Accidental Premier – George Elmslie, Victoria’s Thirteen Day Premier

by Victor Isaacs

George Elmslie, Victoria’s 25th Premier, never sat in Parliament during his period of office.  He had the misfortune of not being a Member during his short thirteen-day government in 1913 and watching its defeat from the public gallery of the Legislative Assembly!

The explanation lies in a combination of political manoeuvres, and the survival in Victoria at the time of an archaic Parliamentary practice.  In 1913 the Victorian Constitution still required any Member of Parliament appointed as Premier or Minister, other than following a general election, to resign his seat and seek re-election – thus obtaining a judgement from the electorate on the appointment.  The history of this practice is discussed below in the final section of this article.

By 1913 the convention in Victoria was that new Ministerial appointees were not opposed in their by-elections.  The provision was therefore a formality.  But there was still a period when new appointees were not Members of Parliament.  This occurred between their resignation and the end of the nomination period for the by-elections.  Then it was usually found there were no opponents, resulting in their resuming their seats.

Early Life

George Alexander Elmslie was born at Lethbridge, north of Geelong, on 21 February 1861, the son of Henry and Catherine.[1]  Henry Elmslie, born probably at Penshurst, Kent, migrated in 1856 when Victoria was at a height of its gold boom to try his luck on the diggings.[2]  On 26 November 1859 at Lethbridge he married Catherine Ryan a native of County Cork, Ireland[3].  Henry soon turned to his craft of stonemasonry and was employed on the construction of the great Moorabool viaduct on the Geelong-Ballarat railway.  He later gave up stone cutting and went into a small business in Melbourne.

A memoir in MelbournePunch of George in later life[4] recalled him as a ‘big, burly boy…[who] led a fairly open-air life’.  He was keen on shooting and suffered a shooting accident resulting in a scar later half hidden by a moustache.

On 7 April 1887 George Elmslie married Clara Ellen Williams (born 1863 or 1864 in Sydney) at St Jude’s Church of England, Carlton.  She was also the child of a stonecutter.[5]

Working Life

Henry Elmslie had decided, according to Punch that his son ‘should have a profession that would not require him to remove his coat’.  George was therefore kept at school until he was eighteen and made to study diligently with the idea that he would be a teacher.  However George decided otherwise.  He too wanted to toil with his hands as a stonemason.  Even at eighteen Elmslie was a ‘one of those quiet, solid men who always get their own way’.  Through his father’s friends, George obtained a stonemason’s position.  He retained this for twenty-four years.  He worked on various big buildings, beginning with St Matthew’s Church of England, Prahran.  He worked on Wilson Hall at Melbourne University for three and a half years.  Then for twelve years on St Patrick’s Cathedral.  He was described as a ‘splendid mason, his steadiness and reliability helping him win a big reputation as a thorough workman’.  The memoir comments that

If there is any work which is calculated to instil into a man patience, care, stolidity, and the greatest of all virtues – the ability to wait – it should be the trade of stonecutting . It is not possible to hurry … It is hard work, and only years of practice and training enable it to be done easily and accurately.  Such a man … could not be otherwise than careful, deliberate, patient, reliable – all qualities most highly developed in George Elmslie.

Stonemasons’ union

Elmslie was a member of the union, the Operative Stonemasons’ Society, from the day he entered the trade.  He held various offices on its central committee, including President in 1892.  He represented the union on deputations, the Trades Hall Council, the Political Labor Council and wages boards, in particular the Stonecutters’ Board in 1900-01.[6]

 Entry into Politics

In 1898 Elmslie was one of the founders of the Victorian Labour Federation, which had as its object ‘the unification of the workers in one all comprehensive and extensive union’ for the purpose of achieving industrial democracy.[7]

Following the death of John Hancock, Member for Footscray in 1898?, Elmslie sought selection as the Labour candidate, but was placed second to Mr J Lemmon.[8]

Elmslie also became active in the Victorian Political Labor Council, his radical political beliefs evolving from careful reasoning over many years.  After some years as an organiser he was nominated as candidate in his home electorate of Albert Park for the State election of 1 October 1902.  At his first attempt he was successful but by the slender margin of forty-five votes, 51% to 49%, over his conservative opponent, the former member, J.S. White.  At subsequent elections he improved his position so that it became a fairly safe seat for him.  In the 1904 election he obtained 57% of the vote, in 1907 59%, 1908 62%, 1911 59%, 1914 he was unopposed, and 1917 57%.[9]

Elmslie was among the moderate element of the Labor Party which resisted a socialist program.  During the 1904 election campaign, he denied that the State Labor platform contained any ‘socialist planks’ or that he was a member of the Social Democratic Party, the successor of the Victorian Socialist League.[10]

 Early years in State Parliament

Elmslie was not long in Parliament before being elected by his colleagues in 1904 as Secretary of the State Parliamentary Party.  In 1912 he was elevated to the Deputy Leadership of the Party.  The Leader since 1904 had been George Prendergast, member for North Melbourne and printer by trade.  In September 1913 Prendergast, suffering from poor health, resigned the Leadership and, after only a short period as Deputy, Elmslie was elected Leader.  As we shall see, after only three months he was Premier.

