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Sir George Houstoun Reid (1845–1918)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published:

George Houstoun Reid (1845-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1904-05

George Houstoun Reid (1845-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1904-05

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12267435

Sir George Houstoun Reid (1845-1918), premier, prime minister and high commissioner, was born on 25 February 1845 at Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, youngest of five sons of Rev. John Reid (d.1867), Presbyterian minister, and his wife Marion (d.1885), née Crybbace. The family moved to Liverpool two months later, and in May 1852 arrived in Melbourne. John Reid joined John Dunmore Lang at Scots Church, Sydney, in 1858 and later took over the interdenominational Mariners' Church in Lower George Street.

George Reid spent some time at the Melbourne Academy (Scotch College) where, he recalled, he learned to 'read, write and count fairly well', but had 'a lazy horror of Greek' and no appetite for the 'wide range of metaphysical propositions' which formed part of the curriculum. When he arrived in Sydney at 13 he was placed as a junior clerk in a merchant's counting-house. In 1864 he became an assistant accountant in the Colonial Treasury. The annual salary of £200 was enough to enable him to enjoy life, and acquire a reputation as a bon vivant and something of a ladies' man. Later he was to speak of a youth misspent on pleasure, but the facts hardly match this interpretation. At 15 he had joined the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Debating Society, later becoming one of its leading figures; he was active in the Young Men's Presbyterian Union, for a time as secretary; and he did not neglect his work, as his rapid promotion in the treasury indicates—by 1874 he was chief clerk of the correspondence branch and his salary had doubled. He had published a pamphlet, The Diplomacy of Victoria on the Postal Question (1873), which set out the New South Wales case in favour of establishing mail-steamer routes other than the subsidized Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.'s service which terminated at Melbourne. The postmaster-general, who was about to visit London to interest the British government in additional services, sought unsuccessfully to have him seconded to the mission as secretary.

Reid early showed a strong interest in politics. In the late 1850s he attended many of the public debates on manhood suffrage and other democratic reforms, where he was struck by 'the unbridled eloquence' of political reformers, and 'the gloomy forebodings' of their conservative opponents; such impressions laid the basis of an approach to political issues which if never cynical was always pragmatic. Reid's ability to see both sides of a controversial question accounted for his eventual undeserved reputation as a fence-sitter that in 1898 won him the soubriquet 'Yes-No Reid'. But on one issue he saw little scope for compromise—the question of free trade and protection.

In the mid-1870s free trade was something of a shibboleth in New South Wales; but Reid, whose eldest brother Hugh was chairman of the Melbourne Steamship Co. and a strong opponent of the dominant protectionist school in Victoria, was aware of the need for a coherent defence of free-trade principles. His Five Free Trade Essays (1875) offered a thorough if tendentious examination, from an essentially liberal viewpoint, of the effects of protection in Britain and America and of arguments used by protectionists in Australia, particularly in Victoria. An effective attack on the basis of the protectionist case, in Victoria the book provoked considerable controversy, including the compliment of deliberate misquotation by the Age. It won Reid honorary membership of the Cobden Club, London.

It also made a notable impression on New South Wales political leaders, and gained Reid official endorsement for An Essay on New South Wales, Mother Colony of the Australias (1876), published as part of the colony's contribution to the United States Centennial Exposition. Though thoroughly researched and informative, as immigration propaganda it inevitably presented an optimistic picture of the colony's prospects. However, Reid was rather guarded in his treatment of the land laws, of which he was later to be a strong critic. He himself saw his books as part of his education for the public life which he had determined to pursue. It was also a means of bringing his name into prominence, as was a long poem in praise of the colony submitted to a competition held in connexion with the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. It was an appalling thing, and in later life he was embarrassed by any reference to it. Poetry was not his métier.

On 19 September 1879 Reid was admitted to the Bar. He had begun serious reading in 1876, and as a result was appointed secretary of the Attorney General's Department in 1878. His decision to study law was essentially motivated by his political ambitions. As a public servant he could not sit in parliament, but he now had a profession which might enable him to enter politics. The most notable step to this end was his debate in February 1880 with David Buchanan on free trade and protection, which created immense interest.

