisory positions until 1947. He was appointed privy councillor (1921), an officer of the French Légion d'honneur (1924), and K.C.V.O. (1927).

During Pearce's early years in the Senate two major issues assume special importance in the light of his subsequent career. First, he was a convinced free trader in a period in which Australia was inevitably moving towards protection. He was eventually to accept office in highly protectionist governments and was often accused of having subordinated his principles to political expediency. In fact he struggled long and hard with the issue and when in government argued in cabinet against high-tariff policies. His reluctant compromise with protectionism was facilitated by his party's adoption of New Protection.

The second issue was defence and compulsory military training. When Pearce first entered the Senate he was, if anything, anti-militarist in outlook. Militarism, especially in the form of a standing army, he believed would impede social reform. In 1901 he criticized Joseph Chamberlain's imperialism and warned that Australia was in danger of being reduced to a mere 'component part of the British Empire'. In 1902, while expressing loyalty to the Empire, he spoke against sending more aid to Britain in South Africa and sacrificing 'our wealth producers to the god of war'. Nor did he see any danger of attack on Australia itself. It was Russia's defeat by Japan in 1905 that revolutionized Pearce's thinking on defence and converted him to the cause of compulsory training. He now maintained that Australia stood in danger of attack by the powerful and culturally hostile Japan, and that consequently strong naval and military defences and maintenance of close relations with Britain and the Empire were necessary.

When the Fisher Labor government took office in November 1908, Pearce had clearly qualified for ministerial rank. He had effectively represented the interest of his State (by for example pressing for the transcontinental railway), acquitted himself well in the Senate (having become chairman of committees in 1907), participated actively in Federal Labor Party conferences and advocated causes such as the nationalization of monopolies and introduction of a land tax. He had also taken a keen interest in defence and was appointed to that politically sensitive portfolio. Pearce was fortunate in that the Deakin government had already prepared the way towards an independent navy. He immediately won approval for three torpedo-boat destroyers, ordered in February 1909. Intense controversy followed, critics arguing that the decision should have awaited parliamentary approval; Pearce confidently asserted that the action had overwhelming public support. Fisher's refusal to yield to the popular demand that Australia give a dreadnought to Britain created a still more intense controversy. Pearce defended the decision by playing up the extreme threat to Australia posed by those having 'darker skins than Germans'. Specifically he was referring to the Japanese but, more generally, to the 'hordes of semi-barbarians' to the north. To survive, Australians, he argued, must speedily develop an independent navy, adopt compulsory military service, attract large-scale immigration, and encourage closer settlement by introducing a land tax that would break up large rural holdings.

Pearce again became minister for defence in the second Fisher government from April 1910. The Fusion government had already legislated for compulsory training and had accepted the British proposal that Australia should acquire its own navy in the form of a fleet unit which would be part of the Empire's Eastern Fleet. Following Kitchener's report of 1910 Pearce carried amendments to the Defence Act implementing and extending compulsory training and providing for a military college. He was responsible for the passage of Australia's first Naval Defence Act of 1910 which, inter alia, established a Naval Board and a naval college.

Pearce excelled in initiating and overseeing the highly complex arrangements designed to create a fighting force of 127,000 men by 1919-20. They involved new purchasing procedures, new camps, the solution of basic problems such as the acute shortage of officers and non-commissioned officers, and complex negotiations with Britain on naval matters. At the 1911 Imperial Conference in London he finalized detailed arrangements between the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy and took part in discussions on broad strategic policy. The experience of seeing aeroplanes in flight at Brooklands reinforced his belief in the importance of aviation and so contributed to his establishment of the Central Flying School at Point Cook, Victoria, in 1912. He returned to Australia, via Russia and Japan, convinced that war between Britain and Germany was inevitable and confirmed in his suspicion of Japan.

Pearce also had to grapple with serious political problems. The compulsory training of senior cadets, aged 13 to 18, was strongly resisted through failure to register, absenteeism, poor discipline, and protests and challenges from parents and those who opposed compulsion on political and religious grounds. By 1912 left-wing Labor members were accusing Pearce of having been corrupted by his association with militarists. When both Britain and Canada failed to make their promised contributions to a Pacific fleet in 1912-13 Pearce, distrustful of Japan, was deeply disturbed, though he in no way reassessed the strategic basis of Australian naval policy which, in effect, placed the R.A.N. under Admiralty control in time of war.

