BEST, Sir Robert Wallace (1856–1946)
Senator for Victoria, 1901–10 (Protectionist)

Robert Wallace Best, described as ‘one of those excitable, exclamatory, vehement, enthusiastic men who continually give off heat like radium’, was born at Collingwood, Victoria, on 18 June 1856. His father, also Robert Best, was a farmer who became a customs officer; his mother was Jane, née Wallace. Both parents were Irish-born. The younger Robert Best was educated at the Templeton School in Fitzroy, studied law at the University of Melbourne and was admitted as a solicitor in 1881. Best served on the Fitzroy City Council as an alderman from 1883 to 1897 and as mayor from 1888 to 1889. In 1886, he entered into a legal partnership with the solicitor and land speculator, Theodore Fink. The two would become associated in speculative land ventures.[1]

In April 1889, Best was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as the Member for Fitzroy. He would serve on a number of significant parliamentary committees and chair the royal commission on constitutional reform in 1894. A protectionist, who later became a supporter of the Liberal Protectionists in Parliament, Best was re-elected in 1894 when he was endorsed by the United Labor and Liberal Party. When George Turner’s Liberal Government took office in that year, Best became President of the Board of Land and Works, Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, and Commissioner of Trade and Customs, positions he held until 1899. Among the legislation which he piloted through the Victorian Parliament and to which he would refer in the federal sphere was the Customs Act Amendment Act 1896.In August 1900, Best also supported the Parliamentary Elections Bill which proposed, inter alia, that Victoria’s first senators and members of the House of Representatives be elected by proportional representation and preferential voting respectively. Keenly interested in Federation, Best was influenced by Alfred Deakin’s support of proportional representation for the Senate. The Victorian bill lapsed in October 1900.[2]

In March 1901, Best was elected to the first Senate, resigning from the Victorian Parliament in May. On 28 June 1901, he was appointed the Senate’s first Deputy President and Chairman of Committees. Best, who had been described by Beatrice Webb as ‘red-haired and . . . habitually overworking himself’, was a keen participant in debate. He supported the White Australia policy, referring to earlier attempts at similar legislation in Victoria and the need to uphold the ‘purity’ of the Anglo-Australian race. Best was concerned that the Commonwealth should not impinge on the constitutional rights of the states. During debate on a controversial clause in the Post and Telegraph Bill concerning State railways being required to carry Commonwealth mail, he said: ‘. . . I do not think the Commonwealth has power to enact a clause of the kind, and I would ask that the Senate be careful in a matter which practically means encroaching very seriously upon State rights’. Again, in debate on the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill in 1904, Best argued forcefully against a proposal enabling railway employees to be covered by the Bill’s provisions.

In the third Parliament, Best became Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate. In 1908, he moved the second reading of the Customs Tariff Bill: ‘The sole question we have to consider is, what is a fair, reasonable, and . . . effective protection to various industries’. Other legislation for which he was responsible included the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Bill. He knew, he said, of no other Commonwealth legislation which had received, ‘in a greater degree’, the commendation of ‘the people of the Commonwealth’.[3]

In 1909, Best became Minister for Trade and Customs in Deakin’s Fusion Ministry. During the preliminary approaches leading to the agreement between the three non-Labor parties, Deakin had authorised Best to enlist Sir John Forrest in an attempt to persuade the New South Wales Free Trader, Joseph Cook, to join a coalition. The attempt failed, but may have prepared the way for Deakin’s final success. Best’s time as a minister was short-lived. The Fusion Ministry survived only until April 1910 when the Labor Party won a clear majority at the election, and Best was defeated. Nonetheless, his career in the Federal Parliament was not over. He stood, successfully, as a Liberal Party candidate at a by-election on 24 August 1910 for the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong. In the House, he continued to pursue his favourite themes of protection and restricted immigration. He was defeated at the 1922 election.[4]

Best continued to practise law until within a year of his death on 27 March 1946 in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. In 1881, he had married, at St Philip’s Church of England, Collingwood, Jane Caroline Langridge, daughter of George Langridge, a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Jane died in 1901, and the next year Best married Maude Evelyn Crocker-Smith at Christ Church, St Kilda. His second wife, two sons and two daughters of his first marriage, Sydney and Arthur, Blanchie and Beatrice, and four daughters of his second marriage, Margot, Phyllis, Helene and Roberta, survived him.

Best, who was appointed KCMG in 1908, had been a reliable and dependable minister and backbencher. Over his long political career, he had moved from local Fitzroy politics to the Commonwealth Parliament, from the fragmented political associations of the 1890s to the formal two-party system as it emerged in the early years of the twentieth century. A keen sportsman, he was president of the Fitzroy Football Club between 1888 and 1910, and at times, vice-president of the Victorian Football Association, president of the League of Victorian Wheelmen and vice-president of the Victorian Bicycle Club. An active layman in the Church of England, he was also a member of the committee of the Charity Organization Society, established in 1893 to cope with some of the disastrous social consequences brought about by land speculation during the boom of the 1880s.[5]


Catherine Jones


[1] Punch (Melbourne), 10 January 1907, p. 36; Norma Marshall, ‘Best, Sir Robert Wallace’, ADB, vol. 7; James Smith (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol.1, 1903, Cyclopedia Company, Melbourne, vol. 1, 1903, pp. 167–169; Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1995, pp. 256, 262, 275–280.

[2] VPP, Report of the royal commission on constitutional reform, 1894; Fitzroy History Society, Fitzroy: Melbourne’s First Suburb, Hyland House, South Yarra, Vic., 1989, p. 172; M. G. Finlayson, Groups in Victorian Politics 1889–1894, MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1963, p. 211; VPD, 4 June 1895, pp. 96–128, 4 September 1895, p. 1783, 24 September 1895, p. 2152; G.S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 89; VPD, 16 August 1900, p. 883, 28 August 1900, pp. 1050–1077; AFCD, 7 March 1898, pp. 1925–1927.

[3] CPD, 11 September 1906, pp. 4274–4294; A.G. Austin (ed.), The Webbs’ Australian Diary 1898, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Melbourne, 1965, p. 68; CPD, 14 November 1901, pp. 7267–7269, 12 December 1905, pp. 6678–6681; VPD, 12 July 1898, p. 237; CPD, 19 June 1901, p. 1217, 2 November 1904, pp. 6338–6342, 22 January 1908, p. 7553, 4 June 1908, p. 11995.

[4] J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin: A Biography, A & R, Sydney, 1979, pp. 541–545; Letters of Sir Robert Best, 19–21 April 1909 and Alfred Deakin, 12 May 1909, Deakin Papers, MS 1540, NLA; CPD, 13 September 1911, pp. 388–392.

[5] Cannon, The Land Boomers, p. 376; CPD, 28 March 1946, p. 707; Age (Melbourne), 28 March 1946, p. 2.


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. 272-274.

BEST, Sir Robert Wallace (1856–1946)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1901–10

Member of the House of Representatives for Kooyong, Vic., 1910–22

Vice-President of the Executive Council, 1907–08

Minister for Trade and Customs, 1909–10

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1907–08

Victorian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Fitzroy, 1889–1901

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1901–09