Today is Henry Parkes' birthday and it's worth recalling that it was his famous Tenterfield Oration on 24 October, 1889 that propelled the Australian colonies towards the great milestone of Federation in 1901. Perhaps we should commemorate his birthday rather than have a Queen’s Birthday?
Sir Henry Parkes was born on 27 May 1815 in Warwickshire, England. Parkes was known as the father of federation. He served five terms as premier of New South Wales between 1872 and 1891. Parkes became politically prominent in 1849 as a spokesman for ending the transportation of convicts to Australia from England.
And he wasn't called the "father of Federation" for nothing! He not only espoused the great vision of the birth of a united single country, he also led the way by fathering 17 children himself.
Just consider Henry Parkes' background. His father was an abysmally poor tenant farmer in Warwickshire who was thrown off his land. The family was destitute when 24-year-old Parkes caught a boat to Australia with his wife, Clarinda. They arrived as penniless immigrants in 1839, holding their first child who was born at sea two days before docking in Sydney.
Henry Parkes and his young family arrived in Sydney from England as impoverished immigrants in 1839. Almost immediately Parkes became active in politics. From early in his political career, Parkes was a supporter of federation. He joined the radical Constitution Association in 1848, and in 1850 established the Empire newspaper, which became the voice of republican and federal thinkers. In 1856 he gained a seat in the first New South Wales Legislative Assembly.
Parkes was one of our first businessmen politicians and served as the premier of NSW on five occasions. Alfred Deakin, our second prime minister, described Parkes as having flaws and indeed he did. He was bankrupted several times and had to relinquish his public office on each occasion. However, his vigorous public and private life continued unabated.
The Australian colonies had developed separately for the first hundred years of their existence but by the 1880s a move towards economic and social integration had started. The tariffs levied on goods moving across borders began to be seen as burdensome and a sense of Australian nationalism was growing.
The New South Wales government under Parkes had passed the Influx of Chinese Restriction Act in 1881, a Bill limiting Chinese entry to the colony. This led to an inter-colonial conference to discuss a coordinated approach to Asian immigration that same year.
At the conference, Parkes formally proposed a Federal Council to begin discussion on unification of the colonies. The colony of Victoria, however refused to join.
In 1883 France and Germany established colonies north of the continent in the New Hebrides and New Guinea respectively and the Australian colonies met in Sydney to consider a coherent defence plan. Victoria proposed a formal union, but New South Wales was against any amalgamation if Victoria was leading the movement.
A token Federal Council was established but New South Wales and South Australia refused to join so it had limited power to implement any change.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block in the way of federation was the ideological division between the two most populous colonies. Victoria was committed to trade protectionism and advocated protective tariffs, believing they would allow industry to grow and provide employment. In opposition to this, New South Wales steadfastly supported free trade.
On 24 October 1889, Henry Parkes delivered his famous speech at the Tenterfield School of Arts in northern NSW on the need for the Australian colonies to federate into one nation ands establish a great national government for all Australia. The Tenterfield Oration is significant because, although politicians had been discussing federation for some time, this was the first direct appeal to the public. In that stirring address, he said:
“The great question which we have to consider is, whether the time has not now arisen for the creation on this Australian continent of an Australian government and an Australian parliament … Surely what the Americans have done by war, Australians can bring about in peace.”
Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration led to his instigation of a federal conference in 1890 and a Constitutional Convention in 1891, the first of a series of meetings that led to the federation of Australia. He died in 1896, five years before this process was completed.
“What bound all Australians together, Parkes believed, was both a common origin and common vision of a future Australian nation. The British heritage would be built upon, developed and Australianised.”
But if it’s the Queen’s birthday on 21 April then why do we have a public holiday to celebrate it in June each year? The idea of celebrating the sovereign’s birthday was introduced in 1905. After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 there was a call to remember her long reign. The result was the creation of Empire Day. Queen Victoria was born on 24 May 1819. On 24 May each year, her birthday, an annual commemoration was held which was directed especially at school children to promote loyalty among the dominion countries of the British Empire. This day was celebrated by lighting fire-works in back-gardens and attending community bonfires. In 1958, Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day. However, this is no longer celebrated within the Australian community. Instead most Australian states have gazetted the official Queen’s birthday to be on the second Monday in June.
Perhaps celebrating the birthday of one of the fathers of federation such as Henry Parkes may be more relevant to Australians than either Queen’s Victoria or Elizabeth’s. Coincidentally, Parkes was born on 27 May 1815, almost three years earlier, to the day, than Queen Victoria. Federation Day sounds better than Empire Day, and it could still be held each year on the second Monday in June!
Happy birthday Henry.