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Excellence, Family, Governance, Leadership

WA Premier – Sir David Brand


By journalist Tony Warton    22 August 2015

I had the privilege of knowing David Brand.

I met him for the first time one typically windy, dusty day at Kalgoorlie airport.

It was 1962 and I was a fledgling reporter on The West Australian, wet behind the ears but working without supervision as the paper’s Kalgoorlie correspondent.

David Brand had at that time been Premier of WA for three years – a year longer than I had been in journalism.

He was on the election campaign trail and I had to cover the Goldfields leg of it.

I knew, of course, that he would have expected a much more senior journalist to be doing this job.

Instead, he was faced with a raw youngster not even old enough to vote.

But if he was disappointed, you’d never have guessed it.

He went out of his way to put me at ease. His warmth and patience made it possible for me to do the job without embarrassing either of us too much.

That meeting was one of the most important events in my life.

It is therefore with a happy heart that I invite you to join me on a brief journey through the life of David Brand.

David Brand joined the Liberal Party as soon as it was formed in January 1945.

He was a prize recruit.  In his 32 years he had learnt more about the real world than most people do in a lifetime.  It was the perfect foundation for what lay ahead.

The first step in his political career came fast.  A by-election was called for the State electorate of Greenough, whose sitting Labor MP had been killed in the war.

David Brand put his name forward, and won the right to become the first-ever Liberal candidate in Australia.

Before 1945 was over he again led the way as the first Australian to be elected as a Liberal.

This put him a year ahead of the party’s founder, Robert Menzies.

Menzies was already a member of Federal Parliament but had been elected as a United Australia Party candidate.  He was not elected as a Liberal until 1946.

David Brand was born into a Northampton farming family in 1912, the first of four children.

There was no silver spoon – he had to leave school at 14 to work on a farm that could not afford paid labour.

And so began his education in the best school of all – the University of Life.

This learn-as-you-live classroom would qualify him to head the most outstanding period of government in Western Australia’s history.

The rigours of life on the land and the Great Depression moulded a character of strength, resourcefulness and a desire to help others.

Above all, they burned into him an unyielding belief in the importance of loyalty.

In 1935, now aged 23 and with the Depression still crippling Australia, David took himself off to Kalgoorlie to work in a goldmine.

He started as a truck driver but moved steadily through jobs and ranks, natural leadership showing as he rose to become a shift boss, a pivotal job in mining.

He was a calm man, quiet, easygoing and a true friend to his workmates.  But there was steel in the velvet glove.

The glove came off with the outbreak of war in 1939 as a mature David Brand joined the Army as an infantryman.

He fought with the Sixth Division across North Africa but his luck ran out when his battalion was sent to help stop the Nazi invasion of Greece.

He was wounded in action.  Life-threatening gangrene set in and it took a full year of treatment to recover. He was discharged from the Army as medically unfit.

In early 1944 he married – it was a true fairytale match.

An 11-year-old girl went to church while on holiday in Dongara in 1932. She took an instant liking to the 21-year-old lay preacher.

The lay preacher was David Brand and Doris McNeill never forgot him.

She did not see him again for 11 years, when he visited a friend at the hospital where Doris was working.  She did not let the opportunity slip – within six months they were married.

David Brand took up an unlikely occupation for a man of his experience – he became a shopkeeper in Dongara.

He also took that other life-changing step – he joined the Liberal Party as soon as it was founded and was a member of parliament before 1945 was over.

Just two years later, and as an MP in the governing coalition, he took his first step up the ladder when Premier Ross McLarty chose him ahead of longer-serving colleagues for the vital job of government whip.

In this testing post his duty was to keep the MPs of the often- fractious coalition parties working in a common purpose.

He shone in the job and in 1949 was promoted to the front bench as an honorary minister.

A year later his star rose higher as he was elevated to full membership of the cabinet as minister for works, water supplies and housing.

The works portfolio was his launching pad.

It brought him into partnership with one of the most significant figures in WA’s history, the visionary head of his works department, Russell (later Sir Russell) Dumas.

Between them they mapped out a strategy to lift WA out of its over-dependence on primary industry – and end its humiliation as a mendicant living off subsidies from other States.

Their first great victory was to negotiate the establishment of Australia’s biggest oil refinery, at Kwinana.

It was the springboard that made it possible to attract other major industries, creating thousands upon thousands of skilled jobs.

Despite the government’s achievements in expanding the economy, the electorate turned against it in the 1953 election.

Yet for David Brand there was a silver lining to being in opposition.  The defeated Liberals elected him deputy leader and he set about generating a more energetic mindset in the moribund party.

When the Liberals lost again in 1956 McLarty retired and the party turned to David Brand to lead it.  His time had come, and he delivered.

Under his leadership the coalition was swept back into office in 1959.  It would remain there for a record time.

David Brand would lead it as WA’s longest-serving Premier, for 11 years, 11 months and one day.

As Premier he welded a collection of highly diverse personalities and talents into a stable and formidable team.

His government delivered astonishing results.

The iron ore mountains of the Pilbara were developed under a complex strategy of getting major international steel mills, bankers and miners to pay for everything.

