The story of Sir Hal Colebatch would be regarded as somewhat far-fetched if it was depicted as a work of fiction. It is hard to say which is the most remarkable aspect of Sir Hal, his physical durability, surviving near-death experiences several times and endured diabetes to live an active life beyond the age of 80; his clarity of vision to see what was required to avert worldwide disaster in the 1930s; his strength of character to beat against the tide of public opinion for several decades; his integrity and goodness of heart to maintain friendly relations with bitter opponents and to work effectively with them when the opportunity arose.
Hal Colebatch was one of the living links to sustain the ideas of free trade through the wilderness decades until Bert Kelly and his helpers appeared to sponsor the Liberal "back bench dries" of the 1970s. Among the others were Stan Kelly (father of Bert), A H Lewis of the Commonwealth Bank, the economist Ed Shann, the historian Keith Hancock and the journalist and bohemian Brian Penton who helped to prepare an English translation of On Socialism by von Mises when Penton was in London in the 1920s.
Some of Kipling's poem "If" could have been written with Sir Hal in mind, especially the lines about walking with crowds without losing virtue and walking with kings without losing the common touch. Others do not apply, like staking his life savings on a game of pitch and toss. Sir Hal had no time for gambling which he regarded as a regressive tax on the poor and ignorant. After sustaining serious injuries playing football at school, there is no mention of any subsequent interest in manly outdoor games, though he played chess to international standard, and probably bridge as well.
The story began in England where Hal senior was born at Uderley in Herefordshire in 1872. In 1878 the family sailed to Australia, surviving severe gales on the way. Devotees of Patrick O'Brian will enjoy the account of the conversion of the Saint Vincent from a full-rigged three master to a jury-rigged makeshift brig. The ship was written off as lost at sea and nobody was on hand to welcome the weary travellers when the vessel finally limped into Adelaide.
Hal left school at the age of eleven. He gave himself an excellent education later in life and his primary concern in his political career, in addition to free trade, was improved educational opportunities, especially in rural districts. He worked with several small newspapers in Adelaide, then moved to the Silver Star at Broken Hill for five years. There he experienced for the first time the disruptive activities of the trade unions which he came to regard as a one of the major impediments to prosperity for the community at large.
In 1894 he moved to a paper on the goldfields of Western Australia, almost dying of fever on the way. Soon he moved on to a Perth newspaper where he was Mining Editor and Chess Editor, among other roles, until in 1904 he moved again to a Northam, a country town where he bought the local newspaper and served as Mayor from 1909 to 1912 when he moved on to the State Legislative Council.
He was often pressed to contest a lower house seat to give himself a chance to become State Premier but he resisted on the grounds that this would mean displacing his Northam friend Mitchell from his seat and would also be an act of disloyalty to the current leader of the party. In 1919 he did serve a short term as Premier under dire circumstances. The catastrophic Spanish influenza was just turning up from Europe, carried by troopships including some arriving in WA. Colebatch understood the quarantine procedures that were required to minimise the impact of the disease but the acting PM (Hughes was at Versailles) refused to cooperate and at the same time the radical dockers union chose to take violent action to disable the docks. By a miracle the strikers only managed to kill one person, although they used firearms against the police and dropping masonry off a bridge onto on a launch carrying the Premier and others to dockside.
Under a heavy weight of portfolios and responsibilities as the sole Government member in the upper house, he aged visibly and began to experience health problems. In 1923 he was pleased to accepted the position of Western Australia's Agent-General in London. On the way he travelled through various South East Asian countries and he met a number of traders who would not purchase Australian farm products because their goods could not be sold in Australia because of the protective tariffs. Colebatch developed a sharp eye for these constraints in trade and throughout the thirties he argued persistently that war could only be averted by eliminating such barriers. Governments around the world, from Australia to the US and Europe, did the reverse.
During his stay in India his life was saved by an emergency operation, then during convalescence diabetes was diagnosed and he became one of the first people to test the effectiveness of insulin as a maintenance treatment. It appears that the treatment worked, at least for 30 years!
In London the Agent General for WA had a staff of fourteen and a busy agenda. Among other things he had to conduct PR by means of articles, speeches and broadcasts to promote WA as a migrant destination and a place to invest. He achieved a reputation as a brilliant and sought-after public speaker, and his tireless efforts at the typewriter drew complaints from
other Agents General that he had a bigger press profile than all the rest of them put together.
One of the enjoyable sidelines which was also important for his official functions was the club life and he was nominated for the Savage Club, one of the most classically British of the clubs. Members, apart from the Monarch, had to be qualified in an "artistic" profession. Colebatch qualified as a journalist, not usually regarded as an artistic calling but the club was founded by a journalist. The menu for a British Dominions dinner in 1937 (with Hal Colebatch in the chair) depicted the various animals of the dominions, from the elephant down to the gazelle, the kiwi and a fish, disporting themselves with pipe or cigar and glasses of wine!
Colebatch travelled widely on the continent during the 1930s, including Italy where he had an interview with Mussolini. Colebatch reported that the country was moving ahead under liberal policies until the industrialists persuaded Mussolini to introduce the corporate state which cramped trade and enterprise. The changes took some time to take effect and Mussolini took credit for the benefits of policies that he did not understand and which were no longer in place. It seems that both economic progress and support for Mussolini were waning in the late 1930s. Similarly in Germany the enthusiasm of the early Hitler years wore off in the late 1930s but the country was still headed for war under influence of Hitler's military ambitions and the anti-trade regimes of Britain and the US. In Germany Sir Hal met numerous senior officials, notably the finance wizard Hjalmar Schacht, who believed that only increased trade would avert an aggressive war by Germany, and that was essentially in the hands of Britain and the United States.
Back in Western Australia Sir Hal threw himself into the war effort, appalled by the lack of urgency by so many responsible people before hostilities commenced, and by the militant unions who engaged in strikes on the waterfront and the mines during the war. In 1940 Sir Hal's first wife died, some years later he married again and set himself the goal of living long enough for his son Hal to remember him. This goal, like many others that were within his control, he achieved.
There is a mountain of information in this book and it is warmly recommended for the insights that it provides into the disasters of the 20th century and the way they have been aggravated by constraints on trade. There are also many stories to illustrate the rigid thinking and tribalism of Australian politics. As a bonus, it is a striking and beautiful example of the bookmakers craft which is apparently alive and well at the Freemantle Arts Centre Press!
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004,