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Sir Richard Chaffey Baker (1841–1911)

by John Playford

This article was published:

Richard Chaffey Baker (1841-1911), by Swiss Studios

Richard Chaffey Baker (1841-1911), by Swiss Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22948445

Sir Richard Chaffey Baker (1841-1911), barrister, pastoralist and politician, was born at North Adelaide on 22 June 1841, eldest son of John Baker and his wife Isabella, née Allan. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1864; M.A., 1871), where he was a keen oarsman. Called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn in June 1864, he returned home in the same year and set up in practice with Charles Fenn. In 1873 he entered into partnership with Dr William Barlow.

In April 1868 Baker became the first South Australian-born member of the colonial legislature, being elected at the head of the poll for Barossa in the House of Assembly. His father was a prominent member of the Legislative Council and in May 1870 the unusual spectacle was witnessed of father and son on the same day successfully moving no confidence motions in Strangways's land-reforming ministry. Baker then became attorney-general in J. Hart's ministry of 1870-71, and the first locally born minister of the Crown. He resigned from cabinet to manage his ailing father's affairs, and did not stand at the 1871 general election, although he had again been returned at the head of the poll for Barossa in the previous year. His father's extensive pastoral and other interests occupied Baker for two years, and afterwards he visited England and the Continent, representing South Australia at the Vienna International Exhibition in 1873. Upon his return early in 1875, he was offered and declined a place in the A. Blyth ministry. At the general election that year he failed to regain his former seat, the only defeat he suffered during his political career.

In 1877 he became the first native-born member to be elected to the Legislative Council; the whole colony then voted as one constituency and Baker came third in the poll. In 1885 he won the Southern seat which he represented without interruption until the formation of the Australian Commonwealth. Baker had been minister of justice and education in Colton's ministry in 1884-85. In 1885-86 he visited England to negotiate a postal union between Great Britain and the Australian colonies. In recognition of the success of this important mission he was appointed C.M.G. in 1886. During the visit he also acted as commissioner for South Australia at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition.

A tenacious and courageous fighter for his beliefs and a staunch guardian of the rights of the Upper House, Baker was for many years its most influential member. Aware that his conservatism did not meet with the approval of the majority of the population of the colony, he resolved to delay what he considered to be hastily conceived or unworkable legislation. He did not, however, adopt an unrealistic, reactionary stance: although strongly opposed in 1887 to the payment of members of parliament, he saw that it was inevitable and contented himself with deferring the introduction of the measure for three years.

The success of candidates nominated by the United Labor Party at two by-elections for the Legislative Council in May 1891 prompted Baker to form the National Defence League, a body of pastoralists, business and professional men which stood for 'the preservation of law, order and property' and was opposed to 'all undue class influence in Parliament', particularly with regard to progressive land taxes and statutory arbitration machinery. Members of both Houses endorsed by the league led the attack on C. C. Kingston's radical liberal ministry of 1893-99, and a number of important bills were rejected or severely amended in the Upper House where Baker succeeded Sir Henry Ayers as president in December 1893. He immediately resigned from the National Defence League, of which he had been founding president, on the ground that the occupant of such a position should sever all connexions with a political party. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1895.

The most colourful event in Baker's political career had occurred in December 1892. It arose through Kingston making some reflections on Baker in reference to the collection of funds in 1889 for the building of the Trades Hall in Adelaide, whereupon Baker denounced his opponent as a coward, a bully and a disgrace to the legal profession. Kingston retaliated by claiming that Baker was 'false as a friend, treacherous as a colleague, mendacious as a man, and utterly untrustworthy in every relationship of public life'. Characteristically, Kingston did not stop at that and procured a pair of matched pistols, one of which he sent to Baker accompanied by a communication appointing the time for a duel in Victoria Square on 23 December. Baker informed the police, who arrested Kingston with a loaded revolver at the designated venue; he was bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. After the incident, Baker snubbed Kingston on all but official occasions.

