GIVENS, Henry Thomas (1864–1928)
Senator for Queensland, 1904–28 (Labor Party; National Labour Party; Nationalist Party)

Henry Thomas Givens, cane-cutter, miner, journalist and President of the Senate for thirteen years, arrived in Australia in 1882. He was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, on 12 June 1864,the son of a farmer, Robert Givens, and his wife, Mary Ann, née White. Once in the Antipodes, young Thomas travelled north to Queensland, where he worked on the cane fields. For a period, he laboured in Victoria and New South Wales, probably as an itinerant bush worker. He became a gold miner on the Eidsvold field before settling for sixteen years at Charters Towers, and once journeyed across ‘the top’ to the Kimberley in a vain attempt ‘to get rich quick’. In Ireland, he had attended a Roman Catholic school to primary level. In Australia, he educated himself by reading, especially history, politics and poetry, and joined the burgeoning labour movement. He was a foundation member of the Queensland Miners’ Union and the Australian Miners’ Association. By 1893, he was an organiser for the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and had established a branch at Charters Towers. In 1897, he settled in Cairns where he founded and managed a labour broadsheet, the Cairns Advocate,later the Trinity Times. In the same year, he gave evidence to the royal commission on mining, and in 1899 (after two earlier attempts to get into the Queensland Parliament) was elected as the Labor member for Cairns in the Legislative Assembly. He remained in the Assembly for three years where he occupied himself mainly with questions relating to the sugar industry.[1]

In 1903, Givens was elected to the Senate. A man of powerful physique and strong will, he was already something of a legend. Stories of a duel, and an incident involving a mine manager, a stock whip and a short gaol sentence, may have accounted for his being dubbed ‘the Don Quixote of the Senate’, but he was more the proud Queenslander: ‘. . . I have the honour of coming from the furthest northern part of Australia of any member of this Parliament’. Challenging a current shibboleth—that ‘white men cannot live and work in North Queensland’, he recalled his twenty-two years in the north: ‘When I came out as a mere boy, a new chum from the old country, I worked on the cane-fields on the Herbert’. In 1905, he supported the Sugar Bounty Bill, which would (until 1912) subsidise ‘white-grown cane or beet’. Givens did not hide the fact that he was disturbed to see Kanakas ‘fettling on the tramways . . . while white workmen are humping their swags’, but as a democrat and an advocate of human rights, he objected to Australian government regulations which controlled these ‘kidnapped’ island people. Similarly, on the thorny question of Chinese immigration, his ire was directed at the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, not the Chinese. He acknowledged that Australian Aborigines had ‘as good a right to work here as anybody else’, and suggested Aboriginal pearl divers receive equal pay with whites. Later, he would be a member for a time of the royal commission on the pearl-shelling industry.[2]

So fair play and independence of mind were part of his creed. He thought recent ‘pioneers of settlement and of industrial activity’, should be as eligible for invalid and old-age pensions as were the long-established. In 1912, he expounded on his support of maternity allowances for unmarried mothers.Despite confessing that he had never believed in two federal houses (the Senate had been a ‘concession’) and sympathising to a degree with the financial woes of the smaller states, hewas a Senate man to the core. He resented the request of Sir Josiah Symon that the Senate should not wreck the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill of 1904: ‘ . . . we are not going to abate one jot of our right to amend it in any direction . . . ’. He spoke of the advantages of Federation: ‘In the north-west of Queensland’, where once there was ‘nothing but Californian tinned fruit, we now see Tasmanian, Victorian, or South Australian . . . ’. He supported Dalgety as the national capital site because of the Snowy River—the Commonwealth should control river areas—and thought state premiers should stay out of federal affairs. He favoured union preference, but found strikes ‘barbarous’. His loyalties were various: the labour movement, Ireland, the British Empire, Queensland, but above all the Commonwealth of Australia, which, he claimed, was leading the world in ‘progressive legislation’.[3]

Givens soon showed that he had a taste for parliamentary procedure. He applied himself to the study of standing orders; he challenged the President’s rulings. He held that the Senate should sit at least four days a week, complained that the executive failed to provide the Senate with sufficient business and spoke often against the adjournment. ‘It is simply absurd’, he said, ‘that the Senate should meet for three weeks, do practically nothing, and then be asked to adjourn for three weeks or a month’, adding that it took him a fortnight to travel back to Cairns from Melbourne. He reprimanded the Ministry for discouraging private members from amending ‘slipshod’ legislation and proposed a select committee on Hansard to inquire into publishing and distributing throughout Australia a précis of debates. He urged against ‘useless ceremonial’ and tactlessly described the Usher of the Black Rod as ‘nothing less than a useless excrescence’. By 1910, he was serving as Temporary Chairman of Committees and on 9 July 1913 was elected unanimously as President of the Senate.[4]

Givens was becoming increasingly prominent in the higher echelons of the Labor Party. He was a Queensland delegate to the Commonwealth conferences of the Labor Party from 1908, and in 1912 almost succeeded in carrying his proposal that state delegates be appointed on a population basis. Now in 1913, he presided over a Senate where a substantial Labor majority was blocking the Liberal Government’s legislation. When the Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, was granted the Federal Parliament’s first double dissolution, Givens, as Senate President, waited upon the Governor-General to present an address, which, in accordance with a resolution of the Senate, requested information on the reasons for the double dissolution. The Governor-General declined the Senate’s request.

