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Sir John Robertson (1816–1891)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Sir John Robertson (1816-1891), land reformer and politician, was born on 15 October 1816 at Bow near London, third son and fourth child of James Robertson (1781-1868), watchmaker and pastoralist, and his wife Anna Maria, née Ripley (1784-1868), who were married at Stepney, London, in 1809. James was a friend of Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane and on his advice migrated with his family to New South Wales, arriving in Sydney in the Providence on 8 January 1822. Appointed general superintendent of government clocks he also worked as a watchmaker and silversmith; with an 86-acre (35 ha) grant he moved from Castlereagh Street to Robertson's Point (Cremorne) on Sydney Harbour and acquired property in the Hunter River district.

At first John went to Mr McLeod's school in Phillip Street, then to J. Bradley's school; in 1826 he became the first pupil enrolled at Dr J. D. Lang's primary school and remained close to him until his death in 1878. He completed his education with J. Gilchrist and W. T. Cape. By the age of 16 he had an intimate knowledge of the streets and environs of Sydney and with affectionate skill had mastered sailing on its beckoning harbour; he had been adopted by the vital native-born, whose youth and patriotism blurred class distinctions between the children of those who had been transported and of those who had come free to the colony. Because of a cleft palate his speech was abnormal; it had retarded neither the growth of his command of language nor the unfolding of his love of life, but it had provoked some juvenile ridicule and remained a tempting butt for hostile adults for most of his life; and it had helped to attract a loyal group of young friends who warmed to his personality and found a ready response.

Robertson's adventuresome taste for the sea overcame parental objections and financial problems in 1833 when he worked his passage to England in the Sovereign under Captain McKellar. Among many letters to deliver he had one from one of his father's convict servants, James Day, to his mother, who was a friend of Lord Palmerston. He called on Palmerston, spent three days at his country estate and was given a letter recommending him to Governor Sir Richard Bourke, which he later simply posted. Robertson told his relations that while he had been 'an English infant … as a man I am an Australian!' He took a course in navigation, studied farming techniques and visited several coastal towns, including Portsmouth where he inspected the dockyard. He also went to Scotland and France, and on his way back to New South Wales called at Brazil and other parts of South America.

Although still drawn to the sea, in 1835 Robertson joined his father on the land at Plashett, Jerry's Plains, on the Hunter River, and gradually acquired much country experience as a station manager and minor explorer of the north-west, traversing the Liverpool Plains to the Namoi and down the Darling to the site of the future town of Bourke. He responded to the harsh demands of the bush and, in becoming a squatter, did not reject their claims for more sympathetic understanding from the government in Sydney; but he never forgot that by depasturing licences and leases they had the use of land that belonged to the community. In 1838 he represented the Namoi pastoralists in Sydney and called a meeting at the Royal Hotel of about fifty squatters, including Alexander Busby and (Sir) Saul Samuel, to protest successfully against Governor Sir George Gipps's prohibition of further north-west expansion beyond the boundaries of location. Next year his decision to remain on the land was confirmed when, in Sydney on 9 May, he married Margaret Emma (Madge) Davies, niece of Thomas Barker, according to Presbyterian rites, and settled down as a wheat-grower on freehold land near Scone in the Upper Hunter district; in 1840 he was licensee of Arrarrowme, 20,000 acres (8094 ha) in the Liverpool Plains District. Bankruptcy forced him to sell his 320-acre (130 ha) farm at Jerry's Plains in 1843.

Robertson was a chief supporter of Richard Windeyer when he won the County of Durham seat at the first elections for the Legislative Council in 1843, and named his first son (b.1851) after him. Robertson now appreciated the complexity of the land question, becoming increasingly aware of the inferior legislative position of farmers and of the class bias of some wealthy squatters. He was also uneasy about the power of the governor and of the interference of the British government. He therefore supported the squatters in 1844 against Gipps's arbitrary regulations, campaigning in Muswellbrook, Scone, Singleton, Jerry's Plains and Maitland and framing petitions to the council and Westminster. But he rejected their extreme claims to security of tenure and other privileges, and refused to join the Pastoral Association of New South Wales and to endorse the work of Archibald Boyd. By the mid-1840s Robertson's political views were based on his appreciation of rural problems, which he saw as revealing the vital issue of the time: the need for responsible government for the colony, based on equal electorates, with a democratic franchise to control both the exorbitant pretensions of the squatters and the power of the imperial authorities, local as well as British. So he held aloof from any connexion with the existing forms of government, though he shared many of the objectives but not the style of the 'Constitutional Party', which included, with varying degrees of cohesion and political ideas, (Sir) Charles Cowper, Sir Charles Nicholson, Robert Lowe, W. C. Wentworth, Lang and Windeyer. In 1848 at a Maitland meeting against Lord Grey's constitution he had an amendment accepted that the colony did not want a House of Lords or a bench of bishops.

