Australia’s successful constitution is a combination of a written document and an unwritten parliamentary system based on custom and precedent imported from Britain. This series documents how that system evolved by examining ten of the most important fathers of our constitutional inheritance. Each piece succinctly explores both the life and significance of a subject, directing those interested towards further study. Five Australians and five Britons have been selected to give a far-sighted view of the establishment of key institutions and concepts. From the gradual emergence of the office of Prime Minister, the transportation of democracy to Australia and the creation of our own unique federal system, the pieces showcase the deep roots from which the tree of Australian democracy has grown. This is pivotal background information for anyone concerned with the origins, strengths and evolution of the Australian Constitution in its broadest sense.
Edmund Burke is in many respects the founder of modern conservatism. Born in Dublin in 1729 to a family divided between the Anglican and Catholic faiths, he was a sickly child and often had to be sent away to the country for clearer air. Burke’s family was one of ancestral wealth and prominence, and he was given a fine education at Trinity College before being sent away to London to practise law. He soon found however that his true passion was for writing and politics.
Burke entered Parliament as a Whig in 1765 and quickly revealed himself as a fierce advocate of free trade (particularly with Ireland) and a critic of abuses of the royal prerogative. In an age when divisions in the House of Commons owed more to the legacy of the civil war than any coherent ideology, Burke argued that parties differentiated by deeply held principles were necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy. At the same time, he maintained that Parliamentarians should not bow to the whims of the electorate and must make their own independent judgements about the political issues of the day. Practicing that which he preached, Burke took up stances in favour of Catholic emancipation and against capital punishment which did him no electoral favours.
Burke’s enduring relevance comes through his writings, particularly Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke contrasted the bloody French Revolution with those of England in 1688 and America in 1776. Whereas the latter were about asserting liberties that enjoyed deep historical and cultural roots, the former involved an attempt to reshape society from the ground up, which for Burke was both foolhardy and dangerous. He argued that successful political institutions were too complex and unknowable to be constructed from scratch. Politics was not something that science and logic could be applied to, human beings were too diverse and unpredictable for such an approach. History however had accumulated experience, and gradually shaped institutions so that they reflected what had proven to be right over time. Burke asserted that individual rights were not abstract or universal, but something that people inherited from the struggles of their forefathers. Liberty was not something that was inherent to human beings, but something that was provided by longstanding institutions like Parliament and the rule of law. In throwing those institutions away to try to achieve some abstract utopian dream, people risked sacrificing what liberty they had. This self-seeking decision was not theirs to make, for society was a contract ‘not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’ and they therefore had no right to destroy their children’s cultural inheritance.
This idea that freedom is something that we owe to our ancestors is now a central pillar of modern conservatism. Burke was not against change, as a Whig politician he frequently advocated expanding those liberties that Englishmen already enjoyed. Nevertheless, Burke appreciated that there was no point in pursuing change for change’s sake and that the first priority must be to defend the good in what already exists. In this manner he is also an inspiration to classical liberals who appreciate that we must hold dear what freedom we have before we seek to expand it.
Further Reading on Burke:
- Reflections on the Revolution in France: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/burke1790part1.pdf
- Selected Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke edited by Peter J. Stanlis (Regnery Gateway, 1963)
George Houstoun Reid was the strongest voice for the principles of liberalism and democracy during the federation debates. The son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, Reid was a deeply principled but also a pragmatic man. He had a convivial sense of humour and a habit for falling asleep in public that once forced the Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly to rule if snoring contravened the standing orders. This combined with a protruding belly and walrus moustache made Reid often come across as a comic figure, he was certainly a cartoonist’s dream, but his joviality concealed a deep intellect and a warm heart equal to any of his contemporaries. He was a great believer in the liberal principles of opportunity and personal liberty.
