Birth of Edmund Barton - Australia's first PM

January 17, 2019

On 18 January 1849, Sir Edmund Barton – Australia’s first PM (appointed and then duly elected in 1901) and leader of our federation movement in the 1890s – was born in Glebe, Sydney to English immigrants. (See further details below.)

As Australia’s first PM, Barton and his government

  • established a functioning Commonwealth administration,
  • unfurled the Australian flag (September 1901) and
  • legislated many nation-defining, founding Acts, including the Judiciary Act 1903 (to establish our High Court), the Defence Act 1901 (to provide defence and security for the new, federated nation’s common borders) and the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (to meet the states' pre-condition to federation, implementing the then-bipartisan White Australia policy).

After nearly three years serving as Australia’s first PM, Barton became one of the three foundation justices of the newly established High Court of Australia (September 1903). Barton served there for over 16 years, bedding down the judicial interpretation of the constitution he had helped write, eschewing judicial activism and continuing his political predisposition of moderate conservatism.

Barton refused knighthoods in 1887, 1891 and 1899, but after securing federation accepted the GCMG (Knight of the Grand Cross) in 1902. Sir Edmund was only one of two (the other being Sir Robert Menzies) to be conferred a knighthood during his term in office as Prime Minister. Barton died from heart failure in early 1920, aged almost 71.

Celebrate Sir Edmund Barton’s birthday by:

  • visiting a memorial of our first PM or his resting place
  • viewing these clips on Barton (and our other PMs)
  • reading further about Australia’s first PM and his life, vision and legacy
  • reflecting on Australia’s late colonial history, our Federation founding fathers and the challenges they faced to unite/create a nation and develop the institutional framework we enjoy (take for granted?) today, and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, proud Aussies and those that are curious about our nation’s beginnings and evolution.

Further details on Sir Edmund Barton

Before entering NSW colonial politics in 1879 (as an MP for the seat of University in the colony’s Legislative Assembly (LA)), Barton had become a barrister in 1871, set up a successful legal practice and mastered the art of debating.

Over the next two decades to Australia’s Federation in 1901, Barton held several key positions in the NSW Parliament and government including speaker of the LA, two stints as Attorney General and opposition leader (1898-99).

As Speaker, the ANU recounts of the young man known to schoolmates as 'Toby':

In a turbulent parliament, he displayed a sound knowledge of constitutional law and T. E. May's British Parliamentary Practices. The youngest Speaker yet, he revelled in the clubbable atmosphere of parliament and earned the Bulletin's nickname, 'Toby Tosspot', but was able to give clear decisions at 5 a.m. after disorderly sittings. He displayed quickness of perception, tact, courtesy and firmness. Next year he was forced to introduce new standing orders to control such rowdy and abusive members as David Buchanan, John McElhone and Adolphus Taylor, who was twice suspended from parliament by a vote of the House; the second time Barton had to order his removal by the serjeant-at-arms. Taylor claimed his suspension was illegal and won £1000 damages against him; the decision was upheld by the Privy Council.

As a chosen delegate for NSW, Barton attended the first Australasian (ie the then British colony of New Zealand also attended) Federal Convention in Sydney in March 1891 – an early, key part of a decade-long process kicked off by Father of Federation, Henry Parkes’ inspirational Tenterfield Oration in October 1889, which set out the case for federating Australia’s then six British colonies.

Barton congratulated Parkes in October 1889 on his Tenterfield address and became a key member of the committee set up to frame and draft Australia’s constitution.

After NSW Premier Henry Parkes and is government lost the colony’s October 1891 election, he handed the reins/leadership of the federation movement to the highly capable, convinced and motivated Barton.

Over the subsequent decade, Barton – a moderate conservative and centrist in many other respects – won the trust of his colleagues across “both sides of the aisle” to be recommended as Australia’s first PM, to which our inaugural Governor General, Lord Hopetoun, ultimately agreed. Hopetoun commissioned Barton to form a ministry in late December 1900 – an interim or caretaker government to hold the reins until a Federal parliament, government and PM could be duly elected. But this was not before the now infamous Hopetoun Blunder.

Australia held its first Federal election in late March 1901, with Barton and his Protectionist Party (centrist, mildly conservative but of high tariffs) receiving the most votes and seats, but not a majority in either house of parliament. With the elected state-based Labour MPs caucusing to form an early incarnation of the current ALP, and deciding to support the Protectionists in minority government (instead of the anti-socialist Free Trade Party), this enabled Barton to also become our first elected PM, with the first sitting of Parliament on 9 May 1901.


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