Robertson emerged as the most representative New South Wales colonist of the 1850s, moulded by his personal and perceptive experience of the main forces that had shaped colonial society and politics: the competing claims of convict and non-convict elements, as moderated by the role of the native-born; the complex movement for representative government; and the demands of the squatters for security of tenure with the help of the British government and at the expense of the majority of colonists. No other politician had such sympathetic insight into the texture and subtleties of the radical needs of the times: some belonged to the past order of social snobbery and imperial control, such as (Sir) Stuart Donaldson, (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson, and (Sir) Henry Watson Parker; others were hindered in their understanding by their family connexions, such as Cowper; or by their English formation, such as (Sir) Henry Parkes; or by their social ambitions, such as (Sir) James Martin. Only Wentworth might have rivalled Robertson, but his day was over, his radicalism dimmed by age and wealth. Above all, none, with the minor exception of William Forster, had anything like Robertson's familiarity with the Australian outback, and land dominated the politics of the late 1850s and remained a major question for the rest of the century. But if he led enlightened social and political opinion he was not acceptable to polite society. By 1850 his peculiar voice gave authority to a comprehensive repertoire of profanity and he had an enviable capacity to take and hold his liquor; his bushman's clothes were crumpled by constant riding; but he was handsome, with reddish-brown hair and beard, sparkling blue eyes, 'slightly above the middle height, his figure … slim and well-made, not strong nor robust, although … apparently very healthy'.

Robertson was affronted by Thomson's Electoral Act of 1850, which redistributed seats in New South Wales after the separation of Victoria, on the basis of 'the great interests' with the towns (mercantile and trading) having 11 members (population 75,000), the counties (agricultural and pastoral) 17 (80,000), and the pastoral districts 8 (30,000). This Act and a restricted franchise convinced Robertson that the squatters, now led by Wentworth, had combined with the local officials to maintain a monopoly of land. Next year at the council elections for the seat of the Counties of Phillip, Brisbane and Bligh he began to campaign for Lang who, however, retained Sydney. When Wentworth's conservative committee submitted its responsible government Constitution bill in 1853 with the remark that it had 'no wish to sow the seeds of a future democracy', Robertson readily accepted the challenge, joined the Constitution Committee, which sought to liberalize the Constitution, and became its most radical member. He wrote to Lang criticizing the committee for its deference to the British Constitution which it saw as 'an answer for everything that could be said against the iniquity of Wentworth's attempt to saddle us with a hereditary upper house … and all the paraphernalia of attendant rascalities'.

Robertson saw the British Constitution as vague, aristocratic and largely inapplicable to colonial conditions. As 'a mere denizen of the bush', in long letters to the Empire (November, December 1853) from Yarrundi, Scone, he urged petitions to the Queen and British parliament and to the governor for the dissolution of the council, and elections to test the feelings of the voters; he attacked Martin for asserting that 'the franchise was a mere matter of convenience' and argued for universal adult suffrage, though he reluctantly quoted the Bible to exclude women and children; electorates should be based on equal population 'without reference to the locality … or the business in which they are engaged', except that the seat of government should have fewer members because it would have several residents elected for country seats; he wanted only one House, elected biennially, but, in accepting two because public opinion favoured it, he required the Upper House of twenty-five to be 'elected by the members of the … Assembly, five to go out by rotation every two years'. In 1854 his petition against the nominee Upper House, the two thirds majority for amendment and the electoral distribution clauses of the Constitution was adopted at a public meeting in Sydney and forwarded to Lowe for presentation to the British parliament; but, despite modifications made in London, the Constitution of 1855 was far from his ideal and his intense opposition to it had contributed to a decline in his health; his voice seemed to be failing completely and his heart weakening. In 1856 he was invited to run for the seat of Phillip, Brisbane and Bligh at the first parliamentary elections and, although he took no active part in the campaign, he won.

