AUSTRALIA by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Builders of a nation: Henry Bolte and Charles Court
, March 28, 2015
In an age when most Australian state premiers see their role as going cap-in-hand to Canberra for funds, it is easy to overlook the men who saw themselves as builders, not beggars.
Sir Charles Court
The late Professor Patrick “Paddy” O’Brien of the University of Western Australia had no doubt who the two most influential state premiers of the post-war era were: Sir Henry Bolte (Victorian premier from 1955 to 1972) and Sir Charles Court (Western Australian premier from 1974 to 1982).
Professor O’Brien had grown up in Victoria, when Bolte was premier, and worked in the Department of Politics at the University of Western Australia when Court was reshaping the WA mining industry, first as Minister for Industrial Development under Premier David Brand, from 1959 until 1971, and later as Premier.
Before then, Western Australia had been the poorest state in the nation. It was called the Cinderella state, because something was always going to happen, but never quite did. Wheat was worthless, gold was scarce and timber was hard to get.
Sir Charles Court laid the foundations of the economy, not only of Western Australia, but of the nation. He helped establish the Pilbara iron-ore industry, which is the foundation of our national export earnings. Court also set on track the North West Shelf Gas project.
(I can remember, in primary school, being told how wonderful it was that WA no longer needed special consideration from the Commonwealth Grants Commission.)
Court used his power wisely. He established the state’s second university, Murdoch
Sir Henry Bolte
University, and nurtured the Western Australian Institute of Technology, which was to become the Curtin University of Technology. He also renewed the Western Australian Art Gallery and rescued His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth’s only theatre of any distinction, from possible destruction.
He also greatly enhanced the School Dental Service. The story may be apocryphal, but when he was asked why he put so much money into providing dental care for school children, he replied that “seeing kids with heads full of rotten teeth still haunts me”.
It is absolutely true that his name was listed in the Perth White Pages. Sir Charles would answer the phone personally. I know, because I rang him several times myself.
Had he not felt a vocation for politics, there is no doubt Charles Court would have become a wealthy man. He was a foundation partner of Hendry Rae and Court, reputed to be the best firm of accountants in the state. He resigned from the firm to enter public life.
By the time he resigned in 1982, Sir Charles Court had transformed the state of WA and the economy of the Australian nation. WA had gone from the state that the nation forgot to boom economy — no longer the land of “sin, sun, sand and sore eyes”.
Sir Henry Bolte was a figure of national significance. As the longest-serving premier in the history of Victoria, he was at times accused of being Victorian first and Australian second.
He was not a learned man. He had come up in life through the school of hard knocks. He was the first Victorian premier who had never graduated from university.
There is little doubt that he could have gone on to university, but he left school to work as a roustabout. Bolte (pronounced Bol-tee), who was of German descent, had a shrewd understanding of human nature. As the song goes, he knew “when to hold up, and when to fold up”.
In 1970 the Liberals lost six seats and, ever the shrewd one, Bolte knew his time was up, handing over to Rupert “Dick” Hamer, who went on to rule for another 11 years. Hamer was a soft-left Liberal, totally different from Bolte, but Bolte had picked his man well.
Bolte was a builder. He searched the world for a partner for BHP to develop the Bass Strait oil and gas fields, before finding Esso, which agreed to a 50/50 split. When BHP got cold feet, he strong-armed it into going through with the project. This not only made BHP a serious petroleum company, but the Bass Strait fields met Australia’s petroleum needs for decades.
Bolte also built the international airport at Tullamarine, leaving the inadequate suburban Essendon airport for light planes. The Westgate Bridge, though blighted by tragedy, assisted the development of the west of Melbourne.
Recognising the need for electric power in the industrial age, Bolte expanded the Latrobe Valley power-generation industry. And for all his disdain for eggheads, Bolte oversaw the development of two new universities, La Trobe and Monash.
Some will say that Bolte was lucky that the Labor Party split in 1955. He had the opportunity, and exploited it. The Labor Party, ever ready to commit suicide, didn’t regain power in Victoria until 1981. Bolte also provided stable conservative rule for the first time in many years.
Bolte and Court were builders. We may not see their like again.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, originally from Perth.