O'CONNOR, Richard Edward (1851-1912)


O'CONNOR, Richard Edward (1851-1912)
politician and judge
son of Richard O'Connor, clerk of parliaments, New South Wales, was born at Sydney on 4 August 1851. He was educated at Lyndhurst College, Sydney Grammar School, and Sydney university where he graduated in 1871. He became a clerk to the legislative council, studied law, and was called to the bar in 1876. Almost from the beginning he was known as a sound lawyer and he subsequently built up a successful practice. He became a candidate for the legislative assembly but was defeated, and in December 1887 was nominated a member of the legislative council. He held office in the Dibbs (q.v.) ministry as minister of justice from October 1891 to December 1893, and during his administration useful acts relating to criminal law and probate court procedure were passed. He was made a Q.C. in 1896, and in the same year was a member of the people's federal convention held at Bathurst. He was an earnest advocate for federation and was elected one of the New South Wales representatives for the convention of 1897-8. At this convention he was a member with Sir Edmund Barton (q.v.) and Sir John Downer (q.v.) of the drafting committee which prepared the federation bill. This, with some amendments, eventually became the federal constitution. In 1901 O'Connor was elected as a senator for New South Wales to the first federal house. He became vice-president of the executive council and leader of the government in the senate as a member of Barton's ministry, and showed excellent qualities as a leader. There was a slight preponderance of free trade members in the senate but he succeeded in getting the tariff bill passed with comparatively few and unimportant amendments. When the high court was formed in September 1903 he was appointed one of the three judges. He had all the essentials for a great judge, uniting a thoroughly sound knowledge of the law with patience, courtesy, dignity, and the ability to separate material from immaterial facts. When he became first president of the court of arbitration his reasonableness and sense of fair play made him admirably qualified, but the work was trying and he resigned about three years later. He was obliged to take a sea voyage for the benefit of his health early in 1912, but returned with no improvement and died at Sydney on 18 November 1912. He married in 1879 Sarah Hensleigh who survived him with four sons and two daughters.
O'Connor was tall and in his later years rather heavily built. He had a refined and scholarly appearance, and his wide sympathies and broad outlook made him one of the best-liked men in politics. He gave up a large practice to enter the senate, and he never recovered from the strain of the first three years in that house, while means were being found to make the constitution workable. Not a great orator he was an excellent debater calm, courteous and courageous, and his reasonableness was often more impressive than the oratory of his opponents. He never sought honours, to him the work was the only important thing, and he twice declined a knighthood.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1912, 9 May 1927; The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 19 November 1912; The Times, 19 November 1912; R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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