In November Reid nominated for the four-member constituency of East Sydney, beginning his speech by wittily turning against Premier Sir Henry Parkes (one of the sitting members), some sneering comments about 'new men', and indicating a liberal and practical approach. He got by far the best reception of all the candidates. This was the first manifestation of the skill which many years later led Patrick Glynn to describe him as perhaps the best platform speaker in the Empire. He topped the poll.

Reid was not prepared to sacrifice his busy social life and had to devote much time to establishing his Bar practice: he was not therefore a very active member during his early years in parliament, though he took up the cause of a free public library and was responsible for an important measure on the width of streets and lanes. He described himself as 'an independent supporter' of the Parkes-Robertson coalition government but was frequently critical of it, and in July 1881 ostentatiously took his seat with the Opposition. He was dissatisfied with the government's unwillingness to reform the land laws; but there was also some mysterious personal quarrel with Parkes which, despite later co-operation in defence of free trade, remained unhealed until Parkes's last days. Reid clashed frequently with ministers over such matters as their legislation against Chinese, local option and civil service reform; and in October he mounted a swingeing attack on their land policy. In 1882 he supported a motion of censure moved by (Sir) Alexander Stuart. He was active behind the scenes next January over the government's proposed amendments to the land laws, and when the subsequent general election destroyed Parkes's majority it was Reid who forced the test vote which led to the ministry's resignation. Stuart, commissioned as premier, offered him the treasury, but he asked instead for the public instruction portfolio.

The Public Instruction Act of 1880, based on the idea of 'free, compulsory and secular' education, had, like most laws which seek to turn a slogan into a policy, produced something close to administrative chaos. Reid's vigorous, imaginative and liberal direction not only sorted this out at the primary level but also established the colony's first high schools and the beginning of a system of technical education which became a model for the other colonies. In October 1883 he introduced the bill which inaugurated degree courses for evening students at the University of Sydney.

In January 1884 Reid was unseated because of an oversight. His portfolio had not been gazetted as one of the 'offices of profit' (under the Constitution Act) which might legally be held by a member of parliament. In the subsequent by-election he suffered the only defeat of his career, largely because of financial policies forced on the treasurer, (Sir) George Dibbs, by the loss of land revenue following the government's overhaul of the land system. In the two years which followed he laid the basis of an extremely prosperous practice at the Bar. An adequate rather than a profound scholar but a brilliant cross-examiner, he impressed juries rather than judges and so was at his best in criminal matters, but he did much common-law work and later came into demand as counsel at royal commissions. He was an acknowledged leader of the Bar long before he took silk in 1898.

By the time he was returned in the election of November 1885 the political situation had changed greatly. Reid maintained an attitude of independence during the chaotic factional manoeuvring which followed this election. But the fiscal issue rendered his independent stance untenable when the Jennings government introduced ad valorem customs duties for revenue purposes, and the protectionists, hitherto a small minority in parliament, hailed this measure as the 'thin end of the wedge' for their policy. Reid and Parkes vigorously attacked the customs duties bill, and when the government collapsed at the end of 1886 and Parkes was sent for, he offered Reid his choice of ministry. Reid declined, apparently because of his distrust of Parkes's motives and perhaps also because of a conviction that he would be swallowed up by the premier. He sought to be Parkes's equal, not his subordinate, in the crusade against protection which was to give New South Wales politics its direction for the rest of the century. In the following election his campaign paralleled the premier's; when Parkes was confirmed in office Reid was again offered a portfolio and again he declined. He also declined the speakership.

During the next two years Reid acted as a kind of back-bench conscience, generally supporting the legislative programme but frequently criticizing it from a liberal point of view: he was particularly critical of a harsh new measure against Chinese immigration. Early in 1888 he refused the attorney-generalship, vacated by Bernhard Ringrose Wise. Insisting on his independence, he had come to be recognized by January 1889, when Parkes resigned, as the leading parliamentary defender of the principles of social and economic liberalism. He took no direct part in the events which led to Parkes's resignation, or the failure of the new premier Dibbs to obtain supply and subsequent dissolution. These events, however, brought him closer to younger members of Parkes's party, including (Sir) William McMillan who, while still recognizing Parkes's leadership, were endeavouring to give the party a more stable basis by advocating a free-trade policy based on direct taxation. Though Reid took a leading part in the censure debate which brought the reinstatement of Parkes, he again refused a proffered portfolio. He seemingly recognized that at this stage the party needed Parkes; but it would not always need him; and there was a real danger that the old man, who had no enthusiasm for direct taxation, would let it down. If this happened the party might well turn to him.

