100 years on, George Reid’s legacy lives large in Australia

12 September 2018

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Australia's fourth Prime Minister, Sir George Reid.

Sir George, the only Australian to sit in both the House of Representatives and British House of Commons, died on 12 September 1918 after a lifetime of service to Australia.

The Australian National University's Dr David Headon will today deliver a memorial lecture at Australia House in London to commemorate the anniversary and share some of Sir George's major achievements, many of which laid the foundations for Australia's free and democratic nation.

"George Reid is virtually unknown in Australia today, but we should all know far more about his life and legacy," Dr Headon said.

"As one of our Federation Prime Ministers, and Opposition Leader for eight years while Australia established itself as a nation in its own right, George Reid played a significant role in our fledgling nation being a robust democracy from the very start."

"Chief among his important legacies is his crucial role in giving Australia a more democratic constitution."

"He was also the main advocate for a free trade economy and promoter internationally of Australian culture through his best-selling books, foundation work in the Australian High Commission in Britain and House of Commons."

Sir George was New South Wales Premier for five years, until 1899 - two years before Federation - when he lost the opportunity to become Australia's first Prime Minister. It was widely acknowledged the NSW Premier at the time of Federation would become Australia's first Prime Minister. Sir George lost the Premier's job to William Lyne, a protectionist and anti-Federationist.  Following public pressure, the first Governor General, Lord Hopetoun, appointed Edmund Barton as Prime Minister.

Having opted for federal politics, Reid won in an electorate representing Sydney's eastern suburbs - what is now the federal seat of Wentworth.

"While his NSW Premiership was vital, he did underperform in federal politics, including a short-lived Prime Ministership," Dr Headon said.

"If I had to compare him to a modern politician, I would say George Reid is most like Malcolm Turnbull - not least because they shared a federal seat that's small-c-conservative and progressive, like their own politics."

"George Reid's central role in the early shaping of Australian politics and culture cannot be overstated.

"If not for his unshakeable belief in democracy, conscientious if pragmatic approach to Federation, his understanding of, and advocacy for free trade, and tireless work to promote Australia internationally, we would be living in a thoroughly different country today."

Dr Headon's public lecture will be held at Australia House in London on Tuesday 11 September.