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Great Unitarian Political Leaders of Australia and New Zealand

Address at the Melbourne Unitarian Church, Sunday, April 8, 2012

As a human interest politics retains a strong relationship with religion even in contemporary society. Challenged by scientific independence in the study of facts and, to a lesser extent, individual rights in aesthetic tastes and expressions, it is in the relations between people where we hear religious leaders of various denominations attempting to influence public opinion, according to their faith. Unitarians tend to be a little different in this regard. Our religious principles lead us to be suspicious of faith-based claims. Faith, to the Unitarian, is a matter of individual belief, and certainly not something that is to be imposed on others.

It is not surprising then that the primary political activity of Unitarians is the establishment of freedom of religious thought and expression. From the Edict of Turda in Transylvania, to the Religious Tolerance Act of the United Kingdom to the Bill of Rights in the United States, Unitarians have been at the forefront of protecting individual liberty, first and foremost, and as secondary, as a logical consequent, democratic governance of public institutions.

The following brief biographies, mere sketches of some great men and women of Australia and New Zealand, are those Unitarians who involved themselves in public life, not usually as religious leaders, but in politics, legislation, and the debates of political economy. Theological issues were part of their life, and it is hoped that their political ideas give some indication of how their Unitarianism influenced them. The list is, of course, far from complete. An attempt was made to make the selection as objective as possible - from the attainment of political office to even the calculation of column inches from the National Archives.

The first person of this measure was Ebenezer Syme, born in 1825 in North Berwick, Scotland. A student of theology at St. Andrew's college and missionary student to village kirks, he desired to become a missionary to China and became educated in language for such a venture. But his conscience troubled him, and he rejected Calvinism and joined the Unitarians, and was installed as pastor at the Sunderland Unitarian chapel. But in 1851 he left that profession to become engaged in journalism. In 1853 he and his family moved to Australia, where he became a regular contributor to The Argus and helped launch and edit The Digger's Advocate, which supported the most radical positions of that miners, especially those who fought at the Eureka Stockade whom he furiously defended in his editorials.

As The Advocate closed, Ebenezer joined David Blair as an editor of The Age, along with his brother David Syme. Elected in 1856 to the Legislative Assembly for the seat of Lodden, he continued as an independent in parliament to engage in the chamber the same message that he hammered out in the press - support for the eight-hour day, suffrage for working men, electorates of equal size, abolition of state aid to religion, support for free and secular education. His words made The Age popular in the goldfields and among the working-class of Melbourne, but he paid scant attention to commercial success of the paper, or, for that matter, to the potential of libel in much of his material. A fiery person, who took on almost the entire management and editing of the paper, he exhausted himself, and retired for health reasons in 1859 and died a year later, in his thirty-fifth year.

The next person of note is, alas, the only female in our sketch, Catherine Helen Spence, whose image we find on the Australian five dollar note. Born in Melrose, Scotland, her family emigrated to South Australia and her father become the first elected Town Clerk of Adelaide. Spence showed skill in writing and in 1854 her novel 'Clara Morison' was published in the UK; the first novel about Australia written by a woman. This, and her second novel, 'Tender and True', were both published anonymously. Her next six novels actually bore her name.

Much distressed with the doctrines of the Church of Scotland, under which she had been raised, Spence joined the Unitarians around 1850, and gave sermons from 1878 onwards, usually in Adelaide, but also occasionally in Melbourne and Sydney. Increasingly however her interest lay in politics. An advocate of proportional representation as early as 1861 with her book 'A Plea for Pure Democracy', in 1892 she developed the Hare-Spence system which she argued in her book "Effective Voting" was the only method of ensure proportional representation. The problem was, as Spence ruefully remarked, was that the proposed system did not offer any advantage to existing political parties; "'Too damned fair,' I have heard it called by the profane".

By this stage however Spence was fully immersed in the political life. In 1893 she attended the Chicago World Fair, where she addressed the International Conference on Charities and Correction, the Proportional Representation Congress, the Single Tax Conference, the Peace Conference. She then lectured and preached across the United States, Britain and Switzerland. She ran for the Federal Convention in 1897, becoming Australia's first female political candidate. Spence had also joined the campaign for women's suffrage in 1891 and became a vice-president of the Women's Suffrage League of South Australia. After South Australian women were enfranchised in 1894, she supported campaigns in New South Wales and Victoria and spoke at meetings of the Women's League. In addition Spence helped found the Boarding-Out Society, which sought appropriate foster families for orphans that would otherwise find themselves institutionalised. She herself raised three families of such children in succession.