It was not long until his first intervention in parliamentary debates on [—-] 1902, characteristically seeking to soften the effect of policy on workingmen.  He moved an amendment to save the pensions of some to be affected by the government’s drastic proposals for retrenchments in the public service.  The amendment was lost.[11] 

Elmslie was an active participant in parliamentary debates on a variety of subjects.

In May 1905 Premier Irvine called a special session of Parliament to consider repressive legislation against striking railwaymen.  The strike had been called in response to the Government’s refusal to allow them to affiliate with Trades Hall.  In his first major Parliamentary speech, Elmslie noted that in his 25 years as a unionist he had never, except on one occasion, advocated a strike.  Nevertheless, he believed the railwaymen were “fighting for freedom and liberty” and “felt themselves called upon to take a firm stand”.[12]

On 10 July 1906, the Premier, Thomas Bent, took great exception to a newspaper report of a statement by Labor member Robert Solly that the “Bent administration was one of the most corrupt Victoria had had.”[13]  Bent’s sensitivity was, no doubt caused by the fact that this was pretty much the truth.  Bent sought Solly’s arrest by the Sergeant-at-Arms, and a bad-tempered debate ensued.  Elmslie, however, made a typically soothing statement suggesting that Solly be given the opportunity to explain himself.  Bent backed down by adopting Elmslie’s suggestion.[14]

 The Elmslie Government

The Labor Party in this period of Victorian politics seemed likely to be a perpetual opposition.  The electoral system was gerrymandered to favour rural votes and, in addition, the Labor Party had not made as much impact as it had interstate.

William Watt led a Liberal government from May 1912.  In this period, the non-Labor forces in Victorian politics had been formally united since 1909 under the title of the Liberal Party, but this encompassed factions of liberals, conservatives and country interests.  In particular, the group of thirteen country members – sometimes referred to as the corner party – were determined to protect country interests.  Their suspicion of Watt had recently been intensified by his introduction of the expensive scheme for electrification of the Melbourne suburban railways.  They were now very wary of his proposed Redistribution Bill which they believed would dilute their influence.  The group’s tactics varied from harrying the government to outright opposition.  The Direct Ministerialists (Liberals other than the country group) had twenty-nine members, and Labor twenty.

Dissatisfaction therefore came to a head in debate on the Electoral Districts(Redistribution) Bill’s clause increasing the number of members.  The corner party and the Labor Party both voted against it resulting in the government’s defeat on a clause which Watt chose to regard as vital.  Watt tendered his resignation to the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden, on Friday 5 December 1913.  Next day Madden commissioned Elmslie, as Leader of the next biggest party, to form a government.

 In Government, but not in power

It was immediately apparent that the new government was not in control of Parliament.  The defeat of the Watt government had succeeded in delivering a shock to the Liberal Party which reunited.  As John Anderson expresses it, the Liberal rebels now made ‘frantic peace overtures.  The corner members were being manoeuvred by a master puppeteer [Watt], and had no alternative but to submit to terms’.[15]

As well as Premier, Elmslie took the Treasurer’s portfolio.  There were seven Ministers and four Honorary Ministers.  Elmslie’s deputy and Chief Secretary was George Prendergast.[16]

Humphrey McQueen, in a review of the Labor Party in Victoria in the early twentieth century, comments on the subsequent events that ‘It was then that what could have been a melodrama was turned into a low farce’.[17]  At this time the Victorian Constitution still required any Member of Parliament appointed as Premier or Minister to immediately resign his seat and seek re-election, thus obtaining a judgement from the electorate on the appointment.  This archaic practice was inherited from British Parliamentary practice.  By this time the convention was that new appointees were almost never opposed in their by-elections.  The provision was therefore a formality.  But there was still a period when new appointees were not Members of Parliament – between their resignation and the end of the nomination period for the by-elections, when it was usually found there were no opponents, resulting in their resuming their seats.

So it was that when Parliament met, Elmslie and all seven ministerial colleagues were not Members.  The most able debaters on the Labor side had to watch the debates from the public gallery of the Legislative Assembly.  It fell to the Honorary Ministers without portfolios – two in each house – to lead the Parliamentary business and to defend the newly installed government.  On the other side, the Liberals had reunited, making defeat of Labor inevitable.[18]

Throughout the next few days’ Parliamentary motions the Liberals withdrew eight of their members from voting as a counterpart to the Labor members now absent facing by-elections.

Parliament remained in session without a break.  Elmslie was sworn in as Premier on Tuesday 9 December 1913.  Parliament met that day and the Liberals immediately demonstrated their control.  Honorary Ministers in both chambers moved an adjournment to 6 January 1914 to enable the new Ministers to face their by-elections and the new government to formulate its program.  The Opposition, however, moved amendments to the motions that the two houses be adjourned only for the next few days.  These were carried in the Legislative Assembly thirty-five to thirteen and in the Legislative Council without a Division.  Watt, now Opposition Leader, then foreshadowed a No-Confidence motion in the government for Thursday, 11 December.

On Thursday the Legislative Assembly debated the No-Confidence motion.  Liberal members pointed to their superior claims to government and argued that Labor was in a minority and had no claim to government.  Watt said Labor was like a bunch of urchins who had stolen into the orchard while the owner’s back was turned and that as soon as the rightful owner returned they filled the air with their cries.  He said that Sir John Madden had been wrongly advised when Labor told him they could carry on government.

