In the 1892 Victorian state election, Isaacs was elected to the Legislative Assembly as the member for a rural seat. His political programme was impressive: introduction of income taxation rather than indirect taxes which put the load on low income earners, reform of company law, conciliation machinery to resolution industrial disputes, railway reform and support for Federation.
Inevitably he became a major participant in the framing of the country's constitution at the Constitutional Convention of the late 1890s. So it was not a surprise that Isaacs was elected to the very first federal Parliament in 1901, straight after the declaration of the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Isaacs' Edwardian family home, Hawthorn, 1905
The second prime minister of Australia, Alfred Deakin, appointed Isaacs Attorney-General in 1905, even though Isaacs remained a difficult colleague. But Isaacs did give strong support to his prime minister for the Judicary Act that established the High Court of Australia... and needed to be thanked. Deakin was keen to get him out of politics anyway, so he pushed him upstairs; Isaacs was appointed to the High Court bench.
He was knighted in 1928.
In 1930 Labour Prime Minister James Scullin appointed a now rather elderly Sir Isaac Isaacs to the position of Chief Justice. But he wasn’t in the position for a year when Scullin radically decided to appoint an Australian citizen, any suitable Australian, into the vice-regal position of Governor-General. A politician could come from any background, but since the GG personally represented the king or queen in Australia, every Governor-General in our history had to have been British!
Scullin offered the post to Isaacs. Isaacs reflected or promoted the developing nationalism and centralism in Australia; he influenced the balance of power towards the Commonwealth and away from the individual states. It was a wonderful time to be an Australian, but Conservatives were not well pleased with the appointment. Neither was King George V who thought that only a British G-G could represent the crown.
Government House Canberra, 1927
Only a few years earlier (January 1925), the Federal Cabinet had finally agreed to fit out the existing homestead at Yarralumla as a vice-regal residence in Canberra. The first enlargement consisted of the addition of another three-storey block, which you can see in the photo, behind the one already there. The two parts were connected by a wide hallway and a new entrance was created between the gables of the old south front. The results were decent enough to allow the Duke and Duchess of York to stay there when they came to open the new Houses of Parliament in May 1927.
The interiors of the refurbished house, along with much of their furniture, were designed by Ruth Lane Poole, of the Federal Capital Commission. They were in keeping with the prevailing "stripped-classical style", with more formal interiors provided for the official reception rooms, and a lighter scheme prevailing in the private residential rooms. Although the house was set amid 54 hectares of parkland, the house was still small in comparison to Government House in Melbourne where the governor-generals had lived prior to the move to Canberra.
Lord Stonehaven had been the first governor-general to live for part of his term in Government House Canberra aka Yarralumla, but in January 1931 Sir Isaac Isaacs achieved three important honours. Firstly he became the first Australian-born Governor General. Secondly he was the first governor-general to live at Government House in Canberra for his entire 5-year term (1931-6). Thirdly he was the first Jewish vice-regal representative in the whole British Empire, an empire that covered a third of the globe.
Many vice-regal families mumbled and grumbled about the space available for official entertaining. But plans for a much grander and more permanent home for the governor general didn’t become real until much later, given the terrible economic times during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the even greater threats Australia's security during WW2.
Sir Isaac Isaacs died in 1948 and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.