William Slater (1890-1960)

This page is dedicated to William Slater; founder of the law firm Slater and Gordon and for over 40 years a Labor member of the Victorian State Parliament.

See also: The War Diaries of William Slater Book

Slater and Gordon Law Firm

Article by Stephen Holt

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Victorian Parliament speaker

Biography - Birth and Early life

Very little is known about the early life of Bill Slater in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He later gave his birth date as May 20th 1890, but no birth certificate has been found to confirm this. We do know that he attended Armadale Primary School in Melbourne. His father, William Slater, died when Bill was only 12, forcing Bill to leave school to help support his mother Marie (nee O'Rielly) and sisters May (Toots) and Dorothy (Dor) Slater.

In his early teens he joined the Try Boys' Society, a youth movement created to combat the larrikinism prominent on Melbourne streets at the time. Later the Try Society found him work as an office boy with a law firm and perhaps here began a fondness for the law which lasted throughout his life. In 1912, aged 22, he moved to Mildura to work as a solicitor's clerk in the law firm of P.T. Park. In Mildura he also joined the local Australian Labor Party.

World War 1

After previously being rejected on health grounds, Bill was accepted into the Australian Infantry Force at the end of 1915. He was strongly opposed to taking up arms against his fellow man, so he joined the 10th Field Ambulance as a stretcher-bearer. In November 1916 he was sent to France, where he experienced the horror of life in the trenches with its extraordinary loss of human life. After eight months in the trenches, he was wounded and sent back to England. While recovering he was unexpectedly elected as a Victorian Labor MP (despite being 10,000 miles away), having been nominated by friends back in Australia. After six months in England he journeyed back to Australia.

Between the Wars

Upon his return to Australia Bill lived and worked in Hamilton, travelling to Melbourne for sittings of Parliament. In 1924, when a Labor government was elected in Victoria for the first time, he was appointed Attorney General - at the age of 35 possibly the youngest person to hold this office in Australia. In the following years he held additional portfolios as Solicitor General and Minister for Agriculture in the Labor governments of 1927-8 and 1929-32. From 1932 he was an opposition MP, but his reputation for fairness and judgement resulted in him being elected as speaker  (pictured left) of the House of Assembly during the 1940 Country Party Government led by Albert Dunstan.

In the years between the wars, Bill's legal career was also progressing. He graduated as a Barrister and Solicitor in 1922 and then worked for a while in partnership with Maurice Blackburn in Hamilton. Later, when he moved to Melbourne in 1930, he set up on his own in a small office in Unity Hall, undertaking legal work for the Australian Railways Union. By 1935 he was keen to expand his practice and so took his brother-in-law, Hugh Gordon into partnership. So began the now famous firm of Slater and Gordon.

In 1942, Australia's Labour Government under John Curtin appointed Bill as Australia's first Minister (Ambassador) to the USSR. He made a remarkable eight-week journey to Russia through the US, Africa and the Middle East, before presenting his credentials to President Kalinin (pictured left). As Ambassador, he struggled to establish a working relationship with a suspicious Soviet Regime, finding it difficult to obtain any useful information. Eventually, ill health forced him to return to Australia, where he gradually recovered and resumed his political career.

In the Cain government of 1945, Bill was once more appointed Attorney General as well as Chief Secretary. His most significant legislation during this period involved setting up a Trotting Control Board to regulate the Harness racing industry in which bribery and corruption were rife. This, however, made him an enemy of the notorious John Wren, who financed a massive campaign against Bill in Dundas. This campaign, along with the Federal Labor Government's Bank Nationalisation Legislation, led to Bill losing Dundas in the 1947 election, having held it continuously for 30 years. Bill would make a comeback in 1949, winning the Upper House Province of Doutta Galla and serving again as Attorney General in Cain's ministry of 1952-55.

In Memory of William Slater

Bill Slater died on June 19th 1960, after a short battle with cancer. He was still a Member of Parliament when he died, having been an MP for 41 of his 70 years. Tributes were paid to him from all political parties and many sections of the community. Oswald Barnett, of the Methodist Church, wrote that "he was one of the few who entered politics with a pure heart and, despite all its delusions and temptations, he remained pure and untainted to the end".