Labor members, however, argued that it was unfair that the government should be immediately subjected to a challenge when it had had no time to do anything that could be objected to.  Indeed it was claimed to be unprecedented for any government deriving from the British Parliamentary system to be subjected to a motion of No-Confidence on the day it was sworn in.  Labor members claimed that Liberal members had quietly told them before Elmslie was sworn in that they would give him a ‘fair run’.  This was however denied.

These events were a strong echo of the fate of the week-long Dawson Labor government in Queensland – the world’s first labour government, in 1899, and Earle Labor government in Tasmania in 1909.  In both cases, Labor came to power as a result of temporary splits among the conservatives, and the shock of this immediately led to them being reunited, with the Labor governments never having control of Parliament.[19]

Debate resumed on Tuesday 16 December and the inevitable defeat of the Labor government (36 to 13) occurred.  The Opposition then further demonstrated their control of Parliament by defeating a Labor motion that the Lieutenant-Governor be advised to dissolve Parliament.

Elmslie proposed to the Lieutenant-Governor that he should be granted a dissolution of Parliament and an election.  Elmslie presented Sir John with a lengthy memorandum arguing this case.  Sir John rejected the argument as Watt could clearly again form a government.

When the Legislative Assembly came back next day (Friday 19 December) it was only to hear an outgoing Honorary Minister announce that Elmslie had an appointment with the Lieutenant-Governor to resign.

On Monday 22 December Parliament resumed with Watt and the Liberals back on the government side.  Ironically, however, the very first business was the Speaker’s statement advising the return of Elmslie and his ex-Ministerial colleagues.  In every case there had been no other candidates and by-elections had been unnecessary.

Next day Parliament adjourned for a break over the Christmas period and politics disappeared from the newspapers in the true Australian Christmas tradition.

McQueen comments that ‘This period in office left an indelible stamp on the minds of all members of caucus, as their parliamentary tactics throughout the next sixteen years were designed to recreate the events of 3-4 December 1913.  They never realized who had done what, with which, and to whom’.[20]

John Anderson wrote a political biography of William Watt, in which he comments that “The whole episode….had all the earmarks of a planned campaign by the Premier [Watt], whose position was now stronger than ever.”[21]  Sir Frederic Eggleston, later a Liberal member of the Victorian Parliament, surveyed Victorian politics from 1900 to 1913 in a biography of George Swinburne.  Eggleston also had no doubt that Watt had designed the events.  He said that Watt “discredited Elmslie and he discredited his [Watt’s] rebellious followers”.  Eggleston also opined that Elmslie by taking office “made himself ridiculous and lost prestige.”[22]

Elmslie’s government had, of course, not been able to achieve anything.  All its energies in its extremely short life being devoted to its Parliamentary defence.  Elmslie had, quite properly, directed his Ministers to make only routine decisions until Parliamentary support had been resolved.

Throughout this period Elmslie continued to display his characteristic modesty and lack of display.  After being commissioned as Premier, the Herald newspaper reported that he went to his Parliamentary room and was quietly smoking his pipe when interrupted by several members and congratulated.  On the next day he insisted on partaking of his usual game of bowls at the South Melbourne Bowling Club.

While Victorian Labor was having this adventure, a general election in New South Wales resulted in that State’s Labor government being returned with an improved majority.

Some peculiarities

This series of events was unusual enough in itself.  But there were a number of other peculiarities surrounding them.

Victoria was the only State which still retained the peculiar custom of requiring incoming Ministers to resign and contest by-elections.  The following year, in response to the strange events of the Elmsie government, the Liberal government legislated to abolish it.  Introducing the Officials in Parliament Bill into the Legislative Assembly on 1 September 1914 the Attorney-General, Mr Mackinnon, noted that this provision either had never applied or been repealed in the Commonwealth Parliament, other states and New Zealand.  He said he did not want “to awaken any painful memories”.  The only other speaker was Elmslie who said he gave the legislation “hearty acceptance”.[23]  Two weeks later, the Legislative Council – so often the barrier to reform in Victoria – agreed to the change without debate.[24]  The Bill, because it amended the Constitution was then reserved for the King’s formal assent.[25]

Victoria was without a Governor during this political crisis.  Sir John Fuller was absent on home leave in Britain because of ill-health.  Management of the crisis therefore devolved to Sir John Madden as Lieutenant-Governor.  Madden continued, however, to also perform his duties as Chief Justice of Victoria.  He sat on the Supreme Court bench during the day and seemed to turn his attention to administration of the government late in the day.  He did not attend the Court every day.  On 18 December 1913, when the crisis was at its height, he still undertook a commitment to open an industrial exhibition in Ballarat.  Madden returned to Melbourne by the evening train and Elmslie had to wait until 11 pm to see him!

Sir John Madden was, as mentioned, Lieutenant-Governor.  Meanwhile, his brother, Sir Frank Madden, was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, as a nominee of the Liberal Party, presiding over the No-Confidence debates.  There is, however, no suggestion that there was any influencing of one by the other.

The Minister of Railways in the outgoing Watt government was A.A. Billson – not a common name.  The Minister of Railways in the Elmslie government was J.W. Billson – but they were not related.  Perhaps we can speculate that this must have been convenient for senior public servants, avoiding the need for them to have to rewrite their Ministerial briefing notes.

