Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fuller, Sir George Warburton (1861–1940)

by John M. Ward

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

George Warburton Fuller (1861-1940), by unknown photographer, 1910s

George Warburton Fuller (1861-1940), by unknown photographer, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23397737

Sir George Warburton Fuller (1861-1940), barrister and politician, was born on 22 January 1861 at Kiama, New South Wales, son of George Lawrence Fuller, storekeeper, and his wife Sarah Conyhame (Cunningham), née Miller. He was a brother of C. D. Fuller. A gifted scholar, he was educated at Kiama Public School, Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1879; M.A. 1882). After reading law with Sir William Manning, he was called to the Bar in 1884 and was crown prosecutor on some occasions. On 23 March 1892 at Woollahra he married Ada Louisa King.

Politics and business interested Fuller more than law, and he rarely practised. A Federationist, Free Trader and supporter of Sir Henry Parkes, he entered the Legislative Assembly as member for Kiama in 1889. Re-elected in 1891, he was defeated in the 1894 swing against Parkes and again in 1898 although he had won a name for intelligent conservatism, stolidity and good temper. He entered the first Commonwealth parliament as Free Trade member for Illawarra in 1901, and held the seat until narrowly defeated by G. M. Burns (Labor) in 1913. As minister for home affairs (1909-10) under Alfred Deakin, he introduced the bill to make Canberra the seat of Federal government. In 1911 he was a member of the Australian delegation to the coronation of George V.

Fuller re-entered State politics in 1915 as member for Wollondilly, following the death of F. A. Badgery. The Opposition leader, (Sir) Charles Gregory Wade, welcomed him as a pragmatic conservative and experienced former minister, likely to promote that association of rural-minded Progressives and urban-minded Liberals to which Wade was committed. Fuller quickly became deputy leader of the Liberals. Then, when W. A. Holman formed his National ministry in November 1916 and Wade left politics, Fuller became colonial secretary, second only to Holman in the cabinet, and Liberal leader.

With Holman overseas in 1917 Fuller had a memorable acting premiership from 18 April to 30 October. In July, at a critical stage of the war, an apparently minor issue threw State transport into confusion: job time cards were introduced into the workshops of the Railways and Tramways Department and the Labor Council of New South Wales informed the government that the unions would strike rather than use them. Although talks with the union leaders nearly succeeded, Fuller came to see the strike as a politically motivated and disloyal attempt to incite a general strike in wartime. He proposed to dismiss men who did not return to work in seven days and to deprive them of seniority and superannuation; men who remained at work, and volunteers, would be rewarded. A. W. Buckley, member for Surry Hills and a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World, was arrested on charges of conspiracy to incite a strike. Attempts at mediation, even by the lord mayor and the Anglican dean of Sydney, were rebuffed. When the strike was settled in October, men returning to work were treated less liberally than the government appeared to have promised. Fuller's actions aroused lasting bitterness among unionists who charged that he had campaigned vindictively, hypocritically and sometimes illegally against unionism. But many people thought him a strong, resourceful leader, who had preserved law and order without violence and put victory in war ahead of other objectives.

Throughout 1918-19, while Holman's popularity declined, Fuller supported him loyally and gave no support to Liberal attempts to criticize or overthrow him. Late in 1919, the year in which he was appointed K.C.M.G., Fuller extended the government trawling enterprise by ordering new ships in order, he said, to provide cheap fish for the mass of the population. From 9 to 27 February he was vice-president of the Executive Council. The elections of 1920, the first held under the Proportional Representation Act (1918), ended the Holman government when the Progressives deprived the Nationalists of much rural, non-Labor support by campaigning alone.

