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Wise, George Henry (1853–1950)

by I. R. Hancock

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

George Henry Wise (1853-1950), by Alice Mills

George Henry Wise (1853-1950), by Alice Mills

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23529674

George Henry Wise (1853-1950), politician and solicitor, was born on 1 July 1853 in Melbourne, eldest child of James Wise, hairdresser, and his wife Mary, née McIntosh, both from Edinburgh. A slight, wiry child, George was sent as a 5-year-old to Scotch College, Melbourne, where he remained until matriculating in 1868, failing to excel in anything the school then considered important. He studied law as an articled clerk, was admitted to the Bar on 19 September 1874, worked at Sale as a managing clerk in a solicitor's office and started his own practice in 1877.

As a teenager Wise had frequently visited the galleries of the Victorian parliament, nurturing his dream of entering politics. He was elected to the Sale Borough Council in 1880, held his seat for twenty-four years and was mayor on six occasions. In 1886 Wise founded the Sale branch of the Australian Natives' Association. He joined the Victorian board of directors in 1887, became vice-president in 1888 and was elected chief president in 1891. A leading campaigner in Victoria for Federation, he also stood, unsuccessfully, for the Legislative Assembly in 1892, 1894 and 1904, and for the Senate in 1901 and 1903. In December 1906 he was surprisingly elected for the Federal seat of Gippsland, defeating Allan McLean by 97 votes after a campaign underscored by sectarian murmurings.

This small man, 'with a picturesquely bald head, two bright and restless eyes and a mouth with a distinctly humourous twist', described himself in 1909 as a 'Liberal and Progressive from my boyhood'. He sat behind Alfred Deakin, urging his party to support full tariff protection, social reform and a strong national defence. An opponent of State rights, Wise repeatedly denounced those who did not take 'an Australian point of view' and called on the Federal government to assume all responsibilities permitted under the Constitution.

Wise was shocked by the Fusion of 1909. Unlike other Victorian Liberals, he was not seriously threatened by Labor in Gippsland and did not need an electoral alliance with the conservatives. He was, however, genuinely upset that his colleagues had handed themselves over 'body and soul, to their enemies'. Wise insisted that there were just two positions in Australian politics—liberal and conservative—and that Labor and the Deakinites were natural allies against the forces of reaction. Disappointed, rather than bitter, he could not condemn Deakin with the ferocity of Sir William Lyne, but he deplored his leader's sacrifice of principle for the sake of political survival.

Standing as an Independent in the 1910 elections and opposed only by a Fusionist, Wise retained his seat with 62 per cent of the vote. Although he often supported Labor after 1909, Wise never joined the caucus. Suspicious of extra-parliamentary discipline, angered by attempts to give preference to unionists in government employment and by claims of 'a right to strike', he was too independent to commit himself to Labor. He was also proud of his adherence to the liberal-nationalist tradition which, in his view, had been deserted by the self-servers and undermined by the party machines.

The Liberals defeated him in Gippsland in 1913; he scraped back in 1914, won easily in the Nationalist landslide in 1917 and held off a challenger from the Victorian Farmers' Union in 1919. Following the Labor split in 1916, Wise was involved in the negotiations between Billy Hughes and (Sir) Joseph Cook: while he did not then join the Nationalists, he was regarded as a Hughes supporter. Modestly and sensibly, he quashed suggestions that he might succeed Hughes after the defeat of the second conscription referendum in December 1917. Instead, he supported the prime minister, regarding him as the one man capable of uniting the non-Labor factions in pursuit of winning the war. He was rewarded with two ministerial posts: honorary minister (March 1918–February 1920) assisting and representing Senator (Sir) George Pearce, the minister for defence; and postmaster-general (February 1920–December 1921). Wise lost his portfolio in the 1921 reshuffle, a casualty perhaps of the move to bring Stanley (Viscount) Bruce into the cabinet and certainly of his breach with Hughes over the transfer of wireless services to Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd.

Defeated by the Country Party in the 1922 elections, Wise stood as an Independent Nationalist in 1925, finishing third behind the Country Party and Labor. In 1928, at 75, he stood as Independent Labor and was well beaten by the Country Party. The old man then retired from active politics, but retained his links with the A.N.A. and continued to practise as a solicitor at Sale until the end of 1948. He died there on 31 July 1950 and was buried in the local cemetery. He was predeceased by his wife Mary Thornton, née Smith, whom he had married at Sale on 14 April 1880 with Presbyterian forms. Three daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • History of Scotch College, Melbourne, 1851-1925 (Melb, 1926)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger 1914-1952 (Syd, 1979)
  • C. H. M. Clark, A History of Australia, vol 5 (Melb, 1981)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 July 1907
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1950
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • William Morris Hughes papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Wise, George Henry (1853–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wise-george-henry-9162/text16177, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 November 2018.

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

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