Sir Edmund Barton was the first Prime Minister of Australia, from 1901-03. He was also Minister for External Affairs and a Justice of the High Court.

Barton was born in Sydney on 18th January 1849, and became one of the early graduates of the University of Sydney. He practiced as a lawyer until 1879, at which time he entered the Legislative Assembly. By 1883 he had become speaker.

During the economic Depression of the early 1890s, Barton became and advocate of Federation. He toured New South Wales pushing the idea of a national government which could solve problems common to all parts of Australia, such as those relating to defence and trade.

Barton's legal knowledge made him a key figure in the drafting of the bill for Federation. The bill was passed and Barton won the first election, held in 1901. As Prime Minister, Barton laid the foundations for Australian government, and was knighted in 1902.

In September 1903 Barton was appointed a Justice of the High Court and retired as Prime Minister. Much of his ruling was on the constitutional validity of parts of the early federal legislation. Above all he strove for a balance between state and federal power.

Sir Edmund Barton remained on the bench until his death in 1920.

What kind of country doesn't know the name of their first Prime Minister?

Until recently, you would have been correct if you answered 'Australia'. However, thanks to a recent centenary of federation campaign last year, many more Australians are aware that Sir Edmund Barton was the nations first ever prime minister.

On January 18th 1849, in Glebe, Australia, a future leader was born to William and Mary Louise Barton. William was an accountant for an agricultural company, while Mary Louise ran a school for girls and was well educated, which was rare for women to be in such times. The couple were immigrants who moved to Australia in 1824. Their child, one of nine in the family, was named Edmund.

Edmund was a clever child. Over the years he had developed a love for such things as music, art, literature and cricket. He was educated at Fort Street Model School during 1856-1858 and later moved on to Sydney Grammar School. Matriculating to the University of Sydney in 1865, he excelled and won many prizes during his time there. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in classics and recieved a Masters of Art two years later.

With a keen legal mind, Barton set up a successful legal practice in 1871. The next year he became engaged to wed Jean Mason Ross although financial reasons delayed the wedding until 1877. Together they raised six children of their own. He was labelled 'Tosspot Toby' by some due to his fondness for strong liquor. Soon Barton was willing to enter politics, joining the Sydney Mechanics Institute in order to learn the art of debating.

Unfortunately, he lost his first and second attempts for the University of Sydney seats in 1876, and 1877. Edmund succeeded in 1879 as a member in the Protectionist party. By 1883 he had become speaker of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales. He switched to the seat of Wellington in 1880, then held the East Sydney seat from 1882-1887.

After 1890, Edmund Barton was a success. However, time was hard to find when he had to support his growing family and beliefs that the numerous penal colonies of Australia should federate. He devoted alot of time making speeches to others about the benefits of a federated nation. One difficulty with the whole idea would be the economic competition faced between the states, but this did not thwart Edmund's vision of the federation of Australia. This saw him to become the leader of the federation movement, and in 1891 chosen to be one of four men to draft the constitution bill. He was also one of the delegation who took it to Parliament in Britain.

On January 1st 1901, Barton became the first Prime Minister of Australia. Although Barton was the favourite to win this prestigious position, Lord Hopetoun, the first governor general of Australia, decided the Premier of New South Wales should be the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth. The majority of senior politicians were against the governor general's idea, and so they refused to serve under the William Lyne, New South Wales' Premier.

Barton was knighted in 1902 and left politics in 1903 to become a judge of the High Court of Australia. He later died in Medlow Bath, New South Wales, on 7th January 1920.

Yes, a few Australians would have known all along that Edmund Barton was Australia's first prime minister. But the majority didn't. The majority still can only remember the first verse of our national anthem.

What kind of country doesn't know the name of their first Prime Minister?

(a) A country of immigrants
(b) A country that cuts down tall poppies
(c) A country eternally cynical of politicians
(d) A country that was founded peacefully (except if you were aboriginal or a convict) by constitutional lawyers
(e) All of the above.

That question was in a commercial used to promote in 2001 the one hundredth anniversary of Australia's founding as a united commonwealth. A whole menangie of multicultural Aussie faces shyed away when they asked who was Australia's first Prime Minister, except for a pair of ageing farmer bumpkin types and a lawn bowler:

Oi fink it woz Barton

Not that the celebrations in 2001 had much impact, as most Australians were partied out after the Sydney Olympics and the millenium. Australia's bicentennial in 1988 had a greater impact, although it is arguably more controversial as something to celebrate about.

Unlike Simón Bolívar, Ho Chi Minh, George Washington, Charlemagne, Kwame Nkrumah, Ataturk or other famous nation builders, poor 'ol Edmund Barton has an almost non-existent profile in Australia. Which is not such a bad thing if countries that glorify their own history become complacent and politically stagnant.

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