In April 1889 Reid was involved in the establishment of the Free Trade and Liberal Association of New South Wales to advance a programme of liberal legislation, based on free trade and direct taxation. Unwilling to allow an extra-parliamentary organization to dominate him, Parkes was meanwhile turning his mind in a new direction, and in June began the Federation campaign which culminated in the meeting of the National Australasian Convention in Sydney in March-April 1891. Reid was openly suspicious of Parkes's sudden enthusiasm for Federation, and in May 1890, while being careful not to oppose the concept, warned the premier not 'to cast [the] priceless fabric of independence into the crucible of federation without some thought'. On the eve of the convention he repeated the warning and, a week after it referred its draft constitution to the colonial parliaments for 'adoption', he made clear in a vigorous public speech that he believed Parkes had ignored him. This was the first shot in a campaign that destroyed any chance of the draft constitution being accepted in New South Wales. Reid's objections were based partly on the belief that the colony's free-trade principles would be placed in jeopardy, and that New South Wales by joining would be acting like a reformed alcoholic who set up house with five drunkards, leaving the question of beverages to be decided later by majority vote; but equally important was his conviction that in the powers the draft gave to the Senate, and in its failure to prescribe responsibility of executive, it provided inadequate guarantees of democratic government.

The mid-1891 election returned a group of Labor members sufficient to hold a balance between Parkes and Dibbs. Unwilling to buy their support, the government resigned in October. Parkes at the same time resigned his party leadership, perhaps hoping to be succeeded by someone who would recognize him as an elder statesman, and even stand aside for him later—but the party chose Reid. The choice was less than enthusiastic: fewer than one-third of the members actually held up their hands but only McMillan voted against him. However Reid, with his ostentatious independence and his reputation as a liberal, a democrat and a pragmatist, was just the man the party needed in the new situation produced by Labor's advent; and a savage attack on him by Parkes in December had the effect of consolidating behind him the large number of free traders who previously had been dubious.

Twelve days before he was elected party leader, he married on 5 November 1891, Flora Ann Brumby, daughter of a Tasmanian farmer, at the Presbyterian manse, Wangaratta, Victoria. She gave her name as 'Bromby'; Reid claimed to at least one friend that she was related to Bishop Charles Bromby and his controversial brother John Edward. His motives for making this quite incorrect claim, and for not announcing the event for nine months, are obscure, but the marriage was a success. The former man-about-town became a devoted family man whose happy private life was to sustain for twenty-seven years his busy public career.

Reid's status as both a married man and leader of the Opposition to Dibbs was reflected by new energy in his parliamentary work. A master of parliamentary tactics and a brilliant debater, with a flashing wit which he used to devastating effect on interjectors, he attacked the government, in particular for its institution of a substantially protective tariff. He steered a very careful course with regard to the Labor Party, especially in his handling of Labor attempts to influence the government's handling of the 1892 Broken Hill mine strike, the failure of which irretrievably split the Labor group. He managed so successfully to blend into a cohesive unit the Free Trade Party, which 'ran the whole gamut from conservative Sydney merchants through middle-class intellectuals to reformers who wished to replace indirect by direct taxation for social reasons', including some disciples of Henry George, that when he asked for a party vote of confidence in February 1893 it was unanimous.

