CONSTITUTION - 1901 ELECTION
Australians were campaigning for their first Federal elections, the
painter Tom Roberts was selling up to join the exodus of creative
spirits out of the new Commonwealth. Almost by chance, Roberts attended
the inauguration of the Parliament in the Melbourne Exhibition Building
on 9 May, where he thought that ‘the heads on the floor looked like a
landscape stretching away’.
A few days later, a commercial syndicate commissioned him to make an oil
painting of the event with some 250 identifiable faces, including that
of George Reid, even though he had been too ill to attend. Throughout
the next two years, Roberts replaced his bird’s eye view with a
collection of miniatures as every member and Senator spent hours in his
wrote details about many of his sitters into an exercise book,
documenting physical characteristics, reporting reminiscences or gossip,
and attaching his own judgements of their appearance, personalities and
talents. His notes bring the official painting to life, and offer
pointers about the workings of the early Commonwealth.
recorded the age, height, weight and hat size of fifty-four of the 111
parliamentarians. In forty-seven cases, those numbers were almost the
only information he collected about them. The impetus to acquire such
details was part of the intersection - indeed collision - between
ethnographers, phrenologists and anthropologists associated with his
friend, Professor Baldwin Spencer. During the 1890s, Roberts had made
two portrait sequences, one of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders,
and the other of ‘Familiar Faces and Figures’, that is, of men about
Roberts had drawn his own version of phrenology from a career in
face-making. It was his trade to notice that W. G. Spence’s head had
‘a good deal more height about the eyes than the average’. From
attention to physiognomies, he concluded that M. D. McEachran had ‘the
best business and mercantile head of all the members, square and solid
looking’. John Quick, a barrister, did not look ‘of that type’,
but ‘square and nobbly’. Tom Playford always presented ‘the quiet
look of a sane strong man, and a market gardener’.
The tallest of the 54 was Playford at 6’2” and the shortest Senator Millen at 5’5”. Twenty-four stood between 5’10” and 6’2”, and the other 30 were between 5’5” and 5’9 1/2”. Despite King O’Malley’s wearing the largest hat, his head measured only 7 1/8, smaller than those of Kingston and Braddon, both at 7 3/8. Playford topped Roberts’s scales at 18 stone after Sir John Forrest had declined to be weighed, admitting to ‘18 stone but fears something near 20’.
is not known how much clothing was included, or whether the height was
in stocking feet. Even if reliable statistics were available for the
entire parliament, the mismatch of two Queensland Labour members, both
aged 39, is a caution against wondering whether the Free Traders were
the ‘Mr Fats’ of the Worker and Bulletin
cartoonists. Andrew Fisher at 5’10 ½” was 11st 7lb while
Senator Anderson Dawson was an inch taller but weighed 9stone 3lb.
Roberts’s first impression of Dawson was ‘of a waster, but found him
wasting – looks like consumptive’. The blind Labour Senator Gregor
McGregor was 5’8” and 16 stone.
stature of the parliamentarians had its parallel in one of the drives
for Federation, namely, the simultaneous concern of the Imperial
authorities with the physical condition of the British population, and
its fitness for war. This matter would contribute to the ANZAC legend
when journalists contrasted the warrior Australasians with the weedy
English. On the Australian side, the fear had been that the convict
stain or the sub-tropics had caused the Race to degenerate.
more immediate interest, the High Commissionership to London kept the
lobbies buzzing: ‘There are several very keen about this, especially
Sir Langton Bonython, Sir Malcolm McEacharn and B. R. Wise of NSW’. On
1902, Roberts heard that Forrest was the most likely appointee but, when
Forrest came by that afternoon ‘for some touches’, he declared that
‘nothing on the matter at all had passed between him and Barton’. At
mention of McEachran, one of the labour men snapped: ‘We’ll block
him from that’. McEachran told Wise: ‘You can’t get this Wise.
