Prime Minister from 18 August 1904 to 5 July 1905
George Reid was prime minister for 10 months and 17 days. He was Australia’s first federal Leader of the Opposition and the federal government’s first High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
George Houston Reid was born on 25 February 1845 in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland. He was one of seven children of Rev John Reid, a Presbyterian minister, and Marion Crybbace.
The family migrated to Melbourne in 1852, one of many Presbyterian families brought out to Australia by the Rev Dr JD Lang.
Reid attended school at the Melbourne Academy (later called Scotch College). Later he moved to Sydney where he worked as a merchant’s clerk from the age of 13. In 1864 he obtained a position as assistant accountant at the Colonial Treasury, where he worked for the next 14 years.
Reid studied law while working and became a barrister in 1879. He transferred to the Crown Law Office as secretary to the Attorney-General.
New South Wales politics
In November 1880 Reid entered the New South Wales Legislative Assembly representing the seat of East Sydney, which he held until February 1884, and then again from October 1885 to July 1894. He was Minister for Public Instruction in Alexander Stuart’s government from January 1883 to March 1884.
Reid was also a leading advocate of free trade, opposing federation at the time of the first Federal Convention in March 1891, believing it would force New South Wales to surrender its free trade policies. Reid married Flora Brumby in 1891, and they had three children.
Free trade and the Federal Convention
Having switched to the King electorate, Reid led the Free Trade group to electoral victory on 17 July 1894. He then served as both Premier and Treasurer for the next five years.
Having reconsidered his views on Federation, in August 1894 he suggested the formation of a second Federal Convention to other colonial premiers. Reid acquired the nickname ‘Yes-No Reid’ for pointing out the draft constitution’s faults from a Free Trade perspective, while at the same time maintaining he supported it.
In January 1895 the premiers met in Adelaide and decided to conduct a second Federal Convention. Beginning in 1897, the second Federal Convention met three times and completed drafting a federal constitution in 1898.
On 3–4 June 1898 referenda in South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria returned votes in favour of accepting the constitution, but in New South Wales the majority was insufficient for acceptance.
From 29 January to 3 February 1899 Reid convened a meeting of premiers which negotiated six amendments to the draft constitution to make it acceptable to New South Wales. Key amendments related to the location of the federal capital and federal–state financial arrangements.
During the period April–September 1899 referenda in all eastern colonies accepted the amended constitution and The Commonwealth Constitution Bill was subsequently passed.
Since losing electoral ground in July 1898 Reid had relied on Labor support to govern. However, dissatisfied with the performance of Reid’s government, Labor withdrew its support in August 1899 and he was forced to resign in September.
Entry to federal politics
Reid successfully contested the East Sydney seat at the first federal general election in March 1901, and became Australia’s first federal Leader of the Opposition from 1901 to 1904 as leader of the Free Trade group.
Prime Minister George Reid
Reid was appointed Prime Minister on 18 August 1904, after the fall of Prime Minister Chris Watson’s minority Labor government, which had lasted just four months. The fall of the Watson government occurred when an amendment against its Arbitration Bill was passed.
Reid, who had crusaded against the bill’s ‘socialism’, was commissioned to form a government of Free Traders. Reid then governed in an uneasy alliance with some Protectionists, notably not Alfred Deakin.
A large man with a bushy moustache, Reid delighted cartoonists, who made much of his physical appearance and forceful debating style. Their caricatures of him, and criticism by opponents such as Alfred Deakin and Chris Watson, obscured other qualities — his renowned good humour, wit, skill in debate, and (as author of four books) talent as a writer.
Reid retained his prime ministership for 10 months and 17 days, until resigning on 5 July 1905. The resignation of Reid’s Free Trade government occurred after Deakin moved a successful amendment to the Address-in-Reply, which Reid regarded as the withdrawal of the Protectionists’ support.
Alfred Deakin was then commissioned to form his second government, which took office that day.
Later political life
After losing office Reid reverted to being Opposition Leader. He held the position over the next three years, though delegating much to his deputy, Joseph Cook, so he could spend more time in his Sydney legal practice. He finally stood aside for Cook in 1908.
Reid became a King’s Counsel in 1909. He was appointed as Australia’s first High Commissioner to the UK in December 1909, then retired from federal politics to take up this position, which became effective on 26 February 1910.
Reid remained High Commissioner in London for the next six years. After the outbreak of the First World War he persuaded Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief of the UK Army, to have Australian troops trained in Egypt, arguing that bringing them directly into a European winter could impair their health.
During the First World War his wife Flora Reid worked to provide services to the Australian troops. For this she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in 1917 and was among the first to receive the award.
After completing his term as High Commissioner, Reid was offered a seat in the UK House of Commons. He was elected unopposed to the St George’s Hanover Square seat at a by-election on 15 January 1916.
Reid continued living in London until his death there on 12 September 1918, two months before the end of the First World War.
Nine acts of parliament were passed during the period in office of GS Reid. The most important of these was the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, establishing a court for settling industrial disputes. It was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in Australian federal history, affecting economic and social policy as well as industrial relations.
Behind the scenes – Australian Journeys series 13 Aug 2008
George Reid: a journey through three parliaments
In our collection
In our collection