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Groom, Sir Littleton Ernest (1867–1936)

by David Carment

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Littleton Ernest Groom, 1910s

Littleton Ernest Groom, 1910s

National Library of Australia, 23435869

Sir Littleton Ernest Groom (1867-1936), barrister and politician, was born on 22 April 1867 at Toowoomba, Queensland, third son of William Henry Groom and his wife Grace, née Littleton. A brilliant student, winning many prizes, he was educated at Toowoomba North State School, Toowoomba Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (M.A., 1891; LL.M., 1892). While at Ormond College, Melbourne, he participated in a range of journalistic and cultural activities, exposing himself to ideas which would later emerge in his political career. In 1891-1901 he combined a barrister's practice in Brisbane with involvement in Church and educational ventures. An active and devout Anglican, he felt that Christians should make practical efforts to help the less fortunate. He worked for the Brisbane Literary Circle and the Brisbane School of Arts and was a leading figure in the Queensland University Extension Movement. He collaborated in the authorship or preparation of legal reports and texts and in 1900 was appointed a deputy District Court judge. On 4 July 1894 at South Melbourne he married Jessie, daughter of Charles Bell, a Presbyterian minister of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

William Groom had been elected to the first Commonwealth House of Representatives as member for the Darling Downs in 1901 but died on 8 August of that year. At the request of his father's supporters, Groom stood at the subsequent by-election; he received the endorsement of the Barton government and despite a strong opponent was elected with a substantial majority on 14 September. He soon became identified in the House of Representatives with the more radical Protectionists. An enthusiastic convert to the 'New Liberal' ideology, he was also a fervent Australian nationalist who believed that the Commonwealth rather than the States should become the focus of popular loyalties. He argued for a drastic extension of Commonwealth powers, particularly in regard to industrial relations. Because of his views on Commonwealth conciliation and arbitration he supported the short-lived Labor administration of 1904 and entered the alliance formed between Labor and some Protectionists.

On 5 July 1905 Alfred Deakin appointed Groom minister for home affairs in the new Liberal Protectionist administration. The appointment revealed that Groom had emerged as an energetic and forceful politician. Just as important, though, were his links with the Labor caucus as the Deakin government was dependent on Labor support. Groom saw as his main task the expansion of Commonwealth activity. Almost inevitably this involved him in clashes with the States such as the disputes with New South Wales over the proposed Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics and the site for a Federal capital. His greatest success in overcoming State objections concerned Commonwealth involvement in meteorology and the transfer to the Commonwealth of State properties. Promoted to attorney-general on 12 October 1906, Groom was for the next two years closely involved with most aspects of government policy. He defended New Protection which he saw as an attempt to raise the tariff so that it could cope with a range of community needs; he introduced bounties legislation, helped enforce H. B. Higgins's 'Harvester Judgment', attempted to control the operations of large trusts and represented the Commonwealth in the High Court when its Excise Tariff (Agricultural Machinery) Act (1906) came under challenge. His last major achievement during the Deakin administration was the drafting and carrying of legislation to provide Commonwealth invalid and old age pensions.

Groom had reservations about the Fusion of non-Labor parties in 1909 yet in the end saw no realistic alternative, given the announced Labor intention to stand candidates against Liberal Protectionists. He was also concerned that Labor was moving towards more doctrinaire socialism; for him the stage had been reached where governments should consolidate on previous reforms rather than introduce new ones. One of only three Liberal Protectionists included in the Fusion government of 2 June 1909, he served for the next eleven months as minister for external affairs. However, much of his legislation was blocked in the House of Representatives, and even his high commissioner bill, which was ultimately successful in establishing Australian representation in London, received much criticism.

In the election of April 1910 Groom was one of the few former Liberal Protectionists to hold his seat against Labor. Thereafter he became a prominent opponent of Labor's socialistic measures. He attacked such proposals as the establishment of a Commonwealth bank and the attempts to gain Commonwealth control over monopolies, which he now argued were designed only to appeal to trade unionists or unnecessarily interfered with individual rights. He was once more in office, as minister for trade and customs, in (Sir) Joseph Cook's Liberal government between 24 June 1913 and 17 September 1914. The policy to reverse Labor's achievements, however, frustrated whatever desire he had for positive initiatives. Along with Cook, he often declared that the Liberals could achieve little while Labor controlled the Senate.

After Labor's victory in the double dissolution election of September 1914 Groom devoted himself to the national war effort. He constantly stressed the righteousness of the allied cause and was active in the pro-conscription campaign before the 1916 referendum. From 17 February 1917 he served in the Nationalist government of W. M. Hughes as assistant minister for defence until 16 November when he became vice-president of the Executive Council. He was prominent in the second conscription referendum of 1917 and remained a strong supporter of Hughes's prosecution of the war.