Reid rose to prominence through his Five Free Trade Essays (1875) which received the personal commendation of British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Reid was a strong supporter of freeing up enterprise so that it could be left to grow to its full potential. At the same time he was a friend of the working man, selling free trade as something that would keep the costs of necessities like tea and sugar down. Reid was Premier of New South Wales from 1894 until 1899 and during that time he abolished all but the most residual tariffs, rationalised expenditure and balanced the budget. In order to establish true free trade Reid had to introduce income & land taxes, but he firmly held to the position that taxation was a necessary evil that must be kept to the minimum possible level by keeping spending under control. He once rejected a tax on beer for being motivated by moralism rather than strict financial necessity.
As Premier Reid resurrected the federation issue which had lain dormant since 1891. Since his State would have to make the largest sacrifices of both money and sovereignty for federation to be achieved, Reid insisted on making the constitution as democratic as possible. He had been personally responsible for the abandonment of the 1891 Federation Bill which failed to prescribe the responsibility of the executive, but as Premier he showed a spirit of compromise accepting a Senate that gave equal representation to each State regardless of population. What he would insist upon was that the House of Representatives, which gave representation based on population and was therefore the more democratic house, would ultimately be in control of the government. Reid is famous for his ‘yes-no’ speech given during the 1898 federation referendum where he listed both the positive and negative aspects of the Federation Bill, the latter being that the Senate had too much power over money bills and that the provisions dealing with a deadlock between the Houses were inadequate. The speech helped to ensure that the referendum did not achieve the minimum number of ‘yes’ votes required for success in NSW, allowing Reid to go back to the negotiating table and win the ‘absolute majority’ joint sitting provision that, after a double dissolution, favours the House of Representatives over the Senate in any dispute.
Since he would not accept federation at any cost, Reid was often given a rough treatment in histories of federation, but it was precisely because of his principled stance and subsequent pragmatism that Australia has a viable constitution which adequately balances the needs of both democracy and the smaller States.
Further Reading on Reid:
- George Reid, My Reminiscences: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/fed0032.pdf
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/reid-sir-george-houstoun-8173
- Reid & the 1891 Federation Bill: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Research_and_Education/pops/pop13/~/~/link.aspx?_id=1FDE9760B2D846ACAB72133A9A880DBC&_z=z
- W.G. McMinn, George Reid (Melbourne University Press, 1989)
- Zachary Gorman, Sir Joseph Carruthers: Founder of the NSW Liberal Party (Connor Court, 2018)
Henry Parkes led such a remarkable political career that his role as ‘father of federation’ was in some respects just a footnote. The son of a tenant farmer in Warwickshire, Parkes’ family were forced off their ancestral home when he was just a boy. The ensuing poverty they endured was a formative experience for the young man. It imbued him with both a strong work ethic and a desperate desire to raise his station in life. Largely self-educated, Parkes tried all sorts of menial jobs before being apprenticed as an ivory turner. None of it could produce an adequate living however, and Parkes migrated to Australia in desperation in 1839.
Parkes never truly escaped the incessant threat of poverty, but in Sydney he found his calling as a journalist and political agitator. Parkes had had some exposure to the chartist movement, and he was deeply committed to democracy and the rights of the individual. The two great political issues of the day were preventing a renewal of convict transportation and creating a liberal-democratic constitution for New South Wales, and Parkes founded the Empire newspaper to advocate for these and other liberal causes. The paper gave him great prominence, allowing him to win a seat in the old Legislative Council shortly before the coming of responsible government in 1856.
Debt and the financial collapse of the Empire ensured Parkes was only an intermittent force in the battles which saw old-style conservatism ousted from NSW politics by the early 1860s, but once the liberal era dawned Parkes would come into his element. The master of ‘factional’ politics which saw governments formed based on personal allegiance rather than ideology, Parkes would serve as Premier no less than five times. He helped to oversee a period of great economic growth, spurred on by low taxation, economic freedom and the opening up of the railways. Parkes was involved in all of the great political reforms of his day, but his name was most associated with the creation of the free, compulsory and ‘non-sectarian’ NSW education system. This was very important for a man whose personal experience had shown that the opportunity to climb the ladder should be made available to all who had the talent and drive.