Reid refused to exploit the economic crisis of 1892-93 for party ends. Indeed he gave Dibbs vital support in the measures necessary to alleviate the effects of the bank smash at the end of April 1893, but he maintained pressure on the government and steered his party between the old-fashioned desire for free trade without direct taxation, the enthusiasms of the 'single taxers', and those who like Wise saw in a land tax the panacea for economic ills. He also adroitly neutralized an attempt by Parkes to usurp his position with a censure motion on the government's handling of arrangements under the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act of 1893. During 1893 and early 1894 he built up both an efficient electoral machine and a coherent liberal policy, embracing free trade with direct taxation, the rationalization of the public finances on a 'cash basis', law reform, and the institution of a comprehensive system of local government. Aided to some extent by the disarray of the Labor Party over its 'pledge', Reid won an effective majority in the July 1894 election, and on 2 August took office as premier and treasurer. He chose a cabinet nicely balanced between the more traditional and the more progressive schools of free trade, but thoroughly united behind the reformist policy which had won the election. It included one former member of the Labor Party, (Sir) Joseph Cook.

Reid saw domestic reform as vital, but he was also anxious to take up the Federation question which, through the influence of such men as (Sir) Edmund Barton, was once again a live issue. As his new-style free-trade policy gradually gained adherents, he began to lose his fear that Federation would hand the colony over to the Victorian protectionists, though he had withdrawn none of his objections to the 1891 draft constitution. Now he moved quickly into leadership of the movement for a 'new start' focused on the ideas of (Sir) John Quick for an elected convention and submission of a draft constitution to a popular referendum. Within a few days of taking office he invited his fellow premiers to discuss the question with him. The consequent conference held at Hobart early in 1895 adopted the Quick plan with important modifications, to ensure careful consideration of all the issues, largely suggested by Reid himself. Thus, he later claimed with some justice, to have picked Federation out of the gutter and set it on the path that led, through the convention of 1897-98, to the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Reid's immediate concern, however, was to dismantle the Dibbs tariff and institute the fiscal and other reforms which were the core of his policy. He had fairly steady Labor support for these measures, but with the Opposition far from unanimous he did not need this support to pass most of them through the assembly. His first major legislation was for a new Crown Lands Act (1895) which finally eliminated the 'dummying' which had dogged the free-selection system. It was not all plain sailing. The Labor Party occasionally gave trouble: Reid dropped the local government bill upon which he had set great store rather than accept an amendment forced by Labor and Opposition members. Moreover in May 1895 Parkes, whose hostility to the premier had now become obsessive, combined with Dibbs to move a censure motion which he thought would draw away from Reid the bulk of the Free Trade Party. This, however, only had the effect of uniting the party more solidly behind him. His real problem lay with the Legislative Council which mutilated several important measures, including a coal mines regulation bill. The council became increasingly hostile to the government's direct taxation bills, intended to reform colonial finances, and in June 1895 provoked a constitutional crisis by rejecting the land and income tax assessment bill.

Reid went to the country on a programme which included Upper House reform as well as affirmation of the rejected financial proposals. Parkes, who challenged him in Sydney-King, a new single-member constituency, was heavily defeated; Reid was confirmed in his control of the assembly. Nine new council appointments which he then obtained from the acting-governor in no sense involved 'swamping'; they confirmed his determination to get his finance bills passed but, by their modest number, invoked co-operation rather than confrontation between the Houses. When the council persisted in its obstruction he finally threatened to ask for more nominations, and with some minor amendments the bills went through. By the end of 1895 Reid had revolutionized the colony's fiscal arrangements. By 1898 he secured a series of other reforms including a long overdue Public Service Act (1895). Satisfied with the substance of victory, and in the face of strong opposition, he relinquished his proposals to reconstruct the council. Some conservative free traders, including McMillan, were inclined to be critical, particularly of his financial management, while Labor doctrinaires were offended by his compromises on details to secure essentials. In the long run such attitudes were to erode his position, but in five years as premier he accomplished more than any of his predecessors.

Perhaps Reid's greatest, and certainly his most misunderstood and controversial, achievement was in the cause of Federation. At the end of 1895 he steered through the Australian Federation Enabling Act he had undertaken at the Hobart conference to introduce; he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Queensland to join in the movement; and he was elected second of the ten New South Wales delegates to the Australasian Federal Convention which met in Adelaide in March 1897. But, though he chaired the convention's finance committee, and though he brought back from London, where he attended the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Colonial Conference, the Colonial Office's confidential views on the draft constitution, he saw himself less as a 'founding father' than as an advocate of his own colony's interests and of a more democratic instrument than the 1891 draft. He worked indefatigably for these ends but left the third and final Melbourne session in March 1898 profoundly disappointed. The powers over money bills given to a Senate with equal rather than population-based State representation, combined with the provisions for the resolution of deadlocks—particularly the need for a three-fifths majority to carry a bill at a joint sitting—to his mind fell short of the democratic ideal; he saw the finance clauses as likely to impose unfair burdens on New South Wales, and some of the trade and commerce provisions as equally burdensome.

