Australia's first Parliament: Her Majesty's loyal opposition

With the news in December 1900 that Governor-General Lord Hopetoun had invited Edmund Barton to form a protectionist ministry, George Reid assumed the mantle of de facto leader of the Free Traders and, therefore, of the official Opposition.[1] Reid’s task was a difficult one, as he later observed:

The prestige attaching to such an able collection of Ministerial talent was enhanced by a general desire to give the first Ministry of Australia a fair trial. As a Ministry, it had no past and a flying start.[2]

Barton and his ministry were able to hold office prior to any election by operation section 64 of the Constitution.

Sworn into office on 1 January 1901, Barton’s interim ministry was an illustrious one, including six former or serving Premiers: William Lyne, Sir George Turner, Charles Kingston, James Dickson, Sir John Forrest and Neil Lewis. Sadly, Dickson died after only a week in office, the vacancy in the ministry being filled by James Drake, a Qld MLC. Lewis did not contest the first federal election, preferring to retain his Tasmanian premiership.

The benefits of incumbency were felt even in the first election campaign, with Barton opening his campaign in January 1901 in Maitland in the company of Lyne, Deakin and Kingston as well as members of the NSW and Victorian legislature.

With no budget, staff or party administration to call upon, George Reid was at a ‘distinct disadvantage’ throughout the campaign.[3] However, he advocated the cause of Free Trade in 40 speeches at public meetings in most states.[4]

Reid’s status as party leader and Leader of the Opposition was affirmed following the first federal election in March 1901, with Barton’s Protectionists forming government with the support of the Labor members. In moving the Speech in Reply, William Groom, the only former convict in the first Parliament, formally acknowledged Reid as Leader of the Opposition.  In the same debate, Reid asserted his standing as leader of the alternative government, taking the opportunity to set out his views of the responsibilities and high duty of Opposition:

Under our present form of Parliamentary Government there must be an Opposition, and that Opposition has a high and important duty to perform. It has the duty of watching vigilantly and criticising freely the doings of the Executive Government … Our object should be, when Bills framed on sound principles are introduced, to help the Government as far as we can to make them as perfect as they can be made, and to reserve our opposition for matters of a serious character. … [W]here Bills are framed on sound principles, it is the duty of the Opposition to help the Government to improve and pass them. Where Bills are radically defective, it is our duty to take a different course; also when any question arises of sufficient importance it is our duty to take a decided course. But no Opposition should waste time in the way of attacks on a Government when the situation does not call for that action.

To which Barton famously rejoined:

… it is a necessity, when one is in opposition, either to attack a Government upon its policy, or, if the policy is too good to attack it upon, to make up some other reason—which is, of course, a legitimate thing to do in politics—in order that the ordinary stage play of party Government may be carried on, and so that the Opposition may save its face before its supporters in the country. That appears to be the expedient to which statesmen are sometimes driven, and I suppose that, as there are a great many precedents for it, the right honorable gentleman will not think I am imputing anything wrong or dishonorable to him when I say that he has good warrant for the course he has adopted.

Matters in the Senate were much less clear cut, due to resistance to implementing party structures in what was to be a states’ House. The issue of who would be the Leader of the Opposition in that House remained unresolved throughout the first Parliament, much to the amusement of the Labor party as voiced by South Australian Senator Gregor McGregor:

… I think the Government may congratulate itself on the weakness of the Opposition. Who is the leader? … It appears to me that all the Opposition are leaders. I was going to say that they are all suns round which no planet revolves. If they do not like to be criticized in that manner, then they must be comets, as the brilliancy of some of them would indicate. And yet comets come from no one knows where. They go back to the same place. They do no good to anybody while they are here, and only keep the people of the world in a state of confusion. A healthy opposition, I will admit, is very beneficial; and I hope, therefore, that the Opposition here will come together, and will be less independent and more to be relied upon, because as long as they cannot depend on themselves they cannot expect members of this House to give any adhesion to their opinions.

However, while the role of Leader of the Opposition was formally recognised within the Parliament, Reid enjoyed none of the amenities of that office (notably salary and staff) afforded his latter day counterparts. As a consequence, he maintained his lucrative legal practice in Sydney to supplement his £400 annual allowance as a member of Parliament, attending only 83 of 220 sitting days in the first session and 27 of 78 in the second.[5] In a debate on ministerial remuneration in June 1901, Chris Watson observed:

I have always, held the opinion that unless—even in State affairs—we are prepared to make some reasonable recompense to men of high character and ability to take up positions of this sort, we cannot expect any large number of such persons to accept them … .[A]re we justified in placing the whole future, so far as the business of the country is concerned, in the hands of one class—those who can afford to give their time practically for nothing to the service, of the State...

 [I]f we want men to give up the practice of a profession at which they are earning a very large sum per annum, we cannot expect them to do that unless we give them a larger salary

...[T]he leader of the Opposition gets nothing while he is in Opposition beyond his allowance, and when he becomes leader of a Government some honorable members want to tie him down to a sum that will only about keep him. I think that is a mistaken view.

Such ideas were not widely shared given the prevailing sentiment of frugality. Not until the passage of the Parliamentary Allowances Act 1920 was provision made for specific allowances for the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives (£400) and in the Senate (£200).

[1]GS Reid and M Forrest, Australia's Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1988: ten perspectives, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1989, p. 51ff.
[2]GH Reid, My reminiscences, Cassell & Co., London, 1917, pp. 199-200.
[3]J Fitzgerald, On message: political communications of Australian Prime Ministers 1901-2014, Clareville Press, Mawson, 2014, p. 25.
[4]Ibid, p. 25.
[5]LF Crisp, George Houston Reid: federation father. Federal failure?, Australian National University Research School of Social Sciences, Canberra, 1979, p. 56.


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