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Hal Colebatch

This article is about the politician; for his son the author and journalist, see Hal Gibson Pateshall Colebatch.
Hal Colebatch, from the Western Australian Government Photographer Collection

Hon. Sir Harry Pateshall Colebatch (29 March 187212 February 1953), CMG, better known as Sir Hal Colebatch, was a long serving and occasionally controversial figure in Western Australian politics. He was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Council for nearly twenty years, premier of Western Australia for a month in 1919, Agent-General for Western Australia for nearly ten years, and a Senator for four years.

Table of contents

Early life

Hal Colebatch was born in Wolferlow in Herefordshire, England on 29 March 1872. His family migrated to Australia in 1878, settling at Goolwa in South Australia. Colebatch left school in 1883 at the age of eleven, because his father could not afford to continue his education. He then found work as an office boy and junior reporter for a local newspaper, the Norwood Free Press. When this paper collapsed, he worked for a series of short-lived papers on the South Australian goldfields. In 1888, he moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales, where he worked for six years as reporter for the Silver Age. There, he reported on a number of strike meetings in 1892, and was subsequently summoned as a Crown witness in the prosecution of some strike leaders.

In 1894, Colebatch migrated to Western Australia to take up a position as reporter on the Coolgardie newspaper Golden Age. After the collapse of the Golden Age the following year, he moved to Kalgoorlie to report on the Kalgoorlie Miner. In 1896, he moved to Perth to join the Morning Herald as mining editor and chess editor. Colebatch was a keen chess player at this time, and in 1898 he won the state title, thereby become Western Australia's third chess champion. On 29 April 1896, Colebatch married Mary Maude Saunders1 in Perth.

The press gallery ban

In 1898, Hal Colebatch telegraphed to the Kalgoorlie Miner a report on a fist fight in parliament between two members. Information on the fight had been provided by a police inspector who had been on duty in the House, and had been instructed to brief reporters. The information was in fact greatly exaggerated, and no such fight had occurred. However by the time Colebatch discovered this fact, the telegraph office was closed. The Kalgoorlie Miner ran the story on the front page.

The premier, Sir John Forrest, was furious about the report, because of its potential effect on investment in the state. The government subsequently sued the proprietors of the Kalgoorlie Miner for publishing a libel, but the case was unsuccessful. Forrest then had Colebatch banned from the press gallery. On 19 October, the Sergeant-at-Arms expelled Colebatch from the House, and the following day he indicated his intention to sue for assault. Colebatch subsequently received plenty of support in the House from members who felt that he had been unfairly treated, and shortly afterwards his suspension was lifted.

In Northam

In 1904, Colebatch moved to Northam, where he bought the Northam Advertiser. He ran the paper until 1923, when he gave it to his sons as a reward for their war service. He would continue contributing to the paper for the rest of his life.

In Northam, Colebatch met and became friends with James Mitchell. Colebatch encouraged Mitchell to stand for parliament, and in 1905 he managed Mitchell's successful campaign for election to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly seat of Northam. Mitchell would hold the seat until 1933, and this would later prevent Colebatch from contesting the lower house seat himself. From 1909 to 1912, Colebatch was Mayor of Northam. In February 1912, he formed a Northam branch of the Liberal League.

In Western Australian politics

In 1910, Colebatch unsuccessfully contested the East Province seat in the Western Australian Legislative Council in a by-election. The following year he contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Avon but was again unsuccessful. On 14 May 1912, he was elected to the Legislative Council seat of East Province in a by-election. There, he played a key role in the Legislative Council's persistent opposition to much of the more radical legislation put forward by John Scaddan's Labor government. When Scaddan's government fell in 1916, Colebatch was appointed Colonial Secretary and Minister for Education in Frank Wilson's government. The following year, he became deputy premier under Henry Lefroy. That year also, he oversaw the establishment of the first high schools in regional Western Australia.

The Spanish Flu crises

In the latter half of 1918, Spanish flu was sweeping the world, but had not yet broken out in Western Australia. As Minister for Health, Colebatch was responsible for quarantine. This presented a series of challenges. Late in 1918, with Lefroy absent and Colebatch acting as premier as well as Minister for Health, the troopship Boonah returned to Western Australia carrying soldiers infected with the Spanish flu. Colebatch was required to maintain a balance between the conflicting requirements of maintaining an effective quarantine while treating and repatriating the returned troops. Once the Boonah crisis was over, Colebatch was widely seen to have handled it responsibly and effectively.

Early in the new year, another crisis eventuated when the Spanish flu broke out in Victoria and South Australia. Both states initially declined to declare infection and close their borders, so Colebatch closed Western Australia's borders unilaterally. His decision greatly angered the acting Prime Minister of Australia William Watt, but he was strongly supported in Western Australia.


On 17 April 1919, Lefroy resigned as premier, and Colebatch succeeded him. He remains the only premier of Western Australia to govern from the Legislative Council, and he did so on the understanding that a Legislative Assembly seat would be found for him. Colebatch continued as Colonial Secretary and Minister for Education, and also also took on the Treasury and Railways portfolios. He brought Mitchell into the ministry as Minister for Lands.

Within two weeks, Colebatch had yet another crisis to deal with: the Fremantle wharf crisis of 1919. The labour crisis dragged on for almost a month, and would culminate in one of the most violent confrontations in West Australian history. Lumpers objected to goods being unloaded by non-union labour, from the ship Dimboola. Colebatch survived a barrage of projectiles when he personally confronted the unionists. One of the unionists, Tom Edwards, was killed by police. Unlike previous crises, Colebatch was not seen to have have handled the crisis well, and he sustained heavy criticism during and after it.

