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Turner, Sir George (1851–1916)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

George Turner (1851-1916), by unknown photographer, 1900s

George Turner (1851-1916), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23514047

Sir George Turner (1851-1916), premier and Commonwealth treasurer, was born on 8 August 1851 in Melbourne, son of English migrants Alfred Turner, cabinetmaker, and his wife Ruth, née Dick. Following education at the National Model School until 14, he entered the solicitor's office of John Edwards, member of the Legislative Assembly. On 10 August 1872, two days after his twenty-first birthday, on 25 shillings a week, Turner married English-born Rosa Morgan at St James's Cathedral, Melbourne. That year he joined the Australian Natives' Association and became treasurer of a city branch. He matriculated in 1874, 'passing well' in English, history and Euclid. Articled in 1875 to Samuel Lyons, an A.N.A. founder, he completed the articled clerks' course at the University of Melbourne, was admitted as an attorney in 1881 and became Lyons's partner in Collins Street. Holding office in several friendly societies, Turner joined the Freemasons in 1882 (and from 1896 was senior grand warden). He was elected to St Kilda City Council (1885-1900), was mayor in 1887-88, and was said to have been 'never more at home, never more himself, “plain George”, than after a council meeting in the mayoral supper room'.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly in March 1889 as a Liberal Protectionist for St Kilda, Turner was one of a dozen new parliamentary members from the A.N.A. Quiet at the start, he had his chance in April 1891 as commissioner for trade and customs in Munro's ministry. He continued in this portfolio and also became solicitor-general from February 1892 when Shiels replaced Munro. James Service soon remarked that he had never known a better minister for customs.

Struggling in the depths of the depression, the Shiels ministry fell on 18 January 1893 and was succeeded by (Sir) James Patterson's government during the period of the bank crashes and further grave revelations of financial chicanery. Eventually, on 28 August 1894, Turner carried a no confidence motion by four votes. He had just been elected Liberal leader, despite his earnest plea of unsuitability: Sir Graham Berry was discredited by failure as Shiels's treasurer, Shiels was in bad health and Deakin stood aloof. Benjamin Hoare suggested Turner to David Syme who was persuaded that he was the best of a bad lot; Deakin and (Sir) Isaac Isaacs— theAge's henchmen—proposed him in caucus, but Turner was widely regarded as a mere stopgap. His policy for the election on 20 September featured direct taxation and company reform. The Age was in fine campaigning form; the traditional Liberal forces, public servants and trade unionists rallied; to its surprise, the government was routed by some 65 (including 14 Labor) to 30 seats.

Thus, aged 43, the quiet 'little man in the shabby brown suit and the cheap spectacles' became Victoria's first Australian-born premier. He was also treasurer. The ministry's inner driving-force was three other radical native-born, Isaacs, (Sir) Alexander Peacock and (Sir) Robert Best, but the rest were comparatively conservative. Coincidentally, radical governments led by (Sir) George Reid and Charles Kingston also held office in 1894-99 and achieved much. Inheriting a huge accumulated deficit, very high unemployment and large-scale emigration to Western Australia, Turner necessarily had comparatively modest objectives.

Determined to redeem Victoria's disgrace, he grimly cut costs, slashing public works, education and defence; in 1895-97 public works expenditure was one-sixth that of New South Wales. Amid conservative frenzy, he immediately carried a graduated income tax (which began at £200), although he dropped other proposals for taxes on 'surplus wealth' and land. Isaacs's comprehensive reform of company law was largely mangled by the Legislative Council, but his insolvency legislation passed almost intact. Following a royal commission, in 1896 local savings banks were amalgamated in the State Savings Bank of Victoria with useful provision for loans to farmers, yet the bank's proposed monopoly of note issue had to be abandoned. In 1896 the Factories Act, with its provision for wages boards, was carried by Peacock; compromises had to be reached with the council, but the strength of the anti-sweating movement backed by the Age was such that for once the council was not prepared to provoke a constitutional crisis against a near-unanimous assembly. Although Turner's consensus approach lessened party tension, it also involved avoidance of contentious issues. The government all too often followed the will of the House, referring many matters to royal commissions and boards of inquiry; in 1896 it even treated tariff reform as an open question: some duties were consequently slightly reduced.

