Fuller House: biographies mark lives of the House of Reps

8 September 2021

This project will tell us a much more reflective story about the role of the House and how it works. As an institution it is absolutely central to our democratic framework.

The lives of some of the most prominent individuals missing from the annals of Australian history and our story as a democracy have been brought to life in a new biographical dictionary project.

The Biographical Dictionary of the House of Representatives charts the men and women who since Federation in 1901 have held the position of Speaker, Deputy Speaker or Clerk of the House of Representatives.

The 64 new entries, written by an array of skilled contributors, are published online.  

The work is the end product of major collaboration between The Australian National University's National Centre of Biography in the School of History, and the Department of the House of Representatives. The Department engaged the Centre to prepare and publish the online biographies.

Dr Stephen Wilks, from the ANU National Centre of Biography, said the core of each biographical entry is the subject's service as Speaker, Deputy Speaker or Clerk.

"But a balanced account of the whole person is also provided," Dr Wilks said.

"Some figures achieved a degree of fame, such as Frederick Holder, former Premier of South Australia and the first Speaker of the House; the irascible but dedicated Archie Cameron; and the first female Speaker, Joan Child.

"Others had previously received far less attention, such as the many-faceted Americaphile Deputy Speaker James Garfield Bayley; the reforming Clerk of the House Alan Turner; and the briefest serving Clerk, John McGregor, who died suddenly on the parliament's first working day in its new home in Canberra."

Former Clerk of the House, David Elder, is the subject of one the new online entries.

"Australians are used to seeing the day-to-day political struggle of the House on the news," he said at the outset of the project.

"But this project will tell us a much more reflective story about the role of the House and how it works. As an institution it is absolutely central to our democratic framework.

"The project will help explain three of its key offices."

Current Clerk of the House, Claressa Surtees, said: "This project represents the considerable efforts by the ANU National Centre of Biography and the Department of the House of Representatives, along with a range of contributors.

"The biographies shine a light on those who served our nation, as Speakers, Deputy Speakers, and Clerks from the time of Federation."

Issues explored in the new entries include the relationships Speakers had with governments and their party; how they contributed to changes in parliamentary procedures; and the Speaker-Clerk relationship.

The project was guided by an expert Project Advisory Group chaired by Catherine Cornish, former Deputy Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Other members included Emeritus Professor Judith Brett, La Trobe University; Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop, University of Sydney; Mr Ian Hancock, School Visitor, National Centre of Biography, ANU; and Associate Professor Paul Strangio, Monash University.

The Department will also later provide thematic articles on the roles of the offices of Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and Clerk.