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Downer mistrusted the widespread call for a 'white Australia'.

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John Downer

National Library of Australia

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John Downer(1843–1915)

Federalist and premier of South Australia

Downer was very clever, winning a scholarship to St Peters school in Adelaide. He became the leading lawyer in Adelaide. In politics he was conservative but on some issues, like women's rights, he was a reformer. In 1883 he passed a law allowing married women the right to own property rather than it being their husbands'. He supported votes for women.

He was a member of the federal conventions of 1891 and 1897–98. He was also a supporter of a strong Senate to protect the smaller states. Like many Australian-born lawyers, proud of their ability, he did not want English judges to be the final court of appeal for Australian law. However, the 1897–98 convention did not want to exclude them completely. When the convention met in Adelaide, Downer worked closely with Edmund Barton on the writing of the constitution. Barton stayed at his house, so much of the work was done there.

In 1901 he was elected to the first Senate, and supported Barton's government. He was disappointed not to be appointed to the first High Court.