But greater tumult lay ahead. World War I and the conscription crisis would cause Givens to change party, but never his view that Parliament was ‘master of its own household’. He was vigilant in ensuring that the administration of the parliamentary departments remained separate from the Commonwealth public service. He upheld this view in his evidence before the select committee on Senate officials in 1920, where he also stated that the office of Clerk of the Senate was superior in status to that of the heads of other parliamentary departments. And he jealously guarded the people’s right to knowledge of the democratic process, refusing, even during World War I, to subject Hansard to military censorship or restriction.[5]

As President, he was tough, thoughtful and far-seeing. A large number of his many rulings are used in the Senate today. These include the following: that senators may not eat or smoke in the chamber; that legislation which requires appropriations or the imposition of taxation for its operation may be introduced in the Senate with an indication that the necessary appropriation or imposition of taxation is to be inserted into the legislation in the House of Representatives; that an absolute majority in the Senate remains a majority of the whole number of senators (not those actually in office at any given time); and that an amendment during a motion for the adoption of the report of the committee of the whole may express the Senate’s opinion of a matter associated  with the bill. The Senate’s practice of separating bills imposing tax from those setting tax rates, thus allowing amendments on certain tax bills, is based also on Givens’ rulings. Despite his earlier criticisms of the adjournment and his impatience that the Government did not allow more bills to originate in the Senate, in 1916 he ruled that the prerogative for calling the Senate together lay with the executive. As President, Givens was chairman of the Senate standing orders committee when a time limit on speeches was introduced in 1919; he was also chairman of several in-House committees. In 1921, this former old-style Labor man bowed, he said, to the will of the Senate, and donned the wig and gown, not worn by Presidents since a Labor government had put an end to the custom in 1910.[6]

In September 1916, Givens gave an impassioned political speech in favour of conscription. That he gave this speech from the President’s chair makes it another of the many singular events which surrounded the conscription debate. Senator Pearce doubtless with considerable gratitude, remembered this   address as the ‘finest speech ever delivered in the Senate’. Denying that compulsion was ‘undemocratic’, Givens, who would become chairman of the Queensland recruiting committee, asserted that all law was compulsion, and that ‘socialism’ had to preserve ‘national life and integrity’. He begged to be heard without ‘rancour’. Surprisingly, the senators obliged him. The combative miner was now an authoritative figure who chose his words and his politics carefully, and would survive the conscription crisis unscathed.

Givens, who had become in 1915 the first federal president of the Labor Party and an influential figure in the Caucus, played a crucial role, with Senator Pearce, in persuading wavering pro-conscriptionists to follow Prime Minister Hughes out of the Labor Party. After the occurrence of this momentous event in November 1916, Givens wrote to his old Queensland friend, the former Labor Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, that ‘the party as then constituted was not worth saving’. Perhaps this was his justification for remaining compliantly by Hughes’ side as the Prime Minister, by patently dubious means, contrived to change the balance of power in the Senate in 1917. Later, Givens fiercely denied Senator Watson’s statement of a conversation during which, Watson alleged, Givens had applied undue political pressure to secure his support for the Hughes government. It was during this period that Givens reinforced his earlier rulings that it was not the duty of the President to judge the correctness, or otherwise, of statements made by Senators.[7]

In 1924, Givens went to South Africa as delegate of the Australian branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association. Photographs in the parliamentary handbook tell their own story of his life during his Senate career to this time—first, the lean-faced miner, then the prosperous man of the world sporting a buttonhole and finally, the prestigious President overshadowed by a wig. In 1926, he did not stand for re-election as President, and as a mark of respect was presented with the presidential chair in which he had sat in the Legislative Council chamber of the Victorian Parliament. But he did not give up his enjoyment of parliamentary procedure. After the Federal Parliament’s move to Canberra in 1927, he raised as a matter of privilege his disapproval regarding an executive minute on the removal of parliamentarians’ papers from Melbourne, and during the debate reiterated his view that Parliament should never become the creature of the executive government.

