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William Forgan (Bill) Smith (1887–1953)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Forgan (Bill) Smith (1887-1953), painter and decorator and premier, was born on 15 April 1887 at Mynefield House, near Invergowrie, Perthshire, Scotland, son of George Smith and his wife Mary, née Forgan. His father was chief gardener on the Brand family estate of Airlie Castle and there maintained his family of three sons and four daughters in moderate comfort. Bill was educated at Invergowrie and Queen's Park schools and later at Dunoon Grammar School. He successfully resisted his staunch Presbyterian father's wish for him to enter the ministry and declined an offer from relations to finance medical studies. Instead he took up an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator while attending Dunoon Grammar evening continuation classes.

An economic recession forced him to seek work in the Clydeside shipyards where he became acquainted with socialist politics. He joined the Scottish Labour Party, met Keir Hardie and was impressed by the oratory of the Scottish-Australian Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher who visited Scotland in 1911. Having been advised that a warm climate would aid his chronic bronchial condition, Bill decided to migrate to Queensland. He was sponsored by a cousin at Mackay, where he arrived on 30 November 1911, and worked as a painter and decorator. On 15 January 1913 he married a local farmer's daughter, Euphemia (Effie) Margaret Wilson, with Presbyterian forms.

Becoming involved in the political and social life of the town, Smith joined the Australian Workers' Union in 1913 and next year became president of the Mackay branch of the Workers' Political Organization and vice-president of the local Trades and Labor Council. He practised oratory in the School of Arts Debating Society, became chieftain of the Mackay Caledonian Society and called himself Forgan Smith.

Mackay was a non-Labor stronghold, represented by Walter Paget, secretary for railways, who decided not to contest the 1915 elections. Aided by the general swing to Labor, Forgan Smith won the seat he was to occupy continuously until his retirement in 1942. He arrived in Brisbane as a 'shy and diffident' 'baby of the house'. His maiden speech on 14 July was largely devoted to agricultural issues, particularly the sugar industry which was to remain a major concern throughout his public life. His rise from 'new chum' at 24 to parliamentary member in just over three years had been meteoric.

Forgan Smith was a regular delegate to the biennial Labor-in-Politics conventions and a member of the central political executive from 1916-18. In 1917 he served on the panel of temporary chairmen of committees and, with a group of Queensland politicians, was sent interstate to press the anti-conscription case because of his skill as a public speaker. Prime Minister Billy Hughes gained a lifelong enemy by telling a meeting at Bendigo, Victoria, that he believed 'a Mr Hogan Smith, an Irishman from Glasgow, has been down here talking Gaelic treason to you'. Elevated chairman of parliamentary committees in January 1920, on 16 December Forgan Smith joined the Theodore government as minister without portfolio assisting the premier, a post he held until promoted to the ministry of public works on 6 October 1922. His major contribution was the passage that year of the unemployed workers insurance bill, a variation of the bill savaged by the Legislative Council in 1919. Theodore was sceptical of his young minister's chances of guiding the legislation through caucus because it involved the imposition of a contributory tax on workers. Assisted by the moderate faction, Forgan Smith won the day and the insurance scheme came into operation on 1 March 1923.

He returned to the Queensland central executive in 1923 and belonged to its powerful inner executive committee in 1926-42, having been unanimously elected deputy leader of the parliamentary party in October 1925. Factionally he was closely aligned with the A.W.U.-led moderates. At this stage he played only a relatively minor role in federal party affairs, attending the 1927 conference.

Forgan Smith began one of the most important and formative stages of his career when he was made secretary for agriculture and stock in the Gillies government on 26 February 1925, a post he was to retain until Labor's defeat in 1929. His main objective as minister was to establish a system of orderly marketing for the State's all-important primary produce, carried out in the Primary Producers' Organisation and Marketing Act (1926). He followed the lead of earlier Labor ministers in his strong support for closer settlement and his suspicion of pastoral interests. Closer settlement was not without its detractors, and the British Economic Mission which visited Queensland in 1928 complained that it was harmful to the State's wool industry. The sugar industry, on the other hand, received most favourable treatment from him. Under the protective umbrella of the 1923 agreement between the Queensland and Federal governments, the industry expanded throughout the 1920s and helped to shield Queensland from the full blast of the Depression. His ruralist ideology may be neatly summarized in his oft-quoted comment of 1932: 'no matter how much secondary industries may be established in Queensland, this State will continue for all time to be a primary producing State … Primary production is the natural occupation of mankind'. As acting-premier Forgan Smith was required to handle the early stages of the divisive South Johnstone strike (1927), but Premier William McCormack's return from England saved him from taking tough action against the strikers.