During World War I and its aftermath Pearce was, from September 1914 until December 1921, minister for defence in the five governments headed by Fisher and W. M. Hughes. He had many other responsibilities. Until February 1917 he was leader of the Senate and, after Fisher's resignation in 1915, in effect Hughes's second-in-command; for over seven months in 1916 he was acting prime minister; next to Hughes he was the chief advocate and planner of the two conscription campaigns; with Hughes he worked out the details of the walk-out that finally split the Labor Party on 14 November 1916; and he collaborated in Hughes's schemes for obtaining a National Party majority in the Senate early in 1917. Pearce's responsibility for the censorship of news brought him under constant attack from parliamentarians (State and Federal) and the press. His approach to censorship (and to other issues such as surveillance and the threat to use armed force against domestic dissidents) was probably no more liberal than that of Hughes. Nevertheless, striving as he always did for orderly and consistent procedures, he must have found Hughes's erratic interventions into censorship embarrassing and irritating.

That the Hughes-Pearce partnership succeeded is testament to Pearce's composure, self-restraint, patience and loyalty. Signs of strain can be first detected in an exchange of cables, mainly concerned with the conscription debate, towards the end of Hughes's stay in England in 1916; and in 1917 their relationship distinctly cooled. Nevertheless, despite Hughes's increasingly irascible behaviour and his interference in matters of military command in 1918, Pearce remained loyal and helpful to the end. When S. M. (Viscount) Bruce offered him a portfolio in his government in 1923, Pearce insisted on first consulting Hughes.

The most momentous events in Pearce's political life were the conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917. Though at first ready to concede that conscription was an evil necessitated by national survival, he gradually came to justify it in terms of democratic principle. Compulsory education, compulsory arbitration, compulsory military service he had long believed were compatible with and, indeed, essential to, democracy. In time of war when democracies were under threat of extinction, it was surely logical to add compulsory overseas service, implying equality of sacrifice. His failure to assess the mood of the public may be attributed in part to the fact that in Western Australia, where he led the campaigns, large majorities twice favoured conscription.

The administration of the Department of Defence in 1914-21 was an immense undertaking for which both public servants and service officers were quite unprepared, despite Pearce's groundwork. The recruitment, training and equipment of hundreds of thousands of personnel (both military and civilian) ran into innumerable difficulties. In 1917 criticism of defence administration became so widespread that the government set up a royal commission that found maladministration had indeed occurred, particularly in accounting procedures, lack of adequate recording, and deficiency in supply organization. Nevertheless, it generally commended the department's achievements under difficult circumstances. The press, however, preferred to emphasize the criticisms and for a time Pearce feared that he might be forced to resign.

Because Australian armed forces were under British command, Pearce had no direct responsibility for strategic policy or for the 'sharp end' of military operations. He was, however, responsible for the welfare, supply and reinforcement of overseas forces, and he had a major part in choosing senior officers. To keep abreast, he invited commanders of the Australian Imperial Force to write to him personally and confidentially. His letters to the commander of the A.I.F., General Sir William Birdwood testify to his quiet strength of character. He did not hesitate to disagree with Birdwood in matters having a distinct political content such as promotion of Australian officers to senior commands or the imposition of the death penalty. In purely military matters, however, he would express opinions but never try to dictate. Birdwood can be seen increasingly to fall under the spell of the prosaic but honest, direct and reliable minister.

When the war ended, repatriation of servicemen was a most urgent problem. Hughes was preoccupied with high policy and the peace negotiations, so Pearce was sent to London (with his family). Meanwhile the soldiers had taken over repatriation. On arrival late in March 1919 Pearce broadly approved the procedures of Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash and his team. Until September he worked with Monash in negotiating for shipping and in resolving complex financial arrangements with Britain, as well as acquiring surplus British defence equipment for the Australian services.

On his return to Australia, Pearce drew up ambitious schemes for post-war defence. However, he must soon have recognized that, for economic and other reasons, his own high hopes and those of the services would not be realized. He was probably also weary of the intrigues and splits within the National Party. In December 1921 he voluntarily accepted what seemed to many a demotion to minister for home and territories.

While still minister for defence he had been appointed to represent Australia on the Empire delegation at the Washington Disarmament Conference held between November 1921 and February 1922. The outcome of the conference served temporarily to allay Pearce's fear of Japan and he returned home confident that Australia would face no threat for at least ten years. His work in Washington was widely commended. Lord Balfour, leader of the delegation, later told Bruce that he regarded Pearce as 'the greatest natural statesman he had ever met'. As minister for home and territories in 1923-26, then vice-president of the Executive Council until 1929, Pearce was the only former Labor member to join the Bruce-Page government. He thought it was the best of any in which he served. Great mutual respect developed between Bruce and Pearce, who became the elder statesman in the government and the prime minister's confidant. Having lost the reformist ideals of his youth, Pearce was now happy to commit himself whole-heartedly to economic development within the framework of the Empire, and to the government's ideology of 'Men, Money and Markets'. He and Bruce shared attitudes towards industrial disruption and collaborated in working out new arbitration proposals with Attorney-General (Sir) John Latham; it was certainly Pearce who persuaded Bruce to force through the controversial transport workers' bill of 1928.

