TURNER, Sir George (1851-1916)

TURNER, Sir George (1851-1916)
premier of Victoria and Commonwealth treasurer
son of Alfred Turner, was born in Melbourne on 8 August 1851, and was educated at the Model school and the university of Melbourne. He entered a solicitor's office as a clerk, and some years afterwards was articled and completed a course at the university. In 1881 he was admitted to practise as a solicitor and went into partnership with Samuel Lyons. He was an early member of the Australian Natives' Association. In 1886 he was elected a member of the St Kilda city council, was mayor in 1887, and in March 1889 was elected to represent St Kilda in the Victorian legislative assembly. In April 1891 he joined the Munro (q.v.) ministry as minister of health and of trades and customs, and when this ministry was merged in the Shiels (q.v.) ministry he also took over the duties of solicitor-general. In 1894 much against his own desire he was elected leader of the opposition, and in September of that year became premier and treasurer. He immediately set to work to restore the finances of Victoria by making severe economies and increasing taxation, including for the first time an income tax. By 1897 he was able to show a surplus. Probably economies were overdone, schools were starved and neglected, and the leeway had to be caught up in later years, but desperate circumstances called for desperate remedies. Turner represented Victoria at the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, was created K.C.M.G., and was made a privy councillor. Oxford gave him the honorary degree of D.C.L. and Cambridge LL.D. He remained in power until December 1899 when he was defeated by McLean (q.v.). Among the more important acts passed during his term as premier were the introduction of the credit foncier system of advances to farmers, and old age pensions. In November 1900 he again became premier and treasurer.
Turner took little part in the early days of the struggle for federation, but at the premiers' conference held at Hobart in 1895, with Kingston he prepared a draft bill for the consideration of the conference, which with amendments was eventually agreed to as "the type of bill suitable for giving effect to the resolutions of the conference". He was elected head of the poll as a representative of Victoria at the 1897 convention, but was not a member of any of the committees, and did not apparently exercise an important influence on the debates. Before the referendum of 1898 his cautious attitude of mind at first made him appear to be luke-warm in his support, but towards the close of the campaign, in a speech at St Kilda, he told his audience that if they rejected the constitution it would be a national disaster and an everlasting disgrace". When Lyne was given the task of forming the first federal ministry, Turner was invited to join it and declined. He became treasurer in Barton's ministry from January 1901 to September 1903, and in the first Deakin ministry from September 1903 to April 1904. SO little of a party man was he at this time that he was asked to accept the same position in Watson's Labour government when it succeeded Deakin's but declined it. When four months later the Reid-McLean ministry was formed Turner again held the position of treasurer. Everyone seemed to have felt that he was the "safe" man for the position. He was a good and hard-working administrator, but felt the strain of parliamentary work and had more than one illness. He became a private member when the second Deakin government came into power, but did not seek re-election in 1906, and completely retired from politics. Shortly afterwards he was appointed chairman of commissioners of the state savings bank of Victoria and held that position until his death at Melbourne on 13 August 1916. He married Miss Morgan in 1872, who survived him with one daughter.
Turner was small of stature, undistinguished-looking, modest and unassuming, he never claimed to be more than a straightforward man of business. He was not an orator, though he spoke clearly and simply, but he had tact, sincerity and shrewdness. He did most useful work for Victoria when it was struggling to recovery after the 1893 banking crisis, and in the early troubled years of the federal parliament he generally exercised a steadying influence of great value. It was unfortunate that he was compelled to retire at a comparatively early age, but he had set a good example of sound financing, and his worth was recognized by all parties.
The Cyclopaedia of Victoria, 1903; The Age and The Argus, Melbourne, 14 August 1916; W. Murdoch, Alfred Deakin; B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth; H. G. Turner, The First Decade of the Australian Commonwealth; H. L. Hall, Victoria's Part in the Australian Federation Movement.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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