Shifting our gaze across the Tasman, the next subject of our journey is one Sir Robert Stout who reached the office of Premier of New Zealand from 1884 to 1887, the highest elected office of the land, taking that position at the young age of 39. Born in the Shetland Islands in 1844, his father was a controversial Elder of the Free Church of Scotland who encouraged religious debate. It was not only this experience that would influence him in later life, but also his witness of renter evictions which led him to develop a lifelong passionate hatred of landlordism. Stout was the person primarily responsible for promoting a leasehold system of property which survives in New Zealand to this day, a method which ensures affordable home ownership and encourages employment.

A exceedingly intelligent man, he completed the teacher's qualifying exam in Scotland at the age of 13. Having emigrated to Dunedin, he completed studied moral science and political economy with honours, and lectured in law at the University of Otago. Robert, along with his wife Anna, was also an early supporter of women's suffrage and equal pay. His wife also was an active member of the Freethought and Temperance movements, which Robert also supported. He opposed the Bible in Schools movement, and voted against the awarding of Divinity degrees.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1875, he became Attorney General and Minister of Lands and Immigration in 1878. Under his Premiership, the government made reforms to secondary education, organised health and welfare reform, introduced a system of probabtion in criminal law for first-time offenders, abolished the automatic transfer of women's property to their husbands upon marriage, banned liquor in King's Country (at Maori request), and nearly succeeded in getting women the vote. His strong belief in individualism however led to him to argue against general social welfare and his government was defeated on this basis.

For the last twenty five years of his life, Stout was a founding and leading member of the Wellington Unitarian Free Church where he moved in 1895, where he continued his promotion of free thought and rationalist ideas, arguing against religious funding and teaching in public schools. He also served in the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1884 to 1930. As the Chief Justice of New Zealand from 1899 to 1925, he was responsible for the consolidation of New Zealand statutes, and the reform of the Privy Council in Britain.

The next character, John Christian Watson, most well known as Chris Watson, was born in Valparaíso, in Chile in 1867 and was raised in Oamaru, New Zealand and at 13 became a printers apprentice. In 1886 he moved to Sydney, working for several newspapers, and developed an interest in politics. Watson became a founding member of the New South Wales Labor Party in 1891, and Vice-President of the Trades and Labour Council in early 1892. By the middle of the year he was both President of the Council and Chair of the Party. In 1894 he was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the seat of Young. In 1898 he played a major role in defeating the draft constitution for Australian Federation, arguing that it was anti-democratic with the Senate was being given too much power. With the referendum rejected, Watson and Labor Party representatives were able to force concessions.

Watson then went on to win the Federal seat of Bland in the first elections of 1901 and become the leader of the Federal Labor Party. Labor, at this stage, was the smallest of the three parties in parliament but held the balance of power extracting concessions that implemented the party platform. A difference in industrial relations laws led to the Protectionist government resigning 1904, with the opposition refusing to take office, leaving the office of Prime Minister in the hands of Watson, the first Labour Prime Minister of Australia, the world's first national Labour government. At 37, Watson is still the youngest Prime Minister in Australia's history. Although a minority government with less than a third of the seats in parliament, and lasting but four months, Watson's government did, manage to advance the industrial relations bill which was passed by a subsequent government. Watson led the Labor Party until 1907, and retired from politics in 1910. Although it cannot be said that Chris Watson was a particularly active Unitarian - he had other pressing concerns - his two marriages were both held at the Sydney Unitarian Church and he did present lectures there on the topic of Christian socialism.

Another Labor moderate who took a different direction who was Crawford Vaughn, born in Adelaide in 1874. Initially working a clerk, then in the Western Australian goldfields, he returned to Adelaide to work for the Crown Lands Department. During this time he become Secretary of the Single Tax League and a committee-member of the Effective Voting League. From 1899-1904 he edited Quiz, a radical newspaper, and stood as an independent for Federal parliament in 1901 and 1903. In 1904 he joined the United Labor Party and won the Legislative Assembly seat of Torrens the following year. He became honorary secretary that year, Vice-President two years later and and President the year after that. In 1910 Vaughan became treasurer and commissioner of crown lands and immigration and leader of the opposition in 1913, and Premier in 1915 in a ministry which included himself, he brother and brother-in-law, a matter of some criticism.