Robertson's electoral platform was manhood suffrage, vote by secret ballot, equal electoral districts on population, abolition of state aid to religion, National education, free trade, and free selection of crown lands before survey. Much of this programme was shared by other liberals, but only Robertson was an uninhibited radical determined to overcome the novel parliamentary problems in the manner in which he had come to terms with the sea and the bush. The key to basic social reform was change in land policy, with the colonial legislature and government accepting the need that settlers, mainly agricultural and with minimum capital, should have ready access to land, even that occupied by lease-holding squatters. Constitutional and electoral reform was comparatively easy to effect. The events of 1856-61 showed how Robertson dominated colonial politics as his unique insight and determination led him to implement land reform. In 1856 he changed the reactionary tenor of the Masters' and Servants' Acts continuation bill when he had a select committee appointed, and became one of three members of a sub-committee that drafted a new liberal bill. In 1857 he sat on the select committee on secondary punishment, and opposed strongly Parker's electoral bill, which he described as 'ten times worse than any that was ever before the country'.

In 1855 Robertson had told the old Legislative Council's select committee on the state of agriculture that the government's policy had actually depressed agriculture, with farmers excluded from leasing and generally in a much inferior position to pastoralists; he urged that the balance be redressed, though he insisted that he was not 'hostile to the pastoral interest … [because] one interest should support the other, for complete prosperity can never reach either until both are in a satisfactory state'. This stress on the interdependent rights of both farmers and graziers remained an essential part of his land policy. In 1856 he opposed the Donaldson government's crown lands' sale bill; next year he rejected the Parker ministry's bill and tried to amend the Cowper government's bill by moving for selection either of 'surveyed or unsurveyed' land at a fixed minimum price, on condition that the selectors resided on the land and improved it; at first only D. H. Deniehy supported him and only nine members later, but he was responsible for the bill's discharge on 10 December. He was now recognized as the outstanding land reformer and Cowper, who led the moderate liberals, accepted him on his terms as secretary for lands and works on 13 January 1858. He retained his seat at the general election in February.

Robertson at once set about reforming and extending the infant Department of Lands. His regulations of 22 February provided that all current and future applications for pastoral runs would be subject to whatever decision parliament should make on land policy. On 12 August he successfully brought down his pastoral lands assessment and rent bill which set rents on runs in the intermediate and unsettled districts and increased rents in the settled district, parliament's initial step to balance the competing land interests. His first major land legislation was the crown lands alienation in certain cases bill; introduced on 2 September it lapsed when the House was counted out on 16 September, a typical parliamentary device. Meanwhile, he had played a strong part in the success of Cowper's electoral law amendment bill, which brought in adult male franchise, increased seats from 54 to 80, plus 1 provisionally for the University of Sydney (the seats were reduced to 72, plus 1, when Queensland was separated in 1859); and he carried the main roads management bill.

At the June 1859 general election Robertson explained the difficulties he was having with his land legislation, and retained his seat, now the Upper Hunter. The Cowper ministry remained in office. Public works was taken from his portfolio, and as secretary for lands he reorganized the Surveyor-General's Department. On 28 September he brought down three bills, crown lands sales, crown lands occupation and leased lands occupation; the last one was defeated 27 to 20 and he withdrew the others. Robertson disagreed with Cowper on the details of the public education bill; the ministry was defeated on it on 22 September and resigned on 26 October, with Cowper resigning his seat the next day. Robertson became leader of the Opposition as Forster formed a new ministry that fell in February 1860; Robertson arranged his first cabinet, as secretary for lands, on 9 March, with Cowper, now in the council, as colonial secretary. By September he had his new land legislation ready and brought down the crown lands alienation bill and the crown lands occupation bill, embodying free selection before survey; both bills passed their second reading, but in committee in October the vital clause was defeated 33 to 28. With his parliamentary resources exhausted Robertson obtained a dissolution and prepared to fight a general election on the issue in December. The New South Wales political crisis received Australia-wide publicity.

