Sir Daniel Levy

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Sir Daniel Levy (1872-1937)

‘one of the brightest and ablest of young Australians’

First published in J-Wire May 31, 2022

Daniel Levy was born in London on November 30, 1872, the son of Joseph Levy a tailor, and his wife Esther. The family arrived in Sydney in 1880.

Daniel was educated at Crown Street Public School and Sydney Grammar, where he became school captain in his final year. He attended the University of Sydney and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts – gaining first-class honours in Latin and Greek – achieving the University Medal for Classics in 1893.

Daniel continued his studies, completing a law degree with second-class honours in 1895, and was admitted to the Bar in the same year. He started work as an associate in 1895 in the chambers of Mr Justice Henry Cohen and remained there for the next two years. During this time he acted from time to time as a crown prosecutor. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1902 and was then readmitted to the Bar in 1923.

Active in Jewish affairs as a young man, Daniel edited the Australasian Hebrew in 1896 and was secretary of the NSW Board of Jewish Education from 1898 to 1903 and President of the NSW Jewish Association in 1902. He was a regular member of the Great Synagogue.

Daniel was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Sydney-Fitzroy in 1901. As a Liberal, and later Nationalist, he was a member for Darlinghurst from 1904 to 1920, Sydney from 1920 to 1927, Paddington from 1927 to 1930, and Woollahra from 1930 to 1937. He was a talented and energetic debater and his speeches were likened to ‘the spikes on the prickly pear— full of spinosity that penetrates anything’. However, he did show early signs of a pedantic manner that irritated even his own colleagues.

After serving as Chairman of Parliamentary Committees, Daniel was elected Speaker of the House on 19 August 1919 following the resignation of John Jacob Cohen. Daniel went on to serve as Speaker for fourteen years, with only one break between 1930 and 1932 and serving until 1937.

When Labor took office in April 1920 in an evenly balanced House with the Opposition divided into Nationalists and Progressives, Daniel accepted the Speakership despite the deep disapproval of Sir George Fuller and other Nationalists. He was castigated in a long and bitter speech by John Fitzpatrick who accused him of being ‘a rat’, ‘a traitor’, and ‘Sir Judas Iscariot’, and quoted Daniel’s own vociferous criticisms of Henry Willis for accepting the Speakership in similar circumstances in 1911. When Sir George Fuller indicated he had a likely majority, Daniel announced his resignation as Speaker on 8 December 1921 and James Dooley‘s government was defeated five days later. On 20 December an unstable coalition ministry was formed under Sir George Fuller. However, when a Nationalist – William Bagnall – offered himself as Speaker, Daniel objected. Under a force of circumstances, Sir George Fuller had Daniel renominated and, having been refused a dissolution, William Bagnall resigned after seven hours in office and Daniel remaining as Speaker was the only way to ensure a workable parliament.

In 1922 and 1934 Daniel supervised changes to the Standing Orders to simplify the passage of bills, virtually preventing their delay by procedural means and limiting debate to the second reading. He maintained that ‘the very essence of Parliament is discussion and debate’. The ‘most articulate Speaker’ of his time, Daniel frequently proclaimed the importance and dignity of his office and in 1929 suggested that its independence would be strengthened if his seat was uncontested as it was in the House of Commons in the UK.

He asserted that so ‘long as I occupy the Chair I shall continue to be impartial’. Sometimes his detachment was too much for his own party. Throughout his parliamentary career, Daniel provoked hostility: he was taunted with his academic achievements and was sometimes referred to as ‘the little Disraeli’. The only time he achieved ministerial office was for a month in 1932 when he served in Sir Bertram Stevens‘s emergency cabinet after Jack Lang’s dismissal.

Outside his parliamentary duties and extensive practice, Daniel was public-spirited. His public office was diverse, becoming a trustee and chairman of the Public Library of NSW, a trustee of the Australian Museum Sydney and his old school Sydney Grammar. He was a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney, a director of Sydney Hospital, a government representative on the board of the Benevolent Society of NSW, a member of the East Sydney School Board, and an occasional secretary of the Shakespeare Society of NSW.

Daniel Levy was knighted by King George V in 1929.

He never married, nor did his three sisters, and he died of heart disease at his home in Darling Point on May 20, 1937. He was given a state funeral and buried in Rookwood Cemetery. His estate of about £60,000 was left almost entirely to his sisters.

Described during the 1904 election campaign as ‘one of the brightest and ablest of young Australians’, Daniel never quite lived up to his promise: as a scholar, he published nothing of note, as a barrister he never took silk, and as a speaker, his skill in debating was never heard. However, in the words of James Dooley, when Daniel had occupied the Speaker’s Chair, he had ‘always done so in an impartial manner’ and had upheld the highest traditions of his office. His portrait by Jerrold Nathan hangs in NSW Parliament House.

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​