Shiels, William (1848–1904), politician and premier of Victoria, was born 3 December 1848 at Maghera, Co. Londonderry, son of Robert Shiels, farmer, and Patricia Sarah Shiels (née Kelly). In 1854 the family emigrated to Australia, but Robert Shiels died shortly after arriving at Melbourne. In later years Shiels paid eloquent tribute to the ‘life-long sacrifices and devotion’ of his mother (ADB). Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, he entered the university of Melbourne and graduated LLB (1873). Ill health had hampered his academic career, and it was to affect him for the rest of his life. He was called to the bar in 1873 but rarely practised, preferring to act as an executor of estates. For a number of years he worked as a tutor in South Australia, a period which was the happiest of his life, and where he indulged in his love of cricket and horse-riding.
Obsessed by politics, he stood for election to the legislative assembly of Victoria in 1877 but was defeated. Two years later he was successful, and in his maiden speech pleaded for an end to all parliamentary bitterness. An intellectual in politics, he was a poor leader of men but brilliant on questions of finance. He was an excellent speaker, writing and memorising his speeches in advance, and was adept at arguing his position with force and humour. Tall, prematurely bald, and grey, he established himself as a leading liberal in the assembly, and a strong advocate of women's rights. He drafted an amendment to an 1883 divorce bill, ensuring that mothers would get custody of the children, and followed this with amendments to the Married Women's Property Act (1884). His support for divorce reform helped establish his reputation and in 1889, despite opposition from the churches, he helped pass a new divorce bill. To ensure victory he visited London (1890) and won support from the British government for his proposals; this secured the queen's assent for his legislation, which became known as the ‘Shiels divorce act’. The lack of understanding between Britain and Australia was a source of constant annoyance and Shiels regularly attacked the ‘stupid ignorance’ of certain people who assumed ‘we are the descendants of convicts’ (Serle, 184).
With the collapse of the ministry in 1890, and the colony facing a financial crisis, he was appointed attorney general and minister for railways. Ill health and opposition from colleagues dogged his time in office, but he secured important amendments to the railways act. James Munro was removed as premier in 1892 and Shiels was asked to succeed him on 16 February. He won the general election in April, but his time in office was not happy. The colony was on the brink of economic collapse, and he spent long hours struggling to deal with the recession. Opposition mounted against his ministry and he decided to resign in November; he was replaced on 18 January 1893 after a vote of no confidence.
Diagnosed with an aneurysm in late 1893 he withdrew temporarily from politics. Returning to parliament towards the end of the 1890s he supported the principle of ‘one man one vote’ and female suffrage, but became increasingly conservative in his other pronouncements. On 5 December 1899 he was appointed treasurer in the government and made an infamous budget speech in the summer of 1900 when he was aided by a flask of whiskey and a bottle of champagne. The railways portfolio was added to his responsibilities in June 1902 and he was ruthless in suppressing strikes the following year. He resigned as treasurer on 21 July 1903.
Suffering from angina, he was forced to retire from politics on 16 February 1904. He died 17 December 1904 and was buried at Struan House. He married (6 May 1885) Jane Robertson, daughter of a pastoralist; they had one son and two daughters.