It was clear that Robertson had manipulated events to bring radical land reform manifestly before the electors, the first time that they had been asked to decide any issue. The elections were keenly fought, with excited meetings throughout Sydney and the country. The question of state aid to Churches was also involved and its abolition was probably Robertson's first priority after land reform. He received much help from liberals of varying shades including Cowper, who was returned for East Sydney. The momentum of reform had crystallized much variegated support from town and country, but elections were a personal triumph for Robertson and a tribute to his radical leadership. Of 53 candidates who said they favoured his land bills, 35 were elected and, of these, 25 wanted abolition of state aid; all 14 candidates who openly opposed the bills were defeated. Although there were no firm party lines it was obvious that the 'new democracy' had endorsed his policy, and that he had contributed to the dissolution of the old conservative, official order.

To concentrate solely on the problem of carrying his legislation in both assembly and council he retired on 9 January 1861 from the premiership, which Cowper resumed. The Sydney Morning Herald was now calling him 'the Dictator'. He resubmitted his bills on 16 January; both were sent up to the council on 27 March; he resigned the next day, and on 3 April was appointed to the Council, where he stubbornly refused to compromise with conservative amendments, and he prevailed on Cowper to advise the governor, Sir John Young, to swamp the council, or cabinet would resign. With the end of the first five-year appointments imminent the governor agreed, but nineteen angered conservatives led by President Sir William Burton resigned on 10 May and left the council without a quorum. In the compromise over its reconstruction Robertson was reappointed on 24 June but on a technicality could not reintroduce his legislation; Cowper presented it in the assembly on 18 September and assent was given to both bills on 24 October.

Some historians have seen Robertson's great land reforms as necessary for the triumph of the 'middle classes', including owners of freehold land and urban liberals, over the squatters, with no sincere intention of concentrated land settlement. But colonial society did not lend itself to this over-simplification. Many urban residents, of diverse occupations and financial and political interests, were squatters; many rural residents were neither freeholders nor squatters, and many were liberals. Robertson himself reflected the social and political complexity: he was a country freeholder, but held squatting leases and leased land to tenant farmers, and he was the most radical of the liberals. He certainly saw his gruelling campaign as an honest and balanced attempt to compose the long-standing land problem for the benefit of all colonists, not least the landless country people. He was the great apostle of social equilibrium through land justice and he tapped city and country resentment, built up over a generation, to become one of the great land reformers of the nineteenth century: a result of his individuality and integrated colonial formation. Only he could have responded to the deeply-rooted levelling cry for easy access to land for all who wanted it, and he saw in agriculture a dual opportunity for land settlement and economic differentiation. Virtually none of his parliamentary supporters understood the complexities of his proposals; all of them were dragged along by the force of his personality and his relentless energy to accept the propositions that unsurveyed land could now be selected and bought freehold in 320-acre (130 ha) lots at £1 per acre, on a deposit of 5s. per acre, the balance to be paid within three years, an interest-free loan of three-quarters of the price; and that wealthy people would find it hard to speculate because bona fide residence was stipulated. He had formulated the greatest social theme in nineteenth century Australian history.

Robertson's endearing stubbornness shaded into vanity and he found it hard to comprehend that politics was much wider than the land problem, that voters and politicians were fickle, and that pioneering administration was intricate and burdensome. John Garrett, father of his close friend Thomas Garrett, resigned the seat of Shoalhaven to allow him to return to the assembly on 7 January 1862. He lost some popularity the same month when he not only allowed the promoters of the first English cricket team to charge admission to a match on the Sydney Domain, but also arranged a free stand for parliamentarians, but he supplied necessary stiffening for the passage of Cowper's grants for public worship prohibition bill in October. By then Robertson was the centre of a group of admiring followers and he had a few electoral agents, but in no sense a political party; his giving of complete loyalty was distinguishing him from ambitious and devious politicians like Martin and Parkes. He never quite lost the style of the blunt, simple, optimistic countryman. The management of colonial finances was proving difficult for the Cowper government and in October 1863 it lost office to Martin to begin a period of 15 years in which 11 ministries were formed, shared by Martin, 3, Cowper, 2, Parkes, 2, Robertson, 3, and J. S. Farnell, 1. Robertson contributed to this political instability and was affected by it.

