GARRAN Robert Randolph

Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department / Solicitor-General
Years active
1 January 1901 ‒ 9 February 1932 / 1 September 1916 ‒ 9 February 1932
Robert Randolph Garran - Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23435998. Unknown photographer. 1930s.


Robert Randolph Garran was born on 10 February 1867, at 147 Phillip Street, in central Sydney. He was the sixth child, and only son, of Andrew Garran and Mary Isham, née Sabine. His father, as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and later as a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, was an advocate for federation of the Australian colonies and both parents campaigned for various social reforms. From the age of 10, Garran attended Sydney Grammar School, where he was School Captain in 1884. An outstanding student, he went on to study at the University of Sydney, winning numerous prizes and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1888. For his Master of Arts in 1889 he specialised in political philosophy and federal government, finishing with first class honours and the University Medal in the School of Philosophy.

Successful in law examinations conducted by the Barristers Admissions Board, he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1890. After early work in a solicitor's office and as an associate to Judge William Windeyer, Garran pushed aside his anticipated career as an equity barrister for zealous involvement in the federation movement throughout the next decade. Taking a keen interest in the local debates in 1891, he became one of Edmund Barton's 'young disciples' and a Council member of the Australasian Federation League in Sydney. Garran participated in the Corowa Conference in 1893 and the People's Federal Convention in Bathurst in 1896. Attending sessions of the Australasian Federal Convention held in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne in 1897 and 1898 as private secretary to the New South Wales Premier, George Reid, Garran was made secretary to the committee drafting the Constitution. He campaigned for a 'yes' vote in the 1898 and 1899 Constitution Bill referenda. His sold-out handbook, The Coming Commonwealth, based on a series of university lectures which attracted no students, brought him some renown as an expert on federation. In 1901, in collaboration with Sir John Quick, Garran published an authoritative commentary on the federation process and the new Constitution.2

At Federation on 1 January 1901 Garran, aged 33, was appointed inaugural Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department and Parliamentary Draftsman. That day he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in recognition of his services to the federal movement. On 7 April 1902 Garran and English-born schoolteacher Hilda Robson were married at St John's Church of England in Darlinghurst.

Serving 11 Attorneys-General in the course of his public service career, Garran was responsible for organising the first federal elections and for developing the legislative framework to underpin all aspects of the new Commonwealth administration. During the First World War he advised on complex and often urgent or contentious issues such as wartime powers, conscription, national security and international obligations. Highly respected for his outstanding knowledge and excellent judgement, he was entrusted with many delegated responsibilities. In 1916 he was assigned the additional role of Solicitor-General, to assist William Morris Hughes with his work as both Prime Minister and Attorney-General. Garran's work was recognised with a knighthood in 1917, and by his appointment as Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1920. Invited by Prime Minister SM Bruce to give evidence at the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1927, Garran discussed the history and origins of the Constitution and the evolution of the institutions established under it.

Frequently involved in international matters, Sir Robert participated from 1918 in several major conferences dealing with post-war peace and cooperation, including accompanying the Prime Minister to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Serving on various treaty drafting committees, he contributed to many provisions relating to the League of Nations. A member of the Australian delegation attending the Eleventh Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930, he was made chairman of the drafting committee at the subsequent Imperial Conference in London. Formalising acceptance of the principles laid down in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, the 1930 conference prepared a draft charter revising the relationship between the United Kingdom and the self-governing Dominions of the British Commonwealth. Enacted by the British Parliament as the Statute of Westminster 1931, the agreement was not formally adopted by the Australian government until 1942.

Having moved the Attorney-General's Department to the new seat of government in Canberra in 1927, Sir Robert retired from the public service on 9 February 1932, at the mandatory age of 65. Returning to practise as a barrister he was soon afterwards made a King's Counsel (KC),3 and was again honoured with a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1937. He remained active in official, academic and church affairs for the rest of his life. Among other things, in the early 1930s he chaired a tribunal advising on a dispute relating to the costs of military defence between India and the United Kingdom; and was on the committee which prepared the Australian Government's official reply to the secessionist movement in Western Australia. Always unstinting in his support for the national capital he continued to live there and to promote and lend his personal support to education, the arts and social and sporting activities. President of the Canberra Society of Arts and Literature in its early days he was also foundation president of the Rotary Club of Canberra, and later district governor. He worked constantly for the establishment of a truly national university in Canberra, including as Chairman of the Council of the Canberra University College. His honorary Doctorate of Laws was the first degree conferred by the Australian National University (ANU), on 7 December 1951 – he had others from the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney. The last formal ceremony he attended was the inaugural lecture for the ANU's Robert Garran Chair of Law.

Renowned for his capable and rapid writing style, Sir Robert was the author of thousands of individual opinions (and some signed jointly with others) as departmental Secretary and Solicitor-General, and later as a consultant to the Department. He wrote prolifically all his life – draft legislation, books, summaries of legislative developments and other articles for journals, poetry, hymns and letters to the press. His memoirs, completed a few days before his death, were published posthumously in 1958. The book's title, Prosper the Commonwealth, was taken from the last line of a Federation hymn he wrote.

Outliving his wife by almost 21 years Sir Robert Garran died on 11 January 1957, just before his ninetieth birthday. He was survived by his four sons – Richard, John, Andrew and Isham Peter. A state funeral at St John the Baptist Anglican Church in Reid, unprecedented for a career public servant, recognised his significance to the nation and his remarkable achievements on all levels. The Canberra suburb of Garran; a road, a hall of residence and a chair of law at the ANU; a house at Canberra Grammar School and the offices accommodating the Attorney-General's Department were named in his honour. In 1959, former Commonwealth Crown Solicitor Fred Whitlam delivered the inaugural memorial oration established by the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

  1.  Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to research for Carmel Meiklejohn, Fitting the Bill – A History of Commonwealth Parliamentary Drafting, Office of Parliamentary Counsel, Canberra, 2012.
  2. John Quick and Robert Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1901.
  3. Made King's Counsel (KC) in the reign of King George VI, Sir Robert was reappointed as Queen's Counsel (QC) after Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952.

Opinions by this author

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Opinion Number. 405


Opinion Number. 406


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