William McPherson

Sir William McPherson (1865 – 1932) businessman, premier and philanthropist
In 1909 William McPherson became a permanent benefactor of Swinburne’s new technical college. He provided a gift of £25,000 for the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy which produced dietitians as well as ‘efficient housewives’. He gave freely to the Congregational Church, and his unpublicized generosities were innumerable. Sir William McPherson became the premier of Victoria in 1928.

In 1902-13 McPherson represented importers on the Melbourne Harbor Trust, and in 1909 was elected president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce. When in 1913 George Swinburne resigned the Legislative Assembly seat of Hawthorn, his friend McPherson succeeded him, holding it effortlessly thereafter.

He tried to bring to politics the ‘business commonsense’ which had served him as merchant-manufacturer. In 1917 an ‘anti-extravagance’ campaign, spearheaded by the Age, brought down the Peacock government. McPherson became treasurer (1917-23), briefly under (Sir) John Bowser and then (Sir) Harry Lawson. He became National Party leader in 1927 and, with the fall of the Hogan government (November 1928), premier and treasurer. Defeated at the 1929 general election, and in failing health, he retired in August 1930.

In the turbulent faction-ridden Victorian politics of the 1920s, with growing imbalance between city and country, a weak Labor Party, an ambitious Country Party, division on the right and a conservative Upper House, McPherson’s qualities were valuable, if limited. He had little charisma and no talent for political in-fighting, nor for long-term strategy.

He did have unchallengeable integrity, a zest for careful management and a personal gift for conciliation. He inspired affection. His own beliefs that soldier settlement and railway expansion needed subsidy and could not show quick profits, that economic progress required low taxes, that good government was thrifty, and that thinly populated rural electorates deserved special electoral consideration attracted considerable, if rather motley, support.

Six successive budget surpluses had him labelled as ‘the threepenny Treasurer’, but he did have flashes of imagination: he backed both the State Electricity Commission and (Sir) Harold Clapp’s railways appointment. His resignation of Treasury office on 20 November 1923, because (he said) the government could not honour its promises without tax increases it was pledged to avoid, showed his principle and his inflexibility.

(Sir) Frederic Eggleston, whose political career he had encouraged but who became paranoiacally estranged from him, later attacked him bitterly, alleging that he knew nothing of public finance, balanced his budgets accidentally through inflation, and financed soldier settlement by irresponsible borrowing. In fact, McPherson valued Victoria’s good overseas credit, which kept loan interest low, and disapproved of heavy debt. His penny-pinching did not preclude a few liberal concepts like town planning, and he could even, if pushed, unexpectedly squeeze out a badly needed university grant.

But in 1928-29, he still thought the State should ‘pay its way’ within a minimal budget, avoiding increased taxation that might discourage the private enterprise essential for prosperity. He did not grasp the increasing need for public expenditure to meet the needs of an increasingly complex and urbanized community. He became premier by default, rather than by ambition, with an outlook which prohibited a search for new policies.

McPherson used his own wealth as he believed wealth should be used, to help fill the gaps necessarily left by economical government. In 1909 he became a foundation councillor and permanent benefactor of Swinburne’s new technical college. His Treasury resignation was followed by a gift of £25,000 for the domestic science college which the government could not afford, and career opportunities for girls became wider: the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy produced dietitians as well as efficient housewives.

He gave freely to the Congregational Church, and his unpublicized generosities were innumerable. After a friend’s wife, a Queen Victoria Hospital committee-member, persuaded him of the need for a community hospital for women unable to afford private hospital fees, he quietly handed her an envelope—’Well, Nan, there’s your hospital!’ Inside was a personal cheque for £25,000 but its donor insisted on remaining anonymous until after the 1929 election. At the opening of the Jessie McPherson Community Hospital in December 1931, he was delighted that its fittings had supplied employment by being Australian made.

Complete article : http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100351b.htm

Further information on Sir William McPherson : http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/re-member/bioregfull.cfm?mid=1306

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