In the Victorian Parliament, Labor MP Clive Stoneham said that Bill Slater's special mission in life was to "elevate the underdog...he was intolerant of injustice, and was at all times a dauntless defender of civil liberties". From the other side of the House, Henry Bolte said he always found him to be a "clean straight shooter" and the leader of the Country Party, Sir Albert Lind, said "I held Bill Slater in the highest possible regard, not only politically but also personally. No one knows better than I what he did for all types of people in this state and the assistance he gave to persons who could not afford to pay for legal advice. As a result he won his way into the heart of all who knew him".

Jack Galbally, a Labor MLC, described him as "a man of intense loyalty and integrity. As a lawyer he established a large practice and won the respect and admiration of the whole profession". He concluded in his address to the House: "He was the gentlest of men, the fierce side of his nature was apparent only when striking at bigotry, prejudice and injustice. Long, I hope, will we treasure his memory".

Finally, in the words of the Reverend Victor James of the Unitarian Church:

It can be truly said, his life will be his most lasting memorial.

From Victorian Parliamen tweb site: http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/re-member/bioregfull.cfm?mid=1444

Slater, William

Born 20 January 1890 (New South Wales, Victoria)
Died 19 June 1960. (South Melbourne. Springvale crematorium)
Parents: William, salesman, and Marie O'Reilly
Marriage: 1923 Mary Gordon, MSc; 2s. 1d.
Occupation: Solicitor
Religion: Unitarian
Education: Armadale State School, and South Yarra Try Boys Society

Career: Arrived Vic. c1892 after father's death; office boy in solicitor's office; member Clerks Union 1910; law clerk Mildura 1912; Australian Imperial Force 1916-1918, 10th Field Ambulance, stretcher bearer, wounded France, invalided home; in fruit-growing partnership, Mildura; managing law clerk for Maurice Blackburn (q.v.) 1919-1922; admitted to practice as solicitor 1922; in partnership with M. Blackburn 1923-1924; established own practice Melbourne and Hamilton, later Melbourne only; first Aust. Minister to Soviet Union 1942-1943; president Law Institute 1928-1929; chief president Australian Natives Association 1926, director 1923-1960, honorary solicitor 1933-1960; president Vic. Society of Notaries; v-president Essendon Football Club; member Vic. Amateur Swimming Association; Rechabite 1911.

Party: Labor; Australian Labor Party
Party Note: Attended Victorian Socialist Party meetings; joined Mildura ALP, state executive 1919-1921

House

Electorate

Start *

 

End *

 

MLA

Dundas

November 1917

 

April 1932

Defeated

MLA

Dundas

July 1932

 

October 1947

Defeated

MLC

Doutta Galla

June 1949

 

June 1960

 

Defeated in 1932, re-elected on recount.
Appointments: Attorney-General and Solicitor-General July 1924-Nov 1924, May 1927-Nov 1928, Dec 1929-May 1932, Sept 1943, Nov 1945-Nov 1947, Minister of Agric. May 1927-Nov 1928, Dec 1929-May 1932, Minister of Electrical Undertakings Sept 1943, Chief Secretary Nov 1945-Nov 1947, Attorney-General and Minister of Immigration Dec 1952-June 1955, Minister of Prices Dec 1952-Mar 1955. Speaker May 1940-Oct 1942.


References: Who's Who in Australia 1933-1959; Victoria, 'Parliamentary Debates' 14 Sept 1960, 5-9. 21-24; Labor Call 18 Sept 1924; Geelong Advertiser 28 Jan 1928; Table Talk 12 Jan 1929; Argus 13 Oct 1942; Age, SNP 20 June 1960; Lomas, L. G., 'The Western District Farmer 1914-27', PhD thesis, Monash Inversity, 1979; White, K. B., 'John Cain and Victorian Labor 1917-57', Sydney, 1982.
Initial data source: Browne, G, 'Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament 1900-84', 1985
Last update: 1985 (last date the record was checked and updated)

*The Start date for a Member's parliamentary service refers to the date they were sworn in as a Member, not the date they were elected. The End date for a Member's parliamentary service, when it coincides with the end of a specific Parliament, refers to the date that Parliament was prorogued, not the date of the subsequent election

 

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