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Sir Isaac Isaacs

Lawyer, Politician, Governor-General
6th June 1855 – 11th February 1948

On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Sir Isaac Isaacs, said:

"Someone has said 'It is not how old you  are but how you are old.' The way I am old today on my eightieth birthday is that I have just entered the infancy of my middle age"

The follwing article was first published in 5 parts in The White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.656 on Australia Day 2015

This Australia Day we will make sure we pay our respects to the Elizabeth Street Emu.

The emu lives over the road from where a smart young kid was born in a cottage behind a tailor’s shop during the gold rush. At that time the buildings in Elizabeth Street between Collins and Flinders Street were mainly single-storey cottages with a shop at the front. A newly arrived Polish tailor with his English wife had set up shop there by the time their first child arrived. However the clothing trade had to follow the market, and the market was in the goldfields, so the newly arrived kid soon found himself with his family in Yackandandah.

The kid was smart and soon outgrew the schooling that was on offer, so mother arranged for a family move to Beechworth. Moving from Yack to Beechworth was seen as having social pretensions, but the kid was soon dux of that school and back in front of classes as a student teacher. After a successful period as an apprentice teacher the pay came in and the kid felt it was short of the amount contracted so he took it to court. The court found against him even though he knew he was right.

So what do you do when you know you’re right and the court says no?

You forget about it and move on.

But not this kid. He decided you go to Melbourne and get a law degree. Of course he would have to work full time and study part time but he still turned up at all classes having done his reading. Not just the prescribed reading but other reading he felt might be relevant. His mother had potential as a student but that was cut short when she found herself in the backblocks of the colonies, so she had encouraged him to grasp every opportunity and put in the extra work. What she failed to teach him was that there are some times it is best to keep what you know under wraps - like when the professor is wrong.

The kid graduated with honours and whatever prizes were going but had two major black marks against him.

Isaac Isaacs graduation photo

Firstly, he always thought he was right.

Secondly, and less forgivably, he nearly always was. This meant the few friends he gained were those who could match him intellectually. Like the emu that now stands across the road from his birthplace, he was not capable of taking a backward step

The kid from the bush was now ready to practise law in Melbourne. His background and manner had not helped establish himself in the usual circles that help lubricate the way. And now for the first time he was becoming aware that his cultural background might also be holding him back. Let’s face it, you might not find yourself automatically on the establishment Anglo Saxon Protestant invitation list when your name is Isaac Isaacs. However he soon won the grudging respect of the Protestants with a work ethic that few of them could match and of the Catholics with his willingness to challenge the establishment.

His legal practice could not afford a large staff to do the background work, but judges soon appreciated that Isaacs had done that all himself which saved lots of the court’s time. “By all means Mr. Johnson you may send your flunkeys away to check the details of the judgment, but in the meantime if Mr Isaacs says this was the finding in paragraph 34.2 of Cathcart vs. The Crown in 1874 we will proceed on the well-tested assumption that Mr Isaacs memory is correct.” The knowledge base of the well-heeled establishment legal houses may have been rambling and Wikipedic but Isaacs’ knowledge was perceptive and encyclopaedic.

Before long he was pressed to run for parliament and as such soon became an advocate for Federation. At the time when Victoria was still a colony he declared “I look forward to the day when I can call myself an Australian”. His potential contribution to the legal framing of the Constitution was well recognised but it took diplomatic wheeling and dealing to drag the whole Federation idea across the line. Someone who knows they are right and declares it and will not take a backward step is not always helpful under such circumstances. Which has its upsides and its downsides. On the upside we achieved Federation at the last gasp. On the downside we have a preamble to the constitution which reads:

Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established:
And whereas it is expedient to provide for the admission into the Commonwealth of other Australasian Colonies and possessions of the Queen:
Be it therefore enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

Had Isaacs had his way it would have read much more like the preamble to the Constitution of the United States:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Isaacs had been snubbed but he wasn’t going away in a hurry.

He served in varying capacities in the ministry of the Victorian and Federal Governments and was on a few occasions acting Premier of Victoria. He maintained a full time legal practice but nobody ever accused him of neglecting his parliamentary duties. A parliamentary paper might be lodged at the printer at midnight but by dawn it was probably completely marked over with suggested corrections and improvements by Isaacs.

However he still had two bad habits.

Firstly, whenever he thought he was right (which was most of the time) he said so.

Secondly, whenever he thought the leader was wrong, he said so. The first won him few friends. The second won him more, but they were of the timorous kind who would never admit it in public. Still, he had a prodigious intellect and legal mind and could not readily be dumped by any major party. The easiest solution was to kick him sideways into the role of Attorney General and then, when the opportunity arose, to kick him upstairs to become a judge on the high court. At least there he should slow down and fade away and become one less thing to worry about.

In 1929 James Scullin led the Labor Party to victory in the Federal election. Two days after he was sworn in, the Wall Street Crash occurred with disastrous effects to unfold around the world including Australia. When the Governor-General, Lord Stonehaven, was due to retire he, as a formality, informed the Prime Minister that the U.K. Government would welcome an indication of a suitable successor before consulting the King. It was a simple formality - the monarch chose the GG from a pre-arranged shortlist of British aristocracy who had not yet been given a sinecure in the various sheltered workshops on offer, and the colonial Prime Minister could choose between Lord Tweedledum and Lord Tweedledee - all very democratic.

