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George Houstoun Reid

George Reid

George Houstoun Reid (February 25, 1845 - September 12, 1918), Australian politician and fourth Prime Minister of Australia, was born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, son of a Church of Scotland minister, migrated to Victoria with his family as a child. He was educated at what later became Scotch College, but when the family moved to Sydney Reid obtained a job as a clerk. Joining the colonial public service, he rose rapidly and in 1878 he became head of the Attorney-General's department. He also published several books on political questions, notably free trade.

Qualifying as a barrister in 1879, he obtained a seat in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1880, and held a seat in the New South Wales Parliament until Federation in 1901. He succeeded Sir Henry Parkes as leader of the Free Trade Party, and became Premier of New South Wales in 1894 at the head of a progressive ministry supported by the Labour Party. In 1899, however, he fell out with Labour and resigned. By this time Reid had grown hugely fat and sported a walrus moustache and a monocle, but his buffoonish image concealed a shrewd political brain.

Reid supported the federation of the Australian colonies, but since the campaign was led by his Protectionist opponent Edmund Barton he did not take a leadring role. When the proposed federal constitution was put to a referendum in New South Wales in 1899, he took the unusual position of saying that although he was opposed to it, he would personally vote for it. This earned him the nick-name "Yes-No Reid." The referendum was defeated, and Reid was able to secure greater concessions for New South Wales.

Reid was elected to the first federal Parliament as MP for East Sydney in 1901. Labor no longer trusted him and gave their support to the Barton government, so Reid became the first Leader of the Opposition, a position which his robust debating style and rollicking sense of humour suited him to. He improved his party's position in the 1903 elections, and in August 1904, when the Watson government resigned, he became Prime Minister.

Reid did not have a majority in either House, and he knew it would be only a matter of time before the Deakin's Protectionists patched up their differences with Labor, so he enjoyed himself in office while he could. In July 1905 the other two parties duly voted him out, and he left office with a good grace. He gained seats once more in 1906, but failed to win a majority. In 1908, when Deakin proposed a "Fusion" of the two non-Labor parties, Reid stood aside from leadership. In 1910 he resigned from Parliament and was appointed as Australia's first High Commissioner in London.

Reid was extremely popular in Britain, and in 1916, when his term as High Commissioner ended, he was elected to the House of Commons for a London seat as a "Non Party Empire" candidate, where he acted as a spokesman for the self-governing Dominions in supporting the war effort. He died suddenly in London in September 1918.

Reid's poshumous reputation suffered from the general acceptance of protectionist policies by all parties, as well as from his buffoonish public image. In 1989 W G McMinn published George Reid (Melbourne University Press), a serious biography designed to rescue Reid from his reputation as a clownish reactionary and show his Free Trade policies as having been vindicated by history.

Preceded by:
John Christian Watson
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Alfred Deakin