Prime Ministers

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Australian History: Edmund Barton

Edmund BartonParty Protectionist

Born Sydney 1849

Education Sydney Grammar School;
Sydney University

Profession Barrister
Queens Counsel, 1889
Judge of the High Court of Australia, 1903-20

Family Youngest son of three sons and six daughters of William Barton and Mary Louise Whydah.

Services 1879-87 NSW Legislative Assembly
1883-87 Speaker of House
1891.Leader of the federation movement. Member of committee drafting the Constitution
1900 led Australian delegation to London to present Constitution to British Parliament
1901 Australia's first Prime Minister, also Minister External Affairs
1903 resigned & became a senior judge in the new High Court of Australia, and held that position until his death in 1920.
one of three Australian Prime Ministers to receive Japan's Order of the Rising Sun, First Class (the others were Robert Menzies and John McEwen

Rt Hon. Sir Edmund Barton was Prime Minister from 1 January 1901 to 24 September 1903.

Edmund Barton had been nicknamed 'Tosspot Toby' because of his taste for strong liquors.  Born at Glebe in Sydney on 18 January 1849, Barton was the son of an English accountant and a mother who was unusually well educated for those days.  He graduated with honours in classics in 1868 and as MA in 1870 from the University of Sydney.
In 1871, he had a successful legal practice and, like many lawyers, soon became interested in politics. Elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1879, he became the youngest-ever Speaker of the House at the age of 34.

During his early parliamentary career, the long-debated issue of federation became an increasingly heated subject in the political arenas of Australia. The question was whether Australia should remain a loose collection of six colonies, which might even evolve into six separate nations, or whether they should federate into a single nation. Barton, convinced that federation was the key to Australia's future, allied himself to the Federalists led by Sir Henry Parkes.  Barton had found the mission which lifted him out of the ruck of colonial politicians. For 10 years he devoted himself physically and intellectually to federation. He inspired the formation of the Australasian Federation League, which played a vital role in moulding public opinion. Undiscouraged by parliamentary rejection of the first Constitution Bill, he and his colleagues fought to keep the movement alive. In 1897, as Leader of the Federal Convention, he presided over a new Constitution Bill but saw it lose in a national referendum.

Once more, Barton argued through the clauses of a Constitution Bill which would be acceptable to Australians. On 9 July 1900, Queen Victoria assented to the Act which established the Commonwealth of Australia. But Lord Hopetoun, the first Governor-General, astounded Barton's supporters by a decision that the Premier of New South Wales should be the first Prime Minister of the Commonwealth. So many senior politicians rebelled that Hopetoun had to commission Barton instead.

Barton led the Protectionist Party, which started to tackle the problems of Australian defence, creation of courts to adjudicate on the Constitution and on industrial relations, a unified tariff system and the implementation of the White Australia Policy being demanded by many Australians. But Barton himself was weary, worried about his health and deeply in debt. He tended to leave much of the work to others, until he resigned from Parliament to become a senior puisne judge in the new High Court. He continued to be a respected public figure until his death in 1920.