Pearce's duties as minister for home and territories included immigration and the development of Canberra, the Northern Territory, Papua and New Guinea. He attended to all these matters in his business-like and conscientious way, giving most time and energy to the Northern Territory. Even when he no longer had ministerial responsibility for it, he constantly suggested initiatives for its development. That none of his plans worked out was due partly to adverse times, partly to his own over-optimism.

Convinced that the Territory was no natural geographical unit, he was the driving force behind its division in 1926 into Northern and Central Australia. His ambitious scheme presupposed the co-operation of the governments of Western Australia and Queensland and the availability of large-scale British capital for pastoral investment. Neither of the conditions was attainable and the Scullin government re-established the Northern Territory as a single administrative unit in 1931. When again minister-in-charge of territories in 1934-37, Pearce once more vigorously explored schemes for development, but had to concede their impossibility in existing economic conditions.

As vice-president of the Executive Council, Pearce was responsible for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Development and Migration Commission. Believing strongly in a scientific approach to economic development he enjoyed supervising both bodies. He strove hard but unsuccessfully for the creation of an economic research bureau to co-ordinate their work with that of the Tariff Board and the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. C.S.I.R. flourished and Pearce followed with interest its development in the 1930s. The Development and Migration Commission was a casualty of the Depression.

From late 1929 Pearce was leader of the Opposition in the Senate and prominent in formulating tactics designed to obstruct and weaken the government without precipitating a double dissolution or alienating public opinion. His vast political experience, command of Senate procedure and thorough preparation of speeches put his leadership beyond question. The journalist W. Farmer Whyte remarked: 'He has the absolute confidence of members … he is a master of politics. No man can get up in the House and deliver a better speech on almost any subject that comes up'. Early in 1931 the Senate destroyed the government's economic legislation, including its crucial Commonwealth Bank bill. Pearce, who arranged for Sir Robert Gibson, chairman of the bank, to appear before the bar of the Senate, wrote to a friend in 1937 saying: 'I cherish my confidences with the late Sir Robert Gibson, and I am proud to know we were able to render each other material services of very great value to Australia'. When Pearce later received a letter from an economics graduate asserting that his actions in 1931 had been discredited by the writings of Keynes, he noted: '1 lb of fact is worth a ton of theory. Proof of pudding eating and Aus. took hard route 1ST country to recover'.

Pearce was minister for defence again in the United Australia Party government formed in January 1932. He had a degree of admiration for Prime Minister Lyons but rated him well below Bruce, while Lyons regarded Pearce as 'our Tory' but relied much upon his advice. In 1935, however, Pearce strongly hinted at resignation when Lyons refused to allow him to visit Britain.

The badly run-down defence services had to be cut still further in the 1932-33 budget, but improved economic conditions enabled Pearce to obtain an increase for 1933-34 and in September 1933 he outlined a programme of substantially increased defence. A three-year programme, initiated in 1934-35, helped to restore the defence vote to the 1920s level. During this ministry Pearce refused to clarify the strategic basis of Australian policy. In 1932 he followed a 'navalist' strategy which relegated the army and air force largely to defence against raids. Next year he appeared to return to the strategic basis of 1920 that envisaged a large wartime army for defence against invasion. When charged with inconsistency, he evaded discussion, probably feeling it was impossible to choose between opposed strategies, but army concern about such indecision was to continue and grow under Pearce's successors.

In March 1931 in an article for the West Australian Pearce had warned against underestimating the power of the secession movement and advocated the establishment of a new Inter-State Commission to hear the grievances of the smaller States. In 1933 the Lyons government did establish the Commonwealth Grants Commission—too late to avert the secessionist crisis, for in November 1932 the Western Australian government had legislated for a referendum on the issue. The anti-secessionists looked to Pearce for leadership at the national level, but his replies to excited letters and telegrams were inscrutable. In adopting a remote, distrustful and misleading attitude towards his followers in Western Australia, his main concern may have been to try to calm the situation. He may also have sensed that the secessionists would win the referendum but that, for constitutional and other reasons, Western Australia would remain in the Commonwealth.

