Birth of Henry Parkes - the "Father of Federation"

May 27, 2018

On this day, 27 May in 1815, Sir Henry Parkes – Australia’s “Father of Federation” – was born.

Parkes was the NSW politician most instrumental in the Federation process culminating in the birth of Australia, our Constitution, our first Federal election and sitting of Parliament in 1901. He was described during his lifetime as “the most commanding figure in Australian politics” and was a great orator.

On and off, Parkes was five times Premier of the Colony of New South Wales (NSW) – for around 12 years between 1872 and 1891.

In 1867, before he was ever premier, Parkes said at an inter-colonial conference that, “I think the time has arrived when these colonies should be united by some federal bond of connexion” and pushed the idea further during his five premierships.

Parkes was awarded a knighthood in the Order of St Michael and St George in 1877, and later in the Order of the Grand Cross in 1888. He is the first knight listed in the Australian database of honours.

But it was his inspirational Tenterfield Oration of 24 October 1889 (during his last stint as Premier) that really kick-started the Federation process. Its key theme was “… to devise the constitution which would be necessary for bringing into existence a federal government with a federal parliament for the conduct of national undertaking” with other key justifications being the need for “… one great federal army and a[n expanded] nation-wide uniform gauge railway line.”

Parkes convened the inaugural February 1890 Federation Conference (in Melbourne) and was president of the follow-up March 1891 National Australasian Convention (in Sydney). The latter saw Parkes as “immediate author” for the (Federation) movement, with his guiding principles leading to the first draft bill to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia – the name of the new nation, which Parkes also proposed.

Parkes died on 27 April 1896, less than five years before his vision became reality.

Sir Henry also featured on the 2001 edition of our $5 note commemorating Federation – a truly great man and right-of-centre, conviction politician.

Celebrate the birth, life and great achievements of Sir Henry Parkes by:

  • visiting one of the many landmarks or things named in honour of our “Father of Federation” (see below)
  • reading his Tenterfield Oration of 1889
  • researching his history as Premier of the then Colony of NSW and staunch advocacy of independence, liberalism and sensible governance, and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends and fellow patriotic Australians.

Parkes’ Legacy

Many things are named in honour of Sir Henry Parkes including:

  • the central NSW town of Parkes with its nearby powerful radio telescope (“The Dish” at the “Parkes Observatory”)
  • the inner-Canberra suburb of Parkes with its Parliamentary Triangle
  • the north-western NSW Federal electorate of Parkes
  • the east-west arterial road, Parkes Way, traversing the northern edge of Lake Burley Griffin, just south of the Canberra CBD
  • the Sir Henry Parkes School of Arts museum and theatre complex in Tenterfield, NSW – the building where he made his inspiring “Tenterfield Oration” (pitch for Federation), and
  • the Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School, also in Tenterfield.

From the outset of his political career (mid-1800s), Parkes was independence-driven, a liberal (in the Australian sense) and forward-thinking. He was an early advocate for the colonies becoming self-governing, stopping British convict transportation and greater voting rights (suffrage).

Once these had been largely fulfilled, Parkes turned his attention to federating the six colonies of continental Australia.

He also helped found the Free Trade Party of the Colony of NSW in 1887 – a centre-right party which dominated NSW colony politics in the late 1800s and spawned party-equivalents in the other colonies over that period. [The party was officially known as the Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association.]

During our first Federal election in March 1901, the Free Trade Party won the second-most number of seats (28) behind the Protectionist Party (31). Despite these parties having similar right-of-centre policies and mindsets, with the key exception around trade, the more centrist Protectionist Party sought and got parliamentary support of the (left-leaning) Labour Party (14 seats), who held the balance of power, instead of the more-aligned Free Trade Party.

Not long after its first (and only) stint in power federally (one year over 1904-05), the Free Trade Party renamed itself the Anti-Socialist Party (in 1906) and then merged with the Protectionist Party to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party (in 1909).

Parkes' imposing public presence was honoured in this limerick of 1873:

There once was an ogre called Parkes
Very fond of political larks
Who dined off his chums
Making soup of the crumbs
And threw their old bones to the sharks.

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