By 1929 fourteen years of continuous government had sapped the Labor Party of its vigour and electoral appeal. As leaders, Gillies and McCormack had not proved themselves the equals of Tom Ryan and Theodore; the labour movement was beset with destructive factionalism; and the State's economy was stagnating. Non-Labor had staged a political revival under a united Country Progressive National Party and its new leader Arthur Moore. These factors produced an electoral landslide against Labor on 11 May 1929; the party conceded 16 seats (in a House of 72) and the government benches to the C.P.N.P. Two ministers and the Speaker were among those defeated, but while he lost 7 per cent of his 1926 vote (about the average State-wide swing), Forgan Smith easily retained Mackay with 58 per cent of the primary vote.

McCormack resigned the party leadership and in 1930 retired from parliament. At the caucus meeting of 27 May 1929 Forgan Smith defeated David Weir by 20 votes to 3 to become parliamentary leader and leader of the Opposition. The new leader's task was clear and formidable: to restore party unity and to reinstate Labor as the 'natural' government of Queensland. Queensland politics during the Depression were the obverse of those in most of the other States where Labor governments self-destructed with the economic collapse. In Queensland a non-Labor government disintegrated and Labor reaped the electoral benefits. The quality of party leadership was, however, one important factor in Labor's recovery and Forgan Smith showed that he was a better debater and parliamentary tactician than Premier Moore. By skilfully co-ordinating Labor's front-bench he successfully harassed the government.

Simultaneously he turned his attention to the internal affairs of the party and established an important, long-term political relationship with A.W.U. secretary and A.L.P. numbers' man Clarence Fallon. The Depression in Queensland was to extend the power of the A.W.U. within the party. This power was deftly and ruthlessly employed by Forgan Smith and Fallon to impose unity: radical elements were kept isolated and rendered impotent; a nascent Queensland Lang Labor faction was crushed; Labor's moderate, democratic socialism was confirmed. Out of government, Forgan Smith was not forced to make divisive economic decisions.

The inexperienced Moore government floundered in the worsening economic conditions. At the election on 11 June 1932, despite an unfavourable electoral redistribution, Labor won a four-seat majority in a reduced parliament of 62. Forgan Smith was elected party leader by acclamation and became premier, chief secretary and treasurer. The governor, Sir Leslie Wilson, who arrived in Queensland on polling day, became his astute and candid observer. He noted in a confidential letter to the secretary of the Dominions Office that 'Forgan Smith is a man of considerable ability—very clear minded and with a definite purpose. He will not accept dictation from his “caucus” and is master of them'.

A major cause of disunity in the labour movement during the Depression was the acceptance by Labor governments of the deflationary economic strategy known as the Premiers' Plan which was drawn up at a Premiers' Conference in 1931. The Moore government supported the plan and legislated for its provisions during a special sitting of parliament in June. Forgan Smith strongly criticized its deflationary elements, thereby avoiding, for the time being at least, conflict within the party.

The plan had been endorsed by all Australian governments and was eagerly prosecuted by the Lyons United Australia Party administration which replaced the Scullin Labor government in January 1932. Two weeks after his election as premier, Forgan Smith attended, as the sole Labor representative, a Premiers' Conference and Australian Loan Council meeting in Canberra, dominated by supporters of the plan. If he maintained his position of totally rejecting the plan, he risked putting Queensland in financial jeopardy as regards loans and Commonwealth government payments; yet if he was seen to support it he risked provoking severe dissension within his party. Shrewd pragmatism resolved the dilemma. When Lyons put forward a motion specifically endorsing the Premiers' Plan, Forgan Smith spoke against it and, with the support of the New South Wales premier, (Sir) Bertram Stevens, moved a carefully worded amendment which, while avoiding any reference to the plan, committed the governments to progressive budget reductions and to the revival of industry. By the time the conference adjourned to Sydney, Forgan Smith's amendment had gained sufficient official and press support to have its fundamentals adopted in place of Lyons's original motion.

