William Watt (Australian politician)

23 Nov 1871
13 Sep 1946
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William Alexander Watt (23 November 1871 – 13 September 1946) was an Australian politician who was the 24th Premier of Victoria, and later a leading federal politician and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

He also acted as Prime Minister of Australia from April 1918 until August 1919, during Billy Hughes’ service in the Imperial War Cabinet and attendance at the Versailles peace conference.

Watt was born at Barfold, near Kyneton, and was educated at Errol Street State School.

He became a newsboy, worked for an ironmongery and a tannery, later as a clerk and an accountant and then went into business as a grain merchant in North Melbourne. He married Florence Carrighan in 1894, but she died in childbirth in 1896.

In 1907, he married Emily Helena Seismann and they eventually had five children.

He became active in the Australian Natives’ Association, a lobby group of Australian-born liberals who supported Australian federation and other causes. He was closely associated with the Victorian liberal leader Alfred Deakin.

In 1897 Watt was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly for North Melbourne, defeating Labor’s George Prendergast (another future Premier), but at the 1900 election Prendergast recaptured the seat.

In 1902 he was returned for the safe liberal seat of East Melbourne, holding that seat until 1904, when he shifted to Essendon.

In 1899 he became Postmaster-General in the short-lived government of Allan McLean, then sat out Thomas Bent’s government, returning to office under John Murray in 1909 as Treasurer, a post he held until 1912.

By that time he was leader of the “urban” faction of the Liberal Party, opposed to Murray’s rural-dominated government. When Murray resigned as Premier on 12 May, Watt succeeded him.

In December 1913 the rural faction, now led by Donald McLeod, moved a successful no-confidence motion in Watt’s government, with Labor support. McLeod expected to become Premier, but instead the acting Governor, Sir John Madden, sent for the Labor leader, George Elmslie, who formed Victoria’s first Labor government.

This forced the Liberal factions to re-unite, and a few days later Elmslie was duly voted out and Watt resumed office. Frustrated by his inability to overcome the factionalism of the Victorian Liberals and pass any effective legislation, Watt resigned as Premier in June 1914, allowing Sir Alexander Peacock to re-assume the Liberal leadership.

At the 1914 federal election Watt was elected Liberal member for the seat of Balaclava. He became a leading member of the Nationalist Party when it was formed in 1916 under the leadership of Billy Hughes, and in 1917 he was appointed Minister for Works and Railways in the Hughes Government.

By now he had moved away from his earlier liberalism and was regarded as a hard-line conservative.

In March 1918 Watt was appointed Treasurer, and became in effect Hughes’s deputy. When Hughes left Australia for London in April, Watt became Acting Prime Minister, a position he held until Hughes returned from the Versailles peace conference in August 1919. During this period he also had the portfolio of Trade and Customs.

For his service as Acting Prime Minister, Watt was appointed to the Imperial Privy Council in the 1920 New Year Honours, entitling him to the style “The Right Honourable”.

He was a trusted figure in Melbourne business circles and shared the dissatisfaction that most conservatives felt at the increasingly erratic and autocratic way Hughes ran the government. He also disliked Hughes personally and felt that Hughes had not acknowledged his efforts as Acting Prime Minister.

Although he remained loyal in public, he was keen to leave Hughes’s ministry. He was seen by many as Hughes’s likely successor.

In April 1920 Hughes dispatched Watt to London on a financial mission. Watt was in poor health and his suspicion that Hughes was trying to get him out of the way was aggravated by Hughes’s habit of communicating directly with the British government over the head of Watt, supposedly his representative.

Watt was appointed Australia’s representative at the Spa Conference on reparations, but when Hughes cabled that Watt was not to agree to anything without consulting him, Watt complained that he was being treated like “a telegraph messenger.” After an acrimonious exchange of cables, Watt resigned as Treasurer and returned to Australia.

Watt spent the next two years on the back bench. At the 1922 elections he supported rebel former Liberals in Victoria who opposed Hughes and stood against Nationalist candidates: one of these, John Latham, won the seat of Kooyong from the Nationalist member. After the elections, the newly formed Country Party held the balance of power, and used it to force Hughes’s resignation.

But Watt was passed over for leadership of the new coalition government in favour of the Treasurer, Stanley Bruce. As a consolation prize Watt was elected Speaker, a position he held until 1926. He retired in 1929.

Watt was chairman of a several companies based from his base in Collins House, including the Silverton Tramway Company and Qantas. He was partly disabled by a stroke in 1937 and died in his home in Toorak and was survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters.

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