Scullin was having none of it. He put forward two names of his own - both Australian. More than that, they were both Jewish-Australian - John Monash and Isaac Isaacs. The King was not amused. Protocols and precedents for semi-autonomous ex-colonies were still being formulated year by year and the King had before him a list of . . . Yes, said Scullin, but in terms of contribution to society Monash had already done more than any of them could do in five lifetimes and intellectually Isaacs could eat them all for breakfast and still have room for seconds. The King eventually relented (while letting it be known very publicly that he disapproved) and Australia had its first Australian-born Governor-General - Sir Isaac Isaacs.

Isaacs had never been popular with his parliamentary colleagues - yes, you needed him on your side but he couldn’t be trusted - you never knew when he might say what he thought. On the other hand his liberal-democratic views had generally gone down well with the people. When he was sworn in as GG, there were cheering crowds in Bourke Street. Here is how the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser of Friday January 23rd described the occasion:

GOVERNOR-GENERAL
Sir Isaac Isaacs Sworn In
FIRST AUSTRALIAN TO HOLD OFFICE
Wonderful Enthusiasm
MELBOURNE, Thursday.
Thousands of people accorded the first Australian-born Governor-General (Sir Isaac Isaacs) and Lady Isaacs a tumultous welcome as they drove through the streets this afternoon, following the swearing-in ceremony at Parliament House. Cheering crowds lined the streets along which the State coach passed on the way to the ceremony, while at Parliament House the steps were thronged with a dense crowd of interested spectators.
Immediately after lunching with the Acting Governor-General (Lord Somers) at Stonington, Sir Isaacs Isaacs and Lady Isaacs drove in the state carriage, with an escort of field artillerymen, to the Town Hall, where the Lord Mayor (Councillor Luxton, M.L.A.) presented an address of welcome. Rising in the carriage, Sir Isaac Isaacs said: "My Lord Mayor, aldermen, councillors, and citizens of Melbourne, I thank you."
The entourage then proceeded along the crowd-lined Bourke street to Parliament House for the swearing-in ceremony. As Sir Isaac Isaacs entered the Legislative Council chamber the cheering broke out afresh: Guests inside the chamber were limited to 400, and they included Federal Ministers (Messrs. Fenton, Brennan, Green, Forde, and Senator Barnes), a large representation of State Ministers, the leader of the Federal Opposition (Mr. Latham), consuls, judges of the High Court, Arbitration Court, and State Courts, and representatives of public organisations. On the dais in the chamber were the [indecipherable] chamber with Sir Isaac Isaacs were the Prime Minister (Mr. Scullin), Lady Isaacs, and Justice Sir Frank Gavan Duffy.
The official secretary to the Governor-General read the King's commision, which differed only from its predecessors in that for the first time in history the document was signed by the Prime Minister by authority of the King. He then handed it to Justice Sir Frank Gavan Duffy, who tendered the oaths, which were read in a firm voice by Sir Isaacs. The proclomation of assumption of office was then read and signed.
Those present were then presented to the Governor-General and Lady Isaacs, after which they received several prominent personages.

Upon taking office, Isaacs immediately cancelled his judge’s pension, cut a quarter of his GG’s wage, cut back on formal entrainment expenses and generally reduced the monetary overheads of the office of GG to a fraction of what they had been under former British incumbents. In mid-depression Australia this was well received by the ordinary people. He and Lady Isaacs deported themselves with a simple dignity that did both themselves and the country proud. Isaac Isaacs may not have been able to put his direct stamp on the constitution but he was now putting a very Australian face on the role of Governor General in a way which for the first time connected directly with the Australian people. When entertaining foreign dignitaries he often addressed them in their own language. He was fluent in Russian and not too shabby in German, Italian, French, Greek, Hindustani and Cantonese - after all, you’ve got to do something with your spare time. Not only did this help break down barriers with visiting dignitaries but they were able to delightedly inform him (now in his mid 70s) that a number of the foreign phrases he had learned from the goldfields of Yackandandah were not really intended for the international drawing room.

As for Parliament, they could now relax knowing they only had to send the bills off to the office of the GG once a week to be formally signed into law. This had always been a simple formality under Lord Whoeverthekingsentout who didn’t know much about the law but knew which bits he liked. Now the GG, II, was sending them back with corrections before he would sign them. References to par. 72.4 would be corrected to 72.5 together with suggestions about syntax. He might be in his late 70s but his mind was sharp as a tack. Parliament half expected their bills to come back marked in red pencil saying 6/10 - resubmit.

He term as GG finished when he was 81 but he continued active in social life. His opposition to what he called ‘political Zionism’, with what he saw as the future tensions that a Jewish homeland in Palestine could create, led to strong and emotional tensions within the local Jewish community.

All his life he had been a proud Australian, a proud British subject and a proud ‘cultural’ Jew. He was an active member of the Australian Natives Association which promoted the cause of all those born in Australia (including of course Aboriginal peoples) and which was a strong supporter of Federation. Other prominent members of the ANA have been Alfred Deakin, Edmund Barton and Sir Robert Menzies. Perhaps it was Isaacs who had an influence on the location of the art deco ANA building which was built in 1939 at 28 Elizabeth Street. It is situated across the road from where once stood the humble tailor shop and cottage where Isaac Isaacs was born.

Above the door of the ANA Building you will see an emu - head held high and not prepared to take a backward step. Next time you pass, spare a moment to look at the Elizabeth Street Emu and to remember our first Australian-born Governor General.

Grave of Sir Isaac Isaacs
Grave of Sir Isaac Isaacs
in Melbourne General Cemetery
This grave is visited on the
Walking Tour of Melbourne General Cemetery

Some forthcoming events:


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