Returning to Queensland in triumph, Forgan Smith was hailed by Labor as the man who had redirected Australia's economic policy singlehandedly. His victory launched his premiership on a high note. The primary task facing the new government was to revive industry and reduce unemployment. Forgan Smith continued, in an amended form, Moore's intermittent unemployment relief schemes but also embarked on an ambitious public works programme. While he helped to convince the Commonwealth to float an £18 million national recovery loan in 1933 for public works in the States, the influence of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia meant that Queensland could expect little financial assistance from Federal sources.

Undeterred, the premier financed his public works schemes from consolidated revenue, relief funds and loans from institutions such as the Australian Mutual Provident Society. Major public works initiated during Forgan Smith's premiership were the Story Bridge over the Brisbane River, the Somerset Dam, the Mackay Outer Harbour, the Hornibrook Highway and the re-siting of the university at St Lucia. The trade unions generally supported the government's public works programmes but were less impressed with the second element of the premier's recovery policy which involved the control of money wages. During the 1932 election campaign Labor had promised to restore the basic wage after the deep cuts that were introduced during Moore's government; yet it remained at its depressed level until the 1937-38 financial year.

Forgan Smith's recovery policy was influenced by Professor James Brigden who had been brought to Queensland by Moore in 1929 to establish a Bureau of Economics and Statistics. Brigden had made enemies in the labour movement because of his deflationist ideas and, before becoming premier, Forgan Smith intimated that he would sack him and dissolve the bureau, which he called 'this imposition on industry'. After the election Forgan Smith displayed characteristic flexibility by retaining Brigden (who had qualified his earlier endorsement of the Premiers' Plan) and restructuring the bureau as the Bureau of Industry. It was given co-ordinating authority over the public works programme and later empowered as a constructing authority. Brigden and Forgan Smith developed a productive if sometimes strained working relationship and the premier was peeved when the Commonwealth Government lured Brigden from Queensland in 1938 to chair the National Insurance Commission. Brigden was replaced by the ruralist economist, Colin Clark.

Despite Brigden's contribution, the motivating force behind the Labor government's recovery policy was the premier's belief that well-planned public expenditure would solve the problem of unemployment. His almost single-minded dedication to a vigorous public works programme was, however, not without its costs. High-level taxation, slow recovery in wages and diversion of funds from other public services were unfortunate by-products of the public works programme. Nevertheless the policy achieved its objective. In marked contrast to most of the intermittent relief work, which tended to be non-productive, the projects undertaken were of lasting value to the State.

One long-term effect of Forgan Smith's premiership was to confirm the primary sector as the key component of the Queensland economy. Blinded by its ruralist ideology when it pursued some wasteful agricultural policies and neglected the development of secondary industry, the government ignored statistics which showed that secondary industry had a greater capacity to absorb labour than did the primary sector. When his attention was drawn in 1938 to the contrasting manufacturing policies of the South Australian government, Forgan Smith angrily brushed them aside with the comment that Queensland had 'the highest wage system, the best conditions of labour and the lowest unemployment' in Australia. In contrast to his at times extreme ruralism, his socialism was forever mild. He asserted that 'Socialism does not aim at the destruction of private property, on the contrary demands that all shall have an equal right to property'.

The Premier displayed himself as a wide, if somewhat indiscriminate, reader who regularly quoted authors such as Aristotle, Dryden and Maynard Keynes in his public addresses. His 1939 description of Nazi ideology as 'Nietzschean in character' was atypical of contemporary Queensland political rhetoric. He was a vehement anti-communist who constantly warned Labor of the disruptive potential of radical, left-wing elements and kept the more militant unemployed groups under close police supervision. As a young back-bencher he had supported the establishment of state enterprises. As premier he did not seek to revive those that had collapsed or had been wound up by the Moore government, but preferred to utilize regulatory bodies such as the Bureau of Industry, the Fish Board and the Central Coal Board. One of Forgan Smith's few forays into practical state socialism was the 1937 establishment of the State Electricity Commission which monopolized the Queensland electricity-supply industry.

