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Warner, Sir Arthur George (1899–1966)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir Arthur George Warner (1899-1966), businessman and politician, was born on 31 July 1899 at Lower Clapton, London, son of Arthur Warner, electrical engineer and later manager, and his wife Emily, née Cheesman. Young Arthur attended Sir George Monoux Grammar School, Chingford, Essex, and began a science degree at the University of London. Abandoning his studies, he was appointed temporary flight officer, Royal Naval Air Service, on 13 August 1917. He transferred to the Royal Air Force as a kite-balloon officer and rose to the rank of lieutenant. In 1920 he migrated to Australia and became an orchardist at Scottsdale, Tasmania. On 14 August that year at Wesley Church, Melbourne, he married with Methodist forms Ethel Wakefield. Finding the life of a farmer uncongenial and unremunerative, he studied accountancy by correspondence, moved to Melbourne and set up as a consulting accountant.

In 1922, in partnership with Louis Abrahams, Warner established a small basement store, stocking imported telephone equipment and radio parts. The outlet was the beginning of what was to become a vast industrial and commercial empire. As chairman and managing director, Warner headed (from 1939) Electronic Industries Ltd, manufacturer of the Astor range of products, especially radios and later television sets. Progressively, he became owner or chairman of numerous companies, including Australian & International Insurances Ltd and Radio Corporation Pty Ltd. He also chaired (to 1961) General Television Corporation Pty Ltd which in 1955 obtained one of the first two licences issued to commercial operators in Melbourne.

Warner was active in a variety of industry associations and other bodies, such as the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, and the Institute of Industrial Management of Australia. He was an original member of the council of the Institute of Public Affairs which was launched in 1943. During World War II the Federal government appointed him controller of finance in the Department of Munitions.

An obsessive worker, Warner entered the Victorian parliament on 15 June 1946 as an Independent (Progressive Liberal), defeating (Sir) James Disney, the sitting Liberal Party member for Higinbotham in the Legislative Council. The Australian Labor Party leader John Cain accused him of spending up to £10,000 to win the seat. Warner replied that, while his 'friends' did not spend that much, he was 'prepared to admit the campaign was well organised'.

Joining the Liberal Party, Warner assumed office as minister in charge of materials and of housing in the coalition government (November 1947-December 1948) of T. T. Hollway and (Sir) John McDonald. In the succeeding Hollway administration, he held the same portfolios, with that of State development. He refused to divest himself of his business interests. After public criticism by two Liberal and Country Party back-benchers, F. L. Edmunds and J. S. Lechte, in September 1949, Hollway agreed to establish an inquiry into the administration of housing. In December Hollway took State development from Warner and made him responsible for electrical undertakings instead; he remained in cabinet until the government fell in June 1950.

Despairing of Hollway's idiosyncratic leadership, Warner was a leading figure in the campaign to expel him from the L.C.P. in 1952. Seven of Hollway's supporters followed him out of the party, causing questions to be asked about Warner's political judgement. Warner strongly endorsed the new leader Leslie Norman but Norman lost his seat to Hollway at the general election that year. When Norman's replacement Trevor Oldham was killed in a plane crash in May 1953, Warner used his considerable influence to secure the leadership for (Sir) Henry Bolte, against (Sir) Arthur Rylah. Warner's reputation as Bolte's kingmaker was later used by the Labor Party to embarrass the inexperienced premier after he gained power on 7 June 1955. Only after he refreshed his mandate at the 1958 election was he able to throw off the perception that he was Warner's puppet.

As minister of transport and a vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in Bolte's government, Warner ranked third in cabinet. He also acted as leader of the government in the Legislative Council, charged with the carriage of a heavy legislative agenda. His task was made more demanding by the government's lack of a majority in the Upper House, where the Country Party held the balance of power. He developed into an adroit parliamentary tactician and his jousts with the Labor leader Jack Galbally became renowned, yet the two remained friends. In 1956 Warner was knighted; he was to be appointed K.B.E. in 1962.

Warner was determined to reform the railways and stem their financial losses but his business interests caused further controversy. On 19 November 1958 the Opposition initiated a motion of no confidence in the government, one of the grounds being that a company contracted to install vending-machines on railway stations was a subsidiary of Electronic Industries Ltd. The Opposition raised a second issue involving conflict of interest on 3 March 1959, alleging that a public drinking-fountain had been removed from Ringwood railway station and replaced by a soft drink vending-machine supplied by Warner's company. On 22 March 1960 the minister was the target of yet another no confidence motion when it was revealed that an engineering company in which he held an interest had received a government loan of £27,500. Bolte's arguments in his defence were, according to Katherine West, 'evasively feeble', but Warner survived.

Described as 'never bored' and 'never boring', the 'suave and softly-spoken' Warner was a keen member of the Royal Brighton Yacht Club. He sailed his yawl Winston Churchill to victory in the Queenscliff to Sydney yacht race in 1956, and from that year competed regularly in the Sydney to Hobart race. On 6 April 1959 during a storm in Bass Strait, the Winston Churchill began to take water. Warner managed to beach her near Wonthaggi. While struggling ashore, he was thrown from the yacht's dinghy and almost drowned.

Following a heart attack in 1960 Warner reduced his considerable ministerial duties and, in September 1962, resigned from cabinet. Another reason for his resignation may have been his vehement opposition to Bolte's decision (later thwarted by the High Court of Australia) to execute the convicted murderer Robert Tait. On 20 June 1964 Sir Arthur retired from parliament. He had a house at Brighton and a grazing property at Yea. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died of myocardial infarction on 3 April 1966 at Seymour; after a state funeral with Anglican rites, he was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $557,815.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • M. Davis, Australian Ocean Racing (Syd, 1967)
  • P. Aimer, Politics, Power and Persuasion (Melb, 1974)
  • P. Blazey, Bolte (Melb, 1990)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 19 Nov 1958, p 1803, 3 Mar 1959, p 2406, 30 Apr 1964, p 4263, 5 Apr 1966, p 3142
  • Nation (Sydney), 22 Nov 1958
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 12 Apr 1959.

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Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Warner, Sir Arthur George (1899–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/warner-sir-arthur-george-11967/text21451, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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