Media release: ‘Grand Old Man’ of Australian politics finds a new voice

It’s been more than 100 years since Sir Henry Parkes, ‘Grand Old Man’ and ‘Father of Federation’, spoke in the NSW Parliament. But he was there on Friday 4 June 1999, delivering a speech in the Legislative Assembly Chamber.

Listening to him were the NSW Attorney-General, Jeff Shaw, representing the Premier, as well as the Leader of the Opposition, Kerry Chikarovski, and an audience of 150 guests, including the Governor of NSW, the Hon. Gordon Samuels.

The occasion was the launch of the Henry Parkes Foundation, a new charitable trust which aims to encourage Australians to find out more about their country’s political and constitutional history, and about how they can participate as citizens. The Governor was present as the Foundation’s patron.

Parkes, played by actor Garry Ridgway, reminisced about his first glimpse of Sydney on arriving in the colony in 1839: “Oh! Tis a goodly sight for those who seek a resting place upon Australia’s strand.” He recalled his first public speech, in favour of universal suffrage, in 1849: “The people, growing in enlightenment, will never rest until they obtain it.” And he revisited his thoughts on federation, expressed at a convention in Sydney in 1891: “The seed is sown and it must spring up to maturity. No power on earth can throw back the cause of the Australian federation.” How right he was!

In introducing Parkes, Dr Helen Irving, one of the Foundation’s advisers, quoted his famous words, “The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all”.

“This remains a valuable metaphor today,” said Dr Irving. “From an awareness of our common humanity comes a sense of the common good. Our country’s constitution and political processes are an expression of that awareness, and the more we understand about them the more effective we can be as citizens.”

The Foundation’s Chairman, Professor Brian Fletcher, said that a citizenship project for schools was one of the first activities the Foundation hoped to support.

“It is in recognition of the outstanding contribution Sir Henry Parkes made to the Federation of the Australian colonies, that the NSW Centenary of Federation Committee has endorsed the launch of the Henry Parkes Foundation,” said Prue MacSween, Deputy Chair of the NSW Centenary of Federation Committee.

Members of the Parkes family who were present said it was their aim to carry forward his vision for Australia in today’s context. “We want to honour our ancestor in real and living ways—to do things that will continue to embody his egalitarian ideals now and in the future,” said great grand-daughter Jane Gray, a trustee of the Foundation.

Vision of the Grand Old Man to live again

Descendants of Sir Henry Parkes have joined with an eminent group of academics and community leaders to bring to life the spirit of the Grand Old Man of Australian politics.

At a small but historic event hosted by His Excellency the Governor, the Henry Parkes Foundation was established today as a charitable trust. The event took place in the office of the Governor, which had been Parkes’ office as Prime Minister of New South Wales, and which has been largely preserved along with all its furniture. The Deed constituting the Foundation was signed at the very same desk at which Parkes worked for so many years.

Parkes biographer Allan Martin has noted that despite the poverty and hardship of his early days in England, Parkes “played a leading part in the democratisation of the constitution which in 1856 established local self rule” and “went on to spend half a century of almost unbroken membership of the colonial parliament … becoming recognised by the late 1880s on all sides as the Grand Old Man of Australian politics.

“Despite many setbacks, he held firmly to the belief in the central importance of what could be achieved through parliamentary institutions,” said Martin.

“It is this principle that we want to carry forward,” said the Chair of the new Foundation, Brian Fletcher, Bicentennial Professor of Australian History at the University of Sydney. He emphasised the importance of this belief in the context of growing disillusionment with politics and politicians among Australians.

“We aim to interest people in politics and political structures so they can continue to use them to help maintain Australia as a just and open democratic society,” said Professor Fletcher.

Members of the Parkes family who were present said it was their aim to try and carry forward his vision for Australia in ways appropriate to today. “There’s no point in just honouring our ancestor unless we try to do something too,” said great grand-daughter Jane Gray.

Others on the Foundation’s Board of Advisers include the Hon. Neal Blewett, former Professor of Political Science at Flinders University, Labor Government Minister and Australian High Commissioner in London; Dr Helen Irving, senior lecturer in political science at UTS; Peter Webber, Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney and National Trust Board Members; Alan Ventress, the Mitchell Librarian; Ellen Elzey, EO of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, and Parkes descendants Jane Gray and Ian Thom. Former North Sydney Deputy Mayor Neil Hartley will act as co-Trustee, with Jane Gray and Ellen Elzey.

The Henry Parkes Foundation will be launched at a special event next year which will commemorate the significant role played by Parkes in Australia’s political history.