In mid-1897, with the other premiers, Turner attended Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee celebrations, was appointed K.C.M.G. and a privy counsellor, and awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. On his return he spoke at a civic reception, in 'new serio-comic vein', about his honours and the 'duchessing' (he was agreeably surprised by the dukes whom he had assumed would be 'stuck up'), and confessed to having been 'altogether out of my element' at Buckingham Palace. According to Lady Turner, 'All the other Premiers' wives were awfully afraid. But I wasn't. I went up to the Princess of Wales and talked to her … These royalties are very glad to be talked to as if they were human beings. She was very nice and said when I left, “Tell the Australian people I like you very much my dear”'.

Turner had returned to an election in October. In his policy speech he promised a period of 'rest and quiet', and won with a barely reduced majority; perhaps unwisely he made no ministerial changes. In 1897-98, and the following financial year, revenue at last exceeded expenditure. Edward Shann later commented: 'the faithful solicitor cut expenditure to the minimum, refused every suggestion of fresh borrowing abroad, and forced Victoria to reduce her budget to health and order'. In 1898, however, Syme had to demand some renewal of public works. The only major legislation of Turner's second term was Best's revision of land legislation in 1898 and next year, at last, abolition of plural voting for the assembly. The government complied with party and popular feeling in offering a contingent for the South African War.

When country Liberals and disaffected radicals crossed the floor, Turner was defeated on 30 November 1899 by Allan McLean who had resigned from the ministry in opposition to the Federation bill. Deakin refused Turner's offer of the Liberal leadership. In November 1900 the Turner Liberals, still supported by Labor, had a sweeping electoral victory; Turner's close ally William Trenwith and John Burton (another Labor man) became ministers. The premier's main achievement before he resigned in February 1901 to enter Federal politics was to legislate on a temporary basis for old-age pensions, but the details were botched.

In January 1895 Turner had attended the premiers' conference which arranged for the Australasian Federal Convention; he and Kingston prepared the draft enabling bill which Victoria passed in March 1896. In March 1897 Turner topped the poll for the Victorian representatives and—such was his popularity—was cheered at many stations on the way to Adelaide for the first session. A determined Federationist, he was anxious about the future of Victorian manufacturers: they had the advantage of early protection, but lacked the huge black coal resources of New South Wales. At a preliminary sitting his suggestion that (Sir) Edmund Barton be asked to frame resolutions led to Barton's election as convention leader. Next day Turner gave the first formal speech. Eschewing fine sentiments, he clearly stated the issues and his opinions thereon. The delegates appreciated his practical, businesslike approach and freely cheered him. On the constitutional committee Turner opposed a strong Senate and resisted the claims of the less-populated colonies. On the finance committee, however, he had a rebuff which shook his confidence when Reid wrecked his financial plan. Though he was disregarded, Turner drew attention to the words 'absolutely free' in the eventual Section 92: 'We ought to be careful about using words which may have a wider interpretation than was originally intended'.

At the Sydney session Turner won further respect, even from the local press, for his moderation and co-operativeness. Early in 1898 in Melbourne he reached a dignified compromise with Reid over railway rates. At the convention's conclusion Turner and his colleagues had doubts about the draft Constitution, especially over possible effects on Victorian rural producers—and the Age was initially hostile. After Deakin and the A.N.A. had converted Syme, Turner announced full government support in April; by May he asserted that rejection of the bill would be a disaster and disgrace. After the failure to gain a sufficient majority vote in New South Wales, Turner chaired the premiers' meeting of January 1899 when Reid's proposed amendments were broadly adopted. Turner's motion for Federal territory within New South Wales was carried, and he may have suggested the minimum distance from Sydney. Later in the year he presided at the final meeting of the Federal Council of Australasia.

He took a leading part in December 1900 in correcting the 'Hopetoun blunder'. At first he wavered. Some of his colleagues and Syme favoured accepting Sir William Lyne as prime minister, seeing him as a stauncher Protectionist than Barton. Turner, however, joined (Sir) Frederick Holder in Sydney; his intimation that they, as well as Barton and Deakin, would not join Lyne settled the matter. Turner may have been in touch with Hopetoun; ten years later Deakin recorded: 'Hopetoun implored T. help him out of hole. Nerve entirely gone—T. told him sit tight'. So, resigning the premiership to Peacock and elected the member for Balaclava, Turner joined Barton's ministry as treasurer, a post for which he had an unrivalled claim.

