Sir George Houstoun Reid (1845-1918): Premier, Prime Minister, High Commissioner, and Member of the UK House of Commons

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Australia’s fourth Prime Minister, George Reid, who served in the role for 10 months between August 1904 and July 1905. Reid holds a unique position among Australian political leaders, having been a representative in colonial, Commonwealth and British legislatures. He also served as Australia’s first High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 1910 to 1916, when he was followed by the former Australian Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

Reid was first elected to the New South Wales Parliament in 1880 at 35 years of age, as one of four representatives for the multi-member division of East Sydney. His 3,413 received votes were 643 more than the eminent sitting Premier, Henry Parkes, who also contested and was re-elected to East Sydney. Upon his election, Reid reportedly declared that:

he felt almost ashamed to have been placed above one who was so old and so distinguished a public man in the political life of this country… but it would be very ungracious of him not to return his heartfelt thanks to every individual who on that occasion had shown his confidence in his ability to be of some service to the colony of New South Wales.

His almost 20 years of service in the New South Wales Parliament included roles as Minister for Public Instruction (1883–1884), Treasurer and Premier (1894–1899), and a short time as Attorney-General in 1899.

As a key protagonist in Australia’s journey to Federation, Reid earned notoriety for his cautious advocacy of the 1896 Commonwealth Bill and earned the moniker of ‘Yes-No’. In response to being given this nickname, he reportedly stated that ‘I could not help congratulating myself that after a long political life no one could find anything worse to say about me’. He further noted in his 1917 autobiography, My Reminiscences, ‘I had been called with some reason ‘Yes-No’; but a more just and friendly appreciation of my course would transpose the ‘Yes-No’ into a ‘No-Yes’, quite a usual attitude in all concerns, political or commercial, into which the element of bargaining enters’. Reid also pointed out the importance of compromise in the Australian federation project: ‘in every project of federal union a bargain, which means a compromise, or a compromise which means a bargain, must be struck between national powers and provincial interests’.  

First elected to the new Commonwealth Parliament for the Division of East Sydney in March 1901, Reid was Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs between August 1904 and July 1905, and also had two periods as Opposition Leader (May 1901–August 1904 and July 1905–November 1908). In transitioning to the Commonwealth Parliament, Reid’s service was not without sacrifice, especially financially. As Commonwealth parliamentarians were initially only paid an annual allowance of £400 (rising to £600 in 1907 and £1,000 in 1920), Sydney-based Reid often struggled with the circumstance of parliament sitting in Melbourne in addition to the heavy workload of being Leader of the Free Trade Party. Even as Leader of the Opposition no additional allowance was provided, and so he was frequently absent from parliament in order to attend to his legal practice.  

Reid left the Commonwealth Parliament in December 1909 and, following the completion of his term as Australia’s first High Commissioner to the UK, resumed parliamentary service in January 1916 when he was elected unopposed to the House of Commons, representing the central London constituency of St George’s, Hanover Square.

Reid was known for his keen sense of humour and, following his death on 12 September 1918, this was widely noted in obituaries. One obituary stated that Reid ‘was a rare thing in public life; he could laugh when the joke was against him. The species has not survived in politics’. Speaking in condolence of George Reid in the House of Representatives, the Acting Prime Minister and Treasurer William Watt noted many of the qualities for which Reid was known—for example his wit, speaking ability and integrity:

He was, and as such will remain for many a long day in our memory, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, platform speaker Australia has heard for a generation, and certainly the happiest and best of its after-dinner speakers. He was a man of unfailing wit, tact and great courtesy, and those qualities enabled him to captivate audiences and confound interjectors. As the honourable member for Capricornia said about him, he was “a merry man”, and played the game so thoroughly that even those opposed him liked him …

Perhaps the best tribute to his sterling worth is to be found in the deep and loyal attachment of so many of his former followers; they will not hear a word said against his integrity or sincerity of purpose. He possessed great learning and dignity, yet he was never unapproachable. To know him was to like him. He was the most supremely human person whom it has ever been my privilege to know.     

Reid’s achievements were the subject of a celebratory lecture held on 11 September 2018 at Australia House in London, hosted by High Commissioner the Hon George Brandis QC and presented by Dr David Headon. This location is fitting, given Reid’s initiative in securing the land and construction of the Australian High Commission, opened by King George V on 3 August 1918. Dr Headon is also currently writing a paper on George Reid as part of the First Eight Project, due for publication in 2019.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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