In his later years Parkes stood up as an advocate of his Colony’s existing and successful free trade policy against the sectional protectionist interest. Driven by patriotism and his own ego, he dreamed of capping off his long career by overseeing the federation of the Australian Colonies. His 1889 Tenterfield speech helped to prompt the 1891 National Australasian Convention and the writing of a draft constitution, but George Reid’s liberal objections to that document ensured Parkes’ dream would not be fulfilled in his lifetime. His last years were sadly spent trying to get back at Reid, though there was apparently a deathbed reconciliation between the two men.
It is well that Parkes is remembered as the founder of a united Australia, however accurate that may be, for the story of this self-made man is the epitome of the Australian story of hope, determination, and hard-earned success.
Further Reading on Reid:
- A.W. Martin, Henry Parkes (Melbourne University Press, 1980)
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/parkes-sir-henry-4366
- Henry Parkes, Fifty Year in the Making of Australian History: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/fed0024.pdf
- The famous Tenterfield Speech which helped to spark the 1890s federation movement: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/13746899
Though he was Prime Minister for less than four years, Earl Grey was responsible for perhaps the two greatest pieces of legislation to pass the British Parliament throughout the whole of the nineteenth century. The son of a decorated Northumbrian general, Grey attended Eton and Cambridge and emerged in his early twenties as the archetypical enlightened Whig aristocrat. Elected to Parliament at the tender age of twenty-two, he quickly caused a stir by having an affair with the wife of the Duke of Devonshire.
Extra-marital liaisons aside, Grey emerged as a man of principle. He was an early advocate of Catholic emancipation and was willing to risk his career over the issue. In 1806 he was promoted to Foreign Secretary, but the next year the Government fell apart when George III blocked an attempt to give rights to Catholics and tried to force the Ministry to sign a pledge that they would permanently drop the issue. There followed a full twenty-three years in opposition, much of it spent trying to direct the heavily-divided Whigs.
In 1830, after the death of George IV who had become as much an antagonist as his father, Grey was finally able to take the reins of government. With decades of pent-up energy behind him, Grey wasted no time introducing a thorough reform program. Its signature component was the Great Reform Act of 1832. This overhauled the borough system of electing MPs, where franchises and constituencies varied greatly. Some ‘rotten boroughs’ were able to elect a Member of Parliament despite having only a handful of electors, while using bribery to win a seat was also quite common. The bill essentially acted as a great redistribution, getting rid of the smallest boroughs, taking MPs from some multi-member constituencies and giving them to the rapidly growing cities. It faced considerable opposition in the House of Lords and required a sweeping electoral victory and organised political agitation to see it finally passed after two failed attempts. Combined with the separate Scottish Reform Act, it greatly increased the number of people eligible to vote by streamlining the franchise and, by evening out constituencies, made Parliament far more of a representative institution.
Hot on the heels of the Great Reform Act, the Government abolished slavery throughout the Empire in 1833. This was a monumental victory for human freedom. Slavery had previously been the back-bone of virtually all empires and many human societies, but Grey was able to persuade the British people to make real their long-espoused rhetoric of liberty. Grey had to fight against significant vested interests and financially compensate slave-owners, but these costs were far outweighed by the victory of justice. It is difficult to imagine how Lincoln would have delivered the emancipation proclamation without Grey, particularly as slavery was arguably the only issue which prevented Britain from intervening on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
In 1834 Grey’s Ministry fell apart over a dispute on Irish policy. His main task complete, Grey happily retired from the spotlight, further entrenching his reputation as a man who cared about policies over power. It is a shame that he is now most remembered for the tea blend named after him; too few modern politicians emulate his tremendous example.
Further Reading on Grey:
- George Macauley Trevelyan, Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (Longmans, 1920): https://archive.org/stream/lordgreyreformb00trevgoog?ref=ol#page/n9/mode/2up
- J.W. Derry, Charles, Earl Grey: Aristocratic Reformer (Oxford, 1992)
- E. A. Smith, Lord Grey, 1764-1845 (Clarendon, 1990)
William Wentworth was perhaps the most remarkable Australian that has ever lived. His father D’Arcy was from an Anglo-Irish family with aristocratic connections, and he was thrice let off on charges of highway robbery. D’Arcy survived a fourth charge only by promising to take up a job as government surgeon in the military colony of New South Wales. He sailed on the ship Neptune, on which he met and impregnated the convict Catherine Crowley. She gave birth to William off the coast of Norfolk Island in 1790.
