How Isaac Isaacs pipped Baron Birdwood to Australia’s Governor-General

james scullin
James Scullin (Australian Prime Minister 1929-1932)

As the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli approaches, Baron William Birdwood will be one of many names feted. It was General Birdwood’s decision as the head of the A and NZ Army Corps to approve the acronym Anzac. Though not Australian he became known as the ‘Soul of Anzac’ and he risked shelling in his own headquarters at Gallipoli. This Indian-born officer was a true servant of Empire and served king and country in the Boer War, then in Turkey and France in the First World War, before returning to his native India where he was army commander in chief in difficult pre-independence times.

He was also an aide-de-camp to King George V and a favourite of His Majesty when he visited Sandringham in 1930. An important sinecure was becoming available and George had Birdwood in mind for the job. The British conservative politician Viscount Stonehaven’s term as Governor-General of Australia was expiring that year and George thought Birdwood was a perfect fit. Not only was there the Anzac link but Birdwood’s daughter had married a WA grazier.

But newly elected Labor prime minister of Australia James Scullin had other ideas. The working class son of Irish emigrants from Derry, Scullin was feted by Irish Free State leaders on a visit to Europe in 1930. Having emerged from civil war, Ireland was trying to distinguish itself from the British Commonwealth and Scullin supported her right to govern itself. It mirrored, he said, what was happening in Australia where they “were building up their own national ideals and to place Australia as the first nation in their hearts.”

Birdwood would pay for Scullin’s ideals and the prime minister advised King George to appoint Australian-born Isaac Isaacs as the next governor-general. The Jewish Isaacs had the calibre for the role as the chief justice of the High Court, but Scullin’s recommendation was an affront to the King who normally picked from a list of choices, of which Birdwood would surely have made the short list. Instead Scullin presented a take-it-or-leave it choice. The idea of an Australian-born king’s representative was most unwelcome.

The unhappy King cut short Scullin’s visit to Ireland with a summons to the palace. Scullin told George he was determined to appoint Isaacs and would hold an election on issue of an Australian governor-general. There was also recent precedents of native-born Governors-General in Scullin’s own Ireland. The King was appalled but not prepared to risk a constitutional crisis. Isaacs, aged 75, was appointed despite Australian opposition leader John Latham saying the appointment would diminish the “sentiment of attachment and loyalty to the Crown”. The socialist newspaper Labor Call had no such worries. Scullin, they said, had shown the world “Australians are equal, if not superior, to any imported pooh-bah.”

Whether Labor Call had Birdwood in mind with that insult is not known, but the “soul of Anzac” had to make do with becoming the master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. With the depression in full swing, Isaacs was a frugal Governor-General and agreed to a pay cut. He was also the first to live permanently at Yarralumla. On retirement in 1936, the new conservative government went back to the British aristocracy in the Earl of Gowrie. Only one of the next six was Australian, William McKell, appointed by another Irish-heritage prime minister Ben Chifley. Since 1965 all Governors-General have been Australian born. It shouldn’t be a necessity – as the birthplace of two of the last three prime ministers can attest -but the idea an Australian-born leader was inferior to a foreigner is now a laughable oddity. Birdwood, the hero of Anzac, would probably have made a good governor-general but Scullin was right to stand firm.

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