George Reid (Australian politician)

George Reid (Australian politician)

Infobox Prime Minister
honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name=Sir George Reid

honorific-suffix = GCB GCMG QC

order=4th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1901, 1903, 1906
term_start =18 August 1904
term_end =5 July 1905
predecessor =Chris Watson
successor =Alfred Deakin
order2 = 12th Premier of New South Wales
term_start2 =3 August 1894
term_end2 =13 September 1899
predecessor2 =George Dibbs
successor2 =William Lyne
birth_date =birth date|1845|2|25|df=y
birth_place =Renfrewshire, Scotland
death_date =death date and age|1918|9|12|1845|2|25|df=y
death_place =London, England
nationality =British
party=Free Trade/Anti-Socialist
constituency = East Sydney (New South Wales)

Sir George Houstoun Reid, GCB, GCMG, QC (25 February 1845 – 12 September 1918) was an Australian politician, Premier of New South Wales and fourth Prime Minister of Australia. [cite web | title = Prime Facts 12 | work = Old Parliament House | publisher = The Australian Prime Ministers Centre | url = | doi = | accessdate = 2008-08-20 ]

Reid was the last leader of the Liberal tendency in New South Wales, led by Charles Cowper and Henry Parkes and which Reid organised as the Free Trade and Liberal Association in 1889.cite web
title= George Reid
publisher =National Archives of Australia
work=Prime Ministers
url =
accessdate = 2007-05-04
] He was more effective as Premier of New South Wales from 1894 to 1899 than he was as Prime Minister in 1904 and 1905. This partly reflected the disappearance of the rationale of the Free Trade Party with the imposition of tariffs by the federal government and the disappearance of the political centre ground with the rise of the Australian Labor Party. Although a supporter of Federation, he took an equivocal position on it during the campaign for the first referendum in June 1898, earning himself the nickname of "Yes-No Reid."

Early life

Reid was born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, son of a Church of Scotland minister, migrated to Victoria with his family in 1852. His family was one of many Presbyterian families brought out from Scotland by Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang, with whom his father worked at Scots' Church, Sydney. [cite book |last=Baker |first= D.W.A. |title=Preacher, Politician, Patriot: A Life Of John Dunmore Lang |origyear=1998 |accessdate=2007-02-01 |publisher=Melbourne University Press |location=Carlton, Victoria |language= English |isbn= ] He was educated at what later became Scotch College, where he said he could "read, write and count fairly well", but had "a lazy horror of Greek" and no appetite for the "wide range of metaphysical propositions" which formed part of the curriculum.cite web
first=W. G.
title =Reid, Sir George Houstoun (1845 - 1918)
publisher =Australian National University
work=Australian Dictionary of Biography
url =
accessdate = 2007-05-04

When the family moved to Sydney when he was 13 years old, Reid obtained a job as a clerk. At the age of 15 he joined the School of Arts Debating Society, and according to his autobiography, a more crude novice than he was never began the practise of public speaking.cite web
title =Reid, Sir George Houstoun (1845 - 1918)
publisher =Project Gutenberg Australia
work=Dictionary of Australian Biography
url =
accessdate = 2007-05-04
] He became an assistant accountant in the Colonial Treasury in 1864 and rose rapidly and became head of the Attorney-General's department in 1878. In 1875 he had published his "Five Essays on Free Trade", which brought him an honorary membership of the Cobden Club, and in 1878 the government published his "New South Wales, the Mother Colony of the Australias", for distribution in Europe. In 1876 he began to study law seriously, which would give him an income and allow him to sit in Parliament, which was unpaid, and in 1879 he qualified as a barrister.

Political career

Reid's career was aided by his quick wit and entertaining oratory; he was described as being "perhaps the best platform speaker in the Empire"cite book
title=George Reid
publisher=Melbourne University Press, Melbourne
id=ISBN 0-522-84373-5
] , both amusing and informing to his audiences "who flocked to his election meetings as to popular entertainment"cite book
title=George Reid, The Democrat as Equivocator: Piss and Wind, or Principles in Search of a Constituency?] . In one particular incident his sense quick wit and affinity for humour were demonstrated when a heckler pointed to his ample paunch and exclaimed "What are you going to call it, George?" to which Reid replied: "If it's a boy, I'll call it after myself. If it's a girl I'll call it Victoria. But if, as I strongly suspect, it's nothing but piss and wind, I'll name it after you."cite book
title=Australian Prime Ministers
publisher=New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
id=ISBN 1-864-36756-3
] His humour however was not universally appreciated. Alfred Deakin detested Reid, describing him as "inordinately vain and resolutely aelfish"cite book
title=Australian Prime Ministers
publisher=New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
id=ISBN 1-864-36756-3
] , and their cold relationship would affect both their later careers.

