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Sir Robert Randolph Garran (1867–1957)

by R. S. Parker

This article was published:

Robert Randolph Garran (1867-1957), by unknown photographer, 1930s

Robert Randolph Garran (1867-1957), by unknown photographer, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23435998 [detail]

Sir Robert Randolph Garran (1867-1957), lawyer and public servant, was born on 10 February 1867 in Sydney, sixth and youngest child and only son of Andrew Garran and his wife Mary Isham, née Sabine. Educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (B.A. 1888, M.A. 1899), Garran was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 28 August 1891 and practised mostly in the equity jurisdiction.

Throughout the 1890s Garran was active in the Federation movement, as one of (Sir) Edmund Barton's youthful helpers, as a councillor of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales, and as an organizer of and league delegate to the unofficial conferences supporting Federation at Corowa (1893) and Bathurst (1896). He published The Coming Commonwealth; and Australian Handbook of Federal government (1897), outlining the history of federalism as backdrop to the arguments for and against the 1891 draft constitution. Garran attended the official Federal Convention of 1897-98 as secretary to (Sir) George Reid, New South Wales premier. There he became secretary to the convention's drafting committee, at Barton's request.

During the 1898 and 1899 referendum campaigns Garran organized a small team of lawyers and journalists who disseminated a spate of pro-bill propaganda, largely through New South Wales country newspapers. He collaborated with (Sir) John Quick in preparing an Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901) to usher in the Federal era. The book remains a classic history of the federating process and commentary on the constitution.

At the request of Alfred Deakin, first attorney-general, Garran became the first, and briefly the only, Commonwealth public servant on 1 January 1901 as secretary, Attorney-General's Department, and parliamentary draftsman. On the same date his services to the Federal movement were recognized by his appointment as C.M.G. On 7 April 1902 at St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst, Garran married a schoolmistress, Hilda Robson: they had four sons.

Garran set out to make the Attorney-General's 'as far as possible a professional department with as little as possible of administrative work'. He was mainly responsible for establishing the first Federal departments, getting the first parliament elected without Federal electoral law or machinery, and designing legislation for the administration of defence, customs, the public service, posts and telegraphs, future parliamentary elections, and a Federal judicial system. In opening a new statute book Garran strove for 'clear, straightforward language, free from technical jargon'. He also introduced a mode of drafting statutes that facilitated incorporation of future amendments without wholesale reconstruction. The department's functions included legal advice to governments and to other departments, and the conduct of litigation for the Commonwealth. Garran appeared personally in some important cases, and made his first visit to England, in 1907, in order to appear before the judicial committee of the Privy Council in a constitutional appeal.

During World War I Billy Hughes, as attorney-general and then prime minister, drew heavily upon Garran's skill and sagacity, and a bond of mutual regard grew between the two men, who were superficially incongruous in every respect. In 1916 Hughes appointed Garran to a new statutory office of solicitor-general, thenceforth delegating to him most of his powers and duties as attorney-general. Echoing wartime journalistic sallies, Hughes is supposed to have said a few years later that 'the best way to govern Australia was to have Sir Robert Garran at his elbow, with a fountain pen and a blank sheet of paper, and the War Precautions Act'.

Knighted in 1917, Garran next year accompanied Hughes and (Sir) Joseph Cook to London for meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet and Conference, and went to Paris as a member of the Australian division of the British Empire delegation at the Peace Conference (1919). He worked on various drafting committees, provided Hughes with ingenious arguments, especially on reparations, and helped to formulate the mandates provisions of the League of Nations Covenant, including the proposal for the 'C' class mandate which Hughes insisted should apply to New Guinea. Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1920, he accompanied Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce to the Imperial Conference of 1923, and in 1930 was a member of the Australian delegations led by James Scullin and Attorney-General Frank Brennan to the 11th Assembly of the League in Geneva and the Imperial Conference in London where he was made chairman of the drafting committee.

Garran at times undertook tasks of a quasi-political kind. In 1919, for instance, he was appointed, with Professors Harrison Moore and Jethro Brown, to formulate more precisely the powers over profiteering and industrial relations which State parliaments were being asked to refer to the Commonwealth. During some serious industrial disputes in the 1920s he was deputed to obtain the views of union leaders and State governments. He gave forthright public testimony to select committees and commissions of inquiry, notably to the royal commission on the Constitution in 1927.

Garran retired from the public service on 9 February 1932 after thirty-one years as a permanent head—a record unlikely to be broken. He had been the trusted confidant and counsellor of all eleven attorneys-general and sixteen governments, irrespective of party. The reasons lay partly in his unrivalled knowledge of the Constitution and his professional competence as draftsman and opinion writer, partly in his unusual combination of political flair and detachment. Contemporaries anticipated Sir Frederic Eggleston's verdict of the early 1950s that 'Sir Robert Garran was the greatest of all the Commonwealth Public Servants'. As a lawyer Garran was in general far sighted and meticulous rather than inventive. He was thoroughly aware that 'constitutional law is not pure logic, it is logic plus politics', and he favoured a pragmatic, commonsensical approach to its interpretation. He was convinced of the durability of federalism but he advocated periodic review of the Constitution, preferably by elected conventions.

Upon retirement Garran expanded and added to his already considerable range of personal interests and commitments. Taking silk in New South Wales within a month, he resumed private practice, mainly supplying advisory opinions to public authorities and private clients, and keeping a watching brief for business firms on government policies and legislation both Federal and State. He occasionally appeared in court, at least up to 1951, and once (in 1936) before the bar of the New South Wales Legislative Council to argue on behalf of public service staff organizations against the continuance of Depression salary cuts.

