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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McWilliams, William James (1856–1929)

by W. A. Neilson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William James McWilliams (1856-1929), journalist and politician, was born on 12 October 1856 at Bream Creek, near Sorell, Tasmania, youngest son of Thomas Cole McWilliams and his wife Eliza, both Irish born. Although officially recorded as a Church of England farm labourer, Thomas was a bounty immigrant of 1855 who with his wife was recruited to take charge of the Franklin school. Trained for the teaching profession, William at 20 became a journalist on the Tasmanian Mail, then joined the Examiner as parliamentary reporter. On 19 October 1893 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne, he married a widow Josephine Fullerton, née Hardy.

At 27 McWilliams was editor of the relatively radical Launceston Telegraph, advocating unimproved land taxes and reduced custom duties. Elected to the House of Assembly for the northern rural seat of Ringarooma in December 1893, he supported Sir Edward Braddon at the 1897 election but became a member of the 'Corner Group', which opposed the encroachment by the Legislative Council on the rights of the assembly.

McWilliams always had a ready appreciation of the needs of his constituents, particularly those in rural areas, such as a water-supply for Scottsdale and a railway extension to Ringarooma. He was a member of select committees on railway issues and unemployment, a possible sugar-beet industry, a meteorological bureau and the 1896 education bill. McWilliams advocated voting and electoral reforms, including universal suffrage, opposed legalization of Tattersalls, and introduced unsuccessful bills for a referendum of women on their franchise and to limit salaries of all government employees except judges, ministers and the governor, to £500 annually. He argued against Federation as premature, resisted any suggestion of the Commonwealth having power to affect the appointment of State governors, and raised other constitutional issues concerning royal assent.

On 4 May 1897 McWilliams and T. Ryan convened a meeting at which the Southern Tasmanian Football Association (Australian Rules) was formed. By adopting new rules following those of the newly formed Victorian Football League (eighteen men to a team and six points for a goal), the meeting ensured the survival of the game in Tasmania as part of the national code.

Having bought the Hobart evening Tasmanian News in 1896, McWilliams abandoned Ringarooma for Glenorchy in 1900 but was defeated. However, he won the Federal seat of Franklin in 1903 and, three times unopposed, held it until defeated in 1922. In the early Commonwealth parliaments he opposed Federal expenditures: establishment of the High Court of Australia, the Transcontinental Railway, a Federal department of agriculture, the Inter-state Commission, 'the capital in the bush' and acquisition of the Northern Territory. Described as a 'geographical protectionist' because he supported the Free Trade group in the early parliaments, McWilliams was particularly active on behalf of the fruit, potato and timber industries, but opposed bounties for butter, cotton and sugar. He resisted the navigation bill but supported a proposal requiring shipping companies to insure freight. In 1906 he opposed preferential voting but later became a strong supporter.

Although advocating a time-limit on speeches he affirmed the rights of the parliament against the ministry. Strongly pro-British he urged Imperial preference and British immigration and favoured White Australia. He embraced country issues, urging better pay for non-official postmasters and opposing the charging of guarantees for remote telephone extensions.

McWilliams was a member of select committees on Tasmanian customs leakage (1910-11), powellising of timber (1913) and sea carriage (1920); of the royal commissions on the pearl-shelling industry (1912) and Cockatoo Island dockyard (1921); and was prominent on the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee during World War I.

When the Federal Country Party was formed in 1920 McWilliams was appointed its first leader, according to (Sir) Earle Page 'because of his Parliamentary background, his knowledge of procedure and the habits and characteristics of political friends and enemies'. To the Tasmanian Mail his choice was 'an indication that the Country Party will not always be content to keep the Hughes Ministry in power'. In his first speech as leader McWilliams stressed that 'there has been no collusion, we crave no alliance, we spurn no support but we intend drastic action to secure closer attention to the needs of primary producers'. In the 1920 censure motion against the Hughes government McWilliams supported the Labor Party whereas most of his party supported Hughes. According to Page, who replaced him as leader in April 1921, 'he had shown an increasing tendency to vote against the majority'. Narrowly defeated at the 1922 and 1925 elections he won back his old seat in 1928, 'with the quiet support of the Labor Party', as an Independent Nationalist. He was one of the dissidents, marshalled by Hughes, who cast a crucial vote against the Bruce-Page government on the arbitration bill, and in the consequent 1929 election he was returned with the active support of Labor.

After suffering from angina pectoris McWilliams died suddenly on 22 October 1929, in Hobart, within hours of the declaration of the poll. He was survived by his wife, a son and two daughters. He had been a member of the Anglican Synod. McWilliams was a man of independent mind and political skill with considerable communication abilities.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • R. K. Pinchin, A Century of Tasmanian Football, 1879-1979 (Hob, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1895, p 40, 60, 171, 218, 1896, p 33, 45, 139, 283, 1897, p 155, 1898, p 41, 1899, p 204, 235, 259
  • Mercury (Hobart), 8 Nov 1905, 23 Oct 1929
  • Punch (Melbourne), 25 July 1912, 26 Aug 1920
  • Tasmanian Mail, 26 Feb 1920
  • Australian Worker, 23 Oct 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Oct 1929
  • private information.

Citation details

W. A. Neilson, 'McWilliams, William James (1856–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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