Forgan Smith was fortunate in becoming premier in 1932. The next three years saw a marked improvement in the economic situation for which his government could claim some of the credit. Queensland's electors were obviously impressed for Labor inflicted a crushing defeat on the C.P.N.P. at the May 1935 elections. With the premier's enhanced political standing and the disintegration of the C.P.N.P. in 1936, the Forgan Smith-Fallon alliance developed into a highly efficient machine; A.W.U. influence was substantial within all sections of the party, which remained divided into a dominant moderate and a radical faction. Forgan Smith's method of preserving unity was to insist on loyalty to himself and to employ the procedures of the party to neutralize or remove dissident elements. No one was surprised when Labor won the 1938 election with only a slightly reduced majority.

Although authoritarian, Forgan Smith was shrewd enough not to become an isolated autocrat. He appreciated and used the power of the A.W.U.-led elite, while consulting with key figures in the party. His 1939 comment that in the cabinet and 'in the councils of the party room we have no Hallelujah chorus and no mutual admiration society' did not, however, accord with reality. His cabinets, which were dominated by country members, Catholics and A.W.U. graduates, were loyal and even sycophantic. Ministers dutifully formed guards of honour at South Brisbane railway station to farewell and welcome home their premier from his regular interstate trips. Cabinet stability was another hallmark of his premiership: only six changes of personnel occurred in 1932-42. His leadership was never challenged; he used his authority to exclude from cabinet the ambitious Vince Gair and unnecessarily humiliated the septuagenarian Randolph Bedford.

Radical dissidents such as Frank Waters, George Taylor, George Marriott and Tom Aikens paid for their temerity with expulsion from the party. A more serious challenge to Labor unity came from the Protestant Labor Party, which was formed in 1937 and accused the Forgan Smith government of being under the influence of the Catholic Church. The premier had been raised a Presbyterian but became disillusioned with formal religion in his youth. Yet he became a close associate of Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig and his cabinet contained a disproportionate number of Catholics. Protestant Labor fielded twenty-three candidates at the 1938 State election and polled particularly well in Brisbane, where its leader G. A. Morris won a seat. Forgan Smith's reputation for political invincibility was somewhat dented by his incapacity to defuse the sectarian challenge. The Protestant Labor Party split in 1939 and had collapsed by the 1941 election.

Throughout his premiership Forgan Smith displayed a personal concern with the development of the University of Queensland. He encouraged its relocation and sponsored new faculties such as medicine, veterinary science, agriculture and physical education. However, despite his honorary doctorate of laws in 1935, relations between him and the university senate were often acrimonious, especially over funding. At the opening of the medical school in 1939 he expressed a typically utilitarian view: 'a university is not established for the purpose of creating a privileged class in the community … a university can only play its part properly in the life of a nation if the period spent there is regarded as a period of training for greater and specialized service'.

Relations between the university and the premier slumped to a low ebb in 1941 with the passage of legislation which placed government nominees in a majority of the Senate. Forgan Smith was curtly dismissive of the flood of protest. Not surprisingly his appointment to the senate in 1943 was not received at the university with unalloyed enthusiasm. Yet he was made chancellor in 1944 (and remained so until his death). In a reversal of attitude that amazed many, he then became one of the university's most dedicated supporters. The main arts building at St Lucia is named in his honour.

The premier denied rumours after 1935 that he would enter Federal politics, assume a leadership position or, in 1936, become Queensland's next governor. Although tempted by Federal politics he did not wish to exchange his position as head of the State government for a place in the divided and dispirited Federal Opposition.

But the rumours continued and intensified after his fourth consecutive election victory in 1941. As the war situation worsened there was regular media speculation that he would accept a senior national position related to the war effort. Arthur Calwell fanned such speculation by publicly complaining in May 1942 that Forgan Smith and not Sir Owen Dixon should have been sent as Australian minister to the United States of America. By then Forgan Smith was becoming decidedly equivocal in his attitude to remaining premier. In January, in an obvious kite-flying exercise, he announced that he was prepared to serve the Curtin government in any capacity without either portfolio or salary. Yet by mid-year he was again declaring his determination to remain premier. It came as a bombshell when on 9 September he announced to a caucus meeting that he had informed cabinet the previous day of his intention to resign as premier forthwith, and then resisted strong entreaties to reconsider. Rumours again flared that he would take a Federal position, perhaps as high commissioner in London. In fact he remained in the succeeding Cooper cabinet as minister without portfolio until 9 December, when he resigned his seat to take up the posts of deputy chairman of the Sugar Board (chairman from July 1944) and chairman of the Central Sugar Cane Prices Board (till 1952). The latter position was more highly paid than the premier's.