Reid was in a dilemma. He recognized the inevitability of Federation, and his prominence in the movement since 1894 would make outright opposition to ratification of the Constitution seem like a betrayal. At Sydney Town Hall on 28 March, in a speech later repeated in substance at three country centres, he detailed his objections. He did not ask his hearers to vote against ratification but rather urged them to judge for themselves. He himself could not 'become a deserter from the cause': he would vote for it.

The result of the 'Yes-No speech' was arguably to give Australia a better Constitution. The bill failed to get the necessary minimum affirmative vote in New South Wales though it was adopted in the other colonies. After the July 1898 election in which the referendum issues were refought, Reid persuaded the premiers to undertake further negotiations. These resulted in substantial amendments, notably removal of the three-fifths majority clause and the placing of a time limit on the 'Braddon Clause', the most objectionable of the finance provisions. A second referendum in June 1899 ratified the amended bill.

For Reid the affair was disastrous. He won no friends among the many committed opponents of the bill, and only furious condemnation from the Federationists, who attempted to defeat him at the election, Barton even standing against him. Although he won his own seat comfortably, the distortion of party alignments caused by the Federation question had cut his majority heavily. Reid could now carry on only with Labor support, and was faced by an Opposition, led by Barton, which was determined to destroy him. Moreover, when he unequivocally supported the Constitution bill at the second referendum, a group of anti-billite free traders led by John Fegan was outraged. In this situation some Labor members, notably Billy Hughes and William Holman, concluded that they could get more from the Opposition than from Reid, particularly as he refused to adopt their hard line on the early closing of shops.

The result was a complex and mysterious series of intrigues involving Labor, the Opposition and Fegan's 'party of revenge'. Barton, unacceptable to Labor, stood aside for (Sir) William Lyne. A pretext for a motion of censure was found in Reid's payment of expenses, in anticipation of parliamentary approval, to John Neild in connexion with his report on old-age pensions, and the government was defeated by a bizarre combination of the Labor Party, protectionists, Federation enthusiasts and die-hard anti-Federation free traders. Refused a dissolution by the inexperienced, scatter-brained and probably prejudiced governor, Lord Beauchamp, Reid resigned on 13 September 1899. As it was widely believed that the premier of New South Wales would be invited to form the first Commonwealth ministry, the motive of at least some of the participants in the intrigue was probably to deprive him of the honour to which his work in giving Australia a viable Constitution richly entitled him of being its first prime minister.

As the logical leader of the Federal Opposition, Reid still was faced with great practical difficulties. Labor was increasing its hold on working-class voters, and his liberal 'middle ground' was now apparently occupied by men whom Barton, with the advantage of the prime ministership, was able to gather round him. Reid found much of his support coming from conservatives and, even more embarrassingly, as a consequence of Cardinal Patrick Moran's growing sympathy for Labor, from militant Protestants like Rev. William Dill Macky, so that he was unable to avoid any longer the uncongenial entanglements of sectarianism which he had avoided successfully hitherto. In the years which followed Reid committed serious blunders in the handling of this issue. Moreover, though his supporters called themselves the Free Trade Party, there was no practical possibility of basing Federal finances on the policy of free trade and direct taxation he had instituted in New South Wales: the best that could be hoped for was a moderate revenue tariff with a 'free breakfast table'. Under the circumstances he did remarkably well in the first Federal election, easily winning East Sydney while his party won 26 seats to the government's 33 and Labor's 16.