You’re not a member of parliament’. The post was not filled until
Sir George Reid went in 1910.
identifying W. G. Spence as a ‘labour man’, Roberts added ‘of
course he is a reader’. Charles McDonald not only was a reader but had
‘some interest in artistic movement in Queensland … And is the one
member who has interested himself in having our painting materials
“free”.’ McGregor’s mother-in-law read to him, ‘sometimes five
hours a day’. Roberts found that, beyond the ranks of working-class
autodidacts, Sir Thomas Ewing favoured ‘hard reading and
philosophers’, Braddon did not like Kipling, and O’Connor was ready
to discuss ‘the Bacon-Shakespeare cipher’. The breadth of
Roberts’s own reading was apparent in his description of West
Australian Senator Matheson’s looking ‘as if he were one of the
“Patterne” family’, from George Meredith’s The
Egoist; Matheson, the descendent of an assassinated British prime
minister, succeeded to a baronetcy.
continued their previous endeavours, including union action. The
explanation that W. G. Spence gave of his tactics in industrial disputes
has pertinence for how he operated in caucus and the House.
himself arrives early, always to watch the movement of other members. [Because]the
raising of the voice raises the temper, the table must be a narrow one.
If the first comer be a definite minded man with his ideas already
set’, [Spence] ‘meets him in his earnest manner and talking of
anything but the real thing until the man thinks Spence is not worth
bothering about too much after all, and so on, trying to get the measure
of each member. On beginning business, he tries always to start a lead,
coming back always to it, beginning with the unimportant items and on
insensibly to the chief and difficult question, never contradicting or
putting the square-headed man with opposition and so keeping the
argument to his own line and to an agreement made. His opponents may
later on think of weighty points they might have made - but it is too
Senator Tom Glassey, who had organised for the Labour Party, parted with
it once he ’found it impossible to write a letter or speak with an
opponent without charges of disloyalty from them’. South Australian
Senator Hugh de Largie was then one of those happy to see Glassey
depart. For de Largie, it was a ‘principle of the Labour party is that
no member shall take office; a fighting party must be free from
responsibility. If a member leaves then they pot him on every
news broke on 15 May 1902 of the resignation of the Governor General,
Lord Hopetoun, Victoria’s Barrett (Labour party)
that day, Senator O’Connor told Roberts
recalled that Lord Beauchamp, the NSW Govenor, had considered ‘it was
a pity so wealthy a man as the Earl of Hopetoun should be the first Gov.
Gen for it would make a great difficulty for the men following him in
the office’. One member to suffer a personal loss by the departure was
the Reverend Ronald who was ‘born in the same year and near the same
place as Lord Hopetoun who would invite him to Gov House to “have a
bowl of a pipe”.’
sooner had the Victorian Governor, Lord Brassey, been mentioned in a
cable as a successor, than Dr Carty Salmon, Victorian MHR, and one other
vacancy was filled by Hallam, Lord Tennyson, then in South Australia.
repersentatives were not alone in having their ambitions tossed on the
sea of democracy. Sir Thomas Ewing had ‘a quiet grin for those new
members who jump up on every occasion to try to make themselves known
and necessary to their party and those who by the necessary dividing
ministers among the States can have no chance by any change of
ministry’. E. L Batchelor, who had been a minister of crown in SA,
‘like many others finds the leveling that goes on in the House of
Representatives. Family connections and social positions having nothing
to do with a man's acceptance’. Someone said Quick’s ‘reputation
in the State is not carried into the House or if carried at all had
declined’. Dugald Thomson, a free trade member from NSW, was landed
with a ‘good deal of the tariff work … by the opposition. Good
steady judgement I hear – a coming man – Should think on very
reliable’. Roberts heard that the Queenslander, Charles McDonald Q
20.1.02, ‘has a great knowledge of forms of procedure. learnt on
behalf of an for use of Labour party. The Chairman of Committees Way???
neatly gags and uses him by making him acting chairman’.
Based on experience as South Australian Agent-General, Playford said the
new king was ‘a first rate and business chairman of committees’.
could be as fleeting as prospect for advancement. Senator Ewing was the
‘first to speak strongly of another member. Matheson had made a common
platform with him and another, and then disclaimed the connection’.
‘members speaking of Victorian MP, Ronald as a Presbyterian minister.
