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SIR SAMUEL WALKER GRIFFITH (1845 - 1920)

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Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, though born in Wales, became one of Australia's great early achievers. He was twice the Premier of Queensland, that State's Chief Justice and author of its criminal code.

 

Best known for his pivotal role in drafting agreements that led to Federation and the new nation's first Chief Justice, Sir Samuel was also an important reformer and legislator, a practical and cautious man of words - a legal draftsman, a poet and translator of Dante. Sir Samuel made an outstanding contribution to law and government at an important time in Australian history.

 

Sir Harry Gibbs writes of the time, saying that, "When, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, representatives of the Australian colonies, among the most notable of whom was Sir Samuel Griffith, met for the purpose of considering a scheme for a Federal Constitution, they were actuated by what appeared to them to be practical needs and inspired by an ideal. The principal needs which they saw were to provide a common framework for defence and to establish what would now be called a common market for the purposes of trade. The ideal was that the Australian continent should be occupied by only one nation."

 

Sir Samuel came to the fore in the 1890s when moves for Federation grew strong. His speech at the 1890 Melbourne conference accurately represented him as a cautious lawyer and practical politician. He was particularly influential in the 1891 Sydney convention where he admitted he dominated the discussions: "My work … was very hard, for it fell to my lot to draw the Constitution, after presiding for several days on a Committee, and endeavouring to ascertain the general consensus of opinion." Alfred Deakin agreed: "As [a] whole and in every clause the measure bore the stamp of Sir Samuel Griffith's patient and untiring handwork, his terse, clear style and force of expression … few even in the mother country or the United States … could have accomplished … such a piece of draftsmanship with the same finish in the same time."

 

Sir Samuel defended this draft constitution in his July 1891 presidential address to the Queensland branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia on the grounds of patriotism: "In spirit I am as much an Australian as any man."

By the time constitutional discussion was resumed in 1897 Sir Samuel was out of politics, but he continued to advocate Federation. In 1896-1900, he wrote extensively on the subject and corresponded with many delegates to the 1897-98 convention, sending detailed comments to Sir Robert Garran, secretary of the drafting committee.

Sir Samuel, in Melbourne during the Premiers' conference of January 1899, saw all the representatives and travelled back to Sydney with Sir George Reid, perhaps assisting in drafting the decisions. His address in May to the Queensland Federation League had the avowed object of influencing Queenslanders to vote for Federation. Sir John Quick was sure this intervention had been crucial, telegraphing Griffith: "I congratulate you on Federal Voting in Queensland. Thus crowning your long sustained and patriotic labours in the cause of Australian unity."

Sir Samuel was consulted by Sir John Forrest about Western Australia joining as an original State, a question eventually left to the London constitutional deliberations in 1900 when Griffith, as acting Governor, suggested amendments. Although he refused a request from the British government to try to persuade the delegates to accept changes, his support for wider rights of appeal to the Privy Council placed him in a "distinctly equivocal" position. His redrafting of the appeals clause caused bitter clashes with Deakin, Sir Edmund Barton, Charles Kingston and Sir Josiah Symon.

Frustrated, disappointed and confused during his second premiership, Sir Samuel made the transition to the judiciary. He served as Queensland's Chief Justice from 1893 to 1903. Griffith made a lasting professional contribution by codifying the Queensland criminal law, a massive task which occupied much of his spare time in 1896-99. In 1903, after considerable political debate the Judiciary Act (drafted by Sir Samuel) was passed, so inaugurating the High Court of Australia, and he was chosen as first Chief Justice. Sir Samuel was also known as a lifelong advocate of government support for education and scholarships, recognising the vital role early scholarships played in launching his distinguished career.

Sir Samuel died in 1920 and is now remembered in his namesakes - an electorate, a society, a suburb, and a university.