Sir Robert Garran: Medio Tutissimus Ibis

Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
The Hon. Justice Stephen Gageler AC*
Sir Robert Randolph Garran (10 February 186711 January 1957) played a unique role in
the early development of the Commonwealth. As Secretary to the Drafting Committee
of the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897 and 1898, he was intimately involved in
the process by which the Australian Constitution was produced. As Secretary of the
Attorney-Generals Department from 1901 to 1932, he wa s responsible for drafting
foundational Commonwealth legislation and he played a key part in establishing
coherent interpretations of the Constitution in advice to successive Federal Governments.
Three aspects of Garrans life and work are ex plored in this article: the p opular
movement which established the process by which the Constitution was negotiated,
drafted, and submitted to ref erenda for approval; Garrans tenure and legacy as
Secretary of the Attorney-Generals Department; and Garrans views on federa lism and
constitutional law.
Embedded in the pavement of Martin Place between Phillip Street and Macquarie Street
in what is now the central business district of Sydney are rectangular metal grilles.
Periodically, they emit walls of mist in the shape of Georgian cottages which once stood
there. Next to them are bronze bowls repr esenting washrooms once fed by the Ta nk
Not far from the site of that installation, on the Elizabeth Street side of Phillip Stre et
where it now meets Martin Place, there once stood a Victorian terrace in w hich Robert
Randolph Garran was born on 10 February 1867. His father, Andrew Garran, was then
a journalist with, and was later editor of, the Sydney M orning Herald. His mother, Mary
Isham Garran, had a deep social conscience and later served on the board of the Sydney
Childrens Hospital. She also had a deep distrust of milkman s milk. The family kept a
cow on the Domain. The cow would wander across Macquarie Street to the backyard of
the house in Phillip Street to be milked twice a day. The young Robert Garr an grew up
happily in a household with five older sisters. So tall did he become, standing at 6 4’’ in
an age when the avera ge height for an adult male was considerably shorter than it is
* Justice of the High Court of Australia. This is a revised version of the Geoffrey Sawer Lecture
delivered at the Australian National University on 12 October 2017. I thank Natalie Burgess
and Glyn Ayres for their research and Jane Reynolds for bringing to my attention the fact
that 2017 was the 150th anniversary of Sir Robert Garrans birth.
2 Federal Law Review Volume 46
now, that in his youth he was used by friends as a meeting point on social occasions. He
attended Sydney Grammar School and studied Arts at the University of Sydney b efore
being called to the New South Wales Bar in 1890.
On 11 January 1957, just a month short of his 90th birthday, Sir Robert Garran GCMG
QC died in Canberra where he had lived since 1927. His death was marked locally as
that of the much loved Grand Old Man of Canberra.
His death was marked nationally
as that of the last surviving member of Australias founding generation.
At the
instigation of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, he was given a State funeral. He is buried
in the churchyard of St Johns Anglican Church in Reid where he and his wife Hilda,
whom he married in 1902 and who predeceased him, had been parishioners.
In addition to a translation of the songs of Schubert and Schumann,
Garran was the
author of thre e books on the Constitution. One, published in 1897, was entitled The
Coming Commonwealth. Another, co-authored with Dr John Quick and published in 1901,
was the monumental t ome The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth,
dedicated by its authors to the people of Australia. The third, published the year af ter
his death, was his memoir, entitled Prosper the Commonwealth. The titles of each, and the
dedication of the second, alone bespeak a life of selfless devotion to building the
Australian nation.
At the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897 and 1898 , Garran, then aged 30 and
31, was Secretary to the Drafting Committee consisting of Edmund Barton, Richard
OConnor and Sir John Downereach more than 16 years his senior. He would later
describe himself in that role as the cabin boy of the Constitution.
On 1 January 1901, at
the age of 33, he was present at the ce remony in Centennial Park in Sydney when the
Commonwealth of Australi a was proclaimed, when Lord Hopetoun assumed office as
its first Governor-General and when Edmund Barton was sworn in as the first Prime
Minister together with a Ministry which included Alfred Deakin as Attorney-General.
Later that day, he was present at the first meeting of the Federal Executive Council when
the first Departments of State were created. Garran was always careful to disclaim that
he was the first Commonwealth public servant in deference to the officers of the six State
Departments of Customs and Excise who, by f orce of s 69 of the Constitution,
automatically became officers of the Commonwealth on its establishment.
But, as the
putative first Secretary of the Attorney-Generals Department, Garran was, in that
moment, for all practical purposes the only Commonwealth public servant.
A Great Australian, Canberra Times (Canberra), 12 January 1957, 2; Sir Robert Garran Laid
to Rest, Canberra Times (Canberra), 15 January 1957, 3.
Sir John Latham, ‘Sir Robert GarranAn Appreciation (1957) 30 Australian Law Journal 494;
K H Bailey, Sir Robert Garran (1957) 29 Australian Quarterly 9.
Sir Robert Ran dolph Garran, Schubert and Schumann: Songs and Translations (Melbourne
University Press, 1946).
Sir Robert Randolph Garran, ‘Constitution Building’ in F A Bland (ed), Changing the
Constitution (New South Wales Constitutional League, 1950) 187, 189.
Carmel Meiklejohn (ed), 100 Years: Achieving a Just and Secure Society (Attorney-General’s
Department, 2001) 1 3; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 19011929
(Melbourne University Press, 1956) 45.
R S Parker, Garran, Sir Robert Randolph in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian
Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne University Press, 1981) vol 8, 622.

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