‘find him out of place in the House. I found him interesting and with
a broad sympathy’. O’Connor, widely called ‘Dead Eye Dick’, was
‘the best liked man in the parliament. Several men call him the
ablest. However, he said he wasn’t impressed of all men’s speaking
well for the newspapers are dominant’. He had ‘great respect for
McDonald of great ability and absolutely straight and to be relied
on’. The government whip, Conroy, was ‘very intimate’ with the
opposition whip, Sydney Smith, and ‘says he is a born manager of a
party, thought him a certainty for the next ministry. Heard him speaking
that evening on the Postal Bill, shockingly badly, as Conroy admitted to
me. [Smith] was very pleasant and interesting with a shrewd judgment’.
frequently altered his opinion on further acquaintance. Victorian Labour
men, John Barrett and Frank Tudor, at first seemed dull but soon proved
bright. Similarly, John Quick, ‘had very little talk and sat with his
gloves on’, but outside the studio proved companionable. Roberts
appreciated that ‘the sitting in every case seemed to make the subject
inclined to be friendly; there’s a marked difference in the house of
men who have or have not yet sat’. Allan McLean, however, suffered
from ‘a dullness of perception as to the exact tenor of a gesture’.
Roberts thought Dobson ‘made a poor start - but found he was making up
his speech on the tariff’. Glassey ‘came up with a sort of nervous
consciousness’ because sitting for his portrait discomfited him, since
he had ‘never allowed anyone to dictate what he should wear or should
eat. Never wore formal dress at their functions. Was the first man to
spit on my floor’. Roberts recorded personalities both warm and
abrasive. Hume Cook, for example, was
Dawson was one who had left ‘a stream of whiskey fumes’ in
Roberts’s studio. Tasmanian convert to the Labour Party, King
O’Malley, who worked up his ideas into
extended his form of address ‘Brother so & so’ to Janet, Lady
Clarke as ‘Sister Clarke’. Roberts reckoned her as ‘one of the
best women of Australia and her sex’.
South Wales Protectionist Member of the House of Representative, Sir
Thomas Ewing was free with ‘good natured enough criticisms of many
other members’. He revealed his own humour by telling NSW Senator
“Colonel” John Neild that the Duchess of York ‘had inquired
through O’Connor particulars of that very fine soldierly man in
uniform amongst the members, she had been much struck by his noble
appearance. This done in a confidential way. It was all swallowed’.
The engineer, James Styles, thought ‘curly hair mixed up with a good
deal of self-conceit in men’.
diary was concerned with men rather than measures. Nonetheless, he
gathered a few statements of principle. West Australian Senator Norman
Ewing ‘was the first to ask what my religion might be. Privately he
belonged to no Church and had none, but politically strongly Protestant,
fearing the power of the Roman machine’. One of those whom Ewing might
have feared was O’Connor, although he had opposed Cardinal Moran’s
entry into politics, which earned him his Eminence’s respect. Glassey
believed ‘that all bad government is through bad legislation and the
cure to work the parliamentary machine to legislate well’. Spence
favoured ‘women voting. He gave me the soundest and most philosophical
reasons I have read. His chief idea seemed that in universal voting
everyone including the worst should be represented. As the bad was the
fault of society, society should hear the result of it’.
the end of 1902, Roberts found that, while his own work was improving,
he was getting
escape these tribulations, the prime minister and O’Connor went to the
High Court and several other members did not seek re-election.
touchiness between the Commonwealth MPs and their host, the Victorian
Parliament, showed up in an anecdote passed on by the NSW Protectionist
W. B. S. Sawers, whom Roberts described as possessing a ‘quiet idea of
all the men about’. When the Victorian Premier, Alexander Peacock,
came into the dining room where he
the light of this incident, the right of reply should go to one of
Peacock’s Ministers, William McCulloch, who told Roberts that,
whenever he left his Ararat property to ‘come to town, says to himself
- what a foolish old man you are to bother about politics’.
 Roberts papers, Mitchell Library MSA2481/3, p. 3.
 Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, pp. 463-80.
 Humphrey McQueen, ‘An Association of Natives’, in Tim Bonyhady and Andrew Sayers (eds), Heads of the People, A Portrait of Colonial Australia, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000, pp. 96-115.
 During the 1891 Convention, the Sydney newspapers had reported that the average height of delegates at 6” and their weight at 14 stone.
 McDonald became Chairman of Committees and Speaker.