The war turned Groom back to being an advocate of increased Commonwealth powers. In 1919, unlike many Nationalists, he supported Hughes's proposals to further strengthen the Commonwealth's powers in industry, trade and commerce. He felt that the war had accustomed people to the idea of extended national authority, and maintained that the Commonwealth government was the only instrumentality able to cope with the perplexing problems of the immediate post-war years. As minister for works and railways from 27 March 1918 he pushed for a vigorous development programme. He supervised increased Commonwealth involvement in the Murray Waters conservation scheme and the start of new construction at Canberra where, according to W. D. Bingle, he was 'the man who lifted the whole business out of the bog'.

On 21 December 1921 he again became attorney-general, retaining the post for four years. Although the most senior minister in the House of Representatives, he was passed over for the Nationalist leadership on Hughes's resignation when the Nationalist-Country Party coalition under (Viscount) Bruce was formed. He was not happy with the coalition agreement, nor did he like Bruce, but the relationship between the two started amicably enough. Bruce respected Groom's experience and was no doubt largely responsible for the latter's appointment as K.C.M.G. in January 1924. From 29 May until 13 June 1924 Groom was also minister for trade and customs and for health. He had become K.C. in 1923.

As attorney-general Groom's record was mixed. On the positive side, he presided over the introduction of a new public service superannuation scheme and replaced the public service commissioner with a board of three. He encountered problems in his attempts to extend the Commonwealth's industrial powers. During 1924 he served as leader of the Australian delegation to the Fifth Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva. As a committee chairman he helped formulate a protocol which aimed to establish a more concrete system of international arbitration. He was later disappointed when most League members, including Britain and Australia, rejected the protocol: instructed to abstain, Groom voted for the measure.

Perhaps of most significance was his role in deportation proceedings. He had a deep and sincere, if exaggerated, concern that 'foreign' radical agitators posed a threat to Australia. It was largely on his initiative that two Irish republican spokesmen were deported early in 1923 and he participated in the unsuccessful attempt to deport two overseas-born leaders of the Australian Seamen's Union during 1925. Partly because of his handling of the latter case and also from dissatisfaction with his general performance, Bruce demanded Groom's resignation as attorney-general which took effect on 18 December.

In compensation for his removal from the ministry Groom became Speaker of the House of Representatives the following January. On 10 September 1929 he refused to use his casting vote to save the government from defeat over its maritime industries bill, which proposed to remove the Commonwealth from most areas of conciliation and arbitration. His notion of an independent speakership, opposition to the bill itself and resentment at his forced resignation in 1925 were the main reasons for this crucial decision. He was subsequently denied Nationalist endorsement for the Darling Downs and on 12 October lost his seat to the official Nationalist candidate following a very bitter campaign. His defeat brought to an end nearly seventy years continuous parliamentary representation of the Toowoomba district by the Groom family.

Groom returned to the Bar in Brisbane but won back the Darling Downs as an Independent on 19 December 1931. He joined the United Australia Party in August 1933. For the remainder of his life, however, he was not as active as hitherto in parliament. Instead, he used his prestige to aid particular causes. He was president of the Australian branch of the League of Nations Union, remained a leading lay member of the Church of England and forcefully argued for a national university in Canberra. He died there on 6 November 1936 of coronary vascular disease, survived by his wife and one of their two daughters. A well-attended funeral service was held at Parliament House and he was buried in the grounds of St John's Church of England. There is a portrait of Groom by Fred Leist in Parliament House and a memorial spire stands in Toowoomba.

Throughout his career Groom followed a routine which differed little from year to year. In addition to his political duties he led an active social life, spent considerable time working for the Church of England, at one stage being a member of its Australian Synod, and wrote dozens of articles and pamphlets on legal, political and religious subjects. He was joint author, with Sir John Quick of The Judicial Power of the Commonwealth (1904). At Toowoomba he resided in a comfortable home overlooking the Great Dividing Range, and was a conscientious local member, whose short and always well-dressed figure was a familiar sight. What leisure time he had was spent in gardening, photography and reading.

Groom has sometimes been viewed as a rather dull politician of only moderate ability. Certainly he was not a gifted orator nor was he in the limelight as often as some of his contemporaries. Yet he was a generally sound administrator who left a distinct mark on Australia. Hard-working and honest, he was responsible for a variety of reforms and was among the first to realize that many political problems could only be treated in a national context. He also stands out as the representative of a significant mode of non-Labor political thought, though his concept of the active social role of the state differed from the Labor view only in degree. On occasions he went so far as to justify the limitation of individual liberties if the interests of the majority were at stake. In his speeches and writings he always portrayed himself as a liberal in the evident belief that the word had a consistent, if developing, meaning. The striking feature of his life was not only the continuity of his beliefs but the frequency with which he acted on them over a very long period after their first formulation.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge et al, Nation Building in Australia: The Life and Work of Sir Littleton Ernest Groom (Syd, 1941)
  • D. Carment, Australian Liberal: a Political Biography of Sir Littleton Groom, 1867-1936 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1975), and for bibliography.

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

David Carment, 'Groom, Sir Littleton Ernest (1867–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 25 June 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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