SIR ROBERT WALLACE BEST 1856–19461'
Robert Wallace Best was born on 18 June 1856 at Collingwood, Victoria. His parents were Irish-born Robert Best (a farmer who became a customs officer) and Jane, née Wallace. At the age of 13 he left Templeton's School, Fitzroy, to work as a clerk in a printing office in Chancery Lane, later moving to the firm of an equity solicitor, WT Trollope. From there Best did his articles, matriculated in 1875 and went on to study law at the University of Melbourne. In 1881 he was admitted as a solicitor. On 13 April that year he and Jane Caroline Langridge were married at St Philip's Church of England in Collingwood.
Entering local politics, Best was an alderman on the Fitzroy City Council from 1883 until 1897, including a term as mayor in 1888–89. In April 1889 he was elected member for Fitzroy in the Legislative Assembly, and was chairman of the royal commission on constitutional reform in 1894. Tariff reform and significant remodelling of land laws were among the measures he introduced as president of the Board of Land and Works, commissioner of crown lands and survey and also for trade and customs in the colonial government from 1894 to 1899. A strong supporter of federation, Best initially nominated as a candidate for election to represent Victoria at the Australasian Federal Convention, but apparently withdrew before the vote. He acted as Premier while Sir George Turner and the Victorian Attorney-General, Isaac Isaacs attended the Adelaide session of the Convention in 1897. In 1899 Best travelled to New Zealand to discuss labour issues.
Elected to the Senate as a Protectionist, Best entered the first federal Parliament in May 1901. On 28 June he was appointed as the first Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman of Committees. He was Vice-President of the Executive Council and leader of the Senate from February 1907 until November 1908. The three contributions he made to the Opinion Book during this period were all published in Volume 1. Instrumental in negotiating the 'Fusion' agreement between the Protectionists, the Free Traders and the tariff reform groups in parliament, Best served as Minister for Trade and Customs in the resultant government under Alfred Deakin's leadership, from 2 June 1909 until 24 April 1910. Legislation for which Best was responsible in the Senate included tariff and excise bills, and those providing for invalid and old-age pensions.
Best was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1908. Losing his seat in the Senate elections on 13 April 1910, when Labor achieved a landslide victory, Sir Robert left parliament at the end of June but was quickly returned as a member of the House of Representatives in an opportune by-election on 24 August that year. He held the seat of Kooyong as a Liberal until 1917, and then as a Nationalist (supporting Prime Minister Hughes and the introduction of conscription) until 1922. Described as excitable and enthusiastic he was nonetheless regarded as dependable, and could be relied upon to speak moderately and sensibly in parliament. He favoured restricted immigration under a 'White Australia' policy and was wary of Commonwealth impingement on State rights. A regular speaker at campaigns for the Australian Women's National League he benefitted at the polls from his contribution to this cause, women having been made eligible to vote and to stand for election under the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.
Defeated by the Independent Liberal Union candidate, John Latham, in a close contest in the election of 16 December 1922, Sir Robert left politics. He returned to his legal practice, which he had maintained in partnership with Theodore Fink since 1886, continuing to practise law until 1945. A prominent layman of the Church of England, Sir Robert was also a committee member of a charitable society established in 1893 to address social consequences of ruinous land speculation during the 1880s. Always maintaining his interest in local affairs and in sport he was at various times president of the Fitzroy Football Club and the League of Victorian Wheelmen, vice-president of the Victorian Football Association and the Victorian Bicycle Club, and involved with the Victorian Cricket Association.
Widowed in 1901, he had married Maude Evelyn Crocker-Smith at Christ Church, St Kilda the following year. When he died at the age of 89 at Hawthorn on 27 March 1946, Sir Robert was survived by his second wife and their four daughters, and by two sons and two daughters from his first marriage.
- Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
- Catherine Jones, 'Best, Sir Robert Wallace (1856-1946)', in Ann Millar (editor), The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Volume 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2000.
- Norma Marshall, 'Best, Sir Robert Wallace (1856–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/best-sir-robert-wallace-5225/text8793, accessed 21 May 2012.
- Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.