The Political Life of Sir John Downer
Federalist is the first biography of Sir John William Downer, a significant South Australian who became one of the founding fathers of the Commonwealth of Australia. Sir John Downer (1843-1915), was born in humble circumstances in Hindley Street, Adelaide on 6 July 1843, the son of struggling tailor Henry Downer and his wife Jane of Portsmouth. His parents migrated to South Australia and left England on the Eden on 24 February 1838 with their two sons Charles and Henry. They arrived at Glenelg on 24 June 1838.
As his business was not flourishing, Henry senior joined the many thousands of South Australians who departed for the Victorian goldfields taking his sons Charles and Henry with him. This venture was not successful either and on his return Henry became the licensee of the Blenheim Hotel, also in Hindley Street. Finances slowly improved and John and some of his brothers received a very good education after all.
John was admitted to the Bar and by the 1870s four Downer brothers were in the legal profession. Eventually John became an outstanding scholar, brilliant barrister, Queen’s Counsel in May 1878, Premier of South Australia and a founding father of the Australian federation. On 28 September 1871 Downer married Elizabeth Henderson and they had five sons. Elizabeth died on 3 May 1896.
Downer started his long political career in 1878, when he was elected member of Barossa, to the South Australian parliament. In his maiden speech he dealt with issues such as the delay, expense and the complexity of legal proceedings which he saw as a disservice to the country. He also tried to reform sections of the criminal law. As Members were still unpaid, he often missed parliamentary debates, even some important ones, to attend to his busy legal practice.
Downer was re-elected, unopposed, in 1883 by which time there were three other lawyers in parliament. They were Josiah Symon, Charles Cameron Kingston, son of Sir George and Henry Downer, brother of John. When appointed Attorney-General, Downer’s most important work was centred on measures which affected the rights and legal standing of women and children.
As early as 1878 he had taken a leading role in the debate on amendments to the Real Property Act and later introduced the Married Women’s Property Bill. Other Bills introduced by him were the Marriage Bill, Infants Custody Bill, Justices Procedure Bill and the Law of Inheritance Bill. He also favoured the vote for women. Although he was a liberal on social issues, he was opposed to the Temperance Movement and all its restrictions, the right of women to stand for parliament and the White Australian policy.
While Premier, Downer protested vigorously when Victoria and New South Wales made an agreement on the Murray River and its use for irrigation. He even threatened to petition the British Government. In an effort to boost irrigation in South Australia he made a deal with the Chaffey brothers to undertake the development of Renmark. It was a major coup for his government and the foundation of South Australia’s successful irrigation developments.
During the difficult times of the 1880s it was suggested that Crown Lands should be sold to generate revenue. Downer objected to this form of money raising as it ran the risk of large tracks of land falling into the hands of a few capitalists as small holders would not have the funds to buy land in the current difficult economic climate. However there was still another interest which kept Downer’s mind occupied.
From the very start of his political career he was interested in a federated Australia and in 1883 he attended the Intercolonial Convention in Sydney.
In February 1884 a Bill to enable South Australia to join the proposed Federal Council was introduced in the South Australian Assembly but failed. Three years later, while Premier of South Australia, he was in London to attend the First Imperial Conference, to coincide with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, where he made a lasting impression.
Among the topics discussed were financial contribution to the British Navy, which protected the colonies, defence, New Guinea, French colonies in the Pacific, recognition of marriage with a deceased wife’s sister or sister’s daughter and postal matters. Downer believed in the value of the conference as it provided the impetus to the federal movement and dealt with subjects that fully justified his attendance.
His legal and political skills as well as his efforts to bring the Australian colonies together were rewarded with a Knighthood at the relative young age of 42. It was during this conference that Downer was offered, and accepted. His investiture as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George was personally made by the Queen at a special ceremony. Knight or no Knight, on his way home Sir John Downer was voted out of office. Before his ship arrived at Glenelg on 16 June, Sir John was also informed of the death of his younger brother Harold.
Apart from bringing the colonies and the Mother Country closer together, Downer had also successfully secured the floating of the South Australian financial loan. As Leader of the Opposition he introduced the Divorce Law Extension Bill which provided that physical abuse could be a ground for divorce. It failed as did a second attempt in 1888.
Although in opposition his commitment to the Federal Council continued. In 1891 and 1897-98 he attended follow-up conventions and was involved as an influential policy maker and leading draftsman of the proposed constitution. He became Premier again in October 1892 and was re-elected in 1893. His views were not always appreciated and Downer lost power within weeks and never became premier again or held a ministerial office. He was replaced by Charles Cameron Kingston as Premier. However this did not stop his efforts to achieve the federation of the colonies.
While still attending most parliamentary sessions he now once again concentrated on his legal practice. During the 1896 election he took no part in campaigning, due to his wife’s illness and death on 3 May, but was still re-elected for his seat of Barossa. After his wife’s death, Downer took up the Federal issue once more and nominated as a candidate for the 1897 convention, which first session was held in Adelaide.
Downer sat on its Constitutional Committee together with Cockburn, Gordon and Baker. Later he moved on to the Drafting Committee with Barton and O’Connor. One of its most troublesome clauses, which it still is today, related to the Murray River. When finished the Draft Bill was discussed in the South Australian parliament when it started its session in June 1897.
With Downer again Leader of the Opposition he took the lead on the Constitution Bill which he had played such a significant role in drafting. After lengthy discussions and amendments the results were taken to Sydney to be discussed at the second session of the Convention. Here he spoke with authority and took a lead on behalf of the smaller colonies.
The third session was held in Melbourne during February – March 1898. Finally the Bill was ready on 16 March. During June referendums were held in each colony. It was rejected in New South Wales and although barely 40% of South Australians casted their vote it was passed with a two to one majority. On 29 April 1899 Downer married Una Stella Haslingden Russell in Sydney.
By 1900 all colonies, except Western Australia, had passed the Commonwealth Bill which would now be submitted to the Imperial Parliament in Britain, where it was passed. The date for the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia was set for 1 January 1901. Downer was elected Senator for the first three years.
Downer’s future looked bright. His seniority and prominence in the federal movement accorded him paramount eminence and authority.
When the High Court was established he had outstanding qualifications as a principal draftsman of the constitution and one of the country’s leading barristers. He had always been a great advocate for the High Court which should be the final court of appeal. However to his great disappointment he was passed over which lead him to resign from federal politics.
Returning to his legal practice he was elected President of the Law Society which post he held until his death. On 27 May 1905 he was again elected to the South Australian Parliament as an Independent in the Legislative Council where he was active for the next ten years. On 7 April 1910 his fourth son, Alexander Russell was born. Sir John Downer died on 2 August 1915 at his home at Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide and was buried at the North Road Cemetery.
As a political leader Downer was an enigma. He was a democratic nationalist and Australian patriot, but his vision of a great Australian nation was always in the context of the British Empire and his English origin. His contribution to the federal cause entitles him to recognition as one of the key founders of the Commonwealth of Australia. In Supreme Federalist John Bannon tells the story of Downer’s intriguing career, providing us with a balanced and fresh perspective on Australia’s political transformation from a group of colonies to a modern federal nation
Supreme Federalist, by J.C. Bannon contains many photographs, a bibliography, notes,
chronology and an index.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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