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BARTON, SIR EDMUND (1849-1920)

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Alternate image textThe first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, was born in Sydney on 18 January 1849 and qualified as a lawyer from the University of Sydney after lecturing in Classics.

He became Australia’s first Prime Minister.

Sir Edmund was a passionate politician. He was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1879, becoming Speaker of the House between 1883 and 1887. After losing the 1887 election, he became a member of the Legislative Council in the same year.

Barton endorsed Henry Parkes' call for Federation made at Tenterfield in 1889, in a speech he made at Lithgow, on 2 November, 1889.

[At the Athenaeum Club in the early 1880s Barton met and conversed with the Tasmanian Attorney-General, Andrew Inglis Clark, a passionate spokesman for an American model of Federation. It was not, however, until Barton read reports in the press of the Tenterfield address Henry Parkes gave to a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall that he gave his full and unconditional commitment to Federation.]

In March 1891, Barton proposed his blueprint for Federation at the National Australasian Convention. He argued that an elected senate composed of State representatives would effectively balance the powers between the States and a Federal government. Barton also advocated an autonomous Australian legal system, and the necessary abolition of the right of appeal to the British Privy Council. Among others, the Victorian politician Alfred Deakin was impressed by Barton’s speech.

The Convention established a constitutional committee to which Samuel Griffith was appointed chairman, and Henry Parkes, Edmund Barton, Charles Kingston, Alfred Deakin, Andrew Inglis Clark and John Downer were elected members. In turn the committee elected a drafting committee, Griffith, Inglis Clark and Kingston would be responsible for drafting the new Constitution. When Inglis Clark fell sick, Barton’s position was suddenly elevated to the drafting committee for the new constitution.

Working successfully on the formation of Federation Leagues in border communities, Barton became leader of the Australasian Federation League.

Barton re-entered the Legislative Assembly in 1891, only to lose again in 1894. This gave him the opportunity to devote himself more fully to political issues, speaking at the Bathurst Peoples Convention in 1894. He ran for election to the 1897 Federation Convention, elected as the first New South Wales representative

Despite disagreement with George Reid over his proposal that the Constitution Bill be accepted without change, Barton later became reconciled through his change of heart to accept the need for modifications.

At the Constitutional Convention held in Adelaide on 23 April 1897, after steering the draft constitution through detailed discussions Barton said:

'We all lose something; we all gain something, not only in the method and manner of Federation, but our gain is limitless, if we are to consider, as we must, what the outcome of Federation will be to all these colonies.'  [First session of the Australasian Constitutional Convention, Adelaide, 1897, 23 April.]

Barton was joined by Deakin and Kingston as the three member delegation sent to Westminster to negotiate the Constitution Bill. Barton's legal knowledge was valuable in the appeals to the Privy Council during the Bill's passage.

Although Barton was disappointed that the first draft constitution had not abolished the right of appeal to the Privy Council, it was, nonetheless, an extraordinary feat accomplished in a brief period of three days.

The draft Constitution drew upon the Constitutions of Canada, the United States and Switzerland, as well as the Westminster system. One of the democratic safeguards of the new Constitution, borrowed from the Swiss, was the clause that the Constitution could not be amended except by referendum. Having written a draft Constitution, the Convention members returned to their home States to lobby the governments and win the support of the people.]

 In July 1894, Barton was defeated for the seat of Randwick. For the next three years he devoted himself entirely to the Federation cause, speaking at over 300 public meetings.

By 1897, Barton was considered leader of the Federation movement of Australia and was elected chairman of the drafting and Constitution committees at the Federal Convention in Adelaide of March 1897 For the next year, Barton worked himself and his colleagues to the point of exhaustion. In May, Barton was nominated to the NSW Legislative Council in order to facilitate the Enabling Act necessary for the referendum. By the Sydney September meeting of the reconvened Convention, Barton was deeply frustrated by the number of amendments imposed by the Legislative Council, most of whom were opposed to Federation.

Throughout the summer of 1898 the drafting committee worked on the Constitution. This time, Barton included the abolition of the right of appeal to the Privy Council. In March, Barton began the long and intense campaign to see the draft Constitution finally succeed at referendum. In April 1898, the referendum narrowly failed in NSW. With the exception of Western Australia, who refrained from holding a referendum until 1900, the draft Constitution was approved by the other colonies. Resigning from the Legislative Council, Barton won the seat of Hastings and Macleay in order to propose a second Enabling Act for a second referendum. In 1899, the voters of NSW finally accepted the draft Constitution.

In 1900, Barton was selected as a delegate to accompany the Constitution Bill to England, where it was to be put before the English Parliament. However, Queen Victoria objected to the name Commonwealth of Australia as it resurrected memories of the English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, though no serious attempt was made to dissuade the Australians from using it. The sticking point for the British was the abolition of the Privy Council as the final court of appeal in the Australian legal system. After much negotiation, a compromise was reached that preserved the identity of the original Constitution. Only non-Constitution matters could be referred to the Privy Council

In recognition of his status as leader of the Federation movement of Australia, Edmund Barton was appointed Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia on Christmas Day 1900 but this was not without its controversy.

Although it was fully expected that Barton would be selected to be the first Prime Minister to take the people to their first Federal election, the new Governor General Lord Hopetoun instead selected William Lyne Premier of NSW. In a mark of solidarity with Barton, appointed members of Cabinet refused to serve under Lyne. Barton was finally appointed the nation’s first Prime Minister, taking the portfolio of Minister of External Affairs.

The celebrations for Federation in Sydney took place on 1st January 1901. For Barton, however, it was the start of yet another campaign trail as a Federal election now had to be fought and won.

 In March 1901, Barton and his entire Cabinet, including old friends and allies, Alfred Deakin, Charles Kingston and Richard O’Connor, were formally approved by the Australian voters. Although only Prime Minster for a little over two and a half years, the Australian Public Service, the instigation of the White Australia Policy, women’s right to vote and the High Court were all established during his term.

Having twice refused a Knighthood, Barton finally accepted a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1902. In September, 1903, worn out by the responsibilities of being Prime Minister and the long and exhausting federation campaign that preceded it, Barton resigned.

Shortly afterwards Barton was appointed to sit on Australia’s first High Court. For the next 17 years, Barton interpreted the Constitution he had helped to create.

In January 1920, at the age of 70, Edmund Barton died suddenly of heart failure in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.