BARTON, Sir Edmund (1849-1920)

BARTON, Sir Edmund (1849-1920)
federalist and first prime minister of Australia
son of William Barton, a share broker and estate agent, was born at Sydney on 18 January 1849. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and at the university of Sydney, where he graduated B.A. with honours in classics in 1868, and M.A. in 1870. He was Lithgow scholar in 1866, Cooper scholar in 1867, and medallist for classics in 1868. On leaving the university he was articled to Burton Bradley, a solicitor, and he also read with G. E. Davis, a well-known barrister of the period. He was called to the bar in 1871, was successful as a barrister, and might indeed have become the leading advocate of his time. He, however, became attracted by politics and in 1877 was a candidate for the university seat in the legislative assembly. He lost the election by a few votes, but two years later was successful, and held the seat until the university was disfranchised in 1880. He was elected unopposed for Wellington in that year and became a representative of East Sydney from 1882 to 1887. He was elected speaker in January 1883 and held this position until early in 1887, showing great ability in carrying out his duties. He lost his seat in 1887 and was nominated to the legislative council. In January 1889 he joined the Dibbs (q.v.) cabinet as attorney-general but the ministry lasted for only about seven weeks. Barton was taking much interest in federation and in 1890 was on the editorial committee of the Australian Federalist, a periodical for the discussion of federal problems. It did not appear until January 1891 and then ran for only two numbers. Barton was one of the representatives of New South Wales at the convention which met at Sydney in March 1891 and was a member of the constitutional committee. This committee framed the first draft of a bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia. The final stages of this drafting were completed by a sub-committee consisting of Griffith (q.v.), Kingston (q.v.), Inglis Clark (q.v.) and Barton. With a few verbal and minor alterations the bill was accepted by the convention and became the ground work of the constitution eventually adopted. Two great difficulties were in the path to federation, the reconciling of the rights of the large and the small states, and the conflict between protection and freetrade.
Barton entered the legislative assembly again in 1891 as a member for East Sydney, and when in October Parkes was defeated the old leader recognized that his health would not allow him to stand the strain of political leadership. He sent for Barton who then agreed to undertake the leadership of the federal movement. Dibbs, who succeeded Parkes, asked Barton to join his cabinet as attorney-general, but his request was refused several times, as Dibbs and most of the other members of the proposed ministry were opposed to federation. Eventually Barton realized that as a private member he could do little for federation, and agreed to join the ministry on the distinct understanding that he was to have a free hand on that question, that the ministers as a body should support a resolution expressing a general approval of the convention bill, that ministers would not give support to destructive amendments, and that the government would bring the question forward early in the next session.
Barton stated his own position very clearly in a speech in the assembly. "There is one great thing," he said, "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." In November 1892 he succeeded in carrying a resolution in the assembly approving of the convention bill, but it was impossible to do more at this time. In December he visited Corowa and Albury and as a result branches of the Australian federation league were established in these and other towns. In July 1893 after a public meeting held at the Town Hall, Sydney, an Australasian federation league was constituted. It was received with apathy by some, with suspicion by others, but nevertheless it formed a rallying ground for the really earnest federalists of Sydney and did much useful organizing and educational work during the federal campaign. Barton had endeavoured to persuade the freetraders to join him in forming this league and would not enter into a discussion of the fiscal question. But party feeling was too strong and their leader Reid (q.v.) held aloof. Branches of the league were, however, formed in the other colonies, conferences were held, and plans of action were prepared which had much influence in eventually bringing about federation.
On 7 December 1893, the Dibbs government was defeated upon a motion of censure on Barton, attorney-general, and O'Connor (q.v.), minister for justice, who had accepted briefs in an action against the state railway commissioner. Both resigned and Barton lost his seat in July 1894 and dropped out of local politics for a period. He was doing a large amount of educational work in connexion with federation, and during the four years from January 1893 to February 1897, addressed nearly 300 meetings in New South Wales. At the election of representatives of New South Wales, to be sent to the federal convention held on 4 March 1897, Barton headed the poll with over 100,000 votes out of 139,850 voters. He was chairman of the constitutional committee and of its drafting committee and brought the bill before the convention. Its framework followed closely the 1891 bill, but various amendments and safeguards were introduced and the financial clauses were considerably altered. Barton handled the convention with great ability, and with some amendment the bill was passed. When it came before parliament in New South Wales he had charge of it in the legislative council, where it met with much opposition. Several amendments were proposed, one of them being that Sydney should be the federal capital. These, with many other suggested amendments from the legislatures of the other colonies, were considered at the Sydney meeting of the convention held in September 1897, and the Melbourne session held in March 1898. On 24 March Barton, at a meeting at the Sydney town hall, made a great speech in explaining the bill and disposing of the criticisms of its opponents. Between then and the referendum held on 3 June 1898, he spoke admirably and forcibly at the principal towns in New South Wales in favour of the "Yes" vote. His efforts were not successful, for though there was a small majority, only 71,965 out of the required 80,000 votes had been obtained. At the New South Wales election held in July, Barton decided to oppose Reid at East Sydney, but could not match Reid in dealing with a popular audience, and was defeated. The federalists had, however, reduced Reid's party majority from 37 to 2. Deakin (q.v.) was able to write to Barton pointing out that in spite of his apparent overthrow he had "achieved a real and permanent success". Reid having succeeded in getting a few modifications in the bill at a premiers' meeting, fought for it at the second referendum, and with Barton and Reid speaking on the one side, a large majority was obtained. In 1900 Barton went to London with Deakin, Kingston (q.v.), Dickson (q.v.) and Sir Philip Fysh (q.v.), as leader of a delegation to watch the passage of the bill through the Imperial parliament. The main difficulty arose over the clauses relating to appeals to the privy council. Barton, Deakin and Kingston stood firmly for the bill as presented. Joseph Chamberlain objected to the limitation of the right of appeal, and the contest was a dour one. Eventually the bill was passed after a compromise had been agreed to which the Australian representatives felt did not affect the principle involved.