Despite the seriousness of debating the future of the government – the most important business any Parliament can undertake – it still commenced each day with routine business.  On Thursday, 11 December, for example, before the Want of Confidence debate, the Legislative Assembly received a paper showing fines imposed under the Milk and Dairy Supervision Act.

Re-election of Ministers in Victoria and other places inheriting British Parliamentary practices

The practice in Victoria of requiring incoming Ministers to resign and contest by-elections if they were appointed other than immediately following a general election was inherited from British Parliamentary practice.

In 1914, in response to the strange events of the Elmslie government, the Liberal State government legislated to abolish this practice.  Introducing the Officials in Parliament Bill into the Legislative Assembly on 1 September 1914 the Attorney-General, Mr Mackinnon, noted that this provision either had never applied or been repealed in the Commonwealth Parliament, other states and New Zealand.  He said he did not want “to awaken any painful memories”.  The only other speaker was Elmslie who said he gave the legislation “hearty acceptance”.[26]  Two weeks later, the Legislative Council – so often the barrier to reform in Victoria – agreed to the change without debate.[27]  Because it amended the Constitution, the Bill then had to be reserved for the King’s formal assent.[28]  This amendment is now section 53(1) of the Victorian Constitution.

In New South Wales the provision applied.  The Constitution[29] did however allow Ministers to accept additional portfolios without facing a further by-election.  Most Ministers were returned safely and the practice arose of not opposing them in many cases.  However some newly appointed Ministers did lose seats in by-elections including two Premiers: Stuart Donaldson, NSW’s first Premier, in 1856; and James Martin in 1863.  Both were subsequently re-elected in other electorates.  James Robertson, upon his Ministerial appointment in 1866, lost the ensuing by-election but returned to Parliament later, becoming Premier.  However Marshall Burdekin, appointed Minister in 1866, was not so lucky, not being returned to Parliament.  Henry Copeland in 1883 also lost his by-election but was subsequently returned in another electorate, only to resign his ministry twelve weeks later after a drunken speech.[30]  A number of bills were introduced into the NSW Parliament to abolish the practice but were all unsuccessful until 1906 when the practice was abolished in a general revision of electoral legislation.[31]

In Western Australia the practice led to a change of government in 1901.  The WA Constitution, while not abolishing it, provided exemptions for specified executive positions.[32]  Ministerial by-elections were however still necessary for other ministerial appointments.  Following the grant of self-government in 1890, WA politics were stable under the Premiership of John Forrest.  Following Forrest’s transfer to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901, there was a period of instability and short-lived governments.  In November 1901 Alfred Morgans defeated the Leake government in a vote of no-confidence in the Legislative Assembly.  Leake vowed to oppose Morgans with all means, including at ministerial by-elections.  The new ministry was consequently faced with a very well organised campaign.  In the by-elections in December 1901 three of the six ministers were defeated!  Morgans was obliged to resign his commission and Leake resumed the Premiership.[33]  Opposing new ministers in by-elections now became popular in WA.  There were ten more contests in the period up to 1908, and another four in the next decade.  One of these was to validate the 1917 Ministerial appointment of former Premier James Scaddan in the Lefroy government, following his defection from the ALP to the Nationals after the conscription crisis.  Scaddan was defeated.  Two years later, he was again appointed a Minister and re-entered Parliament (in that order).  There was then a long break when Ministerial by-elections once again became pro forma with no opponents forthcoming.  However, in March 1938 Alexander Panton was appointed Minister for Health.  He was opposed at the ensuing by-election.  He won the contest, and to him belongs the dubious honour of being the last person appointed a Minister to be opposed in a resulting by-election in Australia.  He remained a Minister until 1947.  The practice lingered on as a pro forma requirement in WA until 1947 when it was abolished in an amendment to the Constitution.[34]

The Constitution Act of Van Dieman’s Land[35] applied the Ministerial re-election requirement, and this apparently continued until Tasmania adopted the Hare-Clark system of voting with multi-member constituencies in 1896[36].  Continuance of the practice would have been incompatible with the Hare-Clark system.

In 1866 Queensland was faced with a financial crisis and Arthur Macalister resigned as Premier.  Queensland’s first Premier, Robert Herbert, was recalled to negotiate the passage of an emergency measure through Parliament and from 20 to 24 July Herbert and his Ministerial colleagues were officially “Ministers without portfolio” in order to avoid the necessity for Ministerial by-elections.  In 1884 the practice was, in practical terms, removed by the passage of the Officials in Parliament Act [37].

In South Australia[38] and also New Zealand[39] the requirement was apparently not applied.

In 1914 the Victorian Attorney-General said that the by-election requirement was being rendered unnecessary in South Africa.  Presumably this was a reference to the recent South Africa Act 1909[40] and the Provincial Assemblies there now shorn of real power.

