Edmund Barton - 100 years on


Sir Edmund Barton’s death on 7 January 1920 ended one of the most distinguished and significant careers of any Australian in public life, spanning state and federal parliamentary service, over 16 years on the inaugural High Court bench and a leading role ushering in Australia’s Federation.

Upon hearing of Barton’s passing, Prime Minister Billy Hughes acknowledged that ‘it was of great advantage to the young Commonwealth in the earliest years of its existence to have his guiding hand at the helm of the State’. His former private secretary Thomas Bavin further recalled that Barton held the fledgling government together ‘by force of a capacity for attracting personal affection and trust such as few men possess’. Indeed, as evidence of Barton’s unifying capacity, over the first tumultuous decade of Australia’s federal Parliament his inaugural ministry proved one of the most enduring—its almost two and three quarter years were more than double the average tenure of the decade’s seven separate governments. A notable achievement of Barton’s Government was the granting of women’s suffrage for federal elections with the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.

But before his role as Prime Minister, Barton was heralded as the preeminent champion of Federation. While not the founding catalyst for Federation’s genesis (that title belonging to Sir Henry Parkes), Barton was the driving and persistent force in its eventual implementation. Following Barton’s death, the Sydney Morning Herald eulogised that:

Even if our politics were parochial in the days before Federation, Sir Edmund was incapable of taking the parochial view. His horizons were continually broadened; on him descended the mantle of Sir Henry Parkes. He saw Australia’s destiny and worked for it; he had, indeed, a gift of political foresight denied to many more astute tacticians. His belief in Federation was not discouraged by the mixed feelings with which the idea was received in this State, and his personal eloquence did more to sway opinion in New South Wales than any other single factor’.

In Barton’s own words from as far back as 1891, ‘there is one great thing which above all others actuates me in my political life, and will actuate me until it is accomplished, and that is the question of the union of the Australian colonies’. And less than six months before his death, Barton penned an article for the Brisbane Daily Mail where he asserted the democratic underpinnings of the Constitution he helped develop:

It is essential to remember that the main provisions were for ensuring a Federation which could work under a system of responsible government. There were, as there are now, six States, each of which had a Constitution embodying that system of government … the State Constitutions were as they still are, democratic, and the temper of the time, I think rightly, insisted that the Federal Constitution should also be democratic, and it was hailed as the most democratic Constitution theretofore brought into being.

During a dinner commemorating Barton in January 1931, Bavin, who by then was Leader of the Nationalist Opposition in the New South Wales parliament, recalled that Barton strove for Federation:

with all the fervour of an apostle. It was a work for which he was eminently fitted. It demanded keen and well informed interest in, and a sound knowledge of, the principles of constitutional law; a mind and spirit above the plane of the mere party tactician; a knowledge of the practical working of political institutions, breadth of vision, and indifference to mere technicalities – in a word, statesmanship of a high order’.

Barton’s intellect and aptitude were present from his early years, from obtaining a Master’s degree from Sydney University at 21 years of age to becoming Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in January 1883 just shy of his 34th birthday. This gave him the distinction of being the youngest Speaker of any Australian parliament for over 70 years until Kevin Lyons (son of former Prime Minister Joseph and federal parliamentarian Dame Enid Lyons) became Speaker of the Tasmanian House of Assembly in October 1956.

Commemoration of Barton’s life and legacy occurred quickly in the years after his death. On 27 March 1922 at the High Court of Australia in Sydney, members of the New South Wales Bar presented a memorial portrait of Barton to Chief Justice Sir Adrian Knox for prominent display in the building. In accepting the portrait, Sir Adrian stated that the portrait ‘will endure as a record of the affectionate regard of the members of his profession who practiced with and before him … It is the gift of members of the legal profession: some of them his comrades, most of them his friends, all of them united, irrespective of State boundaries to do honour to his memory’.

Four months later in July 1922 the federal Parliament further honoured Barton by proposing that the newly established electorate provisionally named as ‘Kogarah’ should instead be known as ‘Barton’. And then on 9 May 1951—the 50th anniversary of the opening of Australia’s federal Parliament—an 88 year old Billy Hughes laid a wreath upon Barton’s grave and pronounced that ‘in the name of the Commonwealth and your old colleagues in the Federal Parliament, and of the people of Australia, I lay this wreath as a tribute to your memory’.   

The first biography of Barton was published in 1948 by John Reynolds, and included a foreword penned by Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. Menzies remarked that:

Though by reason of age I naturally have no personal recollection of Barton the politician, I have all my life since my school days … been a student of Constitutional development and forms, and I am therefore familiar with Barton’s magnificent work in the pre-Federation campaigns … It is indeed a happy thing for Australia that, as she grew into united nationhood and into the development for the first time of an Australian judiciary, she should have been served by so lofty a soul and so single-minded a patriot as Edmund Barton.

It took another half century before the historian Geoffrey Bolton published a further biography on Barton (in 2000), having previously delivered a paper to the Senate occasional lecture series in 1997 titled ‘The Art of Consensus: Edmund Barton and the 1897 Federal Convention’.          

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