History of West Australia/James George Lee-Steere

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AS in England the Speaker is the "first Commoner" in the land, so in an Australian colony the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly has, comparatively, equal official recognition. The representatives of the people chosen for this high office are generally men of importance, who possess the confidence of every party and section of the House. They worthily uphold the traditional dignity of "first Commoner." For colonial Assemblies are more or less based on the principle of that noble pioneer of all parliaments, the House of Commons of the motherland.

James George Lee-Steere HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

In Australia the Speaker sits in his official robes presiding over the deliberations of the legislature of a country which may some day be a nation. The members are sowing the seed of what all hope shall develop a Tree whose branches shall scatter in many climes. They do not always recognise how privileged is their position in tending and guiding the growth of an incipient nation.

The first to hold this honourable office in the Legislative Assembly Western Australia was the Hon. Sir James George Lee-Steere, K.B., J.P., whose name will be found prominent in our history as working energetically in the colony's interests. Although not a native of Western Australia, Sir James Lee-Steere has spent nearly the whole of his manhood in this colony, and his good works helped very materially in the development of its early political history. Sir James, almost since the day he first landed on these shores, has laboured untiringly for the small community of which he is a member, and his career will ever be marked as prominent and honorable.

James George Lee-Steere comes of a much-respected and well-connected family in Surrey, England. He is the third son of the late Lee Steere, J.P., D.L., and M.P., and was born in 1830, at Hale House, Ockley, Surrey. His father was a leading magnate in Surrey and a large landed proprietor, a Justice of the Peace for both Surrey and Sussex, and in 1848 occupied the important office of Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff in his county. From 1870 to 1880 he represented West Surrey in the House of Commons. The groundings of Sir James Lee-Steere's education were imparted at a private school at Thames Ditton, of which Mr. Styles was principal. From thence he went to the Clapham Grammar School, and it was the intention of his father to give him a University career. But the boy, like so many of his countrymen, desired to go to sea, and allowing him to have his own way, his parents procured him a position as midshipman on a vessel named the Sea Park, trading in the merchant service. He remained at sea for fifteen years, and during that period voyaged to many parts of the globe and acquired a wide experience in the various countries be visited. The last four years of this portion of his career were passed as commander of the Devonshire, a well-known East Indiaman, owned by the firm of Money Wigram and Co. In 1859 he married Catherine Anne, the only daughter of the late Luke Leake, of Perth, and sister of Sir Luke Samuel Leake, M.L.C., of this colony.

Early in 1860 Sir James and Lady Lee-Steere left England for Western Australia. They landed in April of that year, and then began that useful career which has since been so beneficial to this colony. Sir James first acquired a lease of 100,000 acres of land on the Blackwood River, in the southern part of the colony. Giving to it the name of Jayes Station, after his father's estate at home, he there went to reside. Then followed fairly quiet years spent in pastoral pursuits, with variable results. It was a strange transformation in life—from the adventurous nature of his preceding career and his home on the old estate in Surrey. Too much stress cannot be placed on the value which the colonies have received from the settling here of men of such stamina and knowledge as Sir James Lee-Steere. Their earlier experiences are bound to prove of inestimable advantage to the young colonies, and with this and their capital they help very substantially in developing the latent resources of soil and woodland; in short, all the resources the continent possesses. Sir James proved an enterprising settler, and made valuable improvements on his station. On the station were large numbers of blacks, and it was necessary to exercise tact and judgment to live among them peacefully, and secure their support in the working of the property.

Every colonial experience was put to some use; and by carefully acquiring a grasp of public affairs, he was soon in a position to help in local government. The Governor and Executive Council of the day early paid him a compliment, for in the year of his taking up his residence in Western Australia they conferred on him the dignity of Justice of the Peace. This office he filled with conscientious dignity. Not one public movement was inaugurated but Sir James knew of it, and he made a special study of the methods of government under the Crown colony regime. He thus became closely acquainted with the trend of public affairs, and it did not take him long to observe the objectionable features in the somewhat cumbersome and decidedly autocratic government. As the resources of the colony were better known by means of the several exploration parties which went into the interior in advance of settlers, he considered that a bright prosperity must soon dawn. But that era did not begin, perhaps, so early as he and his contemporaries anticipated, and it took many years for the outside world to discover what magnificent advantages for their enterprise were here offered. This was what might be termed the preparative period of Sir James' colonial life, and he was drifting towards politics. Firstly, he knew that agriculture must be encouraged to the utmost, and he founded the first agricultural society established in his portion of the colony. He filled the position of honorary secretary of this body, and instilled into it that spirit which was so necessary to make it of real value to the community. Then 1867 arrived, the year in which the Imperial Government had granted permission to colonists to nominate six members to the Legislative Council. These were in reality semi-elective members. Sir James was asked to stand for the Southern constituency, in which his estate was situated, and he was duly chosen by a large majority. He entered the Legislative halls, and took a very active part in the debates. During the next two years he was to the fore in all movements of a progressive nature which came before the Council. At the end of that period, in 1870, the constitution of the Legislative Council was recast, and provided for the election of two-thirds of the members, one-third to be nominated by the Crown. The Council was dissolved, and Sir James stood, and was elected, for the Wellington district, which embraced a portion of the old Southern district. On the first meeting of the Legislative Council he was unanimously chosen leader of the elected members, which position he held until elected Speaker. He worked ardently for the colony. His views had by this time become firmly established, and his large experience gave him an extended insight into local requirements. He gave much useful advice, and his speeches were listened to with respect. Meanwhile he watched over the interests of his large estate which lie vastly improved. His home, surrounded by his hundred thousand broad acres leased from the Crown, was, though secluded, an attractive one, and he became more and more West Australian at heart. Associations began to cling more closely to his life in Australia. It is so in nearly every case. The young Britishers come to these lands intending to make only a temporary stay, but as they gradually drift into the peculiarities of Australian life and freedom, untrammelled by old world usages, encompasses them, the wish to return again to their native land becomes less and less marked, until at last, probably, it disappears altogether. This was the experience of Sir James although he still cherished sweet memories of his old home in England, and felt that while living in Australia he was as much English as before.

