REID, Sir George Houston (1845-1918)

REID, Sir George Houston (1845-1918)
premier of New South Wales and prime minister of Australia
born at Johnstone, near Paisley, Scotland, on 25 February 1845, was the son of the Rev. John Reid, a Presbyterian clergyman, who came to Melbourne with his family in May 1852. At Melbourne Reid was sent to the recently established Melbourne Academy which afterwards became the Scotch College. In 1858, when Reid was 13 years of age, his father removed to Sydney to become the colleague of the Rev. John Dunmore Lang (q.v.), and the boy immediately obtained a position as junior clerk in a Sydney merchant's office. At 15 he joined a debating club and began to learn how little he knew. He tells us in his autobiography, that a more crude novice than he was never began the practise of public speaking. In July 1864 he obtained a position in the colonial treasury and remained in that department until 1878, when he was appointed secretary to the crown law offices. So far back as 1866 he had been advised by Sir Julian Salomons (q.v.) to study for the bar, and Reid long dallied with the idea. It was not until 1879 that he passed his final examination and was admitted to practise. In 1875 he had published his Five Essays on Free Trade, which brought him an honorary membership of the Cobden Club, and in 1878 the government published his New South Wales, the Mother Colony of the Australias, for distribution in Europe. In November 1880 he resigned from the crown law offices and became a candidate for an East Sydney seat in the legislative assembly. There were several candidates for the four seats, including Sir Henry Parkes (q.v.), and Reid, though previously almost unknown, headed the poll. He was to represent East Sydney, except for one defeat, for the remainder of his Australian political life.
Reid was an active member of parliament from the beginning. As a private member in his first parliament he submitted three bills, succeeded in passing one of them, the width of streets and lanes act, and moved for an inquiry into the working of the land laws. After 20 years of free selection, 96 people owned 8,000,000 acres of land in New South Wales and there was often evasion of the law by dummying. After much pressure the Parkes-Robertson (q.v.) government brought in an amending bill which was felt to be quite inadequate and led to the defeat of the government. At the subsequent election it lost many seats. The new premier, Alexander Stuart (q.v.), offered Reid the position of colonial treasurer in January 1883, but he thought it wiser to accept the junior office of minister for public instruction. He was 14 months in office and succeeded in passing a much improved education act, which included the establishment of high schools in the leading towns, technical schools, and the provision of evening lectures at the university. He lost his seat in parliament owing to a technicality; the requisite notice had not appeared in the Government Gazette declaring that the minister for public instruction was capable of sitting. At the new election Reid was defeated by a small majority. In 1885 he was elected again and took a great part in the free trade or protection issue. He supported Sir Henry Parkes on the free trade side but, when Parkes came into power in 1887, declined a seat in his ministry. Parkes offered him a portfolio two years later and Reid again refused. He did not like Parkes personally and felt he would be unable to work with him. When payment of members of parliament was passed Reid, who had always opposed it, paid the amount of his salary into the treasury.
By this time federation was much in the air. After the Melbourne conference of 1890 it was debated in the New South Wales parliament and Reid adopted a critical attitude; he was not prepared to sacrifice the free trade policy of New South Wales, and suggested that the constitution when drafted should be submitted to the various parliaments. After the convention he took a similar position, objecting strongly to what he considered to be the neglect of the special interests of New South Wales by its delegates. In September 1891 the Parkes ministry was defeated, the Dibbs (q.v.) government succeeded it, and Sir Henry Parkes retired from the leadership of his party. Reid was elected leader of the opposition in his place. Though he had never accepted office under Parkes, Reid had always worked against any suggestion to form a "cave" in the party. At the 1894 election he made the establishment of a real freetrade tariff with a system of direct taxation the main item of his policy, and had a great victory. Barton (q.v.) and other well-known protectionists lost their seats, the Labour following was reduced from 30 to 18, and Reid formed his first cabinet. One of his earliest measures was a new lands bill which provided for the division of pastoral leases into two halves, one of which was to be open to the free selector, while the pastoral lessee got some security of tenure for the other half. Classification of crown lands according to their value was provided for, and the free selector, or his transferee, had to reside on the property. Sir Henry Parkes at an early stage of the session raised the question of federation again, and Reid invited the premiers of the other colonies to meet in conference on 29 January 1895. As a consequence of this conference an improved bill was drafted which ensured that both the people and the parliaments of the various colonies should be consulted. Meanwhile Reid had great trouble in passing his land and income tax bills. When he did get them through the assembly the council threw them out. Reid obtained a dissolution, was victorious at the polls, and eventually succeeded in passing his acts. They appear very moderate now, but the council fought them strenuously, and it was only the fear that the chamber might be swamped with new appointments that eventually wore down the opposition. Reid was also successful in bringing in reforms in the keeping of public accounts and in the civil service generally. Other acts dealt with the control of inland waters, and much needed legislation relating to public health, factories, and mining, was also passed.
