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Best, Sir Robert Wallace (1856–1946)

by Norma Marshall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Robert Wallace Best (1856-1946), by Eden Studios

Robert Wallace Best (1856-1946), by Eden Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23197848

Sir Robert Wallace Best (1856-1946), politician and solicitor, was born on 18 June 1856 at Collingwood, Victoria, son of Robert Best, farmer, later customs officer, and his wife Jane, née Wallace, both born in Ireland. Educated at Templeton's school, Fitzroy, at 13 he became a clerk in a Chancery Lane printing office. Joining the firm of W. T. Trollope, equity solicitor, he took articles, matriculated in 1875, studied law at the University of Melbourne and was admitted as a solicitor in 1881. That year, at St Philip's, Anglican Church, Collingwood, he married Jane Caroline, daughter of G. D. Langridge.

An alderman on Fitzroy City Council in 1883-89 and 1890-97, Best was mayor in 1888-89 at a time of public building activity by the council, and laid the foundation stone of the Fitzroy Public Library, a fine example of the wealth and exuberance of 'marvellous Melbourne'. He was elected member for Fitzroy in the Legislative Assembly in April 1889, as one of a fine crop of young native-born radicals; he was an admirer of George Higinbotham. In 1892 he declined a seat in cabinet without portfolio after the reconstruction of the Shiels ministry. He was chairman of the royal commission on constitutional reform in 1894.

Best reached the apex of his career in colonial politics in 1894-99 when, as president of the Board of Land and Works, commissioner of crown lands and survey and also for trade and customs in the G. Turner government, he was responsible for introducing several important measures, including the tariff reform of 1896, one of the foremost issues in Victorian politics. He was twice acting premier and represented Victoria at the 1897 Premiers' Conference. He gained a great reputation from the 'Best Land Act' of 1898, an important measure which introduced a new principle of classification of land, designed to promote closer settlement and effectively recasting all Victorian land laws. In 1899 he visited New Zealand with W. A. Trenwith, investigating labour questions. Sidney and Beatrice Webb described him as 'a young man of the clerk type; red-haired and excitable, habitually overworking himself'.

An ardent advocate of Federation, Best resigned from the assembly in 1901 and was elected to the Senate as a protectionist, becoming chairman of committees in 1901-03. He visited England in 1905 in connexion with a Privy Council appeal. Vice-president of the Executive Council and leader of the Senate from February 1907 until November 1908, he was responsible for introducing tariff and excise bills. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1908. He negotiated on behalf of Alfred Deakin to form the 'Fusion' ministry of 1909-10 in which he was minister for trade and customs. Best was not a colourful figure, but he was a conscientious minister and could be relied upon to speak moderately and sensibly in parliament; according to Melbourne Punch, he spoke with 'an overwhelming love of adjectives and heavy sentences'. His pleasant manner, grasp of detail and forcefulness as a debater were useful in the Senate where his party was heavily outnumbered, and evident in his piloting of the Deakin-Lyne tariff. He remained interested in Fitzroy and during the years of the Deakin ministries was an assiduous speaker to Liberal groups.

The Labor landslide victory of 1910 meant Best's defeat in the Senate; his request for a recount was refused. Fortunately, William Knox, M.H.R. for Kooyong, resigned soon after and Best was returned at the by-election. Always a favourite with the formidable Australian Women's National League, he was frequently a speaker at their meetings during campaigns. This appears to have stood him in good stead in Kooyong, where he achieved solid majorities; the Fitzroy City Press commented that he 'did well to pin faith to the feminine fair'.

Best was member for Kooyong until 1922, as a Liberal until 1917 and as a Nationalist thereafter. In 1916 he had supported the introduction of conscription by proclamation. By 1922 dissatisfaction was growing with the W. M. Hughes ministry, and (Sir) John Latham stood against Best as a Liberal, anti-Hughes candidate, supported by the Argus. The result of the contest was in doubt for several days: Best did not have an absolute majority; Labor had directed its preferences to Latham and this decided the contest in his favour. Best did not attend the declaration of the poll and abandoned politics.

Throughout his political career, he had maintained his legal practice, having entered into partnership with Theodore Fink in 1886; the firm became Fink, Best & P. D. Phillips in 1889 and Fink, Best & Miller in 1917. He was a devout and prominent Anglican layman in St Mark's parish, Fitzroy. Said to have been a singer, elocutionist and an athlete in his youth, he was sometime president of the Fitzroy Football Club, the Victorian Cricket Association, the League of Victorian Wheelmen and the Victorian Football Association; he built much of his political popularity on his sporting links.

Best's first wife had died in 1901. Next year he married Maude Evelyn Crocker-Smith at Christ Church, St Kilda. Survived by two sons and two daughters of his first marriage and four daughters of his second, he died on 27 March 1946 at Hawthorn after a short illness and was cremated. A year before, he had fallen down some stairs and had never fully recovered although he continued to attend his office. An oil portrait of him is at Fitzroy Town Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • Australian Magazine, vol 1 Mar 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Oct 1890, 28 Mar 1946
  • Punch (Melbourne), 10 Jan 1907, 19 Nov 1908
  • Fitzroy City Press, 26 Aug 1910
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 Mar 1946.

Citation details

Norma Marshall, 'Best, Sir Robert Wallace (1856–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/best-sir-robert-wallace-5225/text8793, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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