Edmund Barton Australia’s First Prime Minister
One of the Founding Father’s of Australian Federation
Edmund Barton helped write the Australan Constitution before Federation, administered it as Prime Minister, and interpreted it as a High Court judge.
Edmund Barton was born in Glebe Sydney in 1849. As a boy, he had a love of literature, music and art. He graduated from Sydney Grammar School, and matriculated to Sydney University in 1865. He graduated in 1868 with a bachelor of Arts in Classics. In 1870, he received Masters of Art, and was admitted to the Bar as a lawyer in 1871.
In 1872, he became engaged to Jean Ross, however, his slowness in establishing his legal career and financial insecurity delayed the marriage until 1877. The Bartons went on to have six children
Beginnings of Political Career
Barton had a keen interest in debating and a keen legal mind, which developed into a keen interest in politics. He was defeated for the University of Sydney seat in the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1876 and 1877. As a member of the conservative Protectionist Party, he finally found success in 1879. The Protectionists believed in tariff protection of state products. Each state in that day operated as a separate country, with import and export taxes imposed on goods traded across borders.
However, Barton had also been a member of the other major party of the day, the Free Trade Party, who advocated free trade within Australia. For the next twenty years, as a member of parliament, he advocated free trade across Australian borders, while advocating a protectionist stance against the rest of the world.
Athenaeum Club and Public Speaking
Barton had a rapid rise in politics, becoming Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 1883. In the early 1880’s he became a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Club, where he could sharpen his debating skills with some of Sydney’s most astute intellectuals. These included Sir James Fairfax (owner of the Sydney Morning Herald), J.F. Archibald (editor of The Bulletin) and Sir Mungo MacCullum (Professor of English Literature at Sydney University, among others. The writers Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson were also visitors to the Athenaeum Club on their travels.
In 1891, Barton contributed to the first draft of the Australian Constitution, and spent considerable time speaking at public meetings to publicise the cause of Federation.
In 1891, he also accepted an offer to serve as Attorney-General in Premier Dibbs protectionist government. However, as politicians were unpaid at that time, he negotiated the right to continue his private practice as a barrister, in order to support his family.
He was forced to resign as Attorney-General two years later, when this post came into conflict with his private practice. He had accepted a brief against the Crown, and obviously couldn’t represent both sides.
Drafting the Constitution and Fighting for Federation
Following his resignation as Attorney-General, between 1893 and 1897 he devoted his time to the cause of Federation and the drafting of an amended Constitution. By the end of the century, after a long and tiring campaign, this Constitution was finally approved by the British Parliament in 1900.
Between 1893 and 1897 Barton passionately devoted himself to the Federation movement and to the drafting of the Constitution. By the end of the century Barton had overseen the drafting of the amended Constitution, its protracted and difficult passing through the NSW Legislative Assembly and Council, as well as an exhausting campaign through two referendum to its eventual approval by the British Parliament in 1900.
Australia’s First Prime Minister
It was expected that Barton would be made Prime Minister of the new Commonwealth of Australia, however, this almost didn’t come to pass. The new Governor-General of Australia, Lord Hopetoun, selected the then Premier of NSW, William Lyne. The appointed members of cabinet refused to serve under Lyne, and Barton was finally appointed as Australia’s first Prime Minister, with the portfolio of Minister of External Affairs.
Federation occurred on 1st January 1901, and in March that year, Barton and his entire cabinet were formally elected by the Australian voters. During his short two and a half year term, the Australian Public Service, the High Court and right for women to vote were all established.
The second piece of legislation passed through the new parliament (the Constitution being the first) was the now controversial White Australia Policy. The remnants of this policy are still seen in legislation today.
In 1902, Barton accepted a knighthood, after twice previously declining the offer. He resigned as Prime Minister in September 1903, worn out by the federation campaign and responsibilities of leadership.
High Court Judge
Shortly after resigning as Prime Minister, he was appointed to Australia’s first High Court. For the next 17 years, Barton interpreted the Constitution he had helped to create.
The High Court in those days divided it’s time between the state capitals. Barton insisted he was able to devote more time to his family and his love of literature while serving with the High Court, than was possible as Prime Minister.
Edmund Barton died of a heart attack in January 1920 at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains, aged 70.