Edmund Barton was the great voice of compromise, without whom federation may never have happened. Born in Glebe in 1849 as the youngest of nine children, his mother ran a school for girls to keep the large family financially stable. His upbringing was nevertheless somewhat aristocratic as he attended Sydney Grammar and became the academic darling of the University of Sydney. A man of many talents, he shone on the cricket pitch, in the debating society, and as a board member of the Athenaeum Club, which followed his financial policy of trying to ‘drink itself out of debt’.
As a member of Sydney’s intellectual and social elite, ‘Toby’ Barton was naturally drawn towards law and politics. At the youthful age of 30 he entered the Parliament for the questionably-democratic seat of Sydney University, which was voted in by university graduates. As someone who was almost universally known and liked, Barton found his natural calling serving as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1883 until 1887. Little attracted to political ideologies, Barton was somewhat uncomfortable with the emergence of the fiscal issue in NSW politics. Though he had once declared himself a Free Trader, he found himself drawn to Protectionism by pre-existing political affiliations.
When federation became a hot-topic in the 1880s, a mixture of patriotism and ego drew Barton towards the cause. In 1891 he was elected as a delegate to the National Australasian Convention, and quickly imprinted his mark on the draft constitution. He advocated a lower house elected on a universal franchise, a representative upper house, internal free trade and the protection of the ‘territorial rights’ of the pre-existing colonies. He clashed fiercely with Reid over whether the draft constitution compromised the interests of NSW, but when the latter was successful in temporarily killing the federation issue, Barton accepted a cabinet position in a Dibbs Government that showed little interest in reigniting it.
After being forced to resign his position as Attorney-General in 1893, Barton re-dedicated himself to the cause and spent considerable time trying to build up grassroots support. This gradually convinced Reid that federation was an issue that had to be dealt with, and when elections were held for a new round of Federal Conventions, Barton topped the NSW poll. Now acknowledged as Parkes’ successor as head of the federation movement, Barton was made leader of the convention and chairman of the drafting and constitutional committees. As chairman Barton was required to act with a degree of impartiality, directing meandering debates and motions into positive outcomes. This was a position which suited him and in which he did diligent work, but it meant that he was seldom able to stand up for the interests of his Colony. The result was a bill that did little to protect the superiority of the democratic House of Representatives over a State-based Senate, and therefore one that was unpopular in NSW.
At the NSW referendum the bill failed to reach the minimum 80,000 yes votes required. Blaming Reid’s lukewarm support, Barton tried to unseat him at the 1898 election but failed. There followed further negotiations which resulted in an improved Constitution that this time was successful. Barton went to England to help get it through Westminster and then returned to take up a seat in the new Parliament. It was thought that as leader of the largest State, the sitting NSW Premier should be appointed the first Prime Minister, but because William Lyne had opposed Federation Barton was eventually chosen.
It speaks volumes of Barton’s distaste for political conflict that he retired after one term to take up a seat on the High Court. Barton was not someone who succeeded in the cut and thrust of ordinary politics, but his affability and dedication made him perfectly suited to what was no ordinary task. It may be that Barton was guilty of accepting federation at any cost and desiring too much to have his name attached to the project, but without his patience and grunt work it is difficult to see how the project would ever have succeeded.
Further Reading on Edmund: