In The Weekend Australian’s Magazine of 19-20 December, ( “Envoys of Change” ) Kate Legge reports an interview in which it was claimed that the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, the father of Neville Chamberlain, had not even consulted our first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, before he appointed the seventh Earl of Hopetoun as Governor-General.
This is true. But before republicans rejoice in finding yet another example of British arrogance which justifies our immediately becoming some as yet unknown sort of politicians' republic, we should note one relevant fact. Chamberlain did not consult the Australian Prime Minister for one very good reason. There was no Australian Prime Minister. The office did not exist.
An Australian Prime Minister can only be commissioned by a Governor–General. Moreover Lord Hopetoun was appointed before the Commonwealth of Australia had come into existence. This was timed to coincide with the birth of the twentieth century.
Lord Hopetoun, later the first Marquess of Linlithgow, was an appropriate choice. He had previously been a successful Governor of Victoria, so he knew the country. He had arrived in Melbourne as Governor 0f Victoria in 1889 “in sumptuous style”, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. This continues:-
“During a time of depression and ministerial instability, Hopetoun entertained extravagantly and handled the political situation ably. Notwithstanding poor health and colonial astonishment at his habit of wearing hair-powder, his youthful enthusiasm for routine duties and his fondness for informal horseback tours won him many friends, even in Sydney… His governorship coincided with important years of the Federation movement of which he was a fervent supporter. After an extension of his term he left Melbourne in March 1895.”
Bakc in the UK he was appointed a minister in Lord Salisbury’s UK government, and declined a proposal that he become Governor-General of Canada. Instead he was appointed Lord Chamberlain. In 1900 he accepted appointment Governor General of Australia and made a Knight of the Thistle and Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order.
On the way to Australia he caught typhoid fever in India and Lady Hopetoun malaria. He arrived in Sydney on 15 December 1900, with the Commonwealth to come into existence on 1 January 1901. In poor health, and with no House of Representatives from which to judge political support, he took what seemed to be the obvious choice. He invited the Premier or Prime Minister of the oldest state, New South Wales, Sir William Lyne, to form the first Australian ministry.
But because Sir William had been opposed to Federation, Alfred Deakin and other senior politicians refused to serve under him, so Sir William declined the commission. Accordingly Lord Hopetoun then invited Sir Edmund Barton to be Prime Minister. Lord Hopetown was sworn in on 1 January 1901 in public in Centennial Park in Sydney, and then exercising the reserve powers, he swore in Barton’s ministry.
The intial offer to Sir William Lyne has been termed – most unfairly in my view – the ‘Hopetoun blunder'. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and within his discretionary reserve powers. When it was not supported by key politicians, a more acceptable choice soon emerged.