Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leake, George (1856–1902)

by B. K. De Garis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

George Leake (1856-1902), by unknown photographer

George Leake (1856-1902), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-42

George Leake (1856-1902), lawyer and premier, was born on 3 December 1856 in Perth, eldest son of George Walpole Leake and his wife Rose Ellen, née Gliddon. George attended Bishop Hale's School and the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, before being articled in his father's legal firm. In 1880 he was admitted to the Bar and partnership in the firm but in 1882 became acting crown solicitor and next year was confirmed in the post, which he retained until 1894.

In 1890 Leake was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Roebourne but resigned after three weeks when he was excluded from the Forrest ministry although (Sir) John Forrest had approached him about the attorney-generalship months before, and later considered offering him the colonial secretaryship. Without a ministerial salary, Leake could not afford to give up the crown solicitorship, so he deferred his political ambitions. In 1894, however, he won Albany by one vote.

His return to parliament coincided with the formation of the first organized Opposition, crystallized by controversy over state aid to education; he became an active member. When his leader George Randell failed to press the education issue hard enough for his satisfaction, Leake moved in effect a motion of no confidence in the government's education policy. The motion was withdrawn in return for an undertaking that the government would legislate to abolish state aid. Leake had declared that he was fully prepared to turn Forrest out and form a government if he could attract enough support. This was not a realistic aspiration then, but his confrontationist style added a new dimension to Western Australian politics and was too much for Randell who crossed the floor, leaving leadership of the Opposition to the 38-year-old newcomer. The political temperature subsequently dropped and although Leake spent much of the 1896 session in England his colleagues did not replace him as leader.

Momentous changes were occurring in the colony with the gold rushes. Forrest's strategy was to use gold-induced prosperity to develop the agricultural and pastoral industries and so ensure long-term economic growth even after the gold ran out. This made sense, but was a source of grievance to the large goldfields population and discontent simmered over such issues as the high freight rates charged by the railways and the tariffs levied on imported food. Leake's free-trade inclinations made him a natural critic of the food duties and, as the goldfields won political representation, his following grew in size and vigour. After the 1897 election, at which Leake himself was unopposed, there were 14 members with oppositionist sympathies in a House of 44. By the end of the decade Forrest's majority had been reduced to six or eight and the government was suffering occasional defeats as well as making frequent concessions to its more liberal opponents. The writing was on the wall well before Federation gave Forrest the opportunity to move to a new sphere.

Leake was a delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-98; his few speeches were mainly in defence of the need for a strong Senate as a bulwark of State rights. His real contribution, however, was made within the colony as a spokesman for the Federal cause and president of the local Federal League. This reawakened conflict with Forrest who, though himself sympathetic to Federation, was inhibited by the negative attitude of many of his followers and the conservatism of the Legislative Council. Thus Western Australia did not hold referenda on the Commonwealth bill in 1898 or 1899. The issue was not in principle a 'party' matter, but Leake and his Opposition allies, with massive support on the goldfields and considerable support in Perth, tended to be ranged against the government and the agricultural and pastoral interests. Forrest's bid to make the bill more acceptable to his sympathizers, by gaining concessions for Western Australia, was seen by Leake and the Federalists as a device for delaying a referendum; and they sabotaged it by asking prominent Federalists in the other colonies to refuse to negotiate with Forrest.

Leake probably misjudged Forrest's motives. Certainly the progress of the movement would have been smoother had the two men worked in concert, as they eventually did in 1900 when Forrest finally persuaded the council to let the bill go to the people without special concessions. The result was a resounding affirmative vote, on the goldfields and in most of the colony—a triumph for Leake and his legal and political associate (Sir) Walter James.

Forrest's departure from State politics ushered in a period of confusion. Following the election of 1901, Forrest's successor George Throssell could not form a ministry; the governor sent for Frederick Illingworth, who had taken over the leadership of the Opposition in August 1900 when Leake had resigned his seat to make a business trip to England. Illingworth also failed to form a ministry, partly because of the non-co-operation of Leake, now member for West Perth. A 'party' meeting agreed that Leake should take office with Illingworth as treasurer; the governor concurred.

Leake was vulnerable, for even with the support of the 8 Labor members, who were generally aligned with the government, he could only muster 22 votes in a house of 50. He nevertheless retained office for five months before being defeated on a no confidence motion by F. H. Piesse, prominent in the rural wing of the old Forrest group. Governor Sir Arthur Lawley refused to allow Leake a dissolution but invited Piesse and, when he failed, A. E. Morgans to form a cabinet. Leake and his Labor allies caused a sensation by energetically contesting the ministerial by-elections to such effect that three ministers were defeated. When he too was refused a dissolution, Morgans had to resign after only a month in office.

The political crisis ended when Leake formed a new administration in December 1901. He broadened the basis of his cabinet by including a rural representative, which began a process of realignment which, by 1905, saw the virtual coalescence of the groups which Forrest and Leake had led in the 1890s and a two-party system emerging on Labor versus non-Labor lines. Leake did not live to see this: he collapsed and died on 24 June 1902 at the age of 45.

Though his two administrations had totalled only about twelve months, Leake had, with the aid of James, enacted some important legislation. The Trade Unions Act confirmed the legality of unions of employees and employers alike; the Workers' Compensation Act extended the principle of compensation beyond cases of employer negligence; and the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, carefully worked up in conjunction with union and Labor representatives, replaced the ineffective measure of 1900 and provided a workable arbitration system.

George Leake was a Western Australian version of the turn-of-the-century, Australian-born, liberal lawyer-politician of which Sir Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin are the most celebrated examples. Leake concentrated on public service but was renowned as a courtroom advocate; in 1898 he was appointed Q.C. As a politician he was a combative debater although sometimes impatient of detail. He was the only contemporary prepared to confront Forrest on his own terms and by so doing, and in his comings and goings from office in 1901, he did much to ensure the rapid transformation of Western Australian politics from a pre-party to a two-party system.

Leake was affable, popular and witty. He invested in mining, but not very successfully. A keen cricketer in his youth, he was later a committee-member of the Western Australian Turf Club. He was an Anglican. On 15 September 1881 he had married Louisa Emily, daughter of the former Chief Justice Sir Archibald Burt, his father's old antagonist, and sister of Septimus Burt, a major political adversary in the 1890s. Leake was survived by his wife, a daughter and four sons, one of whom, Francis Walpole, followed his father into the firm of Leake, James & Darbyshire (in 1919 amalgamated with Stone & Burt to become Stone, James & Co.), and in 1939 became the third generation of Leakes to take silk. George Leake was buried in East Perth cemetery. His appointment as C.M.G. was gazetted posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • F. K. Crowley, Forrest: 1847-1918, vol 1 (Brisb, 1971)
  • B. K. de Garis in P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977), and in C. T. Stannage (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • G. S. Reid and M. R. Oliver, The Premiers of Western Australia 1890-1982 (Perth, 1982)
  • E. Russell, A History of the Law in Western Australia and its Development from 1829 to 1979 (Perth, 1980)
  • Inquirer (Perth), 21 Jan 1874
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 25 June 1902
  • West Australian, 25 June 1902
  • J. S. Bastin, The West Australian Federation Movement (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1952)
  • L. Hunt, A Political Biography of Walter Hartwell James 1894-1904 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1974)
  • J. S. Kalajzich, The Life of George Leake (manuscript, State Library of Western Australia)
  • G. Leake papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

B. K. De Garis, 'Leake, George (1856–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leake-george-7137/text12317, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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