Stephen Holt expands on William Slater’s life of public service, and his contribution to Australia’s political development documented in the Library’s Manuscript Collection
The career of the Victorian politician William Slater began and culminated far from Australia’s tranquil shores. He catapulted into parliamentary politics when serving on the Western Front during World War I. His reputation as a socialist later led, in 1942, to his being named as Australia’s first diplomatic representative to the USSR.
This immersion in world events is recorded in personal documents that Slater bequeathed to the National Library of Australia. These papers and letters, held in the Manuscript Collection, including two wartime diaries, throw light on this remarkable man and his contribution to Australia’s public life.
Born in New South Wales in 1890, William Slater lost his father when he was very young. Securing a job as an office boy in a solicitor’s firm saved him from destitution. In 1912 he became a law clerk in Mildura where he joined the Labor Party. He was a member of the Clerks’ Union as well, and earlier, when living in Melbourne, had attended Victorian Socialist Party meetings and classes. There was no doubt where he stood politically.
At the end of 1915, with war raging in Europe, Slater volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Though ready to serve his country, he had no desire to kill Germans, choosing to enlist as a stretcher-bearer instead. When he sailed for France, a signed nomination form for state Parliament was lodged with the Labor Party.
From January 1917 to April 1918, when he returned to Australia, Slater kept a diary of his wartime experiences in France and England. Nothing he saw caused him to alter his political principles. He expressed a steadfast hostility to ‘Capitalist possession’. In an interesting take on the Anzac myth, he noted that the ‘damnable’ spirit of militarism was sadly exposed by the ‘ineptitude and blunders’ detailed in the official report on the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. On a visit to London he had an earnest discussion with Australia’s High Commissioner, Andrew Fisher, a former Labor prime minister, but ‘a jingo now’. Extensive reading of socialist tracts and newspapers made him evermore convinced of ‘the guilt of Capitalism and Imperialism for this war and its undue prolongation’.
Back in Australia, the Labor Party pushed ahead with Slater’s mooted parliamentary candidacy in the knowledge that his being in the AIF meant that he could not be smeared as an unpatriotic malcontent. The strategy worked. In November 1917, while still far away in Britain, Slater was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Returning in 1918, John Curtin welcomed him back. His private papers contain further indications of support. A militant cell, which operated out of the Melbourne Trades Hall, reprinted an early parliamentary speech of his, in which he insisted that the labour movement was ‘daily becoming more pacifist’.
When the war ended, politics became less momentous. Slater quickly discovered that the ALP in Victoria was in no position to implement sweeping change. State politics was chronically unstable. Until well into the 1950s, it was characterised by a finely balanced triangular struggle for power involving Labor and rival metropolitan and rural non-Labor parties. Cabinets were formed and dissolved with bewildering regularity. Slater served as Attorney-General on six separate occasions. He was elected Speaker in 1940, when there was a Country Party government. In the jungle of state politics the law firm that he established in 1935 was a Labor sanctuary, providing steady work for socially progressive lawyers.
Slater’s inter-war routine was overturned once Russia entered World War II in 1941, and Australia established diplomatic relations with Moscow. In choosing Australia’s first envoy, Dr H.V. Evatt, the Labor External Affairs Minister, acted on the unworldly belief in the ‘Left speaking to Left’. A Labor man had to be chosen, and Slater, as Prime Minister Curtin could attest, was trustworthy. His appointment was announced in October 1942.
Once he realised that he would be going to Russia, Slater started keeping a second diary. The early entries convey the excitement that his appointment aroused in Australia. On 18 October 1942 the Australia–Soviet Friendship League held a rally at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre at which, as a gift to Stalin from the people of Melbourne, Slater was entrusted with an Australian flag on which the oath taken by the miners at the Eureka Stockade was embroidered. The spirit of rebellion was abroad once more. In his diary, Slater recorded his belief in ‘the hopelessness of the future under a de-controlled or controlled capitalism’. Russia was at the vanguard of a new collectivist world order.
