Ronald Munro Ferguson, 1st Viscount Novar: Wikis

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The Right Honourable
 The Lord Novar 
KT GCMG PC


In office
18 May 1914 – 6 October 1920
Preceded by The Lord Denman
Succeeded by The Lord Forster

Born 6 March 1860(1860-03-06)
Fife, Scotland
Died 30 March 1934 (aged 74)
Fife, Scotland

Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson, 1st Viscount Novar KT GCMG PC (6 March 1860 – 30 March 1934), the sixth Governor-General of Australia, was probably the most politically influential holder of this post.

Contents

Early years

He was born Ronald Craufurd Ferguson at his family home in the Raith area of Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, the son and eldest child of a wealthy member of the United Kingdom House of Commons of old Scottish descent; Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ferguson MP, and his wife Emma Eliza Ferguson, née Mandeville. In 1864, his father inherited the estates of Novar in Ross-shire and Muirton, Morayshire, and took the additional surname Munro. He was educated at Sandhurst and pursued a military career until 1884.

Political life

In 1884 he was elected to the House of Commons. He became private secretary to Lord Rosebery, a leading Liberal, and in 1889 he married Lady Helen Blackwood, daughter of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who was Viceroy of India.

Like Rosebery, Munro Ferguson was a Liberal Imperialist. He supported the imperial policies of the Conservative government, including the Second Boer War, which made him highly unpopular with the radical, anti-war, wing of the Liberal Party. He therefore had little hope of Cabinet office in the governments of Campbell-Bannerman or Asquith, despite his obvious talents.

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Governor-General of Australia

In February 1914, therefore, he was happy to accept the post of Governor-General of Australia (he had refused the governorship of Victoria in 1910 and that of South Australia in 1895). He was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) prior to his appointment.

Munro Ferguson's political background, his connections with the Liberal government in London and his imperialist views made him both better equipped and more inclined to play an activist role in Australian politics than any of his predecessors, while at the same he had enough sense to confine his activism to behind the scenes influence.

Munro Ferguson developed close friendships with two judges of the High Court of Australia, Sir Samuel Griffith (the Chief Justice, and former Premier of Queensland) and Sir Edmund Barton (former Prime Minister of Australia). He consulted Griffith and Barton on many occasions, including on the exercise of the reserve powers of the Crown.[1]

Australian federal election, 1914

It was well that Munro Ferguson was politically experienced, because he arrived in Melbourne, then the site of the Parliament of Australia before Canberra was established in the Australian Capital Territory, to find himself in the midst of a political crisis. The Liberal government of Joseph Cook had a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, but the Labor Party had a majority in the Senate and had used it systematically to frustrate the government. Cook was now determined to force a double dissolution election under Section 57 of the Constitution.

On 2 June 1914, barely three weeks after Munro Ferguson had taken office, Cook formally requested a double dissolution. Munro Ferguson had several things to consider. The Parliament elected in 1913 still had two years to run. Cook had not been defeated in the House of Representatives. His sole reason for wanting a dissolution was that he did not control the Senate. This was a situation without precedent in the United Kingdom, where the upper house, the House of Lords, is unelected.

When Munro Ferguson granted Cook a double dissolution, he was furiously denounced by the Labor Party, who maintained that Cook was manipulating the Constitution to gain control of the Senate. Munro Ferguson, influenced by the British House of Lords crisis of 1910, took the view that the lower house should prevail. Paradoxically, it was Cook's conservatives who argued that the Governor-General should always take the advice of his Prime Minister, while Labor argued that he should exercise his discretion.

In the middle of the campaign for the 1914 election, news arrived of the outbreak of the First World War. This caused an acute crisis in Australian government. The Parliament had been dissolved and the government was in caretaker mode. Furthermore, Australia in 1914 did not have the right to independent participation in international affairs, and so its politicians were completely inexperienced in such. In these circumstances, Munro Ferguson was the only man with both the constitutional authority and the confidence to act. It was Munro Ferguson who convened the Cabinet, implemented the mobilisation plan and communicated with the Cabinet in London.

Cook's manoeuvring backfired when Labor won the September elections and Andrew Fisher was returned to office.

Australia at War

From the start it was the energetic Billy Hughes who was driving force behind the war effort. He formed a close relationship with Munro Ferguson, who recognised his ability. Munro Ferguson saw his role in wartime as an agent of the British war effort, not just a representative of the Crown. Munro Ferguson openly supported those who were committed to the war, and opposed those who were not.

In October 1915, Fisher resigned and was succeeded as Prime Minister by Hughes. Although Hughes was vain and erratic, Munro Ferguson recognised his qualities as a war leader and supported him privately and publicly, in a way that stretched constitutional propriety. Hughes was convinced that only the introduction of conscription would allow Australia to maintain its commitment to the war effort and Munro Ferguson gave him every encouragement.

Like Hughes, Munro Ferguson regarded the defeat of the conscription referendums in October 1916 and December 1917 as disasters for Australia and the war effort. When Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party after the first referendum, Munro Ferguson allowed him to stay in office as a minority Prime Minister and encouraged Hughes and Cook to form a new party, the Nationalist Party, on a "win the war" platform. During the second referendum campaign, Hughes pledged to resign if it were not carried, but when he carried out his promise Munro Ferguson promptly recommissioned him.

Despite their close co-operation, Hughes was not Munro Ferguson's puppet. Once David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in Britain, Hughes increasingly communicated directly with him (sometimes in Welsh), causing Munro Ferguson to complain that he was being denied his proper role as the medium of communication between London and Melbourne. Despite Munro Ferguson's vigorous assertion of his rights as Governor-General, he could not in the long run halt the decline in the influence of the office. Once Australia gained the right to independent participation in international affairs, which it did in 1918, Munro Ferguson's days of influence were over.

Lady Helen Munro Ferguson's work for the British Red Cross Society, which included converting the ballroom of Melbourne's Government House for this purpose, earned her appointment as a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in 1918.

Post-war

In May 1919, Munro Ferguson advised London of his desire to resign. He was pressed to stay on to oversee the Australian tour of the Prince of Wales in 1920. He finally departed in October 1920, after more than six years in the job. On his return home, he was created Viscount Novar, of Raith in the County of Fife and of Novar in the County of Ross. In 1922, he was appointed Secretary for Scotland in Andrew Bonar Law's Conservative government, holding the post until 1924. He was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Thistle (KT) in 1926.

He died at his home in 1934, his title dying with him as he left no issue. His papers are an extremely important source for historians of Australian politics and Australia's role in the First World War.

References

  1. ^ Donald Markwell, "Griffith, Barton and the early governor-generals: aspects of Australia's constitutional development", Public Law Review, 1999.

External links

Sources

  • Torrance, David, The Scottish Secretaries (Birlinn 2006)
  • Donald Markwell, "Griffith, Barton and the early governor-generals: aspects of Australia's constitutional development", Public Law Review, 1999.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Alexander Matheson
Member for Ross and Cromarty
1884–1885
Succeeded by
Roderick Macdonald
Preceded by
William Ewart Gladstone
Member for Leith Burghs
1886–1914
Succeeded by
George Welsh Currie
Government offices
Preceded by
The Lord Denman
Governor-General of Australia
1914–1920
Succeeded by
The Lord Forster
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Munro
Secretary for Scotland
1922–1924
Succeeded by
William Adamson
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New title Viscount Novar
1920–1934
(extinct)

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