by G. C. Bolton
This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986
This article was published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10 , 1986 and online in 2006
Sir James Mitchell (1866-1951), premier and governor, was born on 27 April 1866 at Paradise Farm, Dardanup, near Bunbury, Western Australia, eldest of thirteen children of William Bedford Mitchell, estate manager and grazier, and his wife Caroline, née Morgan. Educated at Bunbury, he joined the Western Australian Bank in 1885 and was posted to Geraldton. On 17 September 1888 at Bunbury he married Clara Robinson Spencer; they had three sons and a daughter.
From 1890 Mitchell managed the bank’s branch at Northam, soon the railhead for the Yilgarn and eastern goldfields. The Avon Valley district, centred on Northam, throve as the ideal source of produce for the developing goldfields, and Mitchell throve too. He was ready to back enterprising farmers, sometimes too hopefully. From 1892 he himself engaged in farming, soon making a sound local reputation. A keen horseman, he was thought to have the best collection of hacks in Western Australia. He was twice captain of the local volunteer movement, and was made justice of the peace in 1897.
Mitchell’s farming experience was gathered in the well-watered, long-established Avon valley at a time of unprecedentedly buoyant markets. This led him habitually to underestimate the hazards of pioneer farming, and confirmed his enthusiasm for agricultural expansion. He shared Sir John Forrest‘s faith in the potential of the 150 miles (241 km) east of Northam, though it was only with the development of William Farrer‘s Federation wheat that agriculture became feasible in this drier area; this development coincided felicitously with Mitchell’s entry into State politics. In October 1905 he won the Northam seat in the Legislative Assembly. Handsome in the heavy-moustached style of his day, though already somewhat portly, Mitchell was a presentable and popular figure, soon marked out for advancement. No great public speaker, he earnestly advocated agricultural settlement and deplored Western Australia’s dependence on imported produce, seeking to place families on the land, particularly as the goldfields declined and miners looked elsewhere.
In May 1906 Premier (Sir) Newton Moore appointed Mitchell honorary minister with oversight of agricultural expansion. In June 1909 he was promoted to minister for lands and agriculture, next year adding industries to his portfolio. He was responsible for recruiting William Lowrie as director of agriculture. The Agricultural Bank Acts had been consolidated in 1906, increasing the bank’s scope for advancing loans, and providing inspectors as rural advisers at most major country centres. In 1906-11 the frontier of agricultural settlement was pushed to the Yilgarn. Stimulated by the introduction of superphosphate, the acreage under wheat trebled.
Following the ministry’s landslide defeat by Labor in October 1911, opinion swung against Mitchell. The winters of 1911, 1912 and 1914 saw unusually low rainfall, so that many farmers in the new wheat-belt had difficulties. Mitchell was blamed for his bland optimism in allegedly throwing new settlers into the bush with just an axe, claiming that new railways and ‘a little muscular activity’ only were required for success. He was a prime target for the Farmers and Settlers’ Association, founded in 1912. When, two years later, the association returned the first eight Country Party members to parliament, Mitchell became a hindrance to an anti-Labor alliance. He was dropped as deputy leader of the Liberals in 1915 in favour of (Sir) Henry Lefroy. Next July, when the Labor ministry was ousted, the Country Party insisted that Mitchell should not be minister for lands or agriculture.
Premier Frank Wilson made him minister for railways and industries and he became responsible for the Industries Assistance Board set up by the previous government to pump government subsidies into primary industry. He intervened actively in rural policy, creating a royal commission to inquire into the wheat-growers’ plight. He also revived negotiations with the Federal and British governments to settle returned servicemen on the land, envisaging that up to 25,000 British migrants might be attracted annually. Mitchell now saw the South-West as the focus for development, with dairy-farming as its potential staple industry. Thus he became ‘Moo-cow Mitchell’. In November 1916 he dominated the cabinet sub-committee which put forward a plan for intensive cultivation on holdings of 100-160 acres (40-65 ha), part of which would be cleared and fenced by migrants guided by experienced supervisors. This was the genesis of the group settlement scheme which was to dominate Mitchell’s career.
A setback followed. After the Labor Party’s split over conscription in 1917 Wilson and Mitchell were ousted from office in June to make way for a broadened coalition under Lefroy. By following Wilson into the wilderness Mitchell consolidated his reputation for integrity and avoided association with the drift and indecision of Lefroy’s ill-assorted ministry. The West Australian backed Mitchell, even when he sometimes voted with the Labor Opposition. In September 1918 he even launched what was taken as a motion of no confidence in the Lefroy government, attacking its failure to promote soldier settlement and the improvement of virgin land in the South-West. He was successfully opposed by Lefroy’s attorney-general, R. T. Robinson, who advocated forest conservation.
But next April a party revolt overthrew Lefroy. Mitchell’s old Northam ally (Sir) Hal Colebatch became premier, restoring Mitchell to the Lands Department. On 17 May Colebatch, unable to find an acceptable seat, resigned the premiership in Mitchell’s favour: ‘Mitchell may last a month’, forecast a commentator. ‘If he lasts longer he will be a miracle worker’. But the miracle was worked. The Country Party consented to serve under him. His only significant rival, Robinson, resigned from cabinet in June and soon left politics. Mitchell won the election in March 1921 and remained premier until April 1924.
His early years saw several achievements. Women were admitted to parliament in 1920. Motor traffic control was placed under a centralized authority. A ministry for the North-West was created; the Wyndham meatworks had opened in 1919, and a resident commissioner for the North-West was appointed in 1921 to encourage cotton-growing and other tropical agriculture. But none of these initiatives prospered.
