IRVINE William Hill

Position
Attorney-General
Years active
24 June 1913 – 17 September 1914
Portrait of William Hill Irvine (1858-1943), by Broothorn Studios, 1900s. National Library of Australia

SIR WILLIAM HILL IRVINE GCMG KC 1858–19431

William Hill Irvine was born at Dromalane, Newry in County Down, Ireland on 6 July 1858. Sixth of the seven children of farmer and linen manufacturer, Hill Irvine and Margaret, née Mitchel, he attended the Royal School in Armagh. Despite financial difficulties arising from his father's bankruptcy and subsequent death in the late 1870s, Irvine completed his Bachelor of Arts at Trinity College in Dublin, excelling in modern history, Italian and mathematics. Graduating in 1879, he entered the King's Inns in Dublin but abandoned his legal studies to emigrate to Victoria with his mother and other family members. Travelling on the clipper sailing ship, Sobraon, theyarrived in Melbourne in December 1879 and settled at Richmond.

Continuing his education at the University of Melbourne, while supporting himself as a tutor and teacher at Geelong College, Irvine graduated with a Master of Arts in 1882, a Bachelor of Laws in 1884, and a Master of Laws in 1886. He was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 8 July 1884. Struggling to make progress in his practice he wrote on legal subjects – including on laws relating to the property of women, and on the powers of justices of the peace – and was an examiner for the law school at the university. On 17 September 1891, Irvine and Agnes Somerville Wanliss, daughter of a member of the Legislative Council, were married at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Ballarat.

Representing the Free-trade Democratic Association but virtually unknown in the rural Legislative Assembly constituency of Lowan, Irvine was unpredictably elected to the seat in 1894. Gaining a reputation for integrity, vision and determination he served as Victoria's Attorney-General in 1899-1900. Unsuccessful in his own bid for the federal seat of Wimmera in the inaugural election in 1901, Irvine became leader of the Opposition in Victoria when the former leader, Allan McLean, moved to the federal parliament. Commissioned to form a government after carrying a vote of no confidence against Alexander Peacock's administration in June 1902, and advocating parliamentary and public service reform, Irvine won a resounding victory at double dissolution elections on 1 October that year. He was Premier of Victoria, at various times also holding the positions of Attorney-General, Solicitor-General and Treasurer, until, citing ill-health, he resigned suddenly on 16 February 1904. Afterwards taking an extended trip overseas, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by the University of Dublin in 1904.

Declining appointment to the bench of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1906, Irvine instead was made a King's Counsel (KC) on 23 October, and in December that year was elected as an independent Protectionist in the federal seat of Flinders. His Bar career prospering, he appeared as senior counsel in numerous cases before the Supreme Court and the High Court. He became a member of the Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1908 but, generally independent and apparently aloof, was often at odds with parliamentary colleagues, including Alfred Deakin and Billy Hughes. An advocate of strengthened Commonwealth powers – especially in taxation, immigration and defence – Irvine failed in his bid for leadership of the Liberal Party when Deakin retired in 1913, but was appointed Attorney-General in the ministry under Joseph Cook, from 24 June 1913 to 17 September 1914. Hampered in the House of Representative where its majority was so small that divisions usually had to be decided on the casting vote of the presiding officer, and vastly outnumbered in the Senate, the short-lived Liberal government had great difficulty in passing other than routine legislation.

Most of Irvine's contributions to the Opinion Book during his term as Attorney-General were published in Volumes 1 and 2. One subject dealt with was the major constitutional issue during the parliament, the Governor-General's acceptance of the Prime Minister's advice in June 1914 that both the Senate and the House of Representatives should be dissolved simultaneously. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 found Australia preparing for its first double dissolution election on 5 September. Several of Irvine's opinions reflected the government's preoccupation with this crisis. In response to a suggestion from Hughes2 that the dissolution proclamation should be withdrawn and the election stopped, Irvine provided a statement advising on the constitutional position of the government under the circumstances. According to his departmental Secretary, Robert Garran, the advice 'gave excellent reasons for refusing to countenance this idea, and pointed out that all action necessary at the moment could be taken by the Government, pending the elections.'3

Made Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in June 1914 for his service as Attorney-General, Sir William held his seat at the subsequent elections, but was back in Opposition. Led by Andrew Fisher, the Labor Party won a decisive victory, but lost power two years later when the party split over differing attitudes to the war. Outspoken in his support for conscription during the First World War, Sir William refused to join any ministry which would not legislate for it. He resigned from parliament in 1918, and on 9 April was sworn in as Chief Justice of Victoria.

A dignified, courteous and industrious judge with a strongly logical and mathematical mind, he exhibited more humour and personal charm on the bench than in parliament. In 1923 he set an important precedent by refusing to nominate a Supreme Court judge to conduct a royal commission on a matter which had political implications. Several times Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, he acted as such for nearly three years from June 1931. One of his duties during this period was to open the Great Ocean Road (then a toll road) on 26 November 1932. A long-term member of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, and its patron from 1918, he had an abiding recreational interest in motoring and things mechanical. A painting of him by Ernest Buckmaster won the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1932.

His health deteriorating, Sir William retired from the Court on 30 September 1935. He was elevated to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) the following year. At age 85, he died at Toorak on 20 August 1943. Survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, he was accorded a state funeral at Scots Church, Melbourne, and was buried at Eltham Cemetery.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • JM Bennett, 'Irvine, Sir William Hill (1858–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/irvine-sir-william-hill-6801/text11765, accessed 9 October 2012.
    • Australian Government 'It's An Honour' website: http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/.
    • Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, 1956.
    • Parliamentary Library, Department of Parliamentary Services, 43rd Parliament: Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
  2. Previously Attorney-General, Hughes was at that time deputy leader of the parliamentary Labor Party.
  3. Opinion No.544 of 8 August 1914. Referred to in Sir Robert Randolph Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1958, p. 219.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 512

BORROWING BY COMMONWEALTH WHETHER TREASURER…

Opinion Number. 515

SERVANTS OF THE CROWN WHETHER EMPLOYMENT…

Opinion Number. 516

QUARANTINE SCOPE OF POWER : WHETHER APPLIES…

Opinion Number. 517

DEBTS OWING BY COMMONWEALTH AUTHORITY FOR…

Opinion Number. 519

FINANCE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH CERTIFYING…

Opinion Number. 520

ENTRY OF PERSONS INTO STATES EXTENT OF…

Opinion Number. 521

STATE OFFICERS TRANSFERRED TO COMMONWEALTH…

Opinion Number. 522

COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF NATURE OF GOVERNOR-…

Opinion Number. 523

FISHERIES IN AUSTRALIAN WATERS BEYOND…

Opinion Number. 525

DEFENCE PURPOSES WHETHER IN TIME OF WAR…