The Pilbara in those days was one of the world’s most remote places, lacking any semblance of modern infrastructure.

Towns, ports, heavy-haul railways and all-weather roads sprang up almost overnight at virtually no cost to a cash-strapped State.

It was an enormous gamble but before the 1960s were over WA had vaulted from nowhere to become the world’s biggest iron ore exporter.

The great bauxite deposits of the Darling Range turned WA into the world’s largest producer of alumina, the intermediate stage between bauxite and aluminium…

This advance was made possible by another breakthrough – the discovery of gas at Dongara.

The gas overcame WA’s dependence on costly low-grade coal.  It made refining of bauxite economic, and the employment spin-off was phenomenal.

The huge nickel fields north and south of Kalgoorlie were opened up, with nickel ores given added value by processing creating more jobs and bringing in more skills.

But there was much more happening.

At its own cost, WA sealed the Eyre Highway from Norseman to the South Australian border.

In the process, and by no means accidentally, it shamed the Federal Government into paying to seal the South Australian part of the highway, giving WA its first all-weather road link with the rest of Australia.

Premier Brand also persuaded Canberra to upgrade the narrow-gauge railway from Kalgoorlie to Perth to the wider standard gauge.

With the same gauge across Australia, freight and passengers no longer had to change trains at Kalgoorlie.

The savings transformed the economics of transcontinental rail freight.

The Commonwealth was also brought to see the wisdom of investing in the Ord River project, ridiculed for decades in the eastern States but now recognised as the centrepiece of plans to make northern Australia a food-bowl for Asia.

David Brand’s hectic time as leader also saw the start of what will soon make WA the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

The discovery of commercial oil deposits beneath Barrow Island, followed by the Dongara gas find, started an energy juggernaut rolling.

With vigorous Government salesmanship WA was suddenly a hot-spot in the global hunt for petroleum.

It was in the deep waters off the Pilbara that the State hit the jackpot.

What the explorers found beneath the seabed was not the oil they had hoped for, but gas – vast quantities of it.

The discovery and development of this gas was costly almost beyond belief at the time.

Suddenly, a State and nation – and indeed a world – that had only just got their heads round resources projects that cost hundreds of millions had to adjust to costs in the multi-billions. Investors were nervous.

But from the global contacts they had cultivated in getting iron ore, bauxite and nickel developed, Premier Brand and his dynamic deputy, Charles Court, reckoned they saw an opportunity.

They calculated that an energy-poor but highly industrialised and heavily polluted Japan would want immense volumes of clean gas for power generation.

The rest is history, though with decades of hindsight – and, it has to be said, complacency – it looks far easier than it actually was.

There is an old Scottish proverb, dating from centuries before the motorised age: After the Lord Mayor’s coach comes the dung cart.

It means that the gloss of good times is always followed by something less glamorous.

And so it proved for WA, and David Brand, in 1971.

After 12 years under one government the “It’s time” factor took root in an electorate that had come to take ever-rising prosperity for granted.

The Brand government’s thanks for transforming WA’s – and Australia’s – economy was to be thrown out.

It was as close as an election can be. The losing margin was just one seat.

By now Sir David – knighted for his service to his State and nation – he resigned as Liberal leader and stepped quietly out of the spotlight to serve as a back-bencher.

But with economic growth stagnating, the electorate quickly came to recognise the legacy of David Brand and the government he had so skilfully led.

After only one term in opposition the coalition, now led by Sir Charles Court, was swept back into office for eight more years.

Despite the relief from the pressures of leadership Sir David’s health declined, aggravated by the after-effects of a serious road accident while driving home to Dongara after a late-night sitting in Parliament.

He retired from parliament in 1975 after serving as an MP for 30 years.

Embarking on his working life at only 14 and with little formal education, he had led WA through the most extraordinary era of economic, social and cultural progress the State had ever seen.

David Brand passed quietly away from heart disease in 1979.

What can we of today draw from the life of David Brand?

Above all, we can learn that great things are open to those who have the qualities that were the pillars of his character.

There were four of these pillars, and they are available to anyone who wants them.

Foremost was an absolute belief that productive and lasting teamwork is achievable only through mutual loyalty.

Next in his priorities was determination, but his was a quiet determination. As he put it, you can get away with being pushy – but not if you’re loud as well.

After this came an endless thirst to learn. To him, a day in which he learnt nothing new was a wasted day.

Finally – and this was the underlying strength of his success – was the desire to get along with people.

He had learnt this on the land, in the goldmines, in the hardship of the Depression, and as a frontline soldier in the furnace of War.

David Brand LIKED people – and they were drawn to him because of it.

It is the openness, the honesty and the obviousness of his feelings for WA and its people that made him the giant of the State’s history for which he is recognised today.


About steveblizard

Steve Blizard commenced his financial planning career in 1988 from a background of life insurance broking, a field in which he still works. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the Responsible Investment Association. His experience ranges from administration of Superannuation to advice regarding insurance, retirement, remuneration and investment planning. Steve is an accredited Remuneration Consultant, specialising in salary packaging. He is a columnist for the Swan Magazine and the WA Business News


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