Edmund Barton

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the order of events leading to the establishment of Australian democracy and Federation in 1901
  • Understand the role Edmund Barton played in setting up Australia’s Federation

Syllabus Links

Early Life and Influences

Edmund Barton was born in 1849 in Glebe, Sydney. The youngest of nine children, Edmund (Toby) attended Fort Street Primary School, Sydney Grammar School, and graduated with a first class honours degree in classics from the University of Sydney in 1868. 

Barton became a barrister in 1871. He travelled widely through country New South Wales for court hearings – and for cricket matches and regattas. 

His engagement with people across NSW is significant to an understanding of his future views on establishing a federation. During these early years he joined the Sydney School of Arts Debating Society where he developed confidence in public speaking that came in handy in his career in law and later in politics. 

Early Political Career

In his early years in politics Edmund Barton was elected to the Legislative Assembly three times in the seats of University of Sydney (1879), Wellington (1880) and East Sydney (1882).

He was then appointed as Speaker in the Legislative Assembly in January 1883. According to the Bulletin, these youthful parliamentarians heralded ‘the triumph of Young Australia’. Barton who was only 33 years old was a respected and successful Speaker for four years. 

Barton was the youngest ever Speaker (pictured), during his time in the chair he:

  • Earned the nickname ‘Toby Tosspot’ from the Bulletin
  • Was quick in his decisions which were remembered as firm but fair 
  • Introduced new standing orders to control rowdy and abusive members

With the support of Henry Parkes, Barton was given a Life Appointment to the Legislative Council in 1887, where he remained for the next four years. From 1891 to 1894 Barton again represented East Sydney in the Legislative Assembly, in opposition to George Reid, who was the leader of the emerging Free Trade Party.

Edmund Barton did not support free trade as he saw such a policy as in direct opposition to Federation. Barton had become a firm believer in the need to create one nation, to federate the colonies. The issue of free trade divided New South Wales from Victoria, which supported protection of their industries by imposing tariffs on imported goods. Barton abandoned free trade and stood on a protectionist platform against George Reid.

From 1894 to 1897 Barton was not a member of Parliament and focused on the fight for federation. 

The Fight for Federation

Edmund Barton was a leading advocate of the colonies federating to become one nation. Barton was inspired by Henry Parkes’ speech at Tenterfield on 24 October 1889 and by Tasmanian lawyer and politician Andrew Inglis Clark. 

Barton’s powerful speech to the Legislative Council on 8 October 1890 influenced New South Wales to participate in the national meeting proposed at the Australasian Federal Convention in Melbourne that year. Barton was subsequently nominated by the Council as a New South Wales delegate to the National Australasian Convention in Sydney in 1891.


Members of the Australian Federation Convention 1891, Godart F. National Library of Australia.  



Barton's first address to the convention expressed a persuasive vision of a new nation:

“I hope that I am at any rate acting in the spirit in which we all labour together, and that the result of our labour will be to found a state of high and august aims, working by the eternal principles of justice and not to the music of bullets, and affording an example of freedom, political morality, and just action to the individual, the state and the nation which will one day be the envy of the world.”

Three years after Parkes’ speech in Tenterfield on the Colony’s northern border, Barton himself addressed large crowds in southern border towns and some fifteen Federation leagues were formed. In the winter of 1893, supporters organised a Federation conference at Corowa and, in 1896, a second ‘people’s conference’ was held in Bathurst.


At one gathering in Ashfield, Barton triumphantly asserted that:

“For the first time in history, we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation”

Henry Parkes died in 1896 and Edmund Barton succeeded him as leader of Australian Federation.

Steps to Federation

  1.  Constitution Bill was agreed by the convention delegates elected by each colony in 1897. 
  2. Then it was debated in each of the six colonial parliaments. 
  3. When each parliament passed the bill, it faced six more hurdles – final referendums of the voters in each colony, held between June 1899 (New South Wales) and July 1900 (Western Australia).

Helpful Resource

The AEC fact sheet on the steps to Federation 

Visit here

Australasian Federal Referendum, July 1899, State Library of Victoria

How to Write a Constitution for a Future Nation?