Reid also had a serious personal problem. Parliament met in Melbourne and his legal practice was in Sydney but without office his parliamentary stipend of £400 a year, less than a tenth of what he could earn at the Bar, was quite inadequate to maintain his family's existing lifestyle. Consequently he was unable to give much time to his duties as leader of the Opposition. Despite his frequent absences he was, however, quite effective. Dependent though he was on conservative support he remained committed to the liberal philosophy which had underlain his politics from the beginning. He demonstrated this dramatically in August 1903 when he resigned his seat and challenged the government to oppose his re-election on the issue of its refusal to accept a system of equal electoral districts. Before almost anyone else, he predicted that the rise of Labor would radically alter the structure of Australian politics, which would resolve itself into a division between Labor and non-Labor, and he argued that Labor's doctrinaire, 'socialist' views and tight discipline made it an enemy of liberal ideas.

The government, now led by Alfred Deakin, did not yet share this perception. Nor did it share Reid's essential pragmatism, which made him sceptical about the potential of the conciliation and arbitration bill, in which both the ministers and the Labor Party placed great faith, to produce an industrial millenium. When, however, disagreement about the details of the bill brought down both the Deakin ministry and a Labor administration led by Chris Watson, a new alignment emerged: a coalition formed on 18 August 1904, led by Reid but with the Deakinite Allan McLean his 'equal in all things'. Its basis was a 'tariff truce' and the establishment of a commission to examine 'anomalies' in the tariff system.

Deakin, though giving his blessing, refused to join. This influenced about half his party to form an alliance with Labor against the coalition, leaving it with a majority of one in the House of Representatives and in a minority in the Senate. Consequently its legislative record was thin, though it succeeded in passing the conciliation and arbitration bill. During the recess between December 1904 and June 1905 the government was strained by an acrimonious dispute between the attorney-general, Sir Josiah Symon, and the justices of the High Court of Australia. Reid himself spent a good deal of the recess developing a campaign to consolidate the coalition by emphasizing the socialist direction Labor had apparently taken. He had previously attacked Labor's 'fighting platform' in May 1904. Deakin, who saw the Labor Party under Watson's leadership as essentially a liberal body, believed Reid's campaign to be an attempt to strengthen his personal position, even to destroy protectionism. On the eve of the new session he made a speech at Ballarat, which he was later to argue was only a friendly warning to Reid on the issue, which was interpreted, notably by the Melbourne Age, as 'notice to quit'. When Reid challenged him by withdrawing the speech prepared for the governor-general and substituting one proposing only a new Electoral Act as a preliminary to a general election, Deakin moved censure on 30 June 1905, and the Reid-McLean government was destroyed.

For the remainder of the second parliament Deakin governed in collaboration with the Labor Party which involved the adoption of much of its policy. Reid in response mounted during 1906 and in the election campaign late in the year an anti-socialist crusade; his public debate with Holman on 2-3 April attracted extraordinary interest. Though quite consistent with his views when he governed New South Wales with Labor support, Reid's crusade again embroiled him with Cardinal Moran whose attitude he considered not only wrong-headed but quite gratuitous. It also deepened Deakin's suspicion of him, dating from the 'Yes-No speech'. At the December election little was changed, although Reid and his supporters slightly improved their position to become the largest of the 'three elevens in the field'.

Reid and Deakin increased their hostility during the marathon 'tariff session' of 1907-08 as Reid fought tooth and nail against the government's determination to increase the level of protection. So when Deakin, his fiscal policies achieved, but deserted by Labor, came round in 1909 to the idea of a 'fusion' of the non-Labor parties, his personal attitude to Reid was the great obstacle to its achievement. Ironically, only a gracious withdrawal by Reid who had seen the necessity when Deakin had seen only a free trader's trick, brought about in May the Fusion which led to the defeat of the Fisher Labor government.

Reid's appointment as K.C.M.G. and nomination in December 1909 as first high commissioner in London were, in a sense, rewards for his willingness to step aside, and were warmly approved even by the Labor Party. No sinecure, the high commissionership carried a salary considerably less than Reid currently earned at the Bar, but he worked very hard and quickly established rapport with leading public figures. Greatly expanding the office which was already functioning under (Sir) Robert Muirhead Collins, he established publicity and immigration departments and successfully improved Australia's reputation for financial stability with the London money market. He toured Britain, visited Europe several times and North America twice, made hundreds of speeches and published numerous articles about Australia. He purchased the site for Australia House and arranged for its building, and took responsibility for overseeing the construction of the new Australian fleet. The outbreak of World War I greatly added to his duties. He was associated with the decision to train the Australian Imperial Force in Egypt, visited it there and later toured the battlefields of the Western Front.