Although he suffered from duodenal ulcers and his 'bronchitis' was, by the early 1940s, diagnosed as cancer of the larynx, Forgan Smith's relatively early retirement from government was more directly influenced by the High Court of Australia's upholding of the uniform tax Acts of 1942, which he believed would reduce the States to a condition of penurious dependence on the Federal government. He had become concerned at the drift of relations with the Commonwealth as early as 1932 when the Garnishee cases highlighted the centralist potential of the Loan Council, which he had welcomed as acting premier in 1927 but which he angrily denounced in 1933 as 'an extra-constitutional authority not responsible to any one parliament'. He reacted to the Curtin government's 1942 tax proposals with unrestrained hostility, describing them in a major parliamentary speech on 15 October as 'a superb basis for setting up fascism'. Queensland joined with Victoria and South Australia in an unsuccessful High Court challenge to the legislation. Forgan Smith left the premiership primarily because 'I would rather go out of public life than be someone else's vassal'.

By the date of his retirement he was Queensland's longest serving premier. His major contribution to the Labor party was in restoring the unity which had been fractured under McCormack and leading the party back to office in 1932. The voting statistics show that he regained and even surpassed the popularity of the Ryan and Theodore governments and that after his retirement the Labor vote declined so much that, as premier, Edward Hanlon was required to resort to creative electoral engineering to ensure victory at the 1950 election. It was in the policy areas of agriculture (particularly sugar) and public works that Forgan Smith made his mark. Left-wing critics charged him with leading a 'do nothing' government and were impatient with what they saw as his over-cautious economic policies. Ironically he partly agreed with them, confiding to family and friends that being in office during depressed economic circumstances prevented him from implementing a broader policy of social reform.

Forgan Smith's family recall him as being warm, humorous and unpretentious, whereas his public persona was one of dour sternness, dogmatism and arrogance. His intermittent heavy drinking became serious enough in 1935 for the governor to raise it with the Dominions Office. Forgan Smith cultivated a certain aloofness to impress his authority on his colleagues and to project an image of strength to the voters. His double-barrelled name, his exaggerated Scottish accent and his overall demeanour were image-building devices. In 1934 he privately lobbied the Dominions Office to secure a privy councillorship but had to be content with King George VI's permission to retain the title Honourable after his retirement as premier. After 1935 he vainly added LL.D. after his signature on newspaper articles and would have preferred to have been addressed as Dr Forgan Smith. While not a relaxed radio performer, he nevertheless disciplined himself to become a competent broadcaster.

Throughout most of his public life Forgan Smith lived in the Brisbane suburb of Yeronga. He was a keen golfer, lawn bowler and angler as well as an avid cricket fan. He died suddenly of a heart condition induced by his throat cancer on 25 September 1953 while in Sydney on Sugar Board business. A state funeral was conducted at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church and at Toowong cemetery. His wife (d.1958) and a son survived him; his elder son had died in 1951. A plaque of Forgan Smith by Daphne Mayo is held by the University of Queensland and there is a bust in Parliament House, Brisbane. He left estate valued for probate at £25,527.

Select Bibliography

  • L. R. MacGregor, British Imperialism (NY, 1968)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits, 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • R. Fitzgerald, A History of Queensland from 1915 to the 1980s (Brisb, 1985)
  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light and Learning (Brisb, 1985)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 29 Sept 1953, p 485
  • University of Queensland Gazette, Nov 1953, p 4
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 26, 29 Sept 1953
  • B. Carroll, The Premiership of William Forgan Smith (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • B. J. Costar, Labor, Politics and Unemployment: Queensland During the Great Depression (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1981)
  • Premier's Department, correspondence, 1929-40, PRE/A977-1255 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Forgan Smith, addresses and newsclippings, 1924-53 (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Smith, William Forgan (Bill) (1887–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Forgan Smith, William

15 April, 1887
Invergowrie, Perthshire, Scotland


25 September, 1953 (aged 66)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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