Sir Henry Parkes

Jeff Shaw QC MLC

(Text of an address at the launch of the Henry Parkes Foundation, NSW Parliament House, 4 June 1999.)

Henry Parkes arrived in Sydney in July 1839, aged 23. Like a many a subsequent migrant, he arrived by government assisted passage, on board the Strathfieldsaye. Behind him lay Birmingham, no schooling, an apprenticeship in ivory turning, a father who had been imprisoned for debt, the prevailing midland ethic of self-help, big dreams and Protestant rigidity, and two business failures, that sped him, a fugitive from staring eyes, quickly overseas.

Peru attracted him, as did Tahiti, Malacca, and South Africa, but Sydney, for better or worse, drew the short straw, and so our history was changed, or bruised, perhaps, by his enduring part in it.

He was a romantic, a Chartist, a people’s man, a laborious crafter of tedious verse, who believed, perhaps wrongly, that in Australia men would not be treated like brutes while alive, nor buried like dogs when dead.

He joined the Public Service and in the Customs Office made, perhaps honestly, enough money to buy a lathe and, at 29, set up on his own again with an Ivory Manufactory and Toy Warehouse.

By 1850 he was proprietor and editor of the Empire Magazine, whose woolly declamations of the democratic spirit were salted sometimes with a growing sycophancy towards an upper class he had once derided.

By 1854 he was in parliament, replacing William Charles Wentworth as a member for Sydney, and modestly declaring himself to be now ‘the most distinguished commoner in the land.’

He was certainly vain and ambitious and, as Manning Clark suggests, both an actor and opportunist, looking on life as a fiction and politics as a farce in which a man with dramatic gifts could fool the people (some of the time) and serve them worthily behind their back.

He loved the praise of literary people, and “fawned and grovelled” on his knees, it was said, for a word of praise from Tennyson.

He believed life was a game in which the glittering prizes of fame and honour went to the toughest, most astute players. He changed his coat very quickly from radical to bunyip aristocrat powered by noblesse oblige. He saw politics as not only his heroic enlargement, but also as his credit rating, his bankroll.

At 41, he was Liberal member of the newly created Legislative Assembly; at 43, a bankrupt again, depressed, cast out of parliament, and with a wife and 5 children to keep, improvident as a hack journalist. He rejoined the Public Service as a touring propagandist in England for migration to New South Wales. Like Churchill’s after Gallipoli, this was his darkest hour.

While in England he set up with his sister a fancy goods importing business, later also to end in bankruptcy, and cultivated – the way one would – Carlyle, Mill and Tennyson, and wrote a poem of his native pride:
England’s name the magic still
Fatherland, our Fatherland!
God preserve by ancient fame!
Firm in battle may’st thou stand,
First in honour, still the same!

He returned refreshed and puffed up and radiant with imperial longings, and declining a job of inspector with prisons, re-entered the ugly vainglorious cockpit of the New South Wales Parliament.

‘Public office fed both his vanity and his pocket’, writes Manning Clark:

…those two passions which made him more and more a man of expediency rather than a man of principle. Lies, promises, character assassination and buffoonery became part of his essential equipment. He liked to be drawn by cartoonists because that meant he was still where he wanted to be – in the public eye. He degenerated into a political demigod with Czar-like propensities, who had no other object in life than to crush his political foes and hold political power.

In pursuit of this, he drummed up anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment into a wave of hysteria following the failed assassination at Clontarf by a man call O’Farrell of the visiting Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. The Irish, he told the delighted electors of Kiama, multiplied too fast, the Church has become a political movement, the priests a coven of spies, and the Fenians, I have it on good authority, Ladies and Gentlemen, planned the murder of the Prince.

The uproar in Parliament that followed these repeated utterances was erased from Hansard, fist fights broke out on the floor of the Assembly, and Protestant women outside in Macquarie Street kissed Parkes, the new anti-papist hero. Parkes modestly admitted in meetings he was an instrument and vessel of Almighty God, chosen specially by Jehovah to administer New South Wales. In private, fearing their votes, he reassured the Irish Catholics that he had their best interests at heart.

His career thereafter was a kind of giant, lumbering, club-footed, windy triumph. His faction bought in manhood suffrage, wrecking the power of squattocracy. He invented the State Funeral – in order to bury his predecessor, Wentworth, and emphasise his almost papal succession to him. He helped pioneer the faction system that dogs state politics yet – and last year threatened the career of a brilliant Attorney General. He ended the public stipend that was given to secular schools, and poured the money into state schools.

He made attendance at school compulsory for all between the ages of 6 and 14, for 70 days each year, school where they would learn to be, like him, good Anglo-Australians. He used the opening of the Great Southern Railway to deride the Victorians as an inferior civilisation and to advocate their corralling in a Commonwealth with the better breeds of New South Wales.

He accepted a knighthood. He dedicated poems to Tennyson. He revisited England and became the glad guest of Lord Leigh, of the family that had ruined his father. He wrote obsessively to his daughter Ann, saying how much these tardy honours meant to him. Returning exhausted to his Blue Mountains retreat in Faulconbridge, he would walk round like a caged lion, hungry for the roar of the approving multitudes, keen to back in the fray.

Further bankruptcies enraged and stirred him. No woman it was said, was safe in his presence. His conversation with men was often obscene. He ate immensely. Forgave his enemies. Lifted Henry Kendall, who had mocked him, out of the gutter or drunkenness. Worked with devious methods for the common good. Grew old and grand and cantankerous.

‘By 1880’, says the infallible Manning Clark:

he had reached that stage in life when his rhetoric about the future greatness of Australia was greeted with derision. He had become a figure of fun, a man in whom the gap between profession and performance had become unbridgeable, a man to whom the crowds routinely called out “tell us the truth.”

The cartoonists mocked him as a one-time Chartist who had been corrupted by power. Others, lacking the eye of pity, saw him as a hoary-headed man who had blackened his reputation by all his somersaults of principle. Others said he had degenerated into a political demigod with no other object than to crush political foes.

He was Premier five times. He fathered Federation. He somersaulted in principle but was ever moved by debt. His wife, Clarinda, adored him. He mastered the political art of the organised demonstration, the loyal voluntary vote, the whipped vote in parliament, the speech whose fiery vagaries ignited, however briefly, the popular soul. He commanded and held the loyalty of many. He was, by his lights, a great man, whose achievements endure and have shaped the State, and the Sydney, and the Canberra, and the Commonwealth, and the nation we see today.

We celebrate him here tonight.