Edmund Barton played a pivotal role in achieving Federation, and was considered the logical choice to be Australia's first prime minister. Barton used his considerable skills and standing to forge the first federal ministry, largely from rival colonial leaders. Barton brought to fruition the idea that we could have 'a nation for a continent.'
Barton took the oath of allegiance on New Year’s Day 1901 at Centennial Park in Sydney before an estimated crowd of 250000 well-wishers. This almost did not happen, as the Governor-General, the Earl of Hopetoun, first invited New South Wales Premier William Lyne to become prime minister, before it became apparent that Lyne had little support. Barton had grown up in ‘one of the most literary households in Sydney’ and attended Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney before becoming a barrister in 1871. An interest in politics followed and, after two unsuccessful attempts to enter the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, he was elected for East Sydney in 1882. After serving as Speaker, he became Attorney-General in the Dibbs government. The Federation cause became Barton’s great passion after Henry Parkes made his Tenterfield speech in 1889. Barton won the federal seat of Maitland West in the March 1901 election. Barton's health deteriorated towards the end of his period in office and on 24 September 1903 he announced his retirement from politics to become a judge on the newly created High Court.
A national flag design competition results in 32000 entries. A flag incorporating elements from the five winning entries is chosen and flies as the Australian flag for the first time over the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 3 September 1901.
White Australia Policy
The implementation of what becomes known as the 'White Australia Policy' occurs with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act on 23 December 1901. It requires that any immigrant may be required to take a 50 word dictation test in any European language.
Boer War contingent
The Australian government agrees to an official British request to provide soldiers for a Commonwealth contingent to the Boer War with the first troops sailing for South Africa on 19 February 1902.
Commonwealth Franchise Act
The Commonwealth Franchise Act on 12 June 1902 establishes uniform federal franchise. This gives the vote to adult British subjects who were resident in Australia for at least six months, but excluded Aborigines, Africans and Asians. The Act also provided women in the four states without female suffrage the right to vote in Commonwealth elections.
Barton represents the Commonwealth of Australia for the first time at the Colonial Conference of British Empire prime ministers on 30 June 1902. This coincides with the coronation of King Edward VII.
Visit by Japanese naval squadron
On 21 May 1903 the government holds a banquet in honour of a visiting squadron of three Japanese warships. Later, in 1905, Edmund Barton receives the Order of the Rising Sun, First Class from the Japanese government for fostering friendship between Australia and Japan.
Establishment of the High Court
The Judiciary Act establishes the High Court of Australia on 25 August 1903 and Barton later becomes one of the first judges on the High Court bench.
The 1901 election result meant that the first parliament required careful management. Barton’s Protectionists held only a slim majority over the Free Trade Party, with the Labor Party holding the balance of power. It was a similar situation in the Senate where Labor also held the balance of power. The first parliamentary session was an endurance test lasting from May 1901 until the middle of 1902. The earliest piece of legislation passed related to the restriction of Asian immigration and Pacific Islander labour. This legislation was crucial as it locked in Labor support for Barton, but it also required deft negotiation as Britain raised concerns regarding obligations to Asian subjects of the Empire. Other legislation was passed to establish the Commonwealth public service, the High Court and the transcontinental railway. The first Commonwealth tariff was introduced, but industrial arbitration legislation remained elusive for many years. These were considerable achievements, given Barton often needed to negotiate a new majority for each piece of legislation.
The first Cabinet is often lauded as an ‘army of generals’ or ‘orchestra of conductors’, with Barton as the ‘first among equals’. In part to balance state representation, six members were former premiers, ranging from the radical South Australian Charles Kingston to conservative John Forrest, who had led Western Australia for almost a decade. These men were former party leaders with forceful personalities and they were used to exercising power in their own right. For Barton, who had not led a government previously, it required ‘the fullest exercise for his abilities’ to ease tensions and maintain unity. Barton’s adept mediation skills held his government together for nearly a full term. It was primarily the resignation of Kingston in July 1903 over the arbitration bill that led to Cabinet breakdown. Kingston and his supporters were approached by both Free Trade and Labor parties with offers to join their ranks. Barton, feeling the strain, was prompted to ponder a future beyond politics.
On 6 December 1901, six English felt hat makers arrived in Sydney on the R.M.S. Orontes and were detained on the mail steamer as prohibited immigrants. The men had been contracted to work for businessman Charles Anderson in his new Sydney hat factory. Barton received rival deputations from both Anderson and the Victorian Felt Hat Makers’ Union. A number of British government officials were pressing for the ‘simple Lancashire lads’ to stay, arguing the Imperial Conference had agreed that ‘maximum legal rights should be enjoyed in each part of the Empire’. Meanwhile, residual anti-Federalist groups believed that this development would be to the commercial benefit of New South Wales and not the Commonwealth as a whole. In the end Barton was convinced the men qualified for exemption from the Immigration Restriction Act. The exemption allowed for special skilled tradesmen to be admitted if like skilled workers were not available in the local market. The incident later became known as the ‘affair of the hatters’ and provided a foretaste of the type of issues Barton would continue to face in his first term in office.
Returning from the Imperial Conference in London in 1902, Barton had an audience with Pope Leo XIII. After conversing with the Pope in Latin, Barton was presented with a gold medal by the Papal Secretary of State. Reflecting the sectarian controversies that often characterised early federal politics, Barton’s visit resulted in a bulky petition being tabled in Parliament by Free Trader William Wilks containing the names of 30000 New South Wales residents. The petitioners objected to Barton’s reported comments to the Pope that, in Australia, Catholics ‘might rely on a greater measure of liberty than they enjoyed in any other part of the British Empire.’ Wilks argued that Barton should not be appointed to any further Commonwealth office until ‘he has presented himself to his constituents at Maitland for re-election.’ Barton responded that, ‘he hoped and believed that notwithstanding such evidences as were to be drawn from the petition, the Commonwealth at large would maintain that feeling of tolerance to which the petition was so gross an exception.’
Geoffrey Bolton, Edmund Barton, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 2000
Colin A. Hughes, Mr Prime Minister: Australian Prime Ministers 1901 – 1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1976
J.A. La Nauze, The Hopetoun Blunder: The Appointment of the First Prime Minister of Australia, December 1900, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1957
John Reynolds, Edmund Barton, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1948
Martha Rutledge, Barton Sir Edmund (Toby) (1849-1920), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1988
The Sydney Morning Herald, The Pope’s Medal, 20 October, 1902
The Sydney Morning Herald, The Prime Minister and Rome, 18 June, 1903
The Sydney Morning Herald, Statement By Sir Edmund Barton, 22 December 1902
The West Australian, Federal Immigration Restriction Act, 15 December 1902