Edmund Barton became Australia’s First Prime Minister having emerged as leader of the federation movement by the end of the 1890s.
Born in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe, educated at Sydney Grammar and the University of Sydney, Edmund Barton’s political career was well established over 21 years in the NSW Parliament where he held the offices of Attorney General, Speaker, and Leader of the Opposition. He very nearly missed his date with destiny when the NSW Premier, Sir William Lyne, briefly persuaded the new Governor General Lord Hopetoun (in his first week in office) that he, Lyne, deserved to be the first Prime Minister! The other States over-ruled this choice.
In a first ministry comprising State Premiers (except Tasmania), Barton’s government was basically protectionist and stood for a Commonwealth with defined powers. In a long string of “firsts”, the Barton Government established old-age pensions, a national railway scheme, the amalgamation of militias into a national Defence force, the appointment of the High Court of Australia, and basic industrial laws. Most controversial – in today’s terms – was the opposition of all parties at federation to Asian immigration because of fear of job losses.
After a short but prolific 33 months in office, Barton was appointed to the High Court of Australia in 1903 where he served with distinction until his death in office in 1920.
Alfred Deakin served as Australia’s Second, Fourth and Sixth Prime Minister in the first decade of Federation.
Born into a middle-class family in Collingwood, educated at Melbourne Grammar and the University of Melbourne where he graduated in Law, Deakin’s first success was in journalism before his election to the Victorian Parliament. The leading advocate of liberalism in his day, Deakin played a key role in the march toward nationhood earning his place among “the fathers of Federation”. He found support from both the business community and farmers who were pro-protection of Australian industry.
The youngest member of the First Australian Government, he was appointed Attorney General by Edmund Barton and became Prime Minister after Barton collapsed in Parliament . Deakin gained international recognition for pace-setting welfare and workplace reforms – indeed his second term depended on support from Labor. Deakin is also credited with the first truly independent diplomatic initiative by Australia when he invited the US Great White Fleet to visit Australia (without consulting Whitehall). His terms as Prime Minister span 1903-4; 1905-8; and, 1909-10. He left Parliament in 1913.
In 1915, Alfred Deakin’s health collapsed forcing his withdrawal from public life altogether. When he died in 1919, his death was regarded as a blessing and release from his suffering.
The Big Picture
In the Australian Parliament stands the iconic painting by renowned Australian artist, Tom Roberts, of the Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. The act of federation itself had been recognised on 1 January 1901 with the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in Centennial Park in Sydney.
Centre stage in Roberts’ picture is the Duke of York proclaiming the formation of the first national legislature with Edmund Barton, and – just behind him – Alfred Deakin, taking office to begin the momentous task of nation building. The work known as The Big Picture took two years of Tom Roberts’ life and captures that moment when the new Parliament – with all its dreams – was created.
Barton and Deakin stand ready in the middle of it all, ready to play their part.
In paying homage to the two great pioneering Australians, Barton Deakin seeks to capture that spirit of public service for the greater good of our nation.