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SIR HENRY JOHN WRIXON (1839-1913)

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Alternate image textSir Henry Wrixon was born on 18 October 1839 in Dublin, Ireland. His family arrived in Melbourne in 1850. He was educated at Portland and entered the University of Melbourne in 1855. In 1857, he left for Dublin where he earned the reputation for being a good debater. He was called to the Irish Bar in 1861 but returned to Victoria in 1863.

In 1868, Sir Henry won a seat in the Legislative Assembly and was known as a radical reformer of the land laws and the Legislative Council.

He became member for Portland in May 1880. In 1886, he became Attorney General in the D. Gillies-Deakin ministry.

Sir Henry led for the Crown in the Ah Toy case in 1888 but lost on a majority judgment. He was made a QC in 1890 and then he left for London to appeal to the Privy Council which reversed the decision but left unexplored the constitutional issue of the colonial government's power to exclude aliens. He returned a hero.

He was a delegate to the Federal Convention in 1891 and a year later he was created KCMG.

In May 1892, Wrixon was defeated narrowly by Thomas Bent for the Speakership. He was appointed a delegate to the Colonial Conference in Canada in 1894 with the additional commission of investigating socialist movements.

He resigned from the Legislative Assembly and became a member of the Legislative Council in 1896 for the South-Western Province. He was appointed president of the Council from 1901 until his retirement in June 1910.

As a member of the 1891 National Australasian [Federation] Convention, Wrixon tried to define clear relations between the two Houses.

His comments on the draft Bill were described as remarkable for their “almost prophetic insight into the modifications that would be necessary before the Bill could be wholly acceptable”. However, in 1897, he missed election to the Federal Convention by one place; Henry Bournes Higgins, who ran tenth, was upset that Wrixon – “a man of such culture and courtesy,” as he described him and so well qualified as a candidate – denied a place.

Wrixon's most admired characteristics were his sincerity and eloquence. Deakin described him as “loveable and entirely trust-worthy … animated by the sincerest and most unselfish desire to serve his country”.

Wrixon consistently stood for political equality: he supported the Hare system of proportional representation as early as 1873, advocated female suffrage, strongly supported abolition of plural voting, and condemned the class basis of the council, but he did not support payment of members.

Similar principles of justice and fair-dealing led him to argue for the Saturday half-holiday in 1869 and attempts to compensate workers for injuries caused by the negligence of others.

Wrixon's wealth, social position and religion were threads weaving him into the conservative 'establishment'. He was progressive in abstract principles, but the gulf between his life and that of the everyday world led him to harsh incomprehension in practical dealings with the poor. His criminal law amendment bill of 1871 not only introduced flogging for criminal attacks on women and children, but also whipping for boys who threw stones, broke windows or extinguished lamps. In the depression of the 1890s, he condemned the unemployed for holding street-meetings to demand public works.

Wrixon's fear of socialism is expressed in his later writings, The Pattern Nation and Religion of the Common Man. In 1895, he told a friend on his History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, that “'I fear you will only reach mankind to set them adrift”, and implored him to examine the great political question of the day, universal suffrage, which nothing could prevent but whose consequences were likely to be “gloomy, almost fatal”.

Wrixon died of heart failure in 1913.