Getting to Russia involved a convoluted journey, which began with a long flight eastwards across the Pacific, followed by a train trip across the United States. In both California and the eastern states a wary Slater was struck by the power and confidence of American capitalism, whether exhibited by consumerism in Los Angeles (‘Cars, cars, cars’), or by the deferential attitude of trade union leaders in Washington, who were ‘out and out supporters of the policy of free enterprise’. He reached the Soviet Union at the end of 1942, after flying across Africa and the Middle East, where the River Jordan reminded him of the Yarra at Heidelberg.
The new Australian legation was not located in Moscow, which until recently had been threatened by the Germany army, but in the safer provincial centre of Kuibyshev. It was here that Slater presented his credentials to the Soviet President, and met government officials including Foreign Minister Molotov and his deputy Vyshinsky. Ever the lawyer, Slater took the opportunity to seek information on the Soviet legal system from Vyshinsky, who had been the state prosecutor during the terrible prewar purges of the old Bolshevik elite.
A positive view of the Soviet Union was evident in a radio broadcast that Slater delivered to the Australian people from Kuibyshev. He told his listeners that the Soviet people were ‘determined not to rest until victory is won’. Other Australian observers were less sanguine. On a visit to Moscow, Slater met the journalist Godfrey Blunden. In a diary entry he described Blunden as ‘a man of gloom who saw no good in Russia and who said that the regime had sold out socialism’. Slater was not fazed. As the weeks passed, his admiration for the USSR was ‘stimulated and strengthened’.
Slater’s enthusiasm, however, could not withstand the onset of serious health problems. By April 1943 he had succumbed to ‘weakness and depression’. A ‘limited and unvaried’ diet, the brutal Russian winter and enforced physical inactivity had taken their toll. After consulting doctors in Moscow and Cairo, he decided to return home. In Washington he met a miffed Dr Evatt, whose disappointment was exacerbated by a newspaper report written by Godfrey Blunden in which it was suggested, incorrectly, that Slater was disillusioned with the Soviet regime.
Slater was determined to put the record straight. When he submitted his official resignation,
he informed Prime Minister Curtin that the USSR was certain to play a leading part in the building of a ‘newer, happier and more secure world’. The same positive impression was evident when he broadcast selected entries from his diary in an ABC radio program in the winter of 1943.
Back in wartime Melbourne, relations with the USSR generated tension in Labor circles. The National Library holds correspondence between Slater and Jack Barry, a fellow Labor lawyer, in which the prickliness of this issue is evident. Slater was directly affected when anticommunist elements in the Victorian ALP managed to blacklist the Australia–Soviet Friendship League. The federal Labor MP Maurice Blackburn was expelled from the party because he attended League functions. A friend and professional colleague of Blackburn’s, Slater chose to ignore the ban. In November 1943 he attended a rally held in Melbourne to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the following year he asked Curtin to defy the continuing Victorian ALP ban on celebrating Russia’s national day.
Slater, as his wife Mary later told Jack Barry, could not bear ‘the thought of being inactive’. Defeated in the 1947 Legislative Assembly elections, he did not retire from public life but instead successfully sought election to the Victorian Legislative Council. In the upper house he saw the anticommunist sentiment that had worried him during the war grow ever stronger, until it provoked the great Labor split of 1955. This ushered in the long reign of Henry Bolte.
As his career neared its end, William Slater ensured that key documents were kept for posterity. In 1956 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Librarian Harold White wrote to him suggesting his Russian diary was bound to have ‘a permanent historical value’, and should be kept in a national collection. This diary, along with his World War I diary, letters, papers, travel documents, texts of speeches, radio broadcasts, and photographs relating to the period when Slater was Australian Minister to the Soviet Union, are now part of the Library’s Manuscript Collection.
William Slater died in 1960, but his life of public service continues to be remembered by his family and the wider community. His old law firm is a thriving concern. In 2000 Helen Slater, one of his three children, and David Widdowson, a grandson, published his two wartime diaries (The War Diaries of William Slater. Strathmore, Victoria: Astrovisuals). Together with Slater’s other personal papers they document a vital contribution to Australia’s political development.
STEPHEN HOLT is a Canberra author and reviewer