The child produced by the illicit coupling grew into an imposing figure, tall with broad shoulders and a keen intellect that made him successful at virtually everything he tried. His mother died while he was still young, and he was sent to England to receive a broad education. When he returned in 1810, he appeared as a ‘Gulliver in Lilliput’, with talents that overshadowed the small colonial world in which he lived. His earliest claim to fame was as the man who discovered a passage across the Blue Mountains, opening up NSWs pastoral horizons in a manner that would help turn the Colony into a great wool exporter. In 1819 he also wrote a flattering book on NSW which was reissued several times and further helped to stimulate the wool boom. Ever the entrepreneur, later in life he was almost successful in buying a third of New Zealand.
Wentworth was a keen critic of the ‘exclusives’, the leading group in Sydney society who wanted to restrict the rights of those with convict connections and prevent any from achieving power or prominence. NSW had no free press in its early days, but Wentworth was responsible for a number of ‘pipes’, circulated anonymous writings criticising the government. Later he was involved in setting up the Australian, the first privately owned newspaper and one that had the audacity to start printing without a license and dare the government to shut it down. A firm believer in the British Constitution, he became a tireless campaigner against the autocratic institutions of the military government. This meant fighting for trial by jury, taxation by consent, and representative government.
Wentworth was incredibly successful in these endeavours. He saw off an attempt by Governor Darling to regulate newspapers and won the right to have civilian juries adjudicate civil cases. So fierce were his clashes with Darling that when the Governor’s term expired, Wentworth invited half of Sydney to his Vaucluse property to drunkenly see Darling’s ship sail away. As a founding member of the Australian Patriotic Association, Wentworth won the 1842 reforms which gave NSW a Legislative Council with two-thirds elected members. As a member of that council he was instrumental in founding the University of Sydney, partly with his own money, and helping to set up NSWs first public schools.
Wentworth’s greatest victory was to win full self-government for his Colony and write its Constitution. This was the precedent that would allow the other Colonies to gain self-government and ultimately lead to federation, but Wentworth has never been given the full credit he deserves. This is because he was man with set political beliefs who did not change with the times. As a Whig-liberal he believed firmly in the liberties of the British Constitution and wanted to extend them to Australia. In the early colonial period this made him a radical, but by the late 1840s, his desire to keep Britain’s property qualifications and unelected upper house made him seem like a conservative. Wentworth still fundamentally believed in social mobility and individual freedom, but he had a nineteenth century fear of mob rule and wanted those who voted to have a stake in society. The conservative aspects of his Constitution led to much criticism in the 1850s, but with hindsight we can see that he was able to create a successful and enduring political system, not only for NSW, but for Australia. In true British fashion he produced a respected but adaptable Constitution, which was able to allow for the later introduction of a universal franchise and an elected upper house. Though he may not have agreed with them, the peaceful imposition of these reforms ironically prove Wentworth’s success.
Further Reading on Wentworth:
- Andrew Tink, William Charles Wentworth: Australia’s greatest native son (Allen & Unwin, 2009)
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wentworth-william-charles-2782
- Australasia, a poem by Wentworth: http://adc.library.usyd.edu.au/data-2/v00014.pdf
- Account of Wentworth’s funeral, the first state funeral in Australia: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/putting-wentworth-rest
Sir Robert Walpole was arguably Britain’s first and longest serving Prime Minister. Born in 1676 as the third son of a prominent Norfolk landowner, Walpole looked to be doomed to obscurity by primogeniture. On the death of both his elder brothers however, Walpole came to inherit both his father’s lands and his ‘pocket borough’ seat in the House of Commons. A country gentleman with Whig sensibilities, Walpole established himself as a defender of the political liberty Britain had recently been gifted by the Glorious Revolution.