The practice survived longer in Canada than elsewhere.  There was a strong reprise of the Elmslie affair in Canada in 1926, but it was more involved and much more spectacular.  The Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, sought to avoid a Parliamentary vote he was bound to lose over a Customs corruption scandal.  He advised the Governor-General, Lord Byng, to dissolve the House of Commons and call an election, although it was only eight months since the preceding election.  Byng refused to accept the advice and commissioned the Opposition Leader, Arthur Meighen, to form a government.  Meighen persuaded the Governor-General to appoint seven “acting” Ministers “without portfolio” so as to avoid by-elections.  Only Meighen’s appointment was designated permanent necessitating a by-election for him alone.  However when the House of Commons reassembled, Meighen’s government immediately faced a censure motion directed precisely at this contrivance.  The government lost and an election was now unavoidable.  During the campaign, criticism was tellingly directed at Meighen for his use of the contrivance.  Meighen was heavily defeated, including losing his own seat.  Meighen, therefore – like Elmslie – was not a member of Parliament for any of the period of his government.  Byng was now recalled, a strong precedent thus having been established requiring Canadian Governors-General to accept advice.[41]  The practice was apparently abolished in regard to Canada’s Federal Parliament around the 1930s.[42]

In the Canadian Provinces the practice was first abolished by Alberta in 1926[43], quickly followed by Quebec[44], New Brunswick[45] and Nova Scotia[46] all in 1927.  In 1929 British Colombia abolished it[47], in 1932 Prince Edward Island[48], in 1936 Saskatchewan[49] and in 1937 Manitoba [50].  In Ontario the practice was abolished for certain Ministers in 1926[51], but for other appointees not until 1941[52], when it was the last place in the world to do so.

In Newfoundland the requirement was abolished temporarily during the First World War[53].  The practice lapsed when Newfoundland lost its self-government in 1934 and its Parliament abolished.  When Newfoundland joined Canada as a Province in 1949, the practice no longer applied.

The practice had originated in seventeenth century Britain.  After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, King Charles II sought to manage the House of Commons by distributing offices and places of profit.  Parliament reacted by making the holding of a Crown office incompatible with membership.  However, the realization that complete separation was undesirable led to a requirement that offices could be accepted and membership retained – but only after that membership was tested in a further election.[54]  This requirement was formalised with the Succession to the Crown Act of 1707[55].  As so often happened in British Parliamentary practice, over time the justification of the practice changed.  By the late nineteenth / early twentieth centuries, the practice was defended on the grounds that by-elections provided a good opportunity for the electorate to pass judgments on governments – not a silly idea, considering that British Parliaments then lasted for seven years.  On the other hand, the requirement meant that sometimes, Ministers were selected not for their ability but because they held a safe seat, or conversely, talented Members were overlooked because of the danger of a by-election in their constituency.  It was also argued that, just at the time when a newly-appointed Minister had to get on top of his portfolio, he was distracted by the local politics of his by-election; and that local issues were sometimes brought to bear on his new Ministerial responsibilities. [56]

By the early twentieth century, although by-elections were still required, they often resulted in Ministers being returned unopposed.  However, in this period there were some notable exceptions.  No less a personality than Winston Churchill was a casualty.  In 1908, when appointed President of the Board of Trade, his first Cabinet position, the Conservatives saw an opportunity for revenge for his recent defection to the Liberal Party.  After a hard-fought by-election, Churchill was defeated in his constituency of Manchester North West.  A new seat had to be hastily found for him in distant Dundee.[57]  Perhaps if Churchill had failed in the second by-election, world history would have been very different.  In 1914 Mr C Masterman, believed to be at the beginning of a promising political career, was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.  Unfortunately for him, the Government was then undergoing a spell of unpopularity.  Masterman subsequently had the misfortune to lose two successive by-elections in different constituencies in the space of three months and his political career was over.[58]

During the First World War, the requirement was suspended in Britain[59].  In 1919, when the then British Coalition government found that four newly appointed Ministers would have to face by-elections, it attempted to hastily repeal the practice.[60]  The resulting lengthy debate in the House of Commons[61] brought forward many defenders of the practice.  The proposed legislation was consequently amended to remove the necessity only in the first nine months after the summoning of a new Parliament, thus solving the government’s immediate problem[62].  In 1926, a private member’s bill abolishing the requirement completely had the unusual attribute of obtaining government support.  After another long debate, partially overlapping the Canadian events referred to above,[63] this passed as the Re-election of Ministers Act.[64]

 Leader of the Opposition

After the adventures of December 1913 Elmslie continued as leader of the Labor Party and thus as Leader of the Opposition.

On 27 September 1916 Elmslie resigned as Leader on the ground of a severe nervous breakdown, largely due to overwork.  The Party refused to accept his resignation, instead passing a vote of sympathy and granting him leave of absence.  Elmslie accepted the Party’s decision.  Elmslie undertook a voyage through the Pacific to regain his health.

Elmslie strongly supported the Allied cause in the Great War, while opposing the introduction of conscription for overseas service.

Elmslie’s community involvement

George Elmslie took an active role in various capacities within his community of South Melbourne.

Elmslie was President of the South Melbourne Football Club (now Sydney Swans) in 1915.  At the time the Victorian Football League was subject to a great deal of criticism for allowing the competition to continue during the Great War.  It was argued by many that if young men were fit enough to play first grade football, they were fit enough to be fighting.  As a result eight clubs, including South Melbourne, suspended their participation.