To meet a balance of payments deficit Martin proposed a mild protective tariff and the ensuing 1864-65 general election raised the fiscal issue for the first time. Robertson had always been a keen free trader, but had subordinated economics to land; now he headed the poll at West Sydney, the chief centre of working-class voters and a strong free-trade area. He became secretary for lands again on 3 February 1865 in the new Cowper government; but the financial problem predominated and the necessity of implementing Martin's fiscal policy shattered the liberals' 1850s dream of prosperity through a new order based on free trade and rational policies on land, religion, railways and education. Robertson found that the Lands Department could not be expanded and reorganized quickly enough to cope with increasing work and complexity; moreover, he had financial problems of his own: his political career had ended his control of his Upper Hunter property and he speculated in squatting in north Queensland; by 10 October these investments demanded his attention and he resigned from parliament; but an equivocal letter to his supporters reflected the great pull politics had on him and they urged him 'to devote such portion of his time and attention … to watch and defend [his] great measures of reform'; they renominated him and he regained the seat again on 18 October. By the end of the year he was again active in the assembly, but his finances had not been restored, and some apparent flaws in his 1861 legislation had been revealed.

Four years operation of the land Acts had helped to solve some of the problems of country life, but while settlement and agricultural output had expanded, the pastoral industry was still pre-eminent and run lessees remained vocal and powerful. Some unprecedented agrarian tension suggested the need for an overhaul of legislation and administration. Even if political conditions and his personal affairs had been favourable, Robertson would probably have not admitted that changes were necessary; but the decomposition of the liberals and his own troubles made further reform impossible. On 1 January 1866 Cowper tried to arrest his group's political decline by bringing Robertson back as secretary for lands. In the campaign for his re-election following acceptance of the office Robertson faced opposition that showed the extent of the general disillusionment. Following an electoral meeting at which he was shouted down, the critical Sydney Morning Herald remarked 'that his incomparable eloquence no longer had power to charm'. Specifically, he was blamed for the policy of his predecessor in office, W. M. Arnold, of reserving from selection certain land until it was surveyed for water supply or other public purposes. This was interpreted, especially by working-class voters, as yielding to pressure from the squatters. In vain did Robertson tell them and the Herald that this procedure was based on a clause of the Land Alienation Act, that it was part of his general policy to protect the public interest, as well as that of selectors and squatters. He lost West Sydney on 17 January and the ministry resigned on 21 January.

Part of the Herald's attack on him had been that he was 'the President of the Fenian Society'; in denying it and explaining that he was sympathetic with the Irish [National] League, 'which upheld Ireland's just claims and requirements', he showed that he had responded to a powerful demand on colonial politicians: discreet adjustment to various sectarian pressures. He was president of the local branch of the league in 1864-65 but, a Freemason, he nicely combined independence, open-heartedness and tolerance, and was never controlled by any organization. He returned to the House at a by-election as member for the Clarence on 27 August and gave vital support to Parkes's public schools bill, though he argued that it conceded too much to denominational prejudices.

Robertson was now living in a fine house, Clovelly (Robertson Park), Watsons Bay, and his personal and political problems did not dampen his spirits. In the House his 'voice [remained] the loudest, his language the most violent and his attitudes the most distorted'. In 1867 A. A. P. Tighe remarked 'He may be a great man in the club-houses, at the street-corners, and in the tap-room; but in this House he is no more than myself'; and Martin compared him to Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus 'in that both advocated the cause of free selection, both hit upon the same amount of land for each individual … [and] both had been the idols of the people … [and] deserted by the people'. When the Martin government disintegrated in 1868 Robertson formed his second ministry on 27 October, and he won West Sydney at the 1869-70 general election; but both his financial difficulties and the parliamentary torpor intensified; none of his own bills succeeded, including one to reduce parliament's term to three years. On 13 January 1870 Cowper took over as premier and Robertson resigned his seat on 22 February because of his bankruptcy. He had invested in 'very large' Queensland sheep and cattle stations with J. G. Macdonald, and 'for several years … incompetent and unfruitful agents' had mismanaged the properties while his parliamentary work had prevented his active control: £168,873 was owing to (Sir) Alexander Stuart and R. Towns, but his final deficiency was £6746.

