PO Box 1360,
Sir Henry Parkes
‘Father of Federation’ and ‘Grand Old Man’ of Australian politics
Coming to New South Wales in 1839 at the age of 24 as a penniless assisted migrant, Henry Parkes brought with him an urge towards self-betterment and a democratic temperament, both characteristic traits of the skilled workmen of the Birmingham in which he had grown up.
In the infant colony he soon revealed speaking and writing skills remarkable for a man lacking formal education or privilege. After taking a leading part in the democratisation of the constitution, which in 1856 established local self-rule, he went on to spend a half-century of almost unbroken membership of the colony’s parliament, serving five times as Prime Minister, and becoming recognised by the late 1880s, on all sides, as the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Australian politics.
Parkes’ achievement was to fashion a political career over many years during which members of parliament were not paid a salary, and through which he himself in consequence suffered great financial vicissitudes. But his skill as a parliamentary leader commanded support and his integrity was unquestioned.
In his hey-day formal political parties, based on declared policy, did not exist. In a milieu in which principle was at a discount, his name was associated with a wide range of social reforms, and he presided over the major achievement of his era in the colony: the establishment of an effective system of public education. It was fitting that, near to the end of his career, he was able to make a crucial contribution in the march towards the federation of the Australian colonies.
Essentially, Parkes’ life was the life of politics. In the political enterprise he found self-realisation and, despite the many setbacks, disappointments and compromises of his personal life, he held firmly to belief in the central importance of what could be achieved through the parliamentary institutions of his adopted society. That, essentially, is why his name can be confidently given to a Foundation for the most serious study of Australian political history.
Find out more about Henry Parkes in the Resources section.