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Robinson, Sir Arthur (1872–1945)

by Leonie Foster

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir Arthur Robinson (1872-1945), politician and solicitor, was born on 23 April 1872 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of Anthony Bennett Robinson, journalist, and his wife Harriet, née Barton. Educated at Scotch College, Robinson studied law at the University of Melbourne and was articled to the solicitor, William Bruce. Admitted as barrister and solicitor on 4 February 1896, he joined Bruce in partnership next year. The firm, which later became Arthur Robinson & Co., owed much of its success to the legal business it handled for the powerful Collins House group of companies with which William Baillieu and Arthur's brothers William and Lionel were associated.

The young Robinson espoused Henry George's radical single tax on land. In marked contrast to his uncle, the protectionist Sir Edmund Barton, he was always a free trader and, rejecting his earlier convictions, became 'a dyed in the wool conservative', as his brother W.S. put it. His membership from 1897 of the Australian Natives' Association and his stint as chief president in 1903-04 were manifestations of his ardent Federalism, which probably derived from having listened to the discussions of the crusading Barton, Alfred Deakin and Richard O'Connor at his family home.

In 1900 Robinson was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Dundas. Defeated in 1902, he turned to Federal politics and held the seat of Wannon in the House of Representatives from 1903 until 1906, when his opposition to the preference for unionists clauses in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act provoked a successful Labor campaign against him. A member of the Legislative Council for Melbourne South Province (initially won in a by-election) from 1912 until his retirement in 1925, he was an honorary minister in the Peacock ministry (1915-17), commissioner for public works (1918-19), solicitor-general (1918-24) and attorney-general (1919-24) in the Lawson ministries and for a few months in the later Peacock ministry.

Robinson was prominent in the creation of the State Electricity Commission, drafted its charter, and as presiding minister supported Sir John Monash, chief of the commission and an old acquaintance, during the difficult early years. His pragmatism apparently sat comfortably with his political philosophy; he was able to reconcile his support for this massive state venture with his staunch advocacy of free enterprise. During the police strike in Melbourne in November 1923 Robinson, as attorney-general, authorized the organization, under Monash, of a special constabulary to keep law and order and presided over the cabinet meeting that resolved that the 636 dismissed police would not be reinstated.

In spite of his earlier support for Federation, Robinson's experience as a State politician had tempered his enthusiasm for the role of the national government. In 1926 he led those business interests that opposed the referendum which sought, unsuccessfully, wide-ranging powers for the Federal government to control both employees and employers. He identified State interests with the business interest and condemned the Senate for protecting neither. Manufacturers attacked him for his free-trade conservatism and his close connexions with powerful foreign corporations. Certainly his commercial and financial interests were extensive. At various times his company directorships included the Ford Motor Co. of Australia, International Harvester Co. of Australia, Bank of Adelaide, British-Australian Lead Manufacturers, Australian Deposit & Mortgage Bank, Australian Mutual Provident Society, Central Insurance and the Colonial Gas Association.

In 1929 Robinson came out of political retirement to stand unsuccessfully as Nationalist candidate for Fawkner in the Federal election against his friend, the sitting member George Maxwell, who was elected as an Independent Nationalist. The Age supported Maxwell, referring to Robinson as a 'crusted Tory' and 'a relic of a by-gone age'. During the Depression Robinson preached economic restraint, advocating reduction of wages but non-interference with fixed interest-rates and rents.

Robinson was honorary secretary of the Law Institute of Victoria in 1903-18 and of the Council of Legal Education in 1904-21. In 1915 he founded the Soldiers' Advice Bureau to supply free legal advice. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1921 and K.C.M.G. in 1923. He was a member of the Melbourne Club, a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and an enthusiastic golfer. His commitment to whatever he tackled was strong. In 1923-45 he was chairman of the council of his daughter's old school, Clyde. A member of the select Melbourne Round Table group in 1935-40, he contributed as an Australian and Imperial patriot to its deliberations on the worsening state of international affairs. His most cherished voluntary activity was his connexion with Scotch College, where one of the boarding houses bears his name. He was a council-member from 1922 and chairman from 1935 until his death, and president of the Old Scotch Collegians' Association for twenty-two years: his enthusiasm and devotion were tireless. He was very active in the school's move from East Melbourne to Hawthorn and in fund-raising for the building of the memorial hall and of the Littlejohn Memorial Chapel where a window is dedicated to his memory. Before his death he made a settlement of some insurance policies and his South Yarra house for the benefit of the school. Although he was raised as an Anglican, his love of Scotch apparently influenced him to convert to Presbyterianism.

In 1940 Robinson presented a window to the chapel, dedicated to the memory of his first wife. He had married Annie Summers Puckle (d.1937) at St George's Church, Malvern, on 18 April 1899. She was a vigorous worker in the conservative Australian Women's National League and a tough political campaigner on his behalf. His second wife was Beverley Nelson Wood, whom he married at Scotch College on 20 February 1939.

With his blue eyes and pink complexion the good-looking Robinson appeared youthful even in his later years. He was hard-hitting in speech and the written word, and skilful in debate. Yet he lacked 'the fire and eloquence' of a great orator, according to his brother W.S., who had been a youthful captive audience for Arthur's speech-making.

Robinson died at East Melbourne on 17 May 1945 and was cremated after a service at Scots Church. He was survived by his wife, a son and daughter of his first marriage, and a son of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Nicholson (ed), First Hundred Years (Melb, 1952)
  • A. Wildavsky and D. Carboch, Studies in Australian Politics (Melb, 1958)
  • O. J. Hay, The Chronicles of Clyde (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Blainey (ed), If I Remember Rightly (Melb, 1967)
  • C. Edwards, Brown Power (Melb, 1969)
  • L. Foster, High Hopes (Melb, 1986)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1944-45, p 3048
  • Punch (Melbourne), 26 June 1906, 26 Sept 1918
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1929
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 May 1945
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Leonie Foster, 'Robinson, Sir Arthur (1872–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-sir-arthur-8241/text14429, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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