The first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, was born in Sydney on 18 January 1849 and qualified as a lawyer from the University of Sydney after lecturing in Classics. A passionate politician, Barton was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1879.
Barton endorsed Henry Parkes’ call for Federation in 1889. Some sort of federation of the Australian colonies had been suggested as early as 1846. But progress was agonisingly slow. The colonies often agreed in principle to the desirability of Federation, but found the devil in the detail.
At the first session of the Australasian Constitutional Convention, held in Adelaide in April, 1889 Barton said: 'We all lose something, we all gain something, not only in the method and manner of Federation, but our gain is limitless, if we are to consider, as we must, what the outcome of Federation will be to all these colonies'.
Between 1893 and 1897 Barton passionately devoted himself to the Federation movement. Federation seemed likely in the early 1890s but foundered because of the reluctance of New South Wales. However as the 19th century drew to a close, an agreement seemed again achievable.
By the end of the century Barton had overseen the drafting of the amended Constitution, its protracted and difficult passing through the NSW Legislative Assembly and Council, as well as an extensive campaign through two referenda to its eventual approval by the British Parliament in 1900.
Barton was appointed the nation’s first Prime Minister, taking the portfolio of Minister of External Affairs.
The Velvet Soap advertising campaign, with its reference to washing linen 'snow white', is also a reminder of Edmund Barton’s hand in formulating the White Australia policy. As Warren Brown reveals in this clip, this poster was not the first Velvet Soap ad to make reference to Barton and the White Australia policy. Other Velvet Soap advertisements, including one shown in this clip, openly utilised racist imagery and concepts common at the time.
Michael Richards, an historian at Old Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy), explains that the White Australia policy was actually a series of laws dating from this time that, while gradually watered down after the Second World War, persisted into the 1970s.
Laws like the Immigration Restriction Act were designed to keep people out of Australia who were not white and British while the Pacific Island Labourers Act sought to expel labourers in the sugar and cane fields of New South Wales and Queensland, even if they had already lived in Australia for decades.
Barton also helped draft the Federal Constitution, created the High Court and presided over the formulation of federal industrial relations and the legal system. Without him the wayward states may never have federated.
Edmund Barton (1849–1920) was Prime Minister of Australia from January 1901 to September 1903. The Velvet Soap ad is held at Old Parliament House in Canberra.
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