Baker deserves to be better remembered as one of the founding fathers of Federation. He was a member of the Federal conventions of 1891 and 1897-98. The deliberations of the former were given direction and precision by his publication, A Manual of Reference to Authorities for the Use of the Members of the National Australasian Convention … (Adelaide, 1891). In Deakin's opinion he 'was at this time in advance of all his [South Australian] colleagues in federal knowledge and in the federal spirit'. Baker subsequently wrote a number of pamphlets on Federation. At the 1897-98 convention, he played a part in the unsuccessful attempt to prevent Kingston's election as president but managed to keep him off the important drafting committee. Baker was elected to the arduous position of chairman of committees; his knowledge of parliamentary procedure, together with his tact and firmness, made him an ideal choice.

His major contributions to the debates were his arguments in favour of a powerful Senate, which were constantly used by delegates from the smaller colonies, and his suggested abandonment of the British model of cabinet government. At the 1891 convention he had moved that the Senate be given equal power with the House of Representatives over all legislation, but the motion was lost 16-22, and instead the celebrated 'compromise', which provided that the Senate could not initiate or amend money bills, was agreed upon. Although Baker at the time found few supporters for his views on the incompatibility of Westminster-style responsible government and a federal system in which the States were to enjoy in the Senate co-equal power with the House of Representatives, the importance of this question was revived in the light of political developments in 1975. Baker was adamantly opposed to the principle that the Federal ministry should be responsible only to the House of Representatives and he suggested the adoption of a modified version of the Swiss form of executive, with an equal number of ministers elected by (and responsible to) both houses of parliament. Despite his failure to convince a majority of delegates, Baker did not retreat into embittered isolation; his major objective was to bring about a federated Australia.

He resigned the presidency of the Legislative Council in 1901 to stand successfully for the Senate in the first Commonwealth parliament. He was elected first president of the Senate, and, consistent with his previous views, he refused to take sides in the debates between free traders and protectionists. He was widely respected for his fairness, decision and ability. He wanted the Senate to be able to hold its own against the House of Representatives, believing that this was the only way in which the small States' rights could be preserved. In 1903 he represented the Commonwealth at the Delhi Durbar when King Edward VII was proclaimed emperor of India. In 1904 he was re-elected president of the Senate, but retired from political life in 1906 because of ill health. Despite Baker's strenuous attempt to maintain the Senate's position of equality with the Lower House, its importance was already subsiding.

So much of Baker's time was devoted to politics that his work at the Bar was necessarily restricted, and his appointment as a Q.C. in July 1900 did not gain unanimous approval from the legal profession. Through his father's estate, and as chairman of the Queensland Investment and Land Mortgage Co., he had extensive connexions with the pastoral industry, and was also a director of Elder Smith & Co. Ltd, the colony's largest woolbrokers. He was involved in the development of mining in South Australia, particularly copper in northern Yorke Peninsula; in 1890 he had been elected to the board of the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. He also held interests in various Broken Hill mining companies. For thirteen years, at different periods, he was chairman of the Adelaide Club; he presented it with the chair which he had used as president of the Senate. As chairman of the South Australian Jockey Club in 1888-1909, Baker played a leading part in regulating horse-racing and it was mainly through his efforts that parliament legalized the use of the totalizator machine on race-courses. He was also president of the Royal Agricultural Society, a member of the board of the Botanic Garden, a trustee of the Savings Bank, and a staunch Anglican.

Baker died of diabetes and chronic nephritis at his country estate, Morialta, Norton Summit, on 18 March 1911, and was buried in North Road cemetery. Predeceased by his wife Katherine Edith, née Colley, whom he had married at Glenelg on 23 December 1865, he was survived by a daughter and two sons. His estate was valued for probate at £64,000. Portraits in oils hang in the Adelaide Club, Parliament House, Adelaide, and Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • T. A. Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia, vol 4 (Lond, 1918)
  • G. C. Morphett (ed), The Bakers of Morialta (Adel, 1946)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 31 Dec 1892
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 Mar 1911
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 Mar 1911
  • records, PRG 38 (State Records of South Australia)
  • note books (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Playford, 'Baker, Sir Richard Chaffey (1841–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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