A practical man with just enough conviction, Walpole rapidly climbed the Parliamentary ladder to become Secretary at War in 1708. Targeted for his talents, in 1712 the short-lived Tory Government impeached Walpole and locked him up in the Tower of London. Luckily this politically-motivated attack did not stick and Walpole returned to favour with the ascension of George I. With the support of the King and a unique ability to master the House of Commons, in 1715 he became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Though the term was not yet used, the former post effectively made Walpole Prime Minister, a position he would hold, barring an interlude from 1717-1721, until 1742.
Near the start of his term Walpole oversaw the South Sea Company bubble, a speculative venture that almost wrecked Britain’s economy. His main task therefore became recovering the nation’s financial position. Walpole’s Government combined a push to reduce taxation with a persistent desire to keep Britain at peace. At the time the greatest consumer of the national budget was the military, so as long as Britain avoided war little spending was needed. Despite pressure from the Hanoverian monarchy to push German continental interests, Walpole was able to keep the peace for much of his tenure, allowing him to reduce the land tax and oversee a period of tremendous economic growth. He also played a central role in establishing the sinking fund, beginning the seemingly unending task of trying to pay off the national debt, but also balancing the nation’s financial interest from year to year.
Walpole’s greatest legacy lies in the extent to which he created the role of the Prime Minister. The Glorious Revolution had effectively established that Parliament would control the British Government, but sovereignty still rested with the Crown. This required a balancing act between the executive and legislative arms of government, and the person to maintain this balance became the Prime Minister. Though the King was still far more powerful than today, both George I & George II relied on Walpole to make governing possible by navigating legislation, taxation and supply through the Parliament. This placed Walpole in a position of power where he, more so than the King, was in charge of decision making. Walpole increasingly made decisions in consultation with other prominent Ministers, the beginnings of a ‘cabinet’ whose existence was predicated on their ability to get things passed. This was the birth of ‘responsible government’, where the Ministry was to be held accountable by the House of Commons and therefore the people who elected that body. Like most of the British Constitution, this was not something that was created in an instant, but something that developed through the precedents Walpole provided. By keeping both the King and Parliament onside for an extended period of time, Walpole showed that this was what one needed to do in order to successfully wield power. Over time the Crown’s role in this formula would diminish, as it became apparent that because the Parliament monopolised legislative and taxing power, it had far more scope to act independently than did the King. In many respects it was the gradualness of this change that ensured its endurance, as democracy developed through pragmatism and circumstance rather than violent imposition.
Further Reading on Walpole:
- Walpole and the national debt: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/periods/hanoverians/walpole-and-national-debt
- The development of the Prime Ministership: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2012/01/01/the-institution-of-prime-minister/
Walter Bagehot wrote the definitive work unpacking Britain’s unwritten Constitution. Born in Somerset in 1826 to a family of merchants, Bagehot had a natural aptitude for economics and understanding how intricate systems operated. Barred from Oxford and Cambridge for his Unitarian beliefs, he received a fine middle class education at University College London. There he won the university’s gold medal in moral and intellectual philosophy.
While he was naturally talented at business, Bagehot found his real calling in journalism and writing. After initially writing some articles for the leading Unitarian paper, he won the attention of the James Wilson, founder of The Economist, who soon had him writing for the magazine. Bagehot ended up marrying Wilson’s daughter Eliza, and when her father died unexpectantly in 1860 Bagehot found himself in control of the magazine. He turned it into one of the leading political journals of the nineteenth century, personally writing the magazine’s main article for seventeen years.
With years of observation helping him to grasp the true undercurrents of power in British politics, Bagehot undertook the task of describing the real workings of The English Constitution. Published in 1867, the book tore down existing constitutional assumptions which gave too much importance to the most visible parts of governance. Bagehot distinguished between the ‘dignified parts’ of the Constitution which projected its outward appearance and the ‘efficient parts’ which allowed it to work. In the former category he placed the monarchy, which gave the government all the trappings of dignity, stability and popularity, without actually wielding power. This ‘theatrical’ element was crucial in getting the masses to buy into the political system, while the monarch’s right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn helped to keep the government of the day in check. The House of Lords played a similar role in providing stability by reviewing and delaying legislation, while ultimately yielding to the will of the people.
