BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Visionary premier who transformed a state
, November 12, 2011
I Love This Place
by Ronda Jamieson
Foreword by Geoffrey Blainey
(Perth: Fremantle Press/Penguin)
Hardcover: 490 pages
Reviewed by Joseph Poprzeczny
When the late Sir Charles Court (1911-2007) first entered the Western Australian parliament in 1953, and for some years after, his state was known as a “Cinderella” state, heavily reliant on financial grants from Canberra.
By the time Court retired in 1982, after having served in government as a minister for 12 years and as state premier for eight, WA had been transformed into a highly profitable, export-oriented economic dynamo, with a booming population. Much of that success was owing to Court’s vision and energetic development of the state.
Ronda Jamieson’s biography, Charles Court: I Love This Place, is a comprehensive and in-depth examination not only of Court’s life and career but of WA’s remarkable economic and political transformation after the war.
Court’s family were migrants from Sussex, England, in 1912, arriving in Perth when Charles was six months old. Charles attended Perth Boys School (Hale School). Along with his parents, he was a member of the Salvation Army. He became a proficient player of the cornet, winning the brass solo competition in a national band competition in 1930.
He later qualified as an accountant and enjoyed a successful career in this profession. In 1940 he enlisted in the army, received a commission and served in the Northern Territory, New Guinea and Bougainville.
After the war, he joined the recently formed Liberal Party, and, in the 1953 state election, successfully stood for the Perth metropolitan seat of Nedlands.
In 1959, a Liberal-Country Party coalition under Sir David Brand came to power, and Court became minister for industrial development.
Biographer Ronda Jamieson writes: “The Department of Industrial Development, established in 1919, had been given little attention by [Labor Premier Frank] Wise over the six months he had been minister.
“Court was astonished to find that only eight small files were active, mostly about a 1958 overseas mission. A further shock was the realisation that staff numbers were too small to support the [Liberal-Country Party] coalition’s grand plans. There was no CEO, and only four of the 14 staff members were in permanent professional positions.” (p.121)
During the 1960s Court pushed ahead with a number of ambitious development schemes for WA’s iron-ore industry, laying the groundwork for the state’s subsequent mining boom.
When he succeeded Brand, Court, in addition to becoming state premier and treasurer, held six ministries that he viewed as crucial — industrial development, the north-west, railways, transport, federal affairs and economic co-ordination.
During his eight years as premier, he promoted iron-ore mining in the Pilbara region and gas exploration and development on the North West Shelf.
He resisted Aboriginal land-rights claims, staunchly opposed trade union militancy, and defended states’ rights against Canberra-inspired centralist policies.
Presiding over a mendicant state wasn’t in Court’s nature. His outlook owed much to the qualities expounded in Samuel Smiles’ now forgotten but once famous book, Self-Help (1859). Or, as historian Robert Blake said of British statesman Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), Court was in politics to do something not to make a name for himself.
Court believed WA could set the pace for “the eastern states”, not forever be tied to Canberra’s financial apron-strings.
In 1953, when Court entered parliament, WA’s population was just over 600,000. In 1982, when he retired as premier, the state’s population had more than doubled to nearly 1.3 million. (During the same period, Perth’s population had soared from 390,000 to 900,000).
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, WA had been a “mendicant” state, relying on special financial assistance from the Commonwealth Grants Commission. Today, as a result of Court’s policies and vision, the opposite is true. WA’s vast minerals export income is now held responsible for creating the phenomenon of the two-speed economy, which federal Labor seeks to “remedy” by imposing heavy extra taxes on WA’s mining profits.
Although the WA’s population growth is a good barometer in gauging Court’s impact, better still in helping to more fully appreciate his years are the raw production figures of big employing and export-earning sectors.
What one finds here during the crucial Court years is the exponentially growing output and export of grains, iron ore, bauxite, mineral sands, gold and off-shore derived gas, in some instances (e.g., iron ore and gas) from a zero base.
Court’s first decade as minister, in the 1960s, therefore constituted WA’s second economic “take-off”, the first one of course being the gold rushes of the 1890s during which the state’s population had tripled in eight years from fewer than 60,000 in 1892 to 180,000 in 1900.
Ronda Jamieson thus rightly draws comparisons between Court’s time in office and the premiership years (1890-1901) of his predecessor, WA’s first premier, John Forrest.
One striking similarity was Forrest’s paving the way for the construction, across the soon-to-be-developed central wheat belt, of the state’s then world-famous 530-kilometre gold-fields’ water-supply pipeline, and Court’s giving the go-ahead for the construction of the 1,600-kilometre natural gas pipeline connecting the Pilbara in the state’s north to the port of Bunbury, south of Perth.
Both pipelines remain crucial capital assets to this day for exploitation of the remaining gold reserves surrounding Kalgoorlie and the bauxite deposits south of Perth and Bunbury, respectively, and the state’s entire south-west electricity generation.
Just as the wealth of the Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie gold-fields transformed the sparsely-populated colony in Forrest’s time, so the vast mineral resources of the Pilbara would transform WA under Court.
Forgotten today is the fact that when Court entered parliament in the early 1950s, WA was, if not already in a rut, then certainly heading for stagnation.
It was actually losing its population, especially its best educated, for instance, a young Rhodes Scholar John Stone, who later served with distinction in the federal Treasury. Those with a higher education, valuable skills and expertise could not readily find work in Australia’s western third.
This backwardness was energetically overcome during the 1960s under Court as he pursued economic development for his state. During this take-off period, WA registered annual growth rates then only seen in Japan — nearly 10 per cent.
However, Court’s policies aimed not only to develop the WA economy, most especially by boosting the resources extraction in the northern regions, but to diversify the employment base across Perth, the world’s most isolated capital.
Consequently, spin-off businesses and linkages, such as engineering, fabrication and mineral exploration services, would make Australia’s economy, following the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating years, markedly more solvent.
International companies, that had previously never known of WA’s existence, readily accepted Court’s invitation to set up branch offices in Perth.
This and much more was simply undreamed of by most, in the 1950s.
Contemporary radical greens and leftists will undoubtedly be scandalised to learn that Court in the 1950s (even before he became a minister), was advocating atomic power (“nuclear” was a word not widely used then) for WA and the construction of a Royal Navy (not an RAN) naval base near Perth because Canberra remained fixated on the Pacific Ocean.
Although, since the 1950s, the states of Australian have increasingly succumbed to centralist control by Canberra, this process would have occurred far more rapidly had Court not been such a strong, and at times defiant, Liberal state premier.
Federal Coalition and Labor prime ministers — especially Gough Whitlam, with his undisguised ambition to override the powers of the states — often encountered Court’s staunch opposition to further Canberra encroachments on the states.
In 1975, Court thus became a crucial up-front and behind-the-scenes player in helping Malcolm Fraser come to power when Canberra’s Liberal powerbrokers decided early in that year that the disastrous Whitlam-led Labor government simply had to go.
Notwithstanding this, Court shrewdly regarded Victoria and NSW Liberal politicians not as inevitable allies but as aspiring beneficiaries of the acquisition of ever greater power over his state and its resources.
Nothing much has changed in this regard.
It is noteworthy that Court’s six years in opposition (1953-59), after entering parliament, were ended with significant assistance from the newly-created Democratic Labor Party (DLP), following Labor’s 1955-57 split, the repercussions of which flowed across the Nullarbor, where Labor was directed by hardline leftist, F.E. “Joe” Chamberlain, a key architect of the split.
DLP preferences were distributed across four marginal seats won by the Liberals and were absolutely crucial in one of these falling to the Liberals in the 1959 election.
Although Court had fought the Japanese in New Guinea during World War II, in peacetime he became a respected negotiator with Japanese business leaders. Japan’s post-war industrialisation and demand for WA’s mineral wealth were crucial in stimulating the development of the Pilbara iron ore and North-West Shelf gas reserves.
To many Japanese business leaders, Charles Court was in fact the face of Australia.
To Western Australians, who read Jamieson’s biography, he will be judged as having been a visionary premier who helped bring about an astonishing transformation to his state, to the great benefit of the rest of Australia.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based writer and historian.