Elmslie died on 11 May 1918 at his home in Merton Street, South Melbourne, from uraemia, angina pectoris and pneumonia.[65]

His wife was also very ill and died soon after.  They had one surviving son, Henry age 30, an irrigation farmer at Bamawm near Rochester.  A daughter, Nellie, had died in infancy in 1901.[66]

Elmslie received a State Funeral on Monday, 12 May 1918.  A service in Queen’s Hall of State Parliament House (then in the Exhibition Buildings) was followed by internment in Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton.  The services were conducted by the Rev. A.B. Rowed of St Silas’ Church of England, Albert Park and attracted large crowds and many representatives of the Federal and State Governments, Labor and Union movements and social and sporting bodies he had been associated with as well as family.[67]

Elmslie attracted eulogies from colleagues and opponents who were agreed on describing him as an honourable person.  The Premier, Harry Lawson, described him as ‘honourable’ and ‘a personal friend’.  His successor as Leader of the Opposition, George Prendergast, said he ‘maintained his early friendships right throughout his political career, and he commanded the affection and respect of every member’.  Former Premier, Sir Alexander Peacock, suggested government assistance for Elmslie’s family.  His former brief Ministerial colleague, J.W. Billson, said that he ‘never knew him to express a mean thought even of his political opponents’.[68] 

The State Parliamentary Labor Party elected George Prendergast as Leader.  He was therefore Elmslie’s predecessor and successor.  Prendergast formed the first effective, but again short-lived, Victorian Labor government from July to November 1924.


Elmslie is not much remembered now, even within the Labor movement, despite having the honour of being Victoria’s first Labor Premier.  Doubtless this is due to the extreme brevity of his government’s incumbency and its unavoidable lack of achievement.

A memorial headstone over his grave in the Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton,[69] was unveiled by Steve Bracks, Premier of Victoria, on 9 March 2001.  The only other commemoration of Elmslie is a street in Canberra which is named after him.

He was an honourable and decent man who led the Labor Party through the very difficult period of the 1910s when, generally, it seemed impossible for Labor to obtain substantive power at the State level.  Being Leader of the Opposition in such a situation is perhaps the most difficult position in politics.  In a party like Labor there is also the problem of reconciling idealistic and pragmatic elements.  The period became even more difficult for Labor as it split at the Federal level and in most States over conscription for overseas service.  Elmslie’s calming influence probably helped dampen the level of bitterness within the Party in Victoria.

It can be said of Elmslie that he was a small part of Labor’s extremely slow steps to power to Victoria.





Succession to the Crown Act 1707 (An Act for the Security of Her Majesty’s Person and Government, and of the Succession to the Crown of Great Britain in the Protestant Line), 6 Anne, chapter 7, section XXVI:
Provided always, That if any Person being chosen a Member of the House of Commons, shall accept of any Office of Profit from the Crown, during such Time as he shall continue a Member, his Election shall be, and is hereby declared to be void, and a new Writ shall issue for a new Election, as if such Person so accepting was naturally dead.  Provided nevertheless, That such Person shall be capable of being again elected, as if his Place had not become void as aforesaid.

 Re-election of Ministers Act 1919, 9 George 5, chapter 2, section 1(1), first sentence:
Notwithstanding anything in any Act, a member of the Commons House of Parliament shall not vacate his seat by reason only of his acceptance of an office of profit if that office is an office the holder is capable of being elected to, or sitting or voting in, that House, and if such acceptance has taken place within nine months after the issue of a proclamation summoning a new Parliament….

Re-election of Ministers Act (1919) Amendment Act 1926, 16 & 17 George 5, chapter 19, section 1(1): In subsection (1) of section one of the Re-election of Ministers Act, 1919, the words “and if such acceptance has taken place within nine months after the issue of a proclamation summoning a new Parliament” shall be deleted and the said section shall, as from the passing of this Act, have effect as if the said words did not form part of the said section.


Constitution Act 1855 18 & 19 Victoria, chapter 55, section XVII:
If any Member of the Legislative Council or the Legislative Assembly shall accept of any Office of Profit under the Crown during Pleasure, his Seat shall thereupon become vacant, but such Person shall, if otherwise duly qualified, be capable of being re-elected.


Officials in Parliament Act 1914, section 2:
Notwithstanding anything in the Constitution Act or The Constitution Act Amendment Acts in any case where a member of the Legislative Council or of the Legislative Assembly is appointed by the Governor as an officer capable of being elected member of either House of Parliament and of sitting or voting therein the acceptance by him of the appointment shall not vacate his seat.

Constitution Act 1975, section 53(1):
Notwithstanding anything in this Act where a person is appointed by the Governor to be a responsible Minister of the Crown the acceptance by him of the appointment shall not prevent him from becoming a member of the Council or the Assembly or from sitting and voting as a member or if he is a member shall not vacate his seat.


The Officials in Parliament Act of 1884, section 1:
The Governor may from time to time, by Proclamation, declare any Officers of the Crown, not exceeding seven in all, and being Officers liable to retire on political grounds, to be capable of being elected members of the Legislative Assembly, and of sitting and voting therein……..


Constitution Act 1855, 18 Victoria, No.17, section XXVII:
If any Member either of the Legislative Council or of the House of Assembly shall accept any office of profit from the Government during pleasure or otherwise the seat shall thereupon become vacant.


Constitution Act 1856, 1855-56, No.2, section 17:
If any Member of the said Parliament shall accept of any office of profit or pension from the Crown, during pleasure, excepting those offices which are hereinafter required to be held by Members of the said Parliament, his seat shall be thereupon and is hereby declared to be vacant.


Constitution Act 1890, 53 & 54 Victoria, no. 123, section 28:
If any person while holding an office of profit under the Crown… elected a member of the Legislative Assembly, or of the Legislative Council…..if he takes the oath or makes the affirmation herein-before prescribed, be held by so doing to vacate the said office.
Provided always, that there shall be five principal executive offices of the Government liable to be vacated on political grounds, and that to such offices this section shall not apply.
The said offices shall be such five offices as shall be designated and declared by the Governor in council…..