A reformed social equilibrium, combining elements both of the 'new democracy' and the old establishment, was revealed by the way in which colonists responded to help Robertson. Garrett and Lang rallied his close friends and the movement spread to two public meetings in March at which a wide cross-section was represented, including Sir William Manning, a pre-1856 official who said, 'There was a time when I did not hold [him] in such high esteem; but as his public character became developed I learnt to appreciate him'; a committee of twenty-eight was formed to raise and invest money 'for the permanent benefit of Mr. Robertson's family'. He regained his seat on 2 March 1870, was discharged from bankruptcy in August and returned as secretary for lands. But the social absorption of the liberals could not disguise their political dismemberment; after Cowper's acceptance of the post of agent-general in London, his government resigned on 15 December; and next day Robertson shocked many of friends by joining Martin's ministry as colonial secretary, a decision that revealed the renovated flexibility of colonial politicians and ushered in a decade of sterile exchanges of governments by Robertson and Parkes.

Robertson did nothing to relieve the chronic legislative inertia of the Martin ministry. By early 1872 only seven of eighteen non-financial ministerial bills had been carried and the government had annoyed Victoria and inflamed the Riverina over its failure to re-negotiate the border duties agreement of 1867. Robertson engaged in a lively correspondence with (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy and spoke strongly about what he saw as Victoria's rapacity. But public opinion was against the government and at the 1872 general election only three of the six ministers, including Robertson at West Sydney, were returned. Parkes became premier on 14 May and Robertson became a peppery leader of the Opposition. In 1874 he incensed Sir Hercules Robinson by his criticism of the governor's language in his Executive Council minute on the public reaction to the release of the bushranger Frank Gardiner. When the Parkes ministry fell on the issue, Robertson won West Sydney in February 1875 and seemed to have collected the most supporters at the general election; after the governor had at first refused to commission him, as colonial secretary he formed his third ministry on 9 February, including W. B. Dalley, one of his native-born admirers of the 1850s. He left the accumulating land problems to Garrett who expertly set up new courts under the Lands Acts Amendment Act, 1875, but the Legislative Council had been almost immovable on the bill and no renovation of the laws was attempted.

Elements of farce, disquieting to Governor Robinson, now deranged colonial politics. Robertson's government fell in March 1877 and Parkes was in office until August, when Robertson returned, only to obtain a dissolution in October. Although made a K.C.M.G. and known as 'the Knight of Clovelly', his backing in Sydney was less than in 1866. At his nomination at West Sydney on 23 October 1877 the booing stifled the cheering and he was counted out; he lost his seat, but remained popular in the country and was returned for two electorates, East Macquarie and Mudgee, and sat for Mudgee. Farnell formed a stop-gap ministry on 18 December with parliament divided into at least three loose groups and several independents. Assisted by Governor Robinson, events began to swirl around Robertson and Parkes, compelling the two knights into a latter-day partnership that would consummate the remaining liberal aspirations of the 1850s. Robertson had never got on with Parkes; his deviousness was seasoned with an amiably expressed sense of fun, notably lacking in Sir Henry; and his ambition was far less devouring and self-distorting. Robertson made several cronies out of his many friends. Parkes had few friends. Now they were about to combine in the strongest pre-1894 colonial government.

Farnell's government made an attempt to amend the land laws, but was defeated on 5 December 1878. The governor refused a dissolution and asked Robertson to form a ministry. It was clear to Sir Hercules that the only viable government was one that would include Robertson and Parkes, but he was made aware that Robertson would never make the first move to coalesce when he selected a cabinet of his own friends; at least one of these, James Watson, also shared the governor's view. Robertson soon saw that his proposed ministry could not function, and that parliament was rapidly becoming unworkable. He judged that if he were out of the way he would not have to jettison any of his friends in a coalition cabinet, and that Parkes would attract sufficient of his supporters to organize an effective government. On 13 December he resigned his seat in a characteristic fusion of stubborn pride, solidarity, and self-sacrifice; it was not part of a prearranged plot with Parkes but it facilitated a meeting of his and Parkes's followers to elect Sir Henry as leader of the Opposition, and the defeat of Farnell on 18 December. In order to consolidate his inchoate support, Parkes offered Robertson the positions of vice-president of the Executive Council and representative of the government in the Legislative Council, on salary; he accepted on 21 December. The governor reported correctly to the British government that the coalition had been conditioned by his procedure of refusing Farnell a dissolution and first asking Robertson rather than Parkes to form a ministry.