Edmund Barton was on the drafting committee for the constitution.

He urged that the ‘territorial rights’ of the colonies should remain intact and, on the divisive question of protection, took it ‘as a matter of course’ that soon after Federation ‘trade and intercourse … shall be absolutely free’. 

Barton believed that the Lower House should rest ‘upon universal suffrage’, he advocated that the second chamber should also be representative and argued that the power of such a senate to amend money bills would cause less friction than an outright veto.  

Many questions had to be resolved: 

  • Would Australia as a nation adopt the Westminster system of government with two houses with the executive including the Premier, formed from the  elected members of the houses?
  •  What would be the role of the judiciary in relation to the Parliament and what would be the role of the Queen and her representative, the Governor General. 
  • What safeguards would be needed to protect the constitution?  

Some Important Features of the Constitution



s 51 Lists areas the Commonwealth Parliament can make laws for. Unless legislative power has been given exclusively to the Commonwealth it is within the state’s power to make laws in all other areas.
Chapter 1 Describes the composition, role and powers of the Australian Parliament.
Chapter 2 The role and powers of the executive government.
Chapter 3 The role of the judiciary and the High Court of Australia.
s 128 The Constitution can only be changed with the approval of the Australian people. A proposed change must be approved by the Parliament and then be voted on by Australians in a referendum. A referendum is only passed if it is approved by a majority of voters in a majority of states, and by a majority of voters across the nation. This is known as a double majority.

Our First Prime Minister

The final step to achieve federation was to seek the approval of the British parliament of the proposed constitution and assent of the Queen.

In March 1900, Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin, James Dickson, Charles Cameron Kingston and Philip Fysh formed a delegation to London, representing all the colonies except Western Australia (which did not hold its Federation referendum until 31 July that year). For three months they lobbied for the successful passage of the Constitution Bill through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. On 9 July 1900, the Bill was enacted, and on 17 September Queen Victoria proclaimed 1 January 1901 the date the new nation would be born.


Edmund Barton with Alfred Deakin who would later serve as Australia’s second prime minister after Barton. Tosca, National Library of Australia nla.obj-136598758


The Governor General, Lord Hopetoun was not able to appoint the Colonial Offices’ first choice, William Lyne, the Premier of NSW, to be the first prime minister. Lyne was not able to form a government or get support of the major Federalists.

Lord Hopetoun then appointed a caretaker government led by Edmund Barton who was sworn in as Prime Minister on 1 January 1901. He was a good choice as he had links to the free traders and the protectionists (the two main non-Labor political groupings at this time). He was tasked with organising the first Australian General election held on 29 & 30 March, 1901.

This was a caretaker government appointed only until the first federal election. It was held on 29 and 30 March, 1901.  

Helpful Resource

Who were the people of Australia in 1901?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has compiled this snapshot of the country in 1901 


Edmund Barton led the protectionists to the election in March 1901. He had the clear advantage of being the leader of an existing government and he had knowledge of the problems the first government would face. At the election no single group gained a majority in the House of Representatives – Labor held the balance of power, but generally supported Edmund Barton’s protectionist party.

Australia’s first federal ministry chosen by Barton included a range of men from different political backgrounds who at a later period in Australia’s history might not have served together.  


Barton and his ministry. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. NAA: A1200, L13365

Barton accepted views at the time on adult suffrage including women as being inevitable.

Helpful Resource

Read more about Edmund Barton’s election speech on the Museum of Australian Democracy’s website 


Edmund Barton faced a financial challenge in uniting the separate colonies under one federal government.

State tariffs between the colonies needed to be removed and the new federal government needed to ensure revenue raised from imports and other taxes would support the States. At the same time the Australian government needed its own taxes to run the services for all of Australia.

Want More?

For a more in-depth timeline into Edmund Barton’s life you can use this timeline 

Visit here


Worksheet (PDF)

Edmund Barton Lifeline


Edmund Barton Debate


Edmund Barton Discussion


Edmund Barton Write a Conversation


Edmund Barton Research Assignments


Edmund Barton Quiz

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