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"
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.
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
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
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
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
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 -
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:
Sir Isaac Isaacs Sworn In
FIRST AUSTRALIAN TO HOLD OFFICE
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
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
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