Ronald Munro-Ferguson, 1st Viscount Novar

Ronald Munro-Ferguson, 1st Viscount Novar

Infobox Governor-General | name=The Rt Hon. Lord Novar,

order=6th Governor-General of Australia
term_start=18 May 1914
term_end=6 October 1920
predecessor=The Lord Denman
successor=The Lord Forster
birth_date=birth date|1860|3|6|df=y
birth_place=Fife, Scotland
death_date=death date and age|1934|3|30|1860|3|6|df=y
death_place=Fife, Scotland

Ronald Craufurd Munro-Ferguson, 1st Viscount Novar, KT GCMG PC (6 March 1860 – 30 March 1934), sixth Governor-General of Australia, was probably the most politically influential holder of this post. He was born at his family home in the Raith area of Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, the son of a wealthy member of the British House of Commons of old Scottish descent. He was educated at Sandhurst and pursued a military career until 1884, when he was elected to the House. He became private secretary to Lord Rosebery, a leading Liberal, and in 1889 he married Lady Helen Blackwood, daughter of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who was Viceroy of India.

Like Rosebery, Munro-Ferguson was a Liberal Imperialist. He supported the imperial policies of the Conservative government, including the Second Boer War, which made him highly unpopular with the radical, anti-war, wing of the Liberal Party. He therefore had little hope of Cabinet office in the governments of Campbell-Bannerman or Asquith, despite his obvious talents. In February 1914, therefore, he was happy to accept the post of Governor-General of Australia (he had refused the governorship of Victoria in 1910 and that of South Australia in 1895). He was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) prior to his appointment.

Munro-Ferguson's political background, his connections with the Liberal government in London and his imperialist views made him both better equipped and more inclined to play an activist role in Australian politics than any of his predecessors, while at the same he had enough sense to confine his activism to behind the scenes influence.

It was well that Munro-Ferguson was politically experienced, because he arrived in Melbourne to find himself in the midst of a political crisis. The Liberal government of Joseph Cook had a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, but the Labor Party had a majority in the Senate and had used it systematically to frustrate the government. Cook was now determined to force a double dissolution election under Section 57 of the Constitution.

On 2 June, 1914, barely three weeks after Munro-Ferguson had taken office, Cook formally requested a double dissolution. Munro-Ferguson had several things to consider. The Parliament elected in 1913 still had two years to run. Cook had not been defeated in the House of Representatives. His sole reason for wanting a dissolution was that he did not control the Senate. This was a situation without precedent in the United Kingdom, where the upper house, the House of Lords, is unelected.

When Munro-Ferguson granted Cook a double dissolution, he was furiously denounced by the Labor Party, who maintained that Cook was manipulating the Constitution to gain control of the Senate. Munro-Ferguson, influenced by the British House of Lords crisis of 1910, took the view that the lower house should prevail. Paradoxically, it was Cook's conservatives who argued that the Governor-General should always take the advice of his Prime Minister, while Labor argued that he should exercise his discretion.

In the middle of the election campaign, news arrived of the outbreak of the First World War. This caused an acute crisis in Australian government. The Parliament had been dissolved and the government was in caretaker mode. Furthermore, Australia in 1914 did not have the right to independent participation in international affairs, and so its politicians were completely inexperienced in such. In these circumstances, Munro-Ferguson was the only man with both the constitutional authority and the confidence to act. It was Munro-Ferguson who convened the Cabinet, implemented the mobilisation plan and communicated with the Cabinet in London.

Cook's manoeuvring backfired when Labor won the September elections and Andrew Fisher was returned to office. But from the start it was the energetic Billy Hughes who was driving force behind the war effort. He formed a close relationship with Munro-Ferguson, who recognised his ability. Munro-Ferguson saw his role in wartime as an agent of the British war effort, not just a representative of the Crown. He openly supported those who were committed to the war, and opposed those who were not.

In October 1915, Fisher resigned and was succeeded as Prime Minister by Hughes. Although Hughes was vain and erratic, Munro-Ferguson recognised his qualities as a war leader and supported him privately and publicly, in a way that stretched constitutional propriety. Hughes was convinced that only the introduction of conscription would allow Australia to maintain its commitment to the war effort and Munro-Ferguson gave him every encouragement.

Like Hughes, Munro-Ferguson regarded the defeat of the conscription referendums in October 1916 and December 1917 as disasters for Australia and the war effort. When Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party after the first referendum, Munro-Ferguson allowed him to stay in office as a minority Prime Minister and encouraged Hughes and Cook to form a new party, the Nationalist Party, on a "win the war" platform. During the second referendum campaign, Hughes pledged to resign if it were not carried, but when he carried out his promise Munro-Ferguson promptly recommissioned him.

Despite their close co-operation, Hughes was not Munro-Ferguson's puppet. Once David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in Britain, Hughes increasingly communicated directly with him (sometimes in Welsh), causing Munro-Ferguson to complain that he was being denied his proper role as the medium of communication between London and Melbourne. Despite Munro-Ferguson's vigorous assertion of his rights as Governor-General, he could not in the long run halt the decline in the influence of the office. Once Australia gained the right to independent participation in international affairs, which it did in 1918, Munro-Ferguson's days of influence were over.

Lady Helen's work for the British Red Cross Society, which included converting the ballroom of Melbourne's Government House for this purpose, earned her appointment as a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in 1918.

In May 1919, Munro-Ferguson advised London of his desire to resign. He was pressed to stay on to oversee the Australian tour of the Prince of Wales in 1920. He finally departed in October 1920, after more than six years in the job. On his return home, he was created Viscount Novar, of Raith in the County of Fife and of Novar in the County of Ross. In 1922, he was appointed Secretary for Scotland in Andrew Bonar Law's Conservative government, holding the post until 1924. He was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Thistle (KT) in 1926.

He died at his home in 1934, his title dying with him as he left no issue. His papers are an extremely important source for historians of Australian politics and Australia's role in the First World War.


* [ updated ADB entry]
* Torrance, David, "The Scottish Secretaries" (Birlinn 2006)

###@@@KEY@@@###succession box
title = Member of Parliament for Ross and Cromarty
years = 1884–1885
before = Sir Alexander Matheson
after = Roderick Macdonald
succession box
title = Member of Parliament for Leith Burghs
years = 1886–1914
before = William Ewart Gladstone
after = George Welsh Currie

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