Member of the Privy Council (1901), Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (1902), Order of Rising Sun (1905)

Liberal (Protectionist)
1 January 1901 — 24 September 1903 2 years, 266 days

Edmund Barton became Australia's first prime minister after the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1 January 1901. The first federal election was held on 29-30 March 1901 and Barton's Liberal Protectionist Party formed a minority government with the support of the Labour Party. 



18 January 1849
Sydney, New South Wales


7 January 1920
Medlow Bath, New South Wales


Jane Mason Barton


Liberal (Protectionist)

Photo: NLA/MS51

Liberal (Protectionist)
1 January 1901 — 24 September 1903 2 years, 266 days


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.' 

Edmund Barton and party in a gondola in Venice, 14 June 1902

Photo: State Library NSW

Barton took the oath of allegiance on New Year’s Day 1901 at Centennial Park in Sydney before an estimated crowd of 250,000 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.


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The 1901 election result meant that the first parliament required careful management. Barton’s Liberal Protectionists held only a slim majority over the Liberal Free Trade Party, with the Labour Party holding the balance of power. It was a similar situation in the Senate where Labour 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 Labour 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.

Black and white portrait of three well dressed men posing for a portrait.

The drafting of the Australian Constitution was enstrusted to three lawyers Mr (later Sir) Edmund Barton (standing), Sir John Downer (left) and Mr Richard O'Connor (right), 1897. Photo: NAA


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