The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Robertson, Hon. Sir John

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Robertson, Hon. Sir John, K.C.M.G., is of Scotch extraction, and was born at Bow, Essex, on Oct 15th, 1816. His father emigrated to New South Wales with his family in 1820, and the future Premier was educated under Dr. Lang and Messrs. Gilchrist and Cape. Mr. Robertson, sen., went into grazing on the Hunter river, and thither the family removed in 1835. In the meantime the subject of this notice had revisited England, working his passage home as one of the crew of the ship Sovereign. After two years' experience of the sea, during which he visited some of the principal ports of Europe, Brazil and South America, he returned to Sydney, and was engaged in pastoral and farming pursuits in the northern districts of the colony for a number of years. Though on various occasions he made himself prominent as the champion of the interests of his fellow-squatters, Mr. Robertson's Liberalism in his early days was of a very pronounced type. He was returned to the first Legislative Assembly elected under the present bicameral system in 1856 for the district of Phillip, Brisbane and Bligh. The programme to which he pledged himself embraced manhood suffrage, vote by ballot, the division of the electoral districts on a population basis, the abolition of State aid to religion, national education, and free selection over the public lands of the colony. All of them have since been embodied in the statute law of the colony, and several of them mainly through his instrumentality. Mr. Robertson took office in the second Cowper Ministry as Secretary for Lands and Public Works in Jan. 1858, and in the following February issued regulations providing that all future pastoral leases granted should be issued subject to whatever conditions subsequent legislation might impose. This effectually prevented the creation of fresh vested interests to block the path of land reform. Their education policy proving unacceptable, the Ministry resigned; but in March 1860 Mr. Robertson became Premier of the colony, with his former portfolio as Minister of Lands, Mr. Cowper (who had temporarily retired from Parliament) taking office under him as Colonial Secretary. True to his previous pledges, he at once introduced a Land Bill embodying the principle of free selection over the public land, whether surveyed or unsurveyed. An amendment moved by Mr. (now Sir) John Hay, limiting the popular choice to lands previously surveyed, being carried in the Assembly, Mr. Robertson appealed to the country, and came back with a large majority. The Upper House being still regarded as hostile, Mr. Robertson took the bold and chivalrous course of resigning his seat in the Assembly, and accepting a nomination to the Legislative Council, with the view of himself piloting his pet measure through the breakers which threatened to wreck its progress in the squatters' stronghold. This was in Jan. 1861, and involved his transferring the premiership to Mr. Cowper. As Minister of Lands he triumphed over the prejudices of the Upper House, and secured the passage of his measure, of which all subsequent land legislation has been an expansion. Before the Cowper-Robertson Ministry resigned in Oct. 1863 they had effectuated another point in the latter's programme by passing an Act to abolish State aid to religion. Mr. Robertson was once more Secretary for Lands for a few months in Mr. Cowper's fourth Government in 1865 and 1866. In the latter year he assisted his political opponents in carrying the Public Schools Act introduced by Mr. (now Sir) Henry Parkes. In Oct. 1868 Mr. Robertson formed his second Cabinet, acting as Premier and Colonial Secretary until Jan. 1870, when he transferred these offices to Mr. Cowper, under whom he served as Minister of Lands from August to December of the above year. In the Martin Ministry, which succeeded, he was Colonial Secretary from the latter date till May 1872. He formed his third Cabinet in Feb. 1875, and held office till March 1877. Another Parkes Ministry intervened, and Mr. Robertson was Premier for the fourth time from August to Dec. 1877, in which year he was created K.C.M.G. The public now became disgusted by the paucity of legislation, which they attributed to the personal rivalries between Sir John Robertson and Sir Henry Parkes; and at the general election in Dec. 1877 this view of the case was indicated pretty palpably by the simultaneous rejection of the former for West Sydney and of the latter for East Sydney. Both, however, quickly found alternative seats; but they took the hint, and after a short interval formed a Coalition Ministry, which held office for the unusual period of four years —viz., from Dec. 1878 to Jan. 1883. The arrangement come to was facilitated by the fact that Sir John Robertson had resigned his seat in the Assembly a short time previously, on failing to form a Government when that of Mr. Farnell was defeated. Thus, whilst Sir Henry Parkes conducted Government business in the Assembly, Sir John, who was nominated to the Upper House for the purpose, represented the Government in that Chamber as Vice-President of the Executive Council. During Sir Henry Parkes' absence in England, from Dec. 1881 to August 1882, Sir John supplied his place as Colonial Secretary; and was also for a short time Minister of Public Instruction, and latterly of Lands, in the joint Cabinet. In Dec 1885 Sir John formed his fifth and last Administration, and was Premier and Colonial Secretary till Feb. 1886, when he was displaced by Sir Patrick Jennings. Shortly afterwards he retired from public life, the Legislature voting him £10,000 for his lifelong public services. Sir John was utterly opposed to the Federation policy fathered by Sir Henry Parkes, and denounced his former colleague with characteristic vigour. He married, in 1837, Margaret Emma, daughter of J. J. Davies, of Clovelly, Watson's Bay, Sydney, who died in August 1889. Sir John Robertson died in Sydney on May 8th, 1891.