On 17 May, Colebatch resigned as premier, having been premier for exactly one month. It remains the shortest premiership of Western Australia on record. His decision to resign was almost certainly influenced by the stress of the wharf crisis and the extensive subsequent criticism. However he was also suffering from poor health, and had been unable to find a Legislative Assembly seat in a country electorate as desired. H. G. P. Colebatch (2004) also asserts that Colebatch resigned as premier because he was not ambitious and had not wanted the job in the first place.

Colebatch handed over the premiership to his friend Mitchell. He retained the Public Health and Education portfolios, and also accepted the Agriculture portfolio. He continued as Deputy Premier and as Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council. He was responsible for the creation of a North West Department, and became its minister a month later. In April 1921, he dropped the Agriculture and Public Health portfolios, and instead took on the Justice portfolio. After the 1921 elections, Colebatch was the only government minister in the Legislative Council, and so he had a huge workload.

Agent-General for Western Australia

Colebatch was appointed CMG in the New Years Honours of 1923, and shortly afterwards resigned his seat to take up appointment as the Agent-General for Western Australia in London. Colebatch was widely considered to be an outstanding Agent-General, with a 1924 publication claiming

the Agent-General (Mr H. P. Colebatch) is regarded in England as one of the most able representatives this country has ever had in London2

He was due to finish his term in November 1926, but an election was due in Western Australia at that time, and neither Colebatch nor the incumbent Labor government wished for Colebatch to return during the election campaign. Colebatch's term was therefore extended into 1927. Early that year he was made Knight Bachelor. He also travelled extensively throughout Europe in that year, and met Benito Mussolini.

When Colebatch returned to Western Australia in 1927, the premier Philip Collier commissioned him to take charge of writing a book commemorating the state's centenary. A Story of a Hundred Year: Western Australia 1829–1929, edited by Hal Colebatch, was published in 1929.

In Federal Politics

While he was working on A Story of a Hundred Years, Colebatch was asked by the Prime Minister Stanley Bruce to sit on a Royal Commission into the Constitution of Australia. The commission travelled throughout Australia and held 198 sittings. Colebatch's strong federalist stance stopped the Commission from recommending abandonment of the federal system and unification of the states, but the Commission's recommendations were largely ignored anyhow.

In 1928, during the Royal Commission's sittings, Colebatch was elected to the Australian Senate. He took his seat on 1 July 1929, holding it until 20 March 1933, when he was again offered the position of Agent-General for Western Australia in London. Colebatch's time as a Senator was a frustrating period for him, as his advocacy of free trade as a means of international co-operation and peace was extremely unpopular at the time. His most important contribution during this time was the establishment of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, whose purpose is to vet government regulations that are made by executive action without reference to parliament, to ensure that they do not adversely affect the rights of citizens. Later he became heavily involved in the Western Australian secession campaign, and after he became Agent-General for the second time, he was asked to lead the delegation that unsuccessfully petitioned the British Parliament for secession.

Later years

Colebatch's second appointment as Agent-General for Western Australia lasted from 1933 until 1939. During this time he again travelled widely throughout Europe, and made contact with German anti-Nazis, who were trying to forestall the rise of Adolf Hitler. After returning to Western Australia, he worked tirelessly to awaken Australia to the necessity of preparing for war. He was widowed early in 1940. On 11 May 1940 he was elected to the Legislative Council for the Metropolitan Province. In 1944 he married Marion Frances Gibson. He held his Legislative Council seat until 1948; in the 1948 election, the Liberal Party tried without success to dissuade Colebatch from nominating, and then endorsed two candidates. The other candidate, H. Hearn, won comfortably.

In the final years of his life, Colebatch's main achievement was the writing of his autobiography, which has never been published. He died on 12 February 1953 after a brief illness, and received a state funeral the following day. He was survived by his second wife and three sons. His third son, also named Hal Colebatch, is a well-known author.


  1. H. G. P. Colebatch (2004) gives Hal Colebatch's first wife's name as Mary Maude Saunders; Black and Bolton (2001) as Mary Maud Saunders; and Reid and Oliver (1982) as Maud Mary Saunders.
  2. Perth Daily News, 3 October 1924. Quoted in H. G. P. Colebatch (2004).


  • Black, David (1981). Party Politics in Turmoil. in Charles Stannage (ed). A New History of Western Australia. University of Western Australia Press. Nedlands, Western Australia. ISBN 0855641703.
  • Black, David and Geoffrey Bolton (2001). Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia, Volume One, 1870–1930 (Revised Edition). Parliament of Western Australia, Parliament House, Perth, Western Australia. ISBN 0730738140.
  • Colebatch, H. G. P. (2004). Steadfast Knight: A Life of Sir Hal Colebatch. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Western Australia. ISBN 1920731393.
  • De Garis, Brian K. (1962). A Political Biography of Sir Hal Colebatch. Masters Thesis, University of Western Australia.
  • Reid, G. S. and M. R. Oliver (1982). The Premiers of Western Australia 1890–1982. University of Western Australia Press. Nedlands, Western Australia. ISBN 0855642149.
  • The Constitution Centre of Western Australia (2002). Governors and Premiers of Western Australia. West Perth, Western Australia. ISBN 0730738213.

Preceded by:
Henry Lefroy
Premier of Western Australia
17 April17 May 1919
Succeeded by:
James Mitchell

Premiers of Western Australia
Forrest | Throssell | Leake | Morgans | James | Daglish | Rason | Moore | Wilson | Scaddan | Lefroy | Colebatch | Mitchell | Collier | Willcock | Wise | McLarty | Hawke | Brand | Tonkin | C. Court | O'Connor | Burke | Dowding | Lawrence | R. Court | Gallop

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