In 1880, when a fresh election took place for Sir James' constituency, after a stout and close contest his opponent, Mr. Venn, was elected by one vote. But the Governor and the Executive Council of the colony did not wish that he should retire into private life, for they esteemed his services as too valuable for that. He was almost immediately awarded a nominee seat in the Legislative Council, and matters went on very much as they did before. In 1885 he had risen so much in public estimation that he was appointed a member of the Executive Council. In 1886 Sir Luke S. Leake, the Speaker of the Legislative Council, died while in England, and Sir James Lee-Steere was chosen to fill that honourable position. Previously in the same year he was delegated by the Governor with the approval of the Secretary of State, representative for Western Australia at the Federal Council of Australasia. He attended the session of the Council in January and February of 1886, and other sessions in 1888 and 1889. In 1888 he had the dignity of Knight Bachelor conferred on him by Her Majesty. Continuing to take a great interest in all political matters, but precluded by his position of Speaker from entering the more active turmoil beneath the chair, the days arrived when agitation for Responsible Government became louder. Sir James' experience made him give his adherence to this further constitutional change, as what follows will show.

Some time previous to being chosen Speaker he was the recognised leader of the elective members, and introduced several measures to the Legislative Council which were quashed by the power of veto, held by the Governor of the day, Sir William Robinson. Thus he introduced into the Council, and succeeded in carrying, the Audit Act, which provided for the annual audit of public accounts by men appointed by Government, and designed to prevent expenditure not authorised by Parliament. Sir William Robinson vetoed the bill, but shortly afterwards received instructions from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to have it reintroduced. This was done in the succeeding session, and the measure became law. Sir James introduced and carried an Abolition of Pensions Bill, which was also vetoed by the Governor, and has never since been reinstated. Taking the eastern colonies as an example, this last is apparently unfortunate. Then Sir James introduced a bill providing for the registration of dogs. He fought energetically for the measure and carried it through the Chamber, with the usual result—it was vetoed. Next came a Fencing Bill, to compel, among other things, adjoining owners of land to each pay half the cost o[ dividing fences. This measure was uniform with Acts in force in other colonies. After Sir James carried it through the Council it was shelved by the Governor's veto. Mr. Throssel introduced a similar measure in the recent (1896) session of Parliament. All these measures would have been of undoubted value to West Australia, yet Sir William Robinson was so autocratic that he prevented them becoming law. It is no wonder then that Sir James Lee-Steere became an advocate for Responsible Government.

In March, 1889, Sir James was again elected Speaker of the Legislative Council, and continued to hold the position until the final dissolution of that body, prior to the inauguration of the new Constitution. When he resigned his position as a member of the Executive Council, in common with Sir John Forrest and Sir Malcolm Fraser, he received permission from the Queen to retain the prefix Honourable to his name, and with them, also, was allowed to retain the uniform attached to his office. This permission gives these gentlemen precedence in all State functions next to the Executive of the day. Another high position which Sir James Lee-Steere most worthily held for some time was what is termed the Dormant Commission, by which, in the absence of the Governor or Acting Governor, he would have administered the government of the colony.

In 1890 the first elections under Responsible Government took place, and Sir James Lee-Steere offered himself to the suffrages of the Nelson electors. He was elected without opposition; and at the second elections, in 1894, he was again returned unopposed. When the new House of Assembly held their first meeting Sir James received the great compliment of being unanimously appointed to the position of first Speaker. This important and dignified office he holds to this day—a conspicuous recognition of his public services and the respect in which he is held by the whole colony. As Speaker it can confidently be asserted that no more dignified and satisfactory gentleman could have been found. He presides over the deliberations of the Assembly with great tact, and shows favour to no man and no party. He is a master of parliamentary procedure, and therefore pilots the Assembly through every difficulty.

Of the historic Federation Convention, held in Sydney in 1891, Sir James Lee-Steere was one of the delegates from Western Australia. Among the other positions which he has held is that of governor of the High School. He is chairman of Trustees of the Public Library and Museum, and is a member of the Diocesan Council. He was for some years chairman of the Roads Boards at Nelson, and interested himself in all local affairs. In 1889 Sir James and Lady Lee-Steere took up their residence in Perth.

We have sought to show how, gradually, Sir James Lee-Steere rose in the political world of Western Australia. He thoroughly studied his environments, was observant and contemplative, and thus drifted into the political arena where he felt he might be of some service to the country. That his career has been a successful one every reader will allow, and he may be reckoned among the leading men of Australia. A man of vigorous personality and determination, Sir James Lee-Steere has proved efficient in every walk of life he has entered. In 1897 Sir James was re-elected for Nelson. He attended the Adelaide Federation Convention.