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Levy, Sir Daniel (1872–1937)

by L. E. Fredman

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

Daniel Levy (1872-1937), by unknown photographer, c1917

Daniel Levy (1872-1937), by unknown photographer, c1917

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 40218

Sir Daniel Levy (1872-1937), lawyer and politican, was born on 30 November 1872 in London, son of Joseph Levy, tailor, and his wife Esther, née Cohen. Arriving in Sydney with his parents in 1880, he was educated at Crown Street Public School and on a scholarship at Sydney Grammar School, where he was captain in 1889 and won the senior Knox prize (1889) and Morehead scholarship (1890). At the University of Sydney he graduated B.A. with first-class honours in Latin and Greek and the university medal for classics in 1893, and LL.B. with second-class honours in 1895. Admitted to the Bar on 23 August, he was associate to Mr Justice H. E. Cohen in 1895-97, and several times acted as crown prosecutor. On 10 February 1902 he was admitted as a solicitor and was readmitted to the Bar on 12 November 1923.

Active in Jewish affairs as a young man, Levy edited the Australasian Hebrew in 1896 and was secretary of the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education in 1898-1903 and president of the New South Wales Jewish Association in 1902-03. Thereafter he continued to attend the Great Synagogue regularly.

Defeated in 1898, Levy was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Sydney-Fitzroy in 1901. As a Liberal and later Nationalist, he represented Darlinghurst (a Jewish centre) in 1904-20, Sydney in 1920-27, Paddington in 1927-30 and Woollahra in 1930-37. In Opposition from 1910, he was a talented and energetic debater. His speeches were likened to 'the spikes on the prickly pear—full of that spinosity that penetrates anything'. However he early showed signs of a pedantic manner that irritated even his own colleagues.

After serving as chairman of committees from 1917, Levy was elected Speaker on 19 August 1919 on the resignation of J. J. Cohen. He was to serve fourteen years as Speaker: 1919-20, 1920-21, 1921-25, 1927-30 and 1932-37. When Labor took office in April 1920 in an evenly balanced House, with the Opposition divided into Nationalists and Progressives, Levy accepted the Speakership despite the deep disapproval of Sir George Fuller and other Nationalists. He was castigated in a long and bitter speech by J. C. L. Fitzpatrick who accused him of being 'a rat', 'a traitor' and 'Sir Judas Iscariot', and quoted Levy's own vociferous criticisms of Henry Willis for accepting the Speakership in similar circumstances in 1911. When Fuller indicated he had a likely majority Levy announced his resignation as Speaker on 8 December 1921 and James Dooley's government was defeated five days later. On 20 December Fuller formed an unstable coalition ministry, but when a Nationalist, William Bagnall, offered himself as Speaker, Levy objected; Fuller perforce had Levy renominated and, having been refused a dissolution, resigned after seven hours in office. Levy remaining as Speaker was the only way to ensure a workable parliament.

In 1922 and 1934 Levy supervised changes to the standing orders to simplify the passage of bills, virtually preventing their delay by procedural means and limiting debate to the second reading and committee stages. However, he maintained that 'the very essence of Parliament is discussion and debate'. The 'most articulate Speaker' of his time, Levy frequently proclaimed the importance and dignity of his office and in 1929 suggested that its independence would be strengthened if his seat was uncontested as in the House of Commons. He asserted that so 'long as I occupy the Chair I shall continue to be impartial'. Sometimes his detachment was too much for his own party. In 1930 a Nationalist delegation and the premier (Sir) Thomas Bavin requested him to be firmer with the Opposition. On the other hand, Levy and J. T. Lang had a deep respect for each other. Throughout his parliamentary career Levy provoked hostility: he was taunted with his academic achievements and sometimes referred to as 'the little Disraeli'. The only time he achieved ministerial office was for a month in 1932 when he served in (Sir) Bertram Stevens's emergency cabinet after Lang's dismissal.

Outside his parliamentary duties and extensive practice, Levy was public spirited. He was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in 1906-37 (chairman, 1927-37), the Australian Museum, Sydney, and Sydney Grammar School, a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1913-37, a director of Sydney Hospital in 1928-37, government representative on the board of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, member of the East Sydney School Board, sometime secretary of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales and a council-member of the Millions Club of New South Wales. He was knighted in 1929.

Unmarried, Levy died of cerebro-vascular disease at his home at Darling Point on 20 May 1937 and, after a state funeral, was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate of about £60,000 was left almost entirely to his unmarried sisters. Described during the 1904 election campaign as 'one of the brightest and ablest of young Australians', Levy never quite lived up to his promise: as a scholar he published nothing of note, as a barrister he never took silk, as a speaker his skill in debate was never heard. However, in the words of Dooley, when Levy had occupied the chair, he had 'always done so in an impartial manner' and had upheld the highest traditions of his office. His portrait by Jerrold Nathan is in Parliament House, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • G. N. Hawker, The Parliament of New South Wales, 1856-1965 (Syd, 1971)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1920, p 9, 1921, p 2585, 2617
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Aug 1904, 28 Apr 1920, 9 Dec 1921, 10 July 1929, 21, 22 May 1937
  • Fighting Line, 19 Aug 1913, 26 Aug 1919
  • unpublished paper by K. Davis and newsclippings (Great Synagogue, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. E. Fredman, 'Levy, Sir Daniel (1872–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/levy-sir-daniel-7181/text12411, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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