At the election of 10 delegates from New South Wales for the federal convention of 1897 held at the beginning of that year, Reid was returned second to Barton. The convention met on 22 March at Adelaide and adjourned a month later. In the interval much important business was done, the work being facilitated by constitutional, finance and judiciary committees formed from the members. It is possibly significant that Reid was not a member of any committee. In his My Reminiscences he prints the complimentary remarks on his work made at the close of the conference by Deakin (q.v.), Kingston (q.v.), Barton, Braddon (q.v.), and Turner (q.v.) He probably deserved them but he was always looked upon as uncertain in his support of federation. On 10 May 1897 he left for England to attend the diamond jubilee celebrations, and during his absence the federal bill was considered by the New South Wales assembly and council. Soon after his arrival in England Reid was made a privy councillor. He heard some of the most distinguished speakers of the day and was complimented on his own speaking by Lord Rosebery. At the premiers' conference where such difficult problems as preferential trade, coloured immigration, and naval subsidies, were considered he had a full share in the discussions, but realized that as Great Britain and New South Wales both had a freetrade policy there was little scope for preference in their cases. At his native town of Johnstone Reid had a tumultuous reception, and characteristically gave as his reason for leaving it at the age of two months, that he wished to make more room for his struggling fellow countrymen.
Reid returned to Sydney on 1 September 1897 and the federal convention immediately resumed its sittings. The amendments proposed by the various legislatures were in most cases not important, and some of the more contentious clauses were postponed until the convention should meet again in Melbourne in January 1898. In the meantime a bill was introduced by a private member in the New South Wales house requiring an absolute majority of the electors in favour of federation. An amendment substituting 100,000 was moved, and as a compromise 80,000 was suggested by Reid. He has been blamed for this but stated afterwards that had he not suggested that number it would have been 100,000. At the Melbourne convention Sir George Turner in Reid's absence carried an amendment that the parliament of the Commonwealth shall take over the debts of the individual colonies. On Reid's arrival he had the question re-opened, and eventually carried by one vote the substitution of "may" for "shall". After the close of the convention Reid, on 28 March, made his famous "Yes-No" speech at the Sydney town hall. He told his audience that he intended to deal with the bill "with the deliberate impartiality of a judge addressing a jury". After speaking for an hour and three-quarters the audience was still uncertain about his verdict. He ended up by saying that while he felt he could not become a deserter to the cause he would not recommend any course to the electors. He consistently kept this attitude until the poll was taken on 3 June 1898. The referendum in New South Wales resulted in a small majority in favour, but the yes votes fell about 8000 below the required number of 80,000. At the general election held soon after Barton accepted Reid's challenge to contest the East Sydney seat and Reid defeated him, but his party came back with a reduced majority. When parliament met resolutions were passed providing that the federal capital should be in New South Wales, that the use of rivers for irrigation should be safeguarded, that the senate should not have power to amend money bills, and that the Braddon clause should be removed. Of these it was agreed at the next meeting of the convention that the capital should be in New South Wales with the added proviso that it must be at least 100 miles from Sydney, and the Braddon clause was limited to a period of 10 years. Reid fought for federation at the second referendum and it was carried in New South Wales by a majority of nearly 25,000, 107,420 Votes being cast in favour of it. If Reid could have held his position as premier of New South Wales for another year he might possibly have been the first federal prime minister, but he was at the mercy of the Labour party, in September 1899 he was defeated, and Sir William Lyne (q.v.) formed a ministry.