[The Constitution Act Amendment Act 1899 extended the exemption to six officers.  The Constitution Act Amendment Act (No. 1) 1947 extended the exemption to eight officers, with retrospective effect from 1927].

Constitution Act (Re-Election of Ministers) Act, No. 4 of 1947, section 3:
Notwithstanding anything in any Act, a Member of the Legislative Council or the Legislative Assembly shall not vacate his seat by reason only of his acceptance of an office of profit under the Crown if that office be one which the holder is liable to vacate on political grounds and which is referred to in the Constitution Act 1889…..and the Constitution Act Amendment Act 1899…..


British North America Act (Imperial) 1867, 30 Victoria, chapter 8, section 83:
Until the Legislature of Ontario or of Quebec otherwise provides, a Person accepting or holding in Ontario or Quebec any Office, Commission or Employment, permanent or temporary, at the Nomination of the Lieutenant Governor, to which an annual Salary, or any Fee, Allowance, Emolument, or Profit of any Kind or Amount whatever from the Province is attached shall not be eligible as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the respective Province, nor shall he sit or vote as such; but nothing in this Section shall make ineligible any Person being a Member of the respective Province, or holding any of the following Offices, that is to say, the Offices of Attorney General, Secretary and Registrar of the Province, Treasurer of the Province, Commissioner of Crown Lands, and Commissioner of Agriculture and Public Works, and in Quebec Solicitor General, or shall disqualify him to sit or vote in the House for which he is elected, provided he is elected while holding such Office.


Parliament of Canada Act, section 32 (2):
Nothing in this Division renders ineligible to be a member of the House of Commons, or disqualifies from sitting or voting therein, any member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada……….if the member is elected while holding that office or position or is, at the date when nominated by the Crown for that office or position, a member of the House of Commons.

Similar provisions now appear in legislation of Canadian Provinces.


South Africa Act (Imperial) 1909, 9 Edward 7, chapter 9, section 53:
No person shall be capable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or as a member of the House of Assembly who – …….

(d) holds any office of profit under the Crown within the Union.  Provided that the following persons shall not be deemed to hold an office of profit under the Crown for the purposes of this subsection:
(1)     a Minister of State for the Union; …………