In the new parliament Fuller was leader of the Opposition. Freed of his obligation of loyalty to Holman, he set about promoting the co-operation of Progressives and Nationalist Liberals. By late 1920 he was sure that some Progressives would rejoin the Nationalists if opportunity offered and harassed the ministry with two no-confidence motions. John Storey died on 5 October 1921, so removing Labor's majority, and when the Speaker, Sir Daniel Levy, resigned on 8 December Labor, now led by James Dooley, having to find a Speaker, was defeated. Fuller shrewdly declined to form a ministry without full support from the Progressives. The resulting Nationalist-Progressives government formed on 20 December 1921 included as leading Progressives W. E. Wearne and (Sir) Thomas Bavin, together with the former premier, Sir Joseph Carruthers. But the ministry lasted only seven hours. Some 'True Blue' Progressives, led by (Sir) Michael Bruxner, were antagonistic. Fuller, refused a dissolution, resigned. Labor returned to power while Levy, as Fuller wished, resumed the Speakership.

The general election of April 1922 was won by a coalition of Nationalists and Wearne's Progressives. Fuller's ministry again included Wearne, Bavin and Carruthers, but not Bruxner. At first Fuller did nothing to conciliate Bruxner, but in 1923, with the ministry in trouble over wheat pool finances and defeated in a debate over the estimates, he turned to him for help. After the passage of the Federal Main Roads Development Act (1923) Bruxner persuaded Fuller to increase work on rural communications; in April 1924 Fuller was constrained by Country Party pressure to appoint a royal commission into proposals, which eventually failed and which he himself opposed, for carving new States out of New South Wales.

The Fuller ministry passed the Sydney Harbour Bridge Act (1922) and the Monopolies Act (1923) giving the Supreme Court power to impose penalties on combinations in restraint of trade. Fees for high school education were reintroduced in 1922. The Marriage (Amendment) Act (1925) was passed in response to the Papal decree ne temere, concerning the claims of the Catholic Church to exclusive rights to marry Catholics, although the sectarian issues were raised against the wishes of Fuller, a Presbyterian. The forty-eight hour week was reintroduced; rural workers and public servants were removed from the jurisdiction of the Arbitration Court. As public servants had already had their salaries reduced by the State Arbitration Court, on the application of the Fuller government, the ministry became unpopular with its own employees. The railway strikers of 1917 were refused a settlement on seniority along the lines laid down by a royal commissioner, Judge Edmunds, in 1922 while the ministry honoured Fuller's electoral promises to the 1917 loyalists. He failed in attempts to minimize possible conflicts of Federal and State arbitration jurisdiction although the Federal prime minister, S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, was sympathetic.

He had help from Carruthers, as vice-president of the Executive Council, in making government policy. As Fuller never much liked the detail of administration, however, execution was often left to Bavin. Fuller was sorry to have to take over the Treasury in February 1925, when Sir Arthur Cocks became agent-general. The government provided the sound, economical administration that he had promised at the 1922 elections and was conservative to the point of reaction; strong bridges were built between Nationalists and the Country Party. Little had been done, however, to prevent a swing to Labor by a public weary of less money for more work; at the elections of June 1925 Labor campaigned on a programme of social welfare and Fuller lost. After ensuring that Bavin succeeded him, he retired from the Nationalist leadership. He remained member for Wollondilly until 7 February 1928 when he became agent-general. Returning to New South Wales in 1931, he was in time to support Holman at the Federal elections of that year.

Fuller's last years were spent in retirement at Bowral. He remained a member of the Australian Club and kept up his interest in cricket, fishing, gardening and billiards. A kindly, portly man of great courtesy, he enjoyed wide respect and popularity. He was made a councillor of St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, in 1895. Fuller, like his father, invested shrewdly in real estate. Although never a farmer, he had a good eye for rural land values, and also for company investments. He died on 22 July 1940 at Darlinghurst, and was buried with Presbyterian forms in the Anglican section of Porter's Garden Beach cemetery. His wife, a daughter and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1940)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 7 July 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1908, 26 Apr 1917, 19 Feb 1925
  • Fighting Line, 19 May, 19 June 1913, 18 Aug 1914, 15 Apr 1915, 26 Aug 1920
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 June 1919
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 26 Sept 1925.

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Fuller, Sir George Warburton (1861–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fuller-sir-george-warburton-6256/text10775, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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