Reid was elected top of the poll to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as a member for the four-member electoral district of East Sydney in 1880.cite web
title =Sir George Houston Reid (1845 - 1918)
work =Members of Parliament
publisher =Parliament of New South Wales
url =!OpenDocument
accessdate = 2007-05-04
] He was not active at first, as he was building up his legal practice, although he was concerned to reform the Robertson Land Acts, which had not prevented 96 land holders from controlling eight million acres (32,000 km²) between them. Henry Parkes and John Robertson attempted to make minor amendments to the land acts but were defeated and at the subsequent election Parkes' party lost many seats.

The new premier, Alexander Stuart, offered Reid the position of Colonial Treasurer in January 1883, but he thought it wiser to accept the junior office of Minister for Public Instruction. He was 14 months in office and succeeded in passing a much improved Education Act, which included the establishment of the first government high schools in the leading towns, technical schools (which became a model for the other colonies) and the provision of evening lectures at the university.

In February 1884, Reid lost his seat in parliament owing to a technicality; the necessary notice had not appeared in the Government Gazette declaring that the Minister for Public Instruction was a position that a parliamentarian could hold instead of being excluded from parliament for holding an "office of profit" . At the by-election Reid was defeated by a small majority as a result of the government's financial harships due to the loss of revenue as a result of the suspension of land sales. In 1885 he was re-elected to East Sydney and took a great part in the free trade or protection issue. He supported Sir Henry Parkes on the free trade side but, when Parkes came into power in 1887, declined a seat in his ministry. Parkes offered him a portfolio two years later and Reid again refused. He did not like Parkes personally and felt he would be unable to work with him. When payment of members of parliament was passed Reid, who had always opposed it, paid the amount of his salary into the treasury. Reid had become Sydney's leading barrister by impressing juries by his cross-examinations and was made a Queen's Counsel in 1898.


In September 1891, the Parkes ministry was defeated, the Dibbs government succeeded it, and Parkes retired from the leadership of the Free Trade Party. Reid was elected leader of the opposition in his place. In 1891, he married Flora Ann Brumby. He managed to form his party into a coherent group although it "ran the whole gamut from conservative Sydney merchants through middle-class intellectuals to reformers who wished to replace indirect by direct taxation for social reasons."

At the 1894 election he made the establishment of a real free trade tariff with a system of direct taxation the main item of his policy, and had a great victory. Edmund Barton and other well-known protectionists lost their seats, the Labour following was reduced from 30 to 18, and Reid formed his first cabinet. One of his earliest measures was a new lands bill which provided for the division of pastoral leases into two halves, one of which was to be open to the free selector, while the pastoral lessee got some security of tenure for the other half. Classification of crown lands according to their value was provided for, and the free selector, or his transferee, had to reside on the property.

Parkes at an early stage of the session raised the question of federation again, and Reid invited the premiers of the other colonies to meet in conference on 29 January 1895. As a consequence of this conference an improved bill was drafted which ensured that both the people and the parliaments of the various colonies should be consulted. Meanwhile Reid had great trouble in passing his land and income tax bills. When he did get them through the Assembly the Council threw them out. Reid obtained a dissolution, was victorious at the polls, and heavily defeated Parkes for the new single-member electoral district of Sydney-King. He eventually succeeded in passing his acts, which were moderate, but strenuously opposed by the Council, and it was only the fear that the chamber might be swamped with new appointments that eventually wore down the opposition. Reid was also successful in bringing in reforms in the keeping of public accounts and in the civil service generally. Other acts dealt with the control of inland waters, and much needed legislation relating to public health, factories, and mining, was also passed. In five years he had achieved more than any of his predecessors.


he did not take a leading role. He was dissatisfied by the draft constitution, especially the power of a Senate, elected on the basis of States rather than population, to reject money bills. In the referendum campaign after the close of the Australasian Federal Convention, Reid, on 28 March 1898, made his famous "Yes-No" speech at the Sydney town hall. He told his audience that he intended to deal with the bill "with the deliberate impartiality of a judge addressing a jury". After speaking for an hour and three-quarters the audience was still uncertain about his verdict. He ended up by saying that while he felt he could not become a deserter to the cause he would not recommend any course to the electors. He consistently kept this attitude until the poll was taken on 3 June 1898. This earned him the nick-name "Yes-No Reid." The referendum in New South Wales resulted in a small majority in favour, but the yes votes fell about 8000 below the required number of 80,000. Subsequently Reid was able to secure greater concessions for New South Wales.