The new government repaired more than a decade's neglect of pressing legislation. Its term of office saw an unprecedented rate of introduction and success of public bills by ministers: of 131 brought down, 85 (15 supply bills) were passed. For the first time in parliamentary sessions ministerial bills exceeded private members' bills. Necessary reforms were effected in electoral law, education and hotel licensing, and significant changes in land, mining and aspects of local government. To the governor's relief financial legislation was cleared on time. The coalition increased its support at the 1880 general election. Robertson played a vital part in its success, adapting skilfully to the unique methods of the council and in May adding the portfolio of the first minister of public instruction to his posts. But he resigned from the ministry on 10 November 1881 because of Parkes's antagonism to his friends E. A. Baker and Garrett on the report of the Milburn Creek Copper-Mining Co. royal commission.

By 1880 rising demand for basic reform of Robertson's original land legislation could no longer be ignored. The hard facts of geography, transport and markets had ensured that agriculture was still inferior to the pastoral industry; consequently, the substantial increase in land settlement and wheat acreage, which reflected the significant achievement of Robertson's Acts, had contributed to serious conflict between selectors and squatters, with much litigation and some agrarian lawlessness that had to be stopped. Robertson refused to agree that fundamental change was needed, and he had influenced the partial repairs provided by James Hoskins's Lands Acts Further Amendment Act, 1880; but claims of increasing law-breaking continued, even free selectors' organizations urged greater security of tenure for squatters under certain conditions, and, after Robertson's resignation, cabinet decided that this would be granted. At the same time Parkes's health was failing; he planned a visit overseas and asked Robertson to take over the government. He agreed with alacrity and became acting premier on 29 December 1881.

Hoskins resigned to allow Robertson to become secretary for lands and S. H. Terry resigned for him to regain Mudgee on 13 January 1882. He left no doubt that he would reverse the government's new land policy. When he brought down his crown lands bill on 19 October it reflected his domination over the cabinet, including Parkes who had resumed as premier on 20 August: it consolidated the 1861 law, free selection before survey remained and security of tenure was not granted. Robertson had clung grimly to his great radical ideas of the 1850s, but he was clearly out of touch with the needs of the 1880s and his nostalgic obstinacy destroyed the coalition's cohesion. The bill failed to pass its second reading; a dissolution was granted, the government lost the election and resigned on 4 January 1883. Robertson retained his seat.

He contributed much to the exhausting year it took the Stuart government to pass a new Crown Lands Act, 1884. The travail marked the effective end of his great political work and exposed the renewed confusion of the legislature. He held Mudgee at the general election of October 1885, which confirmed a babble of parliamentary groups; responding unpredictably to a financial crisis that indicated the need for basic political and fiscal reform. He attacked (Sir) G. R. Dibbs's multiform ministry over its financial policy and when it fell he formed his last cabinet on 22 December. He had hoped to include Parkes in a revitalized attempt to restore the old order, but Sir Henry sensed his decline and uncandidly refused, 'So that he might bucket me the first chance he had'. Parkes and others soon took the opportunity and Robertson's government collapsed on 25 February 1886. Later he injured his leg while working in the National Park, south of Sydney: he was chairman of its trustees and had been responsible for its reservation. The accident compounded his dejection and, with his finances low, he resigned his seat on 18 June. The colony agreed with the Jennings government's decision to grant him £10,000 in recognition of his thirty years service to parliament.

In October 1879 Parkes had been having second thoughts about the advantages of Robertson as a partner, and offered him the post of agent-general. In shrewdly declining, he remarked that he had just returned from a 600-mile (966 km) journey to the north-west, eighty miles (129 km) on horseback: Parkes had probably never ridden a horse. Despite Robertson's strenuous and gratifying activities he had generally enjoyed robust health. By 1880 his beard and hair, worn long, had whitened; his shoulders had stooped, his nose curved closer to his chin, and a sly glint replaced the spark in his eyes. In becoming more handsome with age he had reached patriarchal status. He was the most representative Australian of the 1880s, a genial, sagacious and incomparably experienced countryman, assimilated to the city.

