Resource Sheet 5

Biography: Sir John Forrest (1847-1918)

Photograph of Sir John Forrest

Sir John Forrest, 1898, National Library of Australia nla.pic-an21399820-40.

John Forrest was born to Scottish migrants in Bunbury, Western Australia, in 1847.

Forrest began working for the Surveyor-General’s Office in December 1865. In 1869, he led his first expedition to find the remains of the failed 1848 Liechhardt exploration. Throughout the early 1870s, Forrest led a number of other expeditions. His confident leadership style and careful forward planning brought him recognition throughout Australia and Britain.

In 1883, Forrest became Surveyor-General and Commissioner of Crown Lands, and was appointed to a seat in the Legislative Council. He became increasingly involved in politics and developed strong beliefs about how Western Australia should be governed. In December 1890, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the electorate of Bunbury, and became Western Australia’s first Premier soon after.

Forrest was involved in the Federation debate from the beginning, representing Western Australia at the Federal Conventions in the 1890s. While he supported Federation and was pressured into agreement from the large gold mining population, Forrest faced opposition from the farming community, which believed Federation would bring increased competition and costs. True to his leadership style, Forrest took time to convince the electorate of the benefits of Federation, and tried to obtain a better set of conditions for Western Australia to join the other colonies in Federation. Forrest was successful in his bid for Western Australia to keep its tariff on imports for a period of time after Federation. But, his wish for the colony to be divided into separate Senate electorates, and for the building of an east–west railway across Australia were unsuccessful. Forrest encouraged Western Australian voters to accept Federation at the referendum in 1900, as it became apparent that the other colonies would federate without Western Australia.

Forrest was elected to the seat of Swan in the House of Representatives when the Commonwealth was established. He served in the Commonwealth Parliament until his death in 1918.

As Premier of the colony of Western Australia, John Forrest was convinced that the Australian colonies would federate, but eager to ensure that this would not disadvantage Western Australia. John Forrest explained his position to the Western Australian Parliament in 1897.

I cannot help having a leaning towards federation, but I am not a federationist on any terms. I am only a federationist if it is possible to have federation with advantage to Australia and to this colony… Everyone wants to be federated, but we do not want to pay too much for it.

Western Australian Parliamentary Debates, Session 1897, Vol X, pp 200–201.