When the Commonwealth was inaugurated, there was a general feeling that Barton should be commissioned to form the first ministry. Lord Hopetoun (q.v.), however, invited Sir William Lyric to become the first prime minister of Australia. His reason for doing so was that Lyric was premier of the mother colony. He could scarcely be expected to be aware that Lyric had reached that position by a fortuitous combination of circumstances and had been one of the strongest opponents of federation. Lyric strove vigorously to form a cabinet, but Deakin for one was prepared to serve only under Barton. Lyric had to advise the governor-general to send for Barton, and on 31 December 1900 his ministry was formed. It was apparently a very strong ministry, but it held some intractable spirits. The problems before parliament were difficult, particularly the question of free trade and protection, in connexion with which there was much strength of feeling. The Labour party which held the balance of power was divided on this issue, but thoroughly united over all other questions of policy. It was a loquacious house with three parties in it, and its leader had no easy task; but during Barton's term as prime minister, in addition to the many necessary "machinery measures" for which Deakin as attorney-general was responsible, some important legislation was passed, including a customs tariff act, defence and naval agreement acts, the sugar bounty act, the immigration restriction act, and the judiciary act, which brought about the establishment of the high court. Much time was spent on the conciliation and arbitration and other bills which did not become law. Barton had fought a long and strenuous campaign for federation, but that cause was won, and he had no liking for the atmosphere of intrigue that was now developing in the federal house. In 1902 he went to England to attend the Imperial conference, and in September 1903 he was content to leave the political sphere and become senior puisne judge of the newly constituted high court of Australia. Some of his friends urged him to become chief justice, but Barton realized fully the claims of Sir Samuel Griffith who was given that position.
On the high court bench, Barton at first showed a tendency to concur with the chief justice. It would be easy to take the view that he was a tired man scarcely in the condition to show his full powers in conflict with so masterful a personality as Griffith. But this is not borne out by A. N. Smith, a well-known journalist of the period, who, in his Thirty Years: The Commonwealth of Australia, 1901-31, says: "In the courts, however, it was known that many of the judgments read by the chief justice had been written by Mr Justice Barton". If, however, Barton did show any indolence at this period, it was only a passing phase for, after an attack of typhoid fever, both mind and body appeared to develop new vigour, and he began a series of judgments marked by great intellectual power and clearness of expression. In his last few years his health gradually weakened and he died suddenly from heart failure on 7 January 1920. He became a member of the privy council in 1901 and was created G.C.M.G. in 1902. He was an honorary bencher of Gray's Inn, London, and was given the honorary degrees of D.C.L. by Oxford, and LL.D. by Cambridge and Edinburgh universities. He also received the freedom of the city of Edinburgh in 1902. He married in 1877, Jean Mason Ross. Lady Barton survived him with four sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Edmund Alfred Barton born on 29 May 1879, was appointed a judge of the New South Wales district court in 1933.
Barton had a fine presence and retained his good looks throughout his life. His eyes had remarkable beauty and expression. His old opponent Reid said of him in his autobiography, that for personal charm, combined with intellectual weight, he would place Barton even higher than Deakin. His wide culture and great learning was almost a disadvantage when he was dealing with men of ordinary calibre. He was not naturally a great orator, and as a young man was diffident about his ability as a speaker. With experience he became a good debater, logical and impressive, though sometimes too involved in style; and when he dealt with a subject so near to his heart as federation, he spoke with great effect. He has frequently been accused of indolence; the truth was that he liked taking things quietly, but when circumstances called for it, worked strenuously and at high pressure for long periods. It has been stated that he nearly wore out his associates when the Commonwealth bill was being drafted and one of his secretaries has spoken of him as "a terrific worker into the small hours". He despised the tricks of the parliamentary game, and could never put party before state. His record is one of sustained public service. It was only a man of great public spirit who could have kept the cause of federation alive in New South Wales in the last 10 years of the nineteenth century. Parkes, old and waning in health, had lost his influence, Reid was doubtful and apparently an opportunist, Lyne, Dibbs and other well-known politicians were hostile. Barton never lost faith, he imposed his faith on others, and by sheer force of character prevailed.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1920; The Times, 8 January 1920; The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 8 January 1920; Quick and Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth; B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth; W. Murdoch, Alfred Deakin; G. H. Reid, My Reminiscences; H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader; Arthur N. Smith, Thirty Years; Chief Justice Knox, Commonwealth Law Reports, 1919-1920; H. G. Turner, The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth; private information.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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