In Melbourne in 1875, in proposing a toast of 'Prosperity to Victoria', he had said, 'I have never had any miserable objection or petty feeling against Victoria … I claim to be an Australian'. With reservations that was true. His idea of Australia was the original New South Wales; he had never forgotten that the separation of the Port Phillip District in 1850 and the Moreton Bay District in 1859 had, as he saw it, destroyed the opportunity of great national development. He resented Victoria's failure in 1867 to join a proposed Federal Council to control overseas mail to Australia; he saw its protection policy as selfish and isolationist; when Victorian colonists moved into the Riverina in the 1860s and 1870s and Victorian politicians and publicists spoke of annexing it, his worst fears seemed about to be realized. He interpreted James Service's statements about New Guinea and the Pacific at the 1883 Intercolonial Convention as predatory and dangerous to Britain's interests, and exploded when Service spoke contemptuously of New South Wales politicians on his return to Melbourne. The Sydney Morning Herald summed up his reaction in 1884, 'he pricks the pride of [Victoria's] public men … [and] sees bumptious pretenders to pre-eminence strutting about in a cabbage garden'.

In 1884 Dalley recalled Robertson's 1875 submission to the British government stressing the urgency of Britain occupying New Guinea and its adjoining islands. Robertson's view of Britain's role was part of his objections to national union. He influentially opposed New South Wales joining the Federal Council in 1884 and in 1884-85 took every opportunity in parliament to criticize Federation. He articulated not only the colony's provincialism but also its well-founded suspicions of Victoria's self-interest in promoting the movement. In the late 1880s he peppered the Sydney newspapers with letters on the subject, some cogent, others violent and irrational. Unlike Parkes, he was unable to grasp the essential need for, and advantages of Federation that transcended any local gains or losses involved; but he helped to prepare public opinion for serious and detailed study of the movement in the 1890s. He scorned the embryonic free-trade political organization in 1887: 'Associations!', he said. 'That is the way they do it in France'.

Lady Robertson chose not to share her husband's public life; she died on 6 August 1889 at Watsons Bay, leaving two of her three sons and five of her six daughters; another daughter died before Robertson's death of heart disease on 8 May 1891 at Watsons Bay. He was buried beside his wife in the Presbyterian section of the near-by South Head cemetery. Public subscriptions paid for the erection over the grave of a forceful stone obelisk, exquisitely carved by J. H. Hunt: statues are in the Sydney Domain and at the Lands Department. Of the abounding anecdotes about Robertson's geniality and conviviality, many related to his presidency of the Reform Club in 1877-82, perhaps the most revealing is his reported reaction to the death of James Day who fell into a well at Clovelly: 'When Robertson found out he started swearing in the full vigour of his manhood. He had kept the man from the days of his laghood, and now when he had b—— well got him to a home where he could end his days in comfort he must go and b—— well drown himself. Robertson gave him a b—— good funeral and was chief mourner'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Buchanan, Political Portraits of Some of the Members of the Parliament of New South Wales (Syd, 1863)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1855, 3, 311-16
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1879-80, 2, 673
  • J. Main, ‘Making Constitutions in New South Wales and Victoria, 1853-1854’, Historical Studies, no 28, May 1957
  • D. W. A. Baker, ‘The origins of Robertson's Land Acts’, Historical Studies: Selected Articles, J. J. Eastwood and F. B. Smith eds (Melb, 1964)
  • N. B. Nairn, ‘The political mastery of Sir Henry Parkes’, JRAHS, 53 (1967)
  • C. Karr, ‘Mythology vs. reality: the success of free selection in New South Wales’, JRAHS, 60 (1974)
  • Empire (Sydney), 14 May 1856
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Oct 1865, 23 Jan 1866, 9 May 1891
  • Town and Country Journal, 12, 26 Mar 1870
  • Sydney Quarterly Magazine, June 1886
  • G. C. Morey, The Parkes-Robertson Coalition Government, 1878-1883: A Study (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1968)
  • C. N. Connolly, Politics, Ideology and the New South Wales Legislative Council, 1856-72 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Cowper and Lang papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sir John Robertson scrapbook (National Library of Australia)
  • CO 201/518, 538, 559, 585.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Robertson, Sir John (1816–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 25 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Robertson (1816-1891), by unknown photographer

John Robertson (1816-1891), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/3840

Life Summary [details]


15 October, 1816
London, Middlesex, England


8 May, 1891 (aged 74)
Watsons Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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