[1] Birth certificate of George Alexander Elmslie; Melbourne Punch 12 March 1914, which is drawn upon heavily in the following paragraphs, including the direct quotations.
[2] Advice from Bill Elmslie (nephew of George Elmslie) 24 May 2001.
[3] Marriage certificate of Henry Elmslie and Catherine Ryan.
[4] Melbourne Punch 12 March 1914.
[5] Marriage Certificate of George Alexander Elmslie and Clara Ellen Williams.
[6] The Hon. Barry Jones, AO, in Australian Dictionary of Biography1891-1939, Volume 9, Melbourne University Press, ISBN 0-522-84234, pp. 434-435.
[7] Frank Bongiorno, The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875-1914, Melbourne University Press, 1996, ISBN 0 522 84738 2, p.143.
[8] Obituary in Record, South Melbourne, 18 May 1918, p.2.
[9] Colin A Hughes & B D Graham, Voting for the Victorian Legislative Assembly 1890-1964, Australian National University, Canberra, 1975, ISBN 0 7081 1332 X, pp. 71, 88, 100, 110, 121, 131, 136 and 149.
[10] Frank Bongiorno, The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875-1914, Melbourne University Press, 1996, ISBN 0 522 84738 2, p.148, p.153.
[11] Victoria Parliamentary Debates [–] 1902, p.270.
[12]Victoria Parliamentary Debates 15 May 1903, pp. 191-197.
[13]ArgusMelbourne 10 July 1906.
[14] Victoria Parliamentary Debates, 10 July 1906, pp.187-19?
[15] John Anderson, W.A. Watt: A Political Biography, Master of Arts thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972.
[16] File VPRS 7581/P1, Item 35, Public Record Office of Victoria, contains the Lieutenant-Governor’s record of swearing-in of Ministers with their portfolios.
[17] Humphrey McQueen in D J Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880-1920, University of Queensland Press, 1975, ISBN 0-7022-09392, p.322.
[18] The political events of the next few days were extensively reported in the Parliamentary Debates, Age, Argus and Herald throughout December 1913.
[19] Ross Fitzgerald, Seven Days to Remember: The World’s First Labor Government, Queensland University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-7022-3139-8, pp. 29-45; Hobart Mercury 13-27 October 1909; Hobart Daily Post 13-27 October 1909; Launceston Examiner 13-27 October 1909.
[20] Humphrey McQueen in D J Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880-1920, University of Queensland Press, 1975, ISBN 0-7022-09392, p.322.
[21] John Anderson, W.A. Watt: A Political Biography, Master of Arts thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972, p.171.
[22] E.H. Sugden & F.W. Eggleston, George Swinburne: A Biography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1931, p. 304.
[23] Victoria Parliamentary Debates, 1 September 1914, pp.1134-5.
[24] Victoria Parliamentary Debates, 16 September 1914, p.1447.
[25] Act No. 2578.
[26] Victoria Parliamentary Debates, 1 September 1914, pp.1134-5.
[27] Victoria Parliamentary Debates, 16 September 1914, p.1447.
[28] Victorian Act no. 2578.
[29] NSW Constitution Act (Imperial) 1855, 18 & 19 Victoria, chapter 54, Schedule, section XVIII
[30] G. Hawker, The Parliament of New South Wales 1856-1965, Government Printer New South Wales, 1971, p.58; Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969, ISBN 0-522-83909-6, p. 458, entry on Henry Copeland by Martha Rutledge; vol. 6, 1976, ISBN 0-522-84108-2, p. 43, entry on Sir John Robertson by Bede Nairn.
[31] NSW Parliamentary Elections Act No. XLI of 1906, section 60.
[32] WA Constitution Act 1890, 53 & 54 Victoria, no. 123, section 28
[33] Brian de Garis, Self-Government and Political Parties in C.T. Stannage (ed.), A New History ofWestern Australia, University of Western Australia Press, 1982, p. 348; Brian de Garis, Self-Government and Political Parties in D. Black (ed.), The House on the Hill: AHistory of the Parliament of Western Australia 1832-1990, Parliament of Western Australia 1991, p. 83.
[34] Western Australia Constitution (Re-Election of Ministers) Act, no. 4 of 1947, section 2.
[35] Van Dieman’s Land Constitution Act 1854, 18 Victoria, no. 17.
[36] Tasmania Electoral Act 1907, 7 Edward 7, no.6.
[37] Queensland Officials in Parliament Act 1884, 48 Vic. no. 29.
[38] SA Constitution Act 1856, 1855-56, No.2, section 17
[39]New Zealand Constitution Act (Imperial) 1852, 15 & 16 Victoria, chapter 72, is silent on the matter.
[40] UK South Africa Act 1909, 9 Edward 7, chapter 9.
[41] E. Forsey, The Royal Power of Dissolution in the British Commonwealth, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1968, is largely devoted to the King-Byng affair; R. Bothwell, I Drummond and J. English, Canada 1900-1945, University of Toronto Press, 1987, p.206; H.V. Evatt, The King and His Dominion Governors: A Study of the Reserve Powers of theCrown in Great Britain and the Dominions, Second Edition, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967, p.55.
[42] Internal evidence in Forsey, The Royal Power of Dissolution in the British Commonwealth, op cit, indicates that the text of the first edition had been written by 1941.  He refers a number of times to the “former practice” of Ministerial by-elections, but gives no date for its abolition.
[43] Alberta Act 16-17 George V, c.3.
[44] Quebec Act 17 George V, c.13.
[45] New Brunswick Act 17 George V, c. 13.
[46] Nova Scotia Act 12-13 George V, c. 13.
[47] British Colombia Act 19 George V, c.14.
[48] Prince Edward Island Act 22 George V, c. 3.
[49] Saskatchewan Act 1 Edward VIII, c.2.
[50] Manitoba Act 1 George VI, c. 27.  See Forsey, op cit, p. 207.
[51]Ontario Act 16 George V, c. 5.
[52] Ontario Act 5 George VI, c.26.
[53] Newfoundland Acts 8 George V, c.19 and 8-9 George V, c. 2.
[54] R. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Volume II Young Statesman 1901-1914, Heinemann, London, 1967, p.252.
[55] UK Act, 6 Anne, chapter 7.
[56] D. Butler and A. Sloman, British Political Facts 1900-1979, Macmillan Press, London, Fifth edition 1980, ISBN 0-333-25591-7, p. 226.
[57] R. Churchill, op cit, pp. 252-265.
[58]Times, London, various dates 8 January to 25 May 1914, but particularly 25 May 1914 pp. 34-35.
[59] UK Re-election of Ministers Act 1915, 5-6 George V, c. 50 and Re-election of Ministers (No. 2) Act 1916, 6-7 George V, c. 56.
[60] D. Butler, The Electoral System in Britain 1918-1951, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1953, pp. 52-54.
[61]House of Commons Debates, vol. 112, 17 February 1919, columns. 614 – 664; 18 February 1919, columns 791 – 815; 20 February 1919, columns 1309 – 1318; House of Lords Debates, vol. 33, 23 February 1919, columns 388 – 389.
[62] UK Re-election of Ministers Act 1919, 9 & 10 George 5, chapter 2.
[63]House of Commons Debates, vol. 191, 12 February 1926, columns 1417 – 1488; vol.196, 11 June 1926, columns.1847 – 1934; House of Lords Debates, vol. 64, 22 June 1926, columns 501 – 530; 8 July 1926, columns 944 – 960.
[64] UK Re-election of Ministers Act (1919) Amendment Act 1926, 16 & 17 George.5, chapter 19.
[65] Death Certificates of George Alexander Elmslie.and Clara Elmslie.
[66] Death Certificates of George Alexander Elmslie and Clara Elmslie.  Elmslie’s gravestone unveiled on 9 March 2001 incorrectly renders his daughter’s name as Clara.
[67]Age and Argus 13 May 1918.
[68]Parliamentary Debates, 9 July 1918, pp. 18-22.
[69] Melbourne General Cemetery, Carlton, Anglican plot 601DD.


 Victor Isaacs has published various items on transport history and has an interest in turn of the century Australian history.

He is a past President of the Canberra Region Branch, ASSLH