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The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Higinbotham, His Honour the Hon. George

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Higinbotham, His Honour the Hon. George, M.A., Chief Justice of Victoria, is the sixth son of the late Henry T. Higinbotham, of Dublin, Ireland, where he was born in 1827. He was educated at the Royal School, Dungannon, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1849, and M.A. in 1853. When just of age he went to London, and entered himself for the Bar at Lincoln's Inn on April 20th, 1848. He also connected himself with journalism, becoming in 1849 a reporter on the Morning Chronicle, on which paper Mr. B. C. Aspinall, afterwards a political contemporary in Melbourne, was one of his colleagues. Having been called to the Bar on June 6th, 1853, Mr. Higinbotham left the Morning Chronicle, and emigrated to Melbourne, where he arrived early in 1854. Here he practised his profession, contributing meanwhile to the Melbourne Herald. In 1856 he accepted the editorship of the Argus, in succession to Mr. Edward Wilson, who was also the principal proprietor. This post he held till 1859, when he resigned and resumed his practice at the Bar. He now began to take a part in politics, and was returned to the Legislative Assembly for Brighton in 1861 as an independent Liberal. His independence was too decided to prove palatable to the majority of his constituents, and he was rejected at the general election in the same year, but was again elected nine months later, when the sitting member, Mr. Brodribb, resigned. Mr. Higinbotham opposed what is known as the Duffy Land Act of 1862, and when, in June 1863, the O'Shanassy Government was defeated, he accepted office in the ablest of all Victorian Cabinets, which was then formed under Mr. (now Sir James) MᶜCulloch. He took the post of Attorney-General, and held it for five stormy years, during which the question of the financial predominance of the two Houses was raised and contested with a stubbornness which brought the colony to the verge of revolution. As the legal adviser of the Government, which by "tacks" and still more drastic devices vindicated the financial supremacy of the Lower Chamber, Mr. Higinbotham became the central figure of the long struggle waged in reference to the tariff and the Darling grant; and gained a hold on the popular sympathies of Victoria which he has never since forfeited. The full details of this notable constitutional struggle will be found in the notice of Sir James MᶜCulloch, and need not be recapitulated. It has always been Mr. Higinbotham's contention that the Governor of an autonomous colony like Victoria should act absolutely on the advice of his local Ministers in all purely local concerns, just as would be the case with the Queen herself in England. He thus found it impossible, when the MᶜCulloch Government was reconstituted after the short Sladen interlude, to return to his old post of Attorney-General, under a Governor (Lord Canterbury) who had given such palpable proof of his determination to be ruled, not by his Ministers or the majority in the Assembly, but by instructions from Downing Street. Not wishing, however, to desert his party, be in July 1868, when Mr. MᶜCulloch returned to power, accepted the post of Vice-President of the Board of Land and Works and a seat in the Cabinet without salary. He was thus able to give his countenance and support to the administration without being brought into personal contact or collision with an authority which he disapproved. In Feb. 1869, however, he retired from even this modified position. In 1871, to the astonishment of the whole colony, Mr. Higinbotham was rejected at Brighton in favour of Mr. Bent, whose view of his position as a "local member" was more in accord with the purely material aspirations of the constituency than Mr. Higinbotham's high-minded estimate of his functions as a representative of the people. Thus dismissed, the latter devoted himself to his large and onerous practice at the Bar until 1874, when he was returned to the Assembly for Brunswick. He, however, shortly resigned, finding it impossible to approve of all the methods employed by the Berry party in the somewhat similar constitutional battle which they were now waging against his old chief, Sir James MᶜCulloch, who by one of the strange mutations of politics now marshalled the Conservative phalanx. He could not oppose Mr. Berry on the score of principle, and he would not support him in practices which he thought subversive of parliamentary government. Retirement was therefore his only alternative, and he remained out of Parliament, seldom interfering with politics, till 1880, when he was appointed to a seat on the Puisne Bench of the Supreme Court of Victoria. In 1886, on the retirement of Sir William Stawell, he accepted the position of Chief Justice of the colony, which he still holds. Mr. Higinbotham has on several occasions refused knighthood on the ground that all rewards for local services should emanate from local sources. In his capacity as Chief Justice he would, as a matter of custom, have been appointed acting Governor of Victoria during the absence on leave of Sir Henry Loch in 1888. He had, however, intimated plainly that he should carry into practical effect the views as to the relations of the administrator of the Government to Downing Street and to the local Ministry respectively which he had consistently advocated during his whole political career. As this would have meant a cessation of all references to Downing Street in matters of local concern, the Colonial Office, jealous of its privileges, appointed Sir William Robinson to specially replace Sir Henry Loch during the latter's absence in England. Mr. Higinbotham, who is one of the best speakers and the most personally respected man in Australia, takes a broad-minded and unconventional view of religious and social questions. During the "great strike" he incurred a large amount of class opprobrium through his outspoken adherence to the cause of the strikers, to whose funds he contributed and promised to continue to contribute till the masters conceded a conference.