Sir Isaac Isaacs — the first Australian-born Governor-General

Australia Between The Wars

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Isaac Isaacs was born in Melbourne in 1855. His parents were Jewish and had migrated to Victoria from Poland in the year before his birth. His father was a hard-working tailor and so young Isaac Isaacs did not grow up in a privileged family.

Isaacs was educated in local government schools in northern Victoria where he achieved outstanding academic results. In 1876 he began studying law part time at Melbourne University. In order to keep his full-time job he would begin studying at 4 am. When he graduated from law in 1880 he began a career that would take him into Australia's highest legal and political positions:

1897 — elected to the convention responsible for writing Australia's constitution
1901 — elected to Australia's federal Parliament
1906 — judge on Australia's High Court
1931 — appointed as the first Australian-born Governor-General of Australia.

The decision to appoint Isaac Isaacs to the position of Governor-General of Australia caused great controversy and showed the deep class and religious divisions within the nation during the 1930s. The Prime Minister of the time, James Scullin, was forced to travel to London to personally advise King George V of Isaac Isaacs’ appointment. Sections of the Australian press and conservative politicians declared that the Governor-General should be a British aristocrat, because this was the tradition.

sir isaac isaacs.PNGIsaac Isaacs’ appointment was commented on in newspapers overseas. Readers of the American Time magazine were told that King George V was very reluctant to promote an Australian to the position.

Critics of Isaac Isaacs were careful to avoid discussion of his Jewish background, but anti-semitism was nevertheless evident in 1930s Australia. Few Australians of this decade were prepared to welcome migrants who were not of British background. The White Australia Policy and fear of foreigners shaped images of Australia.

Sir Isaac Isaacs served as Governor-General until his retirement in 1936. Despite the public debate about the choice of an Australian Governor-General, Isaacs gained wide respect for the manner in which he carried out his duties. He was a man of principle and compassion for those who were suffering during the Depression years. In recognition of the financial hardships experienced by so many Australians during the Depression, he sacrificed a quarter of his salary, refused to take his retired judges pension, greatly reduced official entertainment and gave up the official residences beyond Canberra. He became the first Governor-General to live permanently in Canberra.

After retirement from the Governor-General's position, Sir Isaac Isaacs remained actively involved in public life. His long and distinguished career was based on his commitment to improving Australian society through the courts and through the Australian Parliament. He believed this was the means by which Australia could achieve social justice and become an example to the world of a ‘progressive community’.



References

Mason, K.J., Experience of nationhood : modern Australia since 1901, South Melbourne, Cengage Learning Australia, 2010.
Webb, K., Discovering Australian history. Stage 5, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 200