Following the 1934 elections Pearce became minister for external affairs in the new U.A.P.-Country Party coalition where he was joined by his old colleague Hughes and the young (Sir) Robert Menzies who was later to rank him among the wisest cabinet ministers he had known. The deteriorating international situation was reflected in Pearce's significant administrative changes, several of which, however, he did not initiate himself. In 1935 the department was separated from the Prime Minister's and sought to enlarge its meagre staff. In 1937 (Sir) Keith Officer was appointed counsellor in the British Embassy in Washington—Australia's first cautious step towards diplomatic representation in foreign states. Pearce, however, strongly resisted pressures for the establishment of a legation in Washington.

He sought to satisfy growing demand for greater information about international affairs by publication of Current Notes on International Affairs and by making long statements in the Senate, obviously prepared in the department and usually by-passing hard issues. At this time Pearce displayed little incisiveness, though he strongly rejected suggestions that the Mandated Territory of New Guinea be returned to Germany. Perhaps the Lyons government's greatest miscalculation was its adoption in 1936 of the trade diversion policy, aimed against the United States of America and Japan. Pearce was aware of possible damaging, even dangerous, effects of the policy. Nevertheless he seems to have considered that anti-American feeling in the community was so strong that the experiment must be made, and he was himself under its spell. In 1938 he reversed his position, advocating closer relations with the U.S.A. and establishment of an Australian legation there.

In October 1937 Pearce was defeated for the Senate. The reasons were complex. In most States there was a marked swing to Labor in Senate voting. The secessionist campaign, his calculated decision not to campaign in Western Australia during the 1934 election and savage attacks on him by Senator E. B. Johnston for alleged failure to defend his State's interests all reduced his popularity. Finally, the Wheatgrowers' Union and the revived secessionist Dominion League concentrated their attack in the slogan, 'Put Pearce Last'.

Pearce wrote: 'My wife and I had always lived carefully and had never wasted our money on pleasure'. However, as he approached 70 he had to find new sources of income. His problems were overcome by appointment to directorships, the Commonwealth Grants Commission and, during World War II, the Board of Business Administration. On his retirement from the Grants Commission in 1944, its twelfth report referred to the 'inestimable value' of his contribution. Pearce seems to have believed that his work as a member, then as chairman (1940-47), of the B.B.A. was of much greater value. The board examined all expenditure of over £10,000 by the services, encouraged them to adopt common procedures and standards, carried out checks on surplus stocks, supervised the use of land and erection of buildings and investigated hospital requirements. It was an early, though neglected, experiment in tri-service rationalization; that service opposition gradually broke down was due in part to Pearce's administrative skill and his ready access to ministers. Though he was much less close to Curtin and Chifley than to Menzies, they respected his chairmanship of the board which he retained until its abolition in 1947.

Pearce's autobiography, Carpenter to Cabinet, substantially written in 1938-39, found no publisher until 1951. Unsystematic, anecdotal and thin in content, it consciously diverts attention from the high seriousness with which Pearce pursued his life's work, and so fails to do justice to his great contribution as a parliamentarian and administrator.

Pearce was above middle height, moustached, with expressive brown eyes. Essentially shy, he tended to be reserved in public but warm with a few friends. Calmness and orderliness were outstanding characteristics. Originally a Congregationalist, he often worshipped in Nonconformist churches and was free from sectarian prejudice. He was a pipe-smoker, addicted to bridge and enjoyed films, plays and golf. After election to the Senate, Pearce, at some political cost in Western Australia, lived mainly in Melbourne which continued to be his home after the opening of parliament in Canberra. In later life he enjoyed visits to the farm which he owned with a son at Tenterden, Western Australia.

Survived by two sons and two daughters, Pearce died on 24 June 1952 at home at Elwood, Melbourne, and was cremated after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Heydon, Quiet Decision (Melb, 1965), and for bibliography
  • C. Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne (Lond, 1965)
  • R. Hyslop, Australian Naval Administration, 1900-1939 (Melb, 1973)
  • N. Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23 (Syd, 1976)
  • S. J. Butlin, and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy, 1942-1945, vol 2 (Canb, 1977)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes vols 1-2 (Syd, 1964, 1979)
  • A. Powell, Far Country (Melb, 1982)
  • P. G. Edwards, Prime Ministers and Diplomats (Melb, 1983)
  • Quadrant, Mar 1986
  • Heydon papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Pearce papers (National Library of Australia and Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. Beddie, 'Pearce, Sir George Foster (1870–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

George Foster Pearce (1870-1952), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

George Foster Pearce (1870-1952), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23378971

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1870
Mount Barker, South Australia, Australia


24 June, 1952 (aged 82)
Elwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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