He was also in demand for official assignments. In 1932, on the recommendation of (Sir) John Latham, the British government appointed him chairman of the Indian Defence Expenditure Tribunal to advise on the resolution of a decades-old dispute about the apportionment of the costs of Indian defence between Britain and India. In 1934 he was made chairman of the Commonwealth's advisory Book Censorship Board and, after its reconstitution in 1937, continued as appeal censor. In 1934 he was commissioned, with three others, to prepare The Case for Union: A Reply to the Case for the Secession of the State of Western Australia (1934). Governments sought his counsel on various issues during World War II. Typical among services rendered to private organizations was his work as chancellor (formal legal adviser) of the Anglican diocese of Goulburn in 1939-56.

A number of Garran's personal interests found expression through his devotion to Canberra as the infant national capital. One of the first officials to move his household from Melbourne to Canberra in 1926-27, he worked to alleviate the trauma of that move for the rank and file, both through official measures such as adequate provision for housing and costs of transfer, and through private hospitality and the promotion of social activities in Canberra, in which Lady Garran was equally active. As he had done in Melbourne, Garran presided over a Society of Arts and Literature for the cognoscenti, whom he told in 1927 that there was 'no reason why Canberra should not become the centre and the focus of the artistic life of Australia'. Garran was for many years a vice-president of the Canberra Musical Society; he sang in its choir and played second clarinet in its amateur orchestra.

To Garran it was 'unthinkable' from the beginning that there should not be a university at Canberra, first because transferred public servants and their offspring had a right to tertiary teaching, second because a modern central government needed 'to have at hand all the aids that science and learning can give'. His influence on governments, bolstered by forming the Canberra University Association in 1929, secured as an interim measure the Canberra, University College (teaching for University of Melbourne degrees), whose council he chaired from its inception in 1930 to 1953. But from the middle 1920s through the 1930s Garran consistently advocated the establishment of what he prophetically called 'a National University at Canberra', 'distinctly different, in character and function, from any [existing Australian] institution', 'first and foremost … for post-graduate research and specialized higher study', on 'Oriental matters, Pacific relations, … international relations generally, public administration, … economics'. Inevitably, Garran served on the Interim Council of the Australian National University from 1946 to 1951 when on the award of an honorary LL.D. he became the university's first graduate. His contributions to university education, the city and the public service were also recognized in the naming of a Canberra University College chair of law (now in the National University), of one of the university's halls of residence, a road on campus, a Canberra suburb, and an annual oration of the Royal (Australian) Institute of Public Administration. He received honorary doctorates of laws from the universities of Melbourne (1937) and Sydney (1952).

Garran was president of Canberra Rotary Club upon its founding in 1928-29 and also in 1934-35, and governor of Rotary International's 76th District (comprising eastern Australia from Cape York to the Murrumbidgee) for 1937-38. He was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1937. In 1940-41 he made a three-month private goodwill lecture tour in the United States of America and Canada, with the organizing help of Rotary. He had been active in the foundation and leadership of the League of Nations Union and its successor the United Nations Association in Australia. He was patron, president or chairman of many national bodies for promoting intellectual co-operation and the arts.

'The cultivated son of a cultivated father', Robert Garran showed a lifelong predilection for the literary arts, especially those associated with music. He read widely in several languages. He wrote entertaining light verse for all occasions; his serious verse was, at the least, respectable. He published a complete translation of Heine's Book of Songs (1924) and, in old age, Schubert and Schumann: Songs and Translations (1946). His versions were used by professional singers, and Paul Hindemith published an edition of his own Four Songs (Op. 43, No.2) with Garran's translation. Garran was, especially after his retirement, a prolific contributor of correspondence and special articles to the press, and of scholarly pieces to learned journals and books, mainly on constitutional questions, historical and topical.

Despite Garran's impressive physical stature of 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm), lean and erect to the last, his personality, like his prose, was devoid of pedantry and pomposity and, though dignified, was laced with a quizzical turn of humour. He was capable of strong and decisive administrative action when required; what people of all kinds most remembered were charity, modesty, courtesy and charm. A few weeks after completing his memoirs, published posthumously as Prosper the Commonwealth (1958), he died in Canberra on 11 January 1957, Lady Garran having predeceased him in 1936. After a state funeral (the first for a Commonwealth public servant) he was buried at St John's Anglican Church, Canberra. There are portraits in oils at Government House, Canberra, at Garran Hall, Australian National University; and in the possession of Mrs Winifred Garran, Canberra. There is also a bust in bronze by May Barrie at the law library, Australian National University, and a bronze bas-relief by Dora Ohlfsen, also owned by Mrs Winifred Garran.

Of Garran's sons, Richard Randolph (b.1903) became an industrial chemist; John Cheyne (1905-1976) a grazier; Andrew (1906-1965) a Rhodes Scholar, parliamentary draftsman and chairman of the Victorian Public Service Board; and (Sir) Isham Peter (b.1910) an ambassador in the British Foreign Service.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • People (Sydney), 6 June 1951
  • Australian Law Journal, 22 Feb 1957
  • Australian Quarterly, Mar 1957
  • Canberra Times, and Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Jan 1957
  • ABC, Commonwealth public servant number one (biographical files, National Library of Australia)
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes: Some Great Public Servants (Australian National University Library)
  • R. R. Garran papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

R. S. Parker, 'Garran, Sir Robert Randolph (1867–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Randolph Garran (1867-1957), by unknown photographer, 1930s

Robert Randolph Garran (1867-1957), by unknown photographer, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23435998 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1867
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 January, 1957 (aged 89)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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