Parkes the visionary

Speech by Dr Helen Irving, member of the Board of Advisers, Henry Parkes Foundation, at the launch of the Foundation. NSW Parliament House, 4 June 1999

‘The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all.’

Henry Parkes was a politician with a talent for epigrams, poetic slogans, apposite names. These are among his gifts to Australian history. He talked of the ‘footsteps of six giants in the morning dew’ as he drew his vision of Federation in 1867; he raised his glass to ‘one people; one destiny’ in 1891; he bestowed upon Australia the very fitting, generous name of ‘Commonwealth’ in that same year. And he told his audience at the banquets for the Federation Conference in Melbourne in 1890 that ‘The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all.’

Kinship, community, shared goals and dreams, united all Australians, said Parkes, and they rose above artificial barriers and differences. Kinship was bigger than petty intercolonial disputes over things like tariffs. It ran through all Australians, and would be the force that would unite them.

It was a most impressive speech, and it was received by its audience with the rapture that audiences of the Victorian era – that much less cynical age – so experienced and enjoyed showing.

Parkes had initiated the 1890 conference, and out of that conference grew his great triumph, the first National Australasian Convention, here in Sydney in 1891. There, the first full draft of the Constitution was written. It is for this reason, among others, that we know him today as the Father of Federation.

But, Parkes by the 1890s was a very old man. He had a long life and a long career in politics behind him. He was five times Premier of New South Wales; this, I imagine, remains a record. And he was a democrat and reformer during those years of power, in ways that have been largely forgotten. He introduced compulsory, secular education for the children of NSW. He brought in nursing in state hospitals. He reformed the electorates and extended the franchise. He supported women’s suffrage long before it was fashionable. He asserted Australia’s independence at times when to do so ran the risk of being accused of disloyalty to Britain.

He was a man of great vanity, but more importantly, of great vision. It is only too easy to lose a sense of vision when one is caught up with the demands and the practical issues of the day. Parkes kept the big picture in mind, and in return he has remained in the public memory, like no other politician of the 19th century.

The crimson thread of kinship is symbolised here today by the red ribbons around us. The metaphor of kinship remains valuable in the late 20th century. 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 them, the more effective we can be as citizens.

Parkes was more reluctant than any other politician I know of to give up the life of politics. He contested elections, even as a very old man, right up to the eve of his death. I am sure he haunts the corridors of the NSW Parliament. Perhaps he is even among us today…