Sir Henry Parkes

The Australian statesman Sir Henry Parkes (1815-1896) was a champion of Australian federation, and his eloquent appeals to colonial leaders to forget their differences were a potent influence in bringing success to the federal movement.

The son of a tenant farmer, Henry Parkes was born in Warwickshire, England, on May 27, 1815. He had only sketchy schooling and began working at the age of 8. As a young man, he joined the Birmingham Political Union (a Chartist-inspired group) and began to read widely. Parkes reached Sydney in 1839 as an assisted immigrant. He worked as a farmhand before setting up a small business. His interest in politics was rekindled through contact with local Chartists, and in 1850 he established the Empire as the workingman's voice at a time when self-government was being granted New South Wales. Leading the attack on sections of the Constitution Bill that were considered to support landholding privileges, Parkes campaigned for a parliamentary seat and was elected.

Because of poor management the Empire failed, and in 1858 Parkes suffered insolvency, leading to his temporary political eclipse. He went to London to promote Australian immigration in 1861, returning to Sydney to reenter Parliament in 1863. He became colonial secretary in 1866 and carried the Public Schools Act, providing unified administration under an Education Council. Embroiled in sectarian issues, he had few supporters when he again faced financial difficulties (this time as a merchant) in 1870.

Chief Ministries

His insolvency cleared, Parkes was reelected in 1871 and became the acknowledged leader of the democratic group. A free trader, he virtually eliminated customs duties during his first term as premier of New South Wales (1872-1875). After clashes with the Legislative Council over electoral reform, his ministry became ineffectual. His second ministry (1877) lasted 5 months.

Parkes was knighted in 1877 and late in 1878 joined erstwhile opponents to form a third ministry. The Public Instruction Act of 1880 was a landmark; it provided for free, secular, and compulsory education and ended subsidies for church schools. An electoral law widened the franchise.

With his ministry's defeat in 1883, Parkes eased away from the political round but did not hold to his stated intention to retire. In 1887 he led a vigorous free-trade campaign; his fourth ministry slashed recently increased import duties and imposed a stiff poll tax on Chinese. Parkes was again premier in 1889-1891, following a brief ouster, but his drive for social reform had faded.

Call for Australian Federation

By now an ardent advocate of federal union, Parkes called for a national Parliament to set policies on defense, immigration, and customs duties. A meeting of premiers in 1890 resulted in a constitutional convention under his presidency which in 1891 drafted a Constitution Bill; but although his forceful oratory and commanding personality won many adherents to the federal cause, Parkes failed to carry the measure in his own Parliament.

In October 1891 Parkes resigned the premiership when the newly formed Labour party withdrew support, and he was not elected at the poll of 1895. He died on April 27, 1896.

Further Reading on Sir Henry Parkes

Parkes's speeches before the national Australasian Conventions of 1890 and 1891 are recorded in the convention records. Biographies are C. E. Lyne, Life of Sir Henry Parkes (1897), and Thomas Bavin, Sir Henry Parkes: His Life and Work (1941). Parkes's role as a colonial leader is dealt with in P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties: The First Thirty Years of Responsible Government in New South Wales, 1856-1889 (1966). Aspects of his work related to the federal movement are discussed in John Quick and Robert R. Garran, Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901), and in Sir George Houston Reid, My Reminiscences (1917).

Additional Biography Sources

Martin, A. W. (Allan William), Henry Parkes: a biography, Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1980.

Travers, Robert, The grand old man of Australian politics: the life and times of Sir Henry Parkes, Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1992.