Relations between radicals in the Labor Party and the Vaughn administration were never good however and when the issue of conscription in the first world war reared its head, Labor split. Vaughn, and most of the parliamentary caucus, supported conscription. The unions and radicals did not; in 1917, Vaughan and other Labor parliamentarians who had favoured conscription were declared by a Labor conference to be disloyal to the party.

Vaughan and his allies split and formed the National Labor Party, later styling themselves the National Party. Vaughn's new National Part lost the election later that year to the Liberals, but accepted a role s a junior coalition party. Vaughan lost his seat in 1918 whilst lecturing abroad, which he continued to do so for three years, before turning to business and fiction writing, with the occasional unsuccessful foray into parliamentary politics. Increasingly conservative as he aged, his religion also changed. Although he was married as a Unitarian in his youth, he was buried with Anglican rites at a state funeral.

Born in Rockhampton in 1865 Henry James Chapple is our next subject. An active Salvation Army officer he was appointed to Invercargill, New Zealand in 1890. Over the next four years he and wife served in Oamaru, Dunedin, Gore, Blenheim and Ashburton, and in 1897 James was appointed editor of the War Cry, based in Christchurch, before become a Presbyterian minister in 1903. Joining the New Zealand Socialist Party in 1905, he propounded such politics from the pulpit and was expelled as minister in 1910. He then became the founder of the Timaru Unitarians who opened a new church in 1912. Strongly opposed to the first world war, he claimed that it allowed for capitalist profit, and impoverishment for the poor. After a lecture tour of the West Coast he was arrested for sedition and jailed for 11 months with the magistrate describing him as a "dangerous man".

After his release he continued as minister in Christchurch until 1925, with two books published in England expressing his combination of religious principles and political views: "The Divine Need of the Rebel" and "A Rebel's Vision Splendid". From 1939 he alternated with William Jellie and others as the Unitarian minister in Auckland, but retired voluntarily in 1941, fearing that his public support for the Soviet Union may create problems for the Church. Dying in 1947, his grandson used his life as the basis for the novel "Plumb", which was published in 1978.

There are a number of other Unitarians who have been involved in politics which will be mentioned here, albeit only in passing. In Sydney, our contemporary Rev. Peter Crawford, was the Labor member for Balmain from 1984 to 1988. Peter Milton, a former member of the Church, was the Federal Member for La Trobe from 1980 to 1990. A regular attendee to our Church, Giovanni Sgro, was a member of the Victorian Legislative Council for Melbourne North from 1979 to 1991, and, of course, our public officer for many years, Len Cooper, is the Communications Division President of the CEPU. Regrettably, this address has also had to exclude the details of Arthur (Reynold) Clarey, the former president of the Clerk's Union, auditor and treasurer of the Australian Native's Association, president of the Amalgamated Institute of Secretaries, and member of the Legislative Assembly seat of Melbourne from 1955 to 1972. Also missing is Frederick Samuel Wallis, member of the South Australian Legislative Council from from 1907 to 1912, chief secretary and minister of industry in 1909, chief secretary from 1910-12, and Opposition leader in 1912-13. Others such as the Sydney-based nineteenth century co-operative agitator, union organiser, and founder of the Australian Socialist League, William McNamara, have been excluded because we are uncertain of his religious convictions, although he was buried "in Unitarian form".

But the purpose of this address is not merely a rendition of the biographies of some particular influential political activists who happened to be Unitarians. Rather, it is hoped that it illustrated how the Unitarian commitment to religious rationalism and individual freedom develops into a sense of egalitarianism and democracy in the public sphere. But there is another issue here, and that is the question of political involvement. There is no suggestion that everyone must be deeply dedicated to the political, especially if one's disposition and interests are towards religious and spiritual concerns, or science and technology, or the aesthetic expressions. Indeed, a society where everyone is involved only in politics will have zero production! But it is suggested that everyone have some interest in public affairs and dedicates some of their time to these interests.

It was Plato who first argued that one motivation to be involved in politics is that if one is not then they will inevitably be ruled by people with less virtue than themselves. So if you can realise your own personal weaknesses, consider for a moment that if you are not involved in politics, your rulers will be even worse than you are! So become involved in politics, as these Unitarians of Australia and New Zealand have done so, attain power, and do so with a sense of justice, and for freedom and democracy.

By way of conclusion consider these words from one of the last speeches of Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr, an address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967:

"Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. ... Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often have problems with power. There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly ... What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."