The ‘efficient parts’ of the Constitution were the House of Commons and the Cabinet, which Bagehot observed had taken complete control of the government. The Commons was a body that played an important role in legislating, instructing the public and airing grievances, but its ultimate power was as an elective body which got to choose the Prime Minister. Bagehot was dismissive of the separation of powers theory, shrewdly observing that in the Cabinet the legislative and executive arms of the British Government had been combined. Cabinet government was more efficient than a U.S. style system because the concentration of authority and power allowed for quicker response times to crises.
For Bagehot the principle achievement of the British Constitution was government by discussion, in which free speech and open debate allowed for obstacles to be overcome and for society to move forward. Human beings were naturally fearful of change and jealous of their own interests, a fact that political institutions had to overcome. For Bagehot this is where the ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ parts of the Constitution worked hand in hand. The former created an air of continuity and structure, while the latter furnished the constant and open discussion necessary for progress. The fact that a responsible government had to continuously answer to Parliament and that any deadlock could quickly result in an election, meant that the Westminster system kept political debate constantly burning, something Bagehot thought was essential for healthy political decision making. Bagehot’s desire to keep the debate rational and uninterested made him wary of attempts to extend the franchise.
Bagehot’s legacy is that he opened up the way for us to appreciate how constitutional monarchy works, and what its strengths are. It is difficult for us to now imagine how revealing it was in 1867 to find out how little power the Queen actually wielded, but the importance of shining a light on the hidden workings of political systems remains imperative. Balancing continuity and progress is as essential today as it was in his time, for both these elements are required to produce a healthy and stable polity.
Further Reading on Bagehot:
Samuel Griffith was a true federalist, in the full sense of the word. Born in Wales in 1845, his family emigrated to Queensland to allow his father, the Reverend Edward Griffith, to preach Congregationalism. Educated at the University of Sydney during its initial heyday, Griffith grew to be a man of varied talents and artistic tastes. Returning to Brisbane after a ‘grand tour’ of Europe, he quickly emerged as one of the fledgling Colony’s most promising lawyers.
In the nineteenth century it was very common for those practising law to simultaneously enter Parliament, and this is what Griffith did as the Member for East Moreton in 1871. Gradually climbing the ladder of ambition within a loose ‘Liberal Party’, he became Queensland Premier in 1883. In that position he was exposed to the central problems that would lead to federation; Chinese immigration, Kanaka labour and the imperative of defence. On the latter issue Griffith was an imperial patriot, wanting a greater role and more independence of action for the Australian Colonies, but within a unified Empire. As a Queenslander he had also to deal with separatist movements within the Colony, and he slowly came to believe that greater local autonomy could be accommodated within a broad federal umbrella.
Griffith was involved in the federation movement from the get go. His legalistic mind was perfectly suited to drafting constitutional structures. This he did first with the ill-fated Federal Council, and then the all important 1891 draft constitution. Though by the mid-1890s he had retired from politics, he continued to direct constitutional debates from the background and the final document setting out the Commonwealth of Australia may be attributed to him more than any other single individual. His Queenslander sense of independence ensured that he wanted to keep the new Commonwealth within limited boundaries that would interfere as little as possible with the practically sovereign democracies of the various Colonies. As a member of a medium-sized Colony he was perfectly placed to balance the interests of the small and large States, though his judgements on controversial areas like the Senate blocking money bills were informed by his presumption that the Federal Government would remain small.