Overshadowing all else came the group settlement scheme. In 1921 pilot projects placed unemployed men on the land, and Mitchell concluded an agreement with the British government providing for 15,000 migrants. The scheme gained considerable publicity in Britain after Mitchell’s one and only visit in 1922. But the migrants and their Australian foremen were often poorly chosen and lacked the skills and resources to clear hardwood timber and succeed as dairy farmers. When Mitchell left office in 1924, 42 per cent of the British settlers had already walked off the groups; but the scheme continued under his successors so that, at much human cost, a dairying industry was established in the South-West.
Mitchell was a poor political manager. Impatient with party politics, he did little to court the financial and extra-parliamentary bodies supporting the coalition. Strong-tempered and imperious, he overruled his colleagues although usually leaving them much responsibility for the detail of policies. He and his senior ministers, Colebatch, Scaddan and W. J. George, antagonized conservative businessmen by their pragmatic willingness to maintain state-owned industries and state intervention in price-fixing and other industrial activities. The Legislative Council was ill disciplined and rejected several measures, including the reform of government hospitals. Mitchell also avoided redistributing parliamentary seats, thus giving Labor an advantage through its command of the decaying goldfields constituencies. Several government back-benchers transferred to the Country Party so that by the end of 1920 its numbers exceeded Mitchell’s followers; but its leaders continued to back him and in 1923 a split occurred between the official Country Party, keen to leave the coalition, and a ministerialist Country Party which remained. A policy of multiple endorsements also weakened the Mitchell ministry’s hold on some assembly seats. Not surprisingly, Mitchell lost the 1924 elections to the Labor Party, led by Philip Collier.
This did not produce any marked shifts in policy. According to one journalist, Mitchell and Collier ‘went in and out of office like cricket teams going to bat and bowl, and their controversies were always conducted on a high level’. The anti-Labor factions composed their differences, forming a United Party under Mitchell from 1926 to 1928; but it was as a Nationalist-Country Party coalition that they regained office in April 1930.
As premier and treasurer, Mitchell confronted the Depression with promises of ‘work for all’, an impossible goal. Unemployment was nearly 30 per cent by 1932; wheat prices fell disastrously; the government concentrated on coping with the havoc. In 1931 the State Savings Bank of Western Australia was transferred to the Commonwealth Bank, and the Farmers’ Debts Adjustment Act was passed, allowing farmers to stay on their properties while working off their liabilities. Experiments were made in the bulk handling of wheat, but failed to satisfy the militant Wheatgrowers’ Union who, in the harvest of 1932, attempted a ‘strike’, withholding the delivery of crops. Mitchell was dismayed at demonstrations in Perth by the unemployed; Western Australia had the least niggardly unemployment relief rates in Australia. His only remedy was to provide sustenance work on irrigation schemes and other public works. To arrest falling revenue, the government introduced an entertainments tax and, in 1932, established a lotteries commission to support charities.
In 1930-33 the Dominion League channelled many Depression tensions into a populist movement for secession from Australia. Uneasily sympathetic, Mitchell authorized a referendum to coincide with the State election of 8 April 1933. Secession gained a ‘Yes’ vote of 68 per cent, but Mitchell was swept from office, and like every Nationalist member of cabinet, lost his seat. He remained bitter towards the Commonwealth.
In July Collier, again Labor premier, offered the lieutenant-governorship to his friend and rival. In the absence of a British-appointed governor, Mitchell performed with conspicuous success. Fortunately he encountered no constitutional crises, and the role gave him scope for his unaffected geniality and sociable avuncular temperament. Daily he strolled along St George’s Terrace with the slightly old-fashioned formality of a successful country banker—striped trousers, bowler hat, pince-nez and a silver-mounted stick—greeting acquaintances and tipping children with threepences for ice-cream. He enjoyed urging young men to go on the land and women to become farmers’ wives and mothers. He was perhaps happiest in the country districts, though the punctilious deplored his reputed habit of keeping fishhooks and bait in the pockets of his formal clothes. Courteous, florid, ample in paunch and jowl, he said: ‘I have lived in the world’s best climate and done justice to the world’s best food’. During World War II he was a stalwart figurehead. In 1948 he was formally appointed governor.
Mitchell’s last years in Government House were saddened by the deaths of his wife (1949) and all but one of their children; in June 1951 he was persuaded to retire. After spending the day shooting with his son, early on 26 July Sir James died in his sleep in the vice-regal railway carriage, at Glen Mervyn in the South-West. After a state funeral he was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. His affable and unpretentious occupancy of Government House almost erased criticisms of his political performance. With his drive and optimism he had sustained the burgeoning wheat-growing and dairying industries, but insufficient realism in detailed planning, and tunnel vision about the virtues of agriculture, led him to support unbalanced economic growth which bred hardship for many. Nevertheless this benign autocrat remains among the best loved of the State’s father figures.
Mitchell had been nominated C.M.G. in 1911 but the award was only granted in 1917. He was promoted K.C.M.G. in 1921 and G.C.M.G. in 1947. The northern section of Perth’s metropolitan freeway is named after him. His estate was valued at £12,167.
- G. L. Sutton, Comes the Harvest (Perth, 1952)
- F. K. Crowley, Australia’s Western Third (Lond, 1960)
- J. P. Gabbedy, Yours is the Earth (Perth, 1972)
- G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In (Perth, 1972)
- Times (London), 27 June 1915
- B. K. Hyams, The Political Organisation of Farmers in Western Australia From 1914 to 1944 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1964)
- D. W. Black, The National Party in Western Australia, 1917-1930: Its Origins and Development with an Introductory Survey of ‘Liberal’ Party Organisation, 1910-1916 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1974).
G. C. Bolton, ‘Mitchell, Sir James (1866–1951)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-sir-james-733/text13287, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 10 December 2021.