At the general election held soon after, Barton accepted Reid's challenge to contest the East Sydney seat and Reid defeated him, but his party came back with a reduced majority. Reid fought for federation at the second referendum and it was carried in New South Wales by a majority of nearly 25,000, 107,420 Votes being cast in favour of it. "A bizarre combination of the Labor Party, protectionists, Federation enthusiasts and die-hard anti-Federation free traders" censured Reid for paying the expenses of J. C. Neild who had been commissioned to report on old-age pensions, prior to parliamentary approval. Governor Beauchamp refused Reid a dissolution and he resigned. By this time Reid had grown extremely overweight and sported a walrus moustache and a monocle, but his buffoonish image concealed a shrewd political brain.

Federal politics

Reid was elected to the first federal Parliament as the Member for East Sydney in 1901. The Free Trade Party had 26 out of 75 seats in the House of Representatives, and 17 out of 36 seats in the Senate. Labour no longer trusted Reid and gave their support to the Edmund Barton government, so Reid became the first Leader of the Opposition, a position well-suited to his robust debating style and rollicking sense of humour. In the long tariff debate Reid was at a disadvantage as parliament was sitting in Melbourne and he could not entirely neglect his practice as a barrister in Sydney, as his parliamentary income was less than a tenth of his income from his legal practice. With the rise of the Labour Party, the Free Trade Party had lost much of the middle ground to Barton and his followers, and it was increasingly dependent on conservatives, including militant Protestants.

On 18 August 1903, Reid resigned (the first member of the House of Representatives to do so). He contested the by-election for East Sydney on 4 September, and won it back [ [ Australian Parliamentary Handbook] ] . He is the only person in Australian federal parliamentary history to win back his seat at a by-election triggered by his own resignation.

Reid improved his party's position in the December 1903 election, and in August 1904, when the Watson government resigned, he became Prime Minister. He was the first former state premier to become Prime Minister (the only other to date being Joseph Lyons). Reid did not have a majority in either House, and he knew it would be only a matter of time before Deakin's Protectionists patched up their differences with Labour, so he enjoyed himself in office while he could. In July 1905 the other two parties duly voted him out, and he left office with a good grace. He gained seats once more in 1906, but failed to win a majority.

In 1907-08, Reid strenuously resisted Deakin's commitment to increase tariff rates. In 1908, when Deakin proposed a "Fusion" of the two non-Labour parties, Reid stood aside from the leadership. On 24 December 1909 he resigned from Parliament (he was the first Member to have resigned twice) and in 1910 was appointed as Australia's first High Commissioner in London.

High Commissioner

Reid was extremely popular in Britain, and in 1916, when his term as High Commissioner ended, he was returned unopposed to the House of Commons for the seat of St George, Hanover Square as a Unionist candidate, where he acted as a spokesman for the self-governing Dominions in supporting the war effort. He died suddenly in London in September 1918, aged 73 of cerebral thrombosis, survived by his wife and their two sons and daughter. He is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.

Reid's posthumous reputation suffered from the general acceptance of protectionist policies by other parties, as well as from his buffoonish public image. In 1989 W. G. McMinn published "George Reid" (Melbourne University Press), a serious biography designed to rescue Reid from his reputation as a clownish reactionary and attempt to show his Free Trade policies as having been vindicated by history.


Reid was appointed a member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (1904), a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (1911) and was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (1916).

ee also

*Reid Ministry


External links

* [ Undated photo of George Reid and Mrs. Oliver T. Johnston from Library of Congress collection]

NAME=Reid, George Houston
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Australian politician, Prime Minister of Australia and Premier of New South Wales
DATE OF BIRTH= 25 February 1845
PLACE OF BIRTH= Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH= 12 September 1918
PLACE OF DEATH= London, England

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