As Chief Justice of Queensland Griffith drafted the federal Judiciary Act establishing the High Court of Australia in 1903. He was an obvious appointment to serve on the Court, and became the first federal Chief Justice. There Griffith spent his final years defending the fundamental principles of his Constitution. One of these was that the Federal Government should only have the powers expressly given to it, and that all other powers remained residually with the States. This was essential to democracy, the smaller State Governments could inherently represent the interests of their people more directly, so only issues like defence and immigration which necessitated co-ordination should be decided collectively. Unfortunately, many people wanted to go beyond this and use the Commonwealth apparatus to establish centralised utopian policies, particularly when it came to industrial relations. This would signal the death knell of autonomy and competitive federalism, but while Griffith lived he was able to keep the wolves from the door. The fateful Engineers’ Case, undoing much of his good work, was decided less than a month after his death.
Further Reading on Griffith:
- Roger B. Joyce, Samuel Walker Griffith (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1984).
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/griffith-sir-samuel-walker-445
James Bryce was an incredibly perceptive historian and statesman. Born in Belfast in 1838, he was gifted with an inquisitive mind and a great aptitude for learning. Given great educational opportunities by his diligent Presbyterian family, he attended three universities. His main studies were carried out at Trinity College Oxford, where he won an essay prize for The Holy Roman Empire, which was later published as his first book. He was called to the bar, but ended up choosing an academic life teaching law rather than practising it.
Bryce’s Scottish heritage made him naturally inclined towards Liberal politics and in 1880 he was elected as the member for the seat of Tower Hamlets in London. He had a distinguished political career, serving as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs and President of the Board of Trade. Having visited South Africa he was sympathetic to the plight of the Boer people, and became a fierce critic of the oppressive tactics the British pursued against them during the Boer War. This criticism earned him the favour of Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who appointed him Secretary for Ireland and then Ambassador to the United States.
Though he served in the Campbell-Bannerman Government, Bryce was no fan of the new left-leaning liberalism espoused in the so-called People’s Budget. Instead he was a very old school Gladstonian liberal, believing fundamentally in individual freedom and a limited role for the state. The only exception was in education, which as a font of opportunity and meritocracy, Bryce thought worthy of state-backing. As President of the ‘Bryce Commission’ he was influential in lobbying for the creation of a Ministry of Education.
Bryce is most remembered for his 1888 book, The American Commonwealth. Written after several visits to the States, this three-volume work acted as a follow up to Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterful Democracy in America. Bryce shared de Tocqueville’s nuanced admiration for America’s free and democratic institutions. He was however critical of de Tocqueville for being too theoretical and too French. Bryce saw the American Constitution as thoroughly British, trying to re-establish liberties that stretched back to Magna Carta and only innovating in pursuance of that goal. The U.S. constitution was based on colonial institutions which had tried to emulate the mother country. The President was ‘a reduced and improved copy of the English King’, while the principles of bicameralism were adapted to the needs of a federal compact. There were differences though. The American system was more rigid and inflexible. This created stability and strength, but it also lead to a lot of energy being wasted on the various checks and balances. Concentrating on how things worked in practise rather than theory, Bryce brought out both the strengths and flaws in the American system. He argued that great men did not become President and that Congress was not conducive to thoughtful debate, but he ultimately showed that the system was succeeding in spite of this.
Bryce was pivotal to the creation of Australia’s ‘Washminster’ Constitution. His emphasis on the Britishness of the American system made it seem less incongruous to combine the two, which is what the Federation Fathers needed to do in order to accommodate federalist necessities not found in Britain. The Federal Convention debates make it clear that many delegates had read Bryce, and were trying to create a ‘Commonwealth of Commonwealths’, which provided both state autonomy and national unity like the successful American system. At the same time, they used Bryce as a guide for what did not work, pragmatically writing an effective rather than idealistic Constitution for our nation.
Further Reading on Bryce:
- Collected works: http://oll.libertyfund.org/people/viscount-james-bryce
- John Seaman, Citizen of the World: The Life of James Bryce (2006)
- Bryce and Australia: http://www.hcourt.gov.au/assets/publications/speeches/current-justices/gagelerj/James_Bryce_article_Vol_43_Federal_Law_Review.pdf
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:
- Australian Dictionary of Biography entry: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barton-sir-edmund-toby-71
- Geoffrey Bolton, Edmund Barton (2000).