Richard Layton Butler

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The Honourable
Sir Richard L. Butler
KCMG
Richard Layton Butler.jpg
31st Premier of South Australia
Elections: 1927, 1930, 1933, 1938
In office
18 April 1933 – 5 November 1938
Monarch George V
Edward VIII
George VI
Governor Earl of Gowrie
Lord Dugan
Preceded by Robert Richards
Succeeded by Sir Thomas Playford
In office
8 April 1927 – 17 April 1930
Monarch George V
Governor Sir Tom Bridges
Earl of Gowrie
Preceded by Lionel Hill
Succeeded by Lionel Hill
20th Leader of the Opposition (SA)
In office
17 April 1930 – 18 April 1933
Preceded by Lionel Hill
Succeeded by Andrew Lacey
In office
1925 – 8 April 1927
Preceded by Henry Barwell
Succeeded by Lionel Hill
Treasurer of South Australia
In office
18 April 1933 – 05 Nov 1938
Premier Richard Layton Butler
Preceded by Member for Robert Richards
Succeeded by Thomas Playford IV
In office
8 Apr 1927 – 17 April 1930
Premier Richard Layton Butler
Preceded by Lionel Hill
Succeeded by Lionel Hill
Member for Wooroora
In office
9 April 1921 – 19 March 1938
Preceded by Allan Robertson
Succeeded by Constituency Abolished
In office
27 March 1915 – 6 April 1918
Preceded by Oscar Duhst
Succeeded by James McLachlan
Personal details
Born (1885-03-31)31 March 1885
Gawler, South Australia, Australia
Died 21 January 1966(1966-01-21) (aged 80)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Political party Liberal Federation: 1st term
LCL: 2nd term

Sir Richard Layton Butler KCMG (31 March 1885 – 21 January 1966) was the 31st Premier of South Australia, serving two disjunct terms in office: from 1927 to 1930, and again from 1933 to 1938.

Born on a farm near Gawler, South Australia, the son of former South Australian Premier Sir Richard Butler and his wife Helena (née Layton), Butler studied at Adelaide Agricultural School before becoming a grazier at Kapunda and marrying Maude Draper on 4 January 1908.

Inheriting his father's interest in politics, Butler joined the conservative Liberal Union while young and was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly for the rural electorate of Wooroora at the 1915 election, serving in the House alongside his father. Butler would lose his seat at the 1918 election (due to his support for conscription) but regained Wooroora at the 1921 election and retained the seat comfortably for the next seventeen years.

Butler made infrequent speeches in parliament and was in the habit of accidentally offending people through his choice of words. He was, however, known for his convivial style outside parliament and his equally pugnacious style inside the house. In 1925 he became Liberal Federation party whip and then party leader (and therefore Opposition leader) following the retirement of former premier Henry Barwell from politics. At the 1927 election, Butler successfully led the Liberal Federation to victory, winning 23 seats in the 46 seat Assembly, with the coalition Country Party winning five seats, the Australian Labor Party 16, the Independent Protestant Labor Party one and an independent winning a seat. In becoming Premier (as well as Treasurer and Minister of Railways), Butler and his father became the first (and so far only) father-son combination to serve as Premier of South Australia.

In government, Butler passed the Drought Relief and Debt Adjustment Acts to assist drought stricken farmers but his reaction to other industries hit by the Great Depression was less sympathetic; believing that the way out of the Depression was for South Australians to work harder, Butler dealt heavily with a waterside workers strike in 1929 and cut funding to many government departments.

By the 1930 election, South Australia faced severe drought as well as the Depression, leaving Butler to warn of hard times ahead and further belt-tightening required. Labor leader Lionel Hill, on the other hand, promised a golden future. Not surprisingly, the Liberal Federation was reduced to 13 seats and the Country Party two as Labor swept to power and Butler returned to the opposition benches as Leader. The loss turned out to be a blessing in disguise to Butler, as the Labor Party was forced to deal with the Depression while Butler could work on his pet project: namely, the amalgamation of the Liberal Federation and the Country Party. This amalgamation resulted in the Liberal and Country League in 1932.

Butler led the LCL to victory at the 1933 election following the self-destruction of the Labor Party over its handling of the Depression. The LCL won 29 seats; Butler became Treasurer and Immigration Minister as well as Premier.

In Canberra, Butler achieved fame for his tough bargaining skills, which resulted in extra grants for South Australia; through this funding, and a reduction in government spending, South Australia was the first state since the start of the Depression to balance its budget. He was also known in Canberra as a fierce opponent of federal control, strongly opposing the proposed Commonwealth wheat pool and the rationalisation of butter production.

Butler's term in office also saw the founding of the South Australian Housing Trust, designed to build cheap homes for those affected by the Depression and the successful enticing of Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) to build a blast furnace in Whyalla, and General Motors Holden to maintain their Adelaide base, as well as major changes to the structure of Parliament, including an increase in parliamentary terms from three years to five years, the reduction of the number of members in the Lower House from 46 to 39, and the introduction of single-member electorates. The result was later known as the Playmander.

Not all was rosy for Butler, though. The conditions laid down by the Country Party, prior to its merging with the Liberal Federation, left former Country Party politicians with more influence in the LCL than their numbers in parliament would indicate, including a guaranteed ministerial post for Albert Percy Blesing. Butler struggled to control rural members of the LCL - some of these members publicly disagreed with Butler over key issues. This internal opposition was magnified by Butler's refusal to introduce compulsory religious education into state schools or to ban drinking and gambling, which led church and temperance groups to launch a moral crusade against Butler, and which prompted conservative LCL members to consider dumping Butler as leader. Butler held on to his position and led the LCL to the 1938 election. At that poll, the LCL lost several seats, but (thanks to support from independent parliamentarians) retained office.

Former South Australian premiers (from left) Robert Richards, Sir Richard Butler, Lionel Hill and Sir Henry Barwell meet with then Premier Tom Playford in 1940

Mounting internal LCL displeasure led Butler to consider switching to federal politics. An opportunity arose for such a move in 1938, following the death in an aeroplane crash of the LCL MP Charles Hawker. Butler gained pre-selection for the 1938 Wakefield by-election and resigned his position as Premier and his seat in parliament on 5 November 1938, to be replaced as Premier by Thomas Playford IV. At the time of his resignation, Butler was the longest-serving Premier in South Australian history.

In a surprise result, Butler lost the by-election, and although he continued to seek federal pre-selection for the LCL, internal party opponents thwarted him. Instead, after being knighted in 1939, Butler was first appointed by Playford to the critical wartime positions of Director of Emergency Road Transport and Chair of the Liquid Fuel Control Board and later as a Director of the Electricity Trust of South Australia.

Butler died in Adelaide of cerebro-vascular disease in 1966. He received a state funeral.

Labor MP Mark Butler is Richard Layton Butler's grandson.

References[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Lionel Hill
Premier of South Australia
1927 – 1930
Succeeded by
Lionel Hill
Preceded by
Robert Richards
Premier of South Australia
1933 – 1938
Succeeded by
Thomas Playford IV
Party political offices
Preceded by
Henry Barwell
Leader of the Liberal Federation (SA)
1925 – 1932
Succeeded by
Himself as leader of the LCL
Preceded by
Himself as leader of the Liberal Federation
Leader of the Liberal and Country League (SA)
1932 – 1938
Succeeded by
Thomas Playford IV