During his five months leave (October 1913–February 1914) in Australia Reid had discussed renewal of his five-year term with Glynn, minister for external affairs; the appointment was renewed for twelve months. The Fisher Labor government, formed in September 1914, rejected Reid's claim of a promise to further renew his term and after an acrimonious correspondence he was informed in April 1915 that his appointment would terminate on 21 January 1916. Reid was bitterly disappointed, because he 'did not feel ready for the tideless pond' of retirement, and having lived up to his income and sacrificed his Bar practice he had little money apart from his salary. But on the eve of retirement came the offer of a seat in the House of Commons. Returned unopposed as member for St George's, Hanover Square, he was escorted to the table by a Conservative and a Liberal minister. He had been promoted G.C.M.G. in 1911 and was now accorded the rare honour of appointment as G.C.B. without having held any lower rank in the order.

His parliamentary salary and a couple of directorships gave him some financial security. In the House, as 'an independent Imperialist', he supported the coalition government's 'win-the-war' policy, though occasionally, as an old liberal, he was cautious about the effects of some of its legislation on individual freedom, and he considered the Dardanelles Commission a grave mistake. In the winter of 1917-18 he made a semi-official speaking tour of the United States of America for the war effort, but became ill at St Louis in February and again in April after returning to London. In July he took part in a debate on Irish affairs, moving an important amendment to defuse a motion condemning the government's policy. He died in London on 12 September 1918 of cerebral thrombosis, survived by his wife, who the previous year had been appointed G.B.E. for work on behalf of convalescent servicemen, and their two sons and daughter. Never notably religious, he had however maintained his membership of the Presbyterian Church. He was buried at Putney Vale after a service in St Columba's Church of Scotland, Pont Street. His estate was valued for probate at £8340.

In middle and later life Reid's almost ludicrously obese figure, droopy moustache, eye-glass, wisp of sandy hair and habit of dozing in public made him a cartoonists' delight, and in much that has been written of him the element of caricature has spilled over. His realistic attitude to Federation, misunderstood by those whose thinking was dominated by a vision of Australian nationhood, and perversely misrepresented by B. R. Wise in The Making of the Australian Commonwealth (1913), has led many historians to undervalue his contribution to the movement. The practical liberalism which underlay his work as premier of New South Wales has seldom had the recognition it deserves and his 'anti-socialist' campaigns of 1904-06 have made him something of a bête noir among Labor apologists.

Even his rollicking wit and platform skill have been held against him by those who have followed Deakin's view—one certainly not shared by the cultivated and urbane people with whom he soon found himself on good terms in London—that he was coarse-grained and vulgar. His wit has been remembered more clearly than his achievements. It could be cleverly used to get points across, as in the fable of the 'five drunkards'. It could be earthy: 'It's all piss and wind, I'll call it after you', he once told a heckler who asked an obvious ribald question about his great belly. It could be hilariously if cuttingly apposite, as in his description of the members of the first Labor government, sitting awkwardly and apprehensively on the treasury bench—'like a row of chooks perched out in the rain'. But it could also be cruel: he took an almost malicious delight in provoking (Sir) William Lyne into losing a temper over which he had notoriously little control.

His autobiography, My Reminiscences (London, 1917), completed less than a year before his death, did nothing to enhance his reputation. Rambling, disconnected and dull, it revealed little about the mainsprings of his career. A naturally gregarious person who yet had very few close friends, a man who always kept a barrier between his public and his private life, Reid was, above all, a liberal.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. McMinn, George Reid (Melb, 1988), and for bibliography.

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Reid, Sir George Houstoun (1845–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Houstoun Reid (1845-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1904-05

George Houstoun Reid (1845-1918), by Swiss Studios, 1904-05

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12267435

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1845
Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland


12 September, 1918 (aged 73)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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