Givens retained his Melbourne home at Canterbury, dying there, still a Queensland senator, on 19 June 1928. His state funeral at Box Hill Cemetery was preceded by a memorial service at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Canterbury. In1901, Givens had married Katie Allen, daughter of James Allen of Cairns, who survived him with their six children, Mary, James, Emma, Thomas Victor, Kathleen and Robert Allen. Harking back, the Brisbane Courier regarded Givens as ‘one of the strongest personalities in the Labour movement’; the Australian National Review referred to his ‘clear intellect’ and ‘flawless integrity’. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sir Littleton Groom, considered him ‘a force to be reckoned with’. He was remembered too in the Australian Sugar Journal.[8]

Ann Millar


[1] Age (Melbourne), 20 June 1928, p. 12; Daily Standard (Brisbane), 19 June 1928, p. 1; Argus (Melbourne), 20 June 1928, p. 20; Brisbane Courier, 20 June 1928, p. 14; Worker (Brisbane), 1 April 1893, p. 2, 14 January 1893, p. 3, 22 January 1910, p. 9; D. J. Murphy, R. B. Joyce and Colin A. Hughes (eds), Prelude to Power: The Rise of the Labour Party in Queensland 1885–1915, Jacaranda Press, Milton, Qld, 1970, p. 166, 246, 247; QPP, Report of the royal commission on mining for gold and other minerals, 1897; D. J. Murphy, ‘Givens, Thomas’, ADB, vol. 9.

[2] Catholic Press (Sydney), 23 March 1905, p. 21, 30 January 1908, p. 17; Punch (Melbourne), 22 September 1910,p. 428; CPD, 3 March 1904, pp. 68, 70, 18 December 1905, p. 7191, 3 March 1904, pp. 70, 71, 76, 78, 79; CPP, Progress report of the royal commission on the pearl-shelling industry, 1913.

[3] CPD, 4 June 1908, p. 12018, 4 October 1912, pp. 3868–3869, 18 November 1909, p. 6003, 20 September 1910, p. 3359, 28 October 1904, p. 6280, 18 November 1910, p. 6399, 13 October 1909, pp. 4425–4426, 28 October 1904, pp. 6284, 6283, 6281.

[4] SMH, 20 June 1928, p. 16; Argus (Melbourne), 20 June 1928, p. 20; CPD, 9 September 1909, p. 3219, 12 September 1906, p. 4434, 22 October 1909, pp. 4907–4909, 26 October 1905, pp. 4111–4113, 27 October 1905, p. 4204, 19 October 1904, p. 5735, 25 August 1905, pp. 1528–1529, 14 July 1909, pp. 1132–1133, 16 October 1912, p. 4261, 16 March 1904, pp. 643–644, 5 June 1908, p. 12103, 17 November 1910, pp. 6280–6283, 8 April 1908, p. 10285.

[5] ALP,Official reports of the fourth and fifth Commonwealth political labour conferences, Brisbane, 1908, Hobart, 1912; D. J. Murphy, ‘Givens, Thomas’, ADB; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 136–137; Novar Papers, MS 696, NLA; CPD, 12 June 1914, pp. 2088–2089, 17 June 1914, pp. 2171–2173, 2184, 18 June 1914, p. 2260, 24 June 1914, pp. 2419–2420, 22 August 1923, pp. 3279–3280; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament, 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 409, 411; CPP, Report of the select committee on Senate officials, 1921; J. S. Weatherston, Commonwealth Hansard:Its Establishment and Development, Government Printer, Canberra, 1975; CPD, 23 May 1918, p. 4980.

[6] Rulings of the President of the Senate, the Hon. T. Givens, from 1913 to 1926, vol. 4, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1926; Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 8th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 1997, pp. 222, 275, 230, 256, 281, 169; Senate, Journals, 15 August 1919; CPD, 24 October 1919, p. 14001, 13 April 1921, p. 7349.

[7] CPD, 22 September 1916, pp. 8952–8964, 29 August 1928, p. 6174; Ernest Scott, Australia During the War, A & R, Sydney, 1943, p. 400; Letter, Givens to Andrew Fisher, 22 November 1916, Fisher Papers MS 2919/1/269 NLA; L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger 1914–1952: William Morris Hughes: A Political Biography, vol. 2, A & R, Sydney, 1979, pp. 60–63, 226, 258; CPD, 2 March 1917, p. 10847, 5 March 1917, pp. 10942–10944; Evans, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, pp. 138, 218.

[8] CPD, 25 July 1924, p. 2494, 21 January 1926, p. 241; Givens’ chair was bequeathed to Federal Parliament by his wife and arrived at Parliament House, Canberra, in 1953—letter, John Edwards, Clerk of the Senate, to Miss Mary Givens, 27 October 1953, SenateRegistry file, AA 8161/S.107, NAA; CPD, 24 March 1927, pp. 1009–1012; Brisbane Courier, 20 June 1928, p.14; Australian National Review (Sydney), 20 June 1928, p. 8; Australian Sugar Journal, 5 July 1928, p. 265.



This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 104-108.

GIVENS, Henry Thomas (1864-1928)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1904–28

President of the Senate, 1913–26

Queensland Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Cairns, 1899–1902

 Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1907–10

Select Committee on the Press Cable Service, 1909

Standing Orders Committee, 1913–26

Library Committee, 1913–26

House Committee, 1913–26