Sir Edmund Barton – Australia’s 1st Prime Minister


Sir Edmund Barton, 1849 –1920. Australian politician, judge and the first Prime Minister of Australia. From The Century Edition of Cassell's History of England, published c. 1900 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Sir Edmund (Toby) Barton was Australia’s first Prime Minister. Born on 18 January 1849 in Glebe, Sydney, he was the third son of William Barton and Mary Louisa. Known to his schoolmates as “Toby”, Edmund was educated at Fort Street model school for 2 years and then at Sydney Grammar School.

In 1865 Barton began studying at the University of Sydney. In 1866 he won the (William) Lithgow scholarship and then the (Sir Daniel) Cooper scholarship in 1867. He had enjoyed playing cricket as a boy, being a much better batsman than a fieldsman, and would later play for the University in 1870 and 1871.

He graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in 1868 and then an MA in 1870. After becoming a barrister in 1871 he created his own legal practice which enjoyed much success. In 1877 he married Jane (Jean) Mason Ross and had 6 children.

Political Career

Barton tried to introduce himself to the world of colonial state politics, running in the University of Sydney seat in 1876 and 1877. Losing on both occasions he eventually succeeded in 1879, entering the Legislative Assembly as a result. He then ran for and won the seat of Wellington in 1880 and then East Sydney in 1882. From 1882-1887 and 1891-1894 he was the member for East Sydney and finally he was the member of Hastings-Macleay from 1898–1900.

On 3 January 1883, Barton was elected speaker of the House. He displayed his strong grasp of constitutional law as well as his ability to be prudent, firm and well-mannered. He was the youngest speaker of the House and he won the title “Toby Tosspot” by the Bulletin as he revelled in the convivial atmosphere of the House and also because of his love of alcohol.  On 31 January 1887 he resigned as speaker and on 2 February he was nominated to the Upper House.

“A Nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation”.  Edmund Barton

Edmund Barton, like many at the time, yearned for a federated Australia. He delivered many speeches in support of federation and supported the protagonists of the federation movement. Henry Parkes for instance delivered the “Tenterfield Oration”, whereby he stipulated his support for Federation in order to create “a great national government for all Australians”.

This dream was not only romantic but practical as Parkes wanted to ensure that all the armies of the colonies would be fused into a national army and so there could be a singular railway system that spanned across all states.  In the oration he also stressed the historical comparison that the United States in 1776 managed to gain Independence through war with a population of 3-4 million; surely Australia could do the same through peaceful means.

Barton supported federation into the 1890’s where real momentum was forming thanks to Henry Parkes and the Australian Constitutional Convention. Barton was elected to represent New South Wales in the conferences that followed. On 6 February 1890, delegates from all colonial parliaments met to discuss the matter in Melbourne. In December 1892 he visited Albury and Corowa and with local assistance he set up branches of the Australasian Federation League.

From 1893 to 1897 Barton had addressed 300 meetings of the Australasian Federal Leagues in NSW.  In March 1891 he attended the Federal Convention in Sydney as a delegate for NSW and in 1897 he was elected chairman of the constitutional committee and convention leader.  

By 1898 a draft constitution contributed to by Edmund Barton was finalised and taken back to all the colonial parliaments to be approved. Then it was taken to London by an Australian delegation which included Edmund Barton. The British Empire asked for some minor alterations and then the constitution was approved by the British Empire on 9 July 1900.

Prime Ministership

During Barton’s time as Prime Minister he visited England in order to press Australia’s interests. In 1902 he went to witness the coronation of King Edward VII. Here he managed to negotiate an expanded British naval presence in Sydney for a period of 10 years.

Furthermore, Barton believed that it was worth forming strong relations with the growing regional power of Japan. The challenge, however, was forging parliamentary support for this diplomatic course. He managed to achieve this and on 21 May 1903, three Japanese ships and their delegations were welcomed to Australia to signify and formalise the new alliance. Edmund Barton was awarded Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun in 1905 as a testament to Japan’s appreciation of his efforts to foster cooperation among the two nations.

Domestically, Barton’s government passed the Audit Act of 1901 which ensured the supervision of public spending and obligatory reporting of public spending to parliament. This act also created the office of the “Auditor General”. Furthermore, the Judiciary Act of 1903 established the High Court of Australia, an institution which lasts to this day and has been instrumental in ensuring the proper interpretation of law. Barton also oversaw the introduction of the “Immigration Restriction Act” in 1901 which was the first Act enacted by the new parliament. This act became known as the “White Australia policy”.

High Court Justice

Edmund Barton however resigned from his office as Prime Minister on 24 September 1903 due to health concerns. He became one of the founding Justices of the High Court of Australia. He remained in this position until his sudden death on 7 January 1920. He had left behind his wife, his four sons and two daughters. One of the first suburbs in Canberra was named “Barton” in his honour as well as the electorate of “Barton” and the “Barton Highway”.

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