Reid did his most useful work in New South Wales in the years 1895-9. Though there were drought conditions for part of the time he afterwards claimed that "the loads upon our current year caused by the annual charges in respect of past deficiencies were all paid and a surplus of £135,000 remained". He also did excellent work in breaking down the opposition of an extremely conservative upper house to any new measures brought forward that affected financial interests. After the first federal election Reid as leader of the free trade section had a party of 26 out of 75 in the house of representatives, in the senate he had 17 Out of 36. In the long tariff debate Reid was at a disadvantage as parliament was sitting in Melbourne and he could not entirely neglect his practice as a barrister in Sydney, but his party succeeded in getting a number of reductions in the proposed duties. At the second federal election, held in 1903, Labour was the only party to make gains, but the opposition had suffered less than the ministry. When Deakin brought in his conciliation and arbitration bill, Reid supported the ministry in resisting the amendment to include the public services in the bill. But many of his supporters voted for the amendment, and J. C. Watson's (q.v.) Labour government came into power. It in turn was defeated a few months later, and a coalition government was formed in August 1904 by Reid's party and a large section of the followers of Deakin who, however, declined to take office himself. This ministry never had a majority of more than two but managed to keep going until the recess which ended in June 1905. On 24 June Deakin made a speech at Ballarat which Reid and his fellow ministers felt could only be taken as a withdrawal of his support. Reid decided to abandon the policy speech he had prepared and substitute one which simply proposed electoral business. Deakin moved and carried as an amendment to the address in reply the addition of the words "But we are of opinion that practical measures should be proceeded with". Reid asked for a dissolution but it was refused, and Deakin immediately formed a new administration. At the election held in November 1906 Deakin was returned with a reduced following, but carried on with Labour support until November 1908 when the first Fisher (q.v.) ministry came in. Reid as leader of the opposition had been unable to have much influence on the legislation that was passed, but often showed himself to be a formidable opponent. He now found it necessary to resign the leadership of his party and was succeeded by Joseph Cook, who joined forces with Deakin in June 1909 to defeat the Labour government and form what was known as the "Fusion Government". The office of high commissioner in London was created towards the close of 1909, and the position was offered to Reid who accepted it. He arrived in London in February 1910 and carried out his duties with success for about six years. He visited many cities on the continent with business objects in view, and made a tour of Canada and the United States. He retired on 21 January 1916 and though 70 years of age felt full of energy. A few days before he had been elected without opposition for the St George's Hanover Square seat in the house of commons. He found the atmosphere of that house very different from that of Australian parliaments, and had scarcely had time to adapt himself to this when he died at London on 12 September 1918. Made a privy councillor in 1897 he was created K.C.M.G. (1909), G.C.M.G. (1911), and G.C.B. (1916). He married in 1891, Flora, daughter of John Bromby, who survived him with two sons and a daughter.
Portly in middle life Reid became even more so as he grew older, and full advantage was taken of this by the caricaturists. Yet it is doubtful whether any of them succeeded in disclosing the real man, he remained something of an enigma. A first-rate tactician his opponents thought him unreliable, selfish, and coarse-grained; his own statements about his youth might be considered by some to support this view. He said in his Reminiscences that "A thinner skin, a keener sense of shame, a less resolute endurance, a more diffident estimate of my abilities might have spoilt my chances for life". But Reid was not doing himself justice. He was not over-sensitive, he was not strictly speaking an idealist, yet his refusing for a period to accept his salary as a legislator, his loyalty to Parkes, and the financial sacrifices incurred by the neglect of his practice while in politics, do not suggest a selfish nature. He claimed with truth that he was the first man in New South Wales to make wealth pay a fair share towards the burdens of the community, and he was the first legislator to bring in laws to break up the virtual land monopoly. As a barrister he was an excellent advocate, as a politician he was a great platform speaker and an admirable debater. Many stories of his powers of repartee and readiness are told. One that has appeared in more than one form may help to explain his success with popular audiences. Once at an open-air meeting a bag of flour was thrown at him which burst all over his capacious waistcoat. Without a pause Reid went on "When I came into power the people had not enough flour to make bread for themselves and now (displaying himself) they can afford to throw it about like this". His autobiography was disappointing but his proverbial good temper shines through the book, and his accounts of past conflicts have no trace of bitterness. He was extremely shrewd, knew how to appeal to the average man, and took his politics seriously. But he never took himself too seriously, and no man could say that he ever endeavoured to obtain advantages for himself while working for his country.
G, H. Reid, My Reminiscences; The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September, 1918; The Times, 13 September 1918; Quick and Garran, Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth; W. Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: a Sketch; H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader; A. B. Piddington, Worshipful Masters.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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