Turner presented the first four Commonwealth budgets. Governments were committed to no taxation other than customs and excise. Turner aimed to pass to the States more than the constitutionally guaranteed three-quarters of the revenue—and did so every year. His estimates were remarkably accurate and he kept the promise that the cost of Federation would be small. He bore with Kingston the burden of the 1902 tariff legislation. Barton eventually praised Turner's work in cabinet, but considered him to have been a little over-cautious as treasurer.

By 1904 Turner was generally regarded as a non-party man. J. C. Watson, forming the first Labor ministry, wanted him to stay on as treasurer. When Watson was defeated in August, Reid offered Turner joint leadership; he refused because of illness, but accepted the treasurership again. He was greatly upset when Deakin did not consult him in 1905 before his 'notice to quit' speech, but there was no lasting breach. Content to retire at the 1906 election, Turner maintained his 'air of bourgeois good humor' in parliament to the last.

Continually plagued by illness, Turner was often exhausted. Early in 1898 and in February-March 1901 he was out of action for several weeks; in June 1904, after two operations, he was unconscious and delirious for several days: it was 'touch and go'.

About 1904 the Turners moved from their St Kilda cottage to Summerlea, a mansion in Riversdale Road, Hawthorn. He resumed his practice in Collins Street with his son George John (who was to die in a railway accident in 1908), but incorporated it with Corr & Corr in 1907. From 1906 Turner was chairman of commissioners of the State Savings Bank of Victoria. He enjoyed bowls and gardening. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died suddenly at his home on 13 August 1916 of heart disease and was buried in St Kilda cemetery with Anglican rites. A bust by Mackennal is in Parliament House, Canberra, and a portrait by H. F. Allkins is in St Kilda City Hall. Turner's estate was sworn for probate at £3789.

Turner has been grossly underestimated as a politician. He dominated his cabinet, was master of the assembly and highly respected in the House of Representatives. He was a capable speaker, lucid in exposition and able in debate—dull, no doubt, but Victorian voters had had enough of the high-flown oratory of Deakin and Shiels. Turner's capacity for work, mastery of detail, patent integrity, frankness, unpretentiousness and geniality won general trust. He also had a very keen sense of public opinion. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston described him as a 'super-efficient pedestrian' whose 'all-round skill was astonishing'. According to Deakin, he was the 'ideal bourgeois … in dress, manner and habits exactly on the same level as the shopkeepers and prosperous artisans [also] in his uprightness, straightforwardness, domestic happiness and regularity of habits'. Turner took professional advice well. Yet, he was opportunistic, lacked theoretic basis ('had to find his principles as he went') and tackled each question as if a new brief. Deputations on the whole appreciated his informality in receiving them in his shirtsleeves. Mistrusted by the business classes, he was in general sympathetic to the 'have-nots'. He lacked imagination and it cannot be claimed that he had, or tried to implement, any coherent radical programme.

Reid came greatly to admire Turner, as did J. R. Collins of the Commonwealth Treasury for his 'quick insight', 'searching analysis' and kindness in working relationships. Turner was also popular with the press. Despite his good education, he was extremely narrow, intellectually and culturally; one known exception to the charge that he never read a book was James Bryce's American Commonwealth (London, 1888). Turner's basic shyness and diffidence, and his trick of screwing his head to one side, were aspects of an appealing personality which he developed into a persuasive and convincing style.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Reid, My Reminiscences (Lond, 1917)
  • B. Hoare, Looking Back Gaily (Melb, 1927)
  • J. B. Cooper, The History of St. Kilda (Melb, 1931)
  • H. L. Hall, Victoria's Part in the Australian Federation Movement (Lond, 1931)
  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol 7, part 1 (Cambridge, 1933)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme (Melb, 1965)
  • R. R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth (Syd, 1958)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • A. W. Martin (ed), Essays in Australian Federation (Melb, 1969)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • J. D. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1975)
  • J. D. Rickard, H. B. Higgins, the Rebel as Judge (Melb, 1984)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1891, p 3103, 1894, p 1384
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14, 19 Aug 1897, 14 Aug 1916
  • Punch (Melbourne), 16 June 1904
  • Bulletin, 25 Aug 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1916
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • George Turner papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Turner, Sir George (1851–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-sir-george-8887/text15609, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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