Friday, May 4, 2012

John Douglas and the Rockhampton to Peak Downs railway line

Douglas’s agitation in the Queensland Parliament as the member for Port Curtis in 1863 for a railway in the northern district had paid immediate dividends.  Governor Bowen, in his opening address to the 1864 parliament, after drawing attention to the construction of the first railway in the colony, then announced that the government would also construct a railway to link Rockhampton with the “rich pastoral and mining territory that lies to the westward.”[1]
Douglas was stunned at this unexpected announcement – a confirmation of his success – and admitted that, “a feeling of satisfaction suffused me momentarily.”[2]  However, he soon voiced grave doubts over the viability of the project, for
however desirable a railway might be to the north, the measure proposed is not backed by any likelihood of a commensurate increase of traffic to the northern districts.[3]

Rather than “squandering money” on a 20-30 mile railway line,[4] Douglas wanted the money spent on urgent facilities and services needed for his electorate.
In so doing, he demonstrated how far removed his conduct was from most of his peers, for he resolutely refused to accept this ‘gift’ if the government had to borrow money to pay for it.[5]  ‘Pork-barrelling,’ the supply of funds or projects for local improvements designed to ingratiate parliamentarians with their constituents, was foreign to his character.[6]  While Douglas advocated his constituents’ interests as doggedly as any other parliamentarian, it was in pursuit of practical and financially realistic outcomes rather than his own political aggrandisement or to benefit his electorate.
Although in favour of railways, he was against their premature construction and therefore refused to support the government’s railway policy.[7]  Douglas wanted a railway, but he understood that there were other, more pressing needs in his district: “The means of crossing rivers, the formation of bridges, and numberless other wants.”[8]
The construction of a railway in the north, while desirable, would simply have to wait.  This principled stand taken by Douglas was in stark contrast to his promises to his electorate, which he had energetically advocated in parliament the previous year.  In an election campaign address in Rockhampton in April 1863 he had stated that “It is desirable in this, as in the southern portion of the colony, to carry out a system of railway communication.”[9]  The Rockhampton correspondent for the Brisbane Courier concurred and suggested that the Port Curtis electorate “should take Mr. Douglas’s advice, and ‘go in for a railway too.’”[10]
This ‘about face’ was seized upon by Herbert, who clearly remembered how strongly Douglas had supported a petition, from his electorate, in the first session of parliament, which demanded that “a line from Rockhampton to Peak Downs may be proceeded with, mile for mile, with the proposed line from Ipswich to Dalby.”[11]  As Herbert gleefully and accurately noted of Douglas:
Then he had urged this as a necessary work; now, it was not the time to deal with it.  He was not now in favour of the construction of a railway; while last year he was advocating it from day to day with great animation.[12]

This erratic parliamentary behaviour, while perhaps understandable from an honest and principled man, bemused and infuriated Douglas’s opposition colleagues as well as many of his constituents.  While it was accepted at that time that parliamentarians would hold “ideas that were very much their own,” and that “their attitudes to life became of major importance,” the inconsistent behaviour exhibited by Douglas exasperated and confounded many.[13]  Although, as Bernays observed, “he had nothing to be ashamed of in his political career,” his refusal to act like a typical politician meant he often suffered accordingly, while Herbert vowed that parliament “would not forget the position that the honourable member had taken up.”[14] 
Why did Douglas push so hard for a railway and then reject it following its approval?  An analysis of his actions provides a fascinating insight into the complexities at the heart of the man.  Douglas demanded the railway while in opposition, believing it would not be approved because it was financially unviable.  He pandered to the needs of his electorate assuming he would not have to face the consequences of his actions, truly the mark of a successful, if unprincipled, politician!
Nevertheless, because the demand for its construction was linked to the northern separation movement, the government believed it necessary to mollify the north by granting a railway to it in addition to the railway already approved in the south of the colony.  Douglas, to his credit, in a move that set him apart from his parliamentary colleagues, recognised this was a bad decision, despite having being its main instigator, and was principled enough to tell the government as much.  While he now acted according to his principles, his electorate, having received this unexpected gift, had no such qualms.  The local newspaper articulated their glee:
A railway we must have - parliament has committed the colony to the work - its speedy execution is one of the first essentials to the progress of the district.[15]

Douglas, well aware of the support within his electorate for a railway, accepted its inevitability, and devised a scheme to finance it without bankrupting the colony, to be defrayed by the sale of lands in the districts through which it passed.[16]  Moreover, he advocated the adoption of this principle throughout the colony, pointing to its successful use in America and Canada.[17] 
He therefore introduced into parliament a Railways Commissioner Bill, to give legislative effect to his intent, but it failed at the second reading. [18]  Douglas’s concerns proved to be well founded, for 1866 saw the abrupt suspension of railway construction in the colony following the failure of the British Agra and Masterman’s Bank, which had been financing railway construction in the colony.[19]
Having failed to persuade his colleagues to finance the railway on these terms, Douglas then actively supported its construction; even suggesting that, “It was probable that within a short period, the railway would pay its own expenses, owing to the traffic which it would receive.”[20] 
Once again, Douglas had done a spectacular volte-face.  He had campaigned for a railway in the northern district, and then opposed its construction before eventually accepting its inevitability: all this within twelve months.  This event provides a valuable insight into the man and his modus operandi.  It is almost as if we can watch his mind at work, while he formulates his stance on this issue, attempting to balance principle against reality and idealism against pragmatism.  Initially Douglas recognised the need for a railway and fought long and hard to have it approved.  Once this was successfully achieved, he objected to its construction, considering its mode of funding to be financially irresponsible and preferring it to be funded by land sales along its route. 
Parliament rejected this proposal and less than a month later Douglas had apparently convinced himself that the volume of traffic on the railway would be sufficient to defray expenses without having to resort to land sales.  He now supported this 30-mile line, and hoped “that in a comparatively short period they might see railways constructed to the north and west, to the extent of two or three hundred miles.”[21]  
The Brisbane Courier observed with some insight:
As it received the sanction of the parliament and therefore the country, he [Mr. Douglas] appears to consider that all he could do would not alter the existing state of things, and so he might as well chime in with them.[22] 

Douglas’s behaviour on this matter was at variance with how parliamentarians routinely behaved.  Few if any advocated strongly for projects, only to reject them when approved.  His unorthodox approach confounded his fellow parliamentarians and confused many of his constituents.  That Douglas’s parliamentary career progressed as far as it did was because he learned from these experiences and over time became more orthodox in his approach.  Although he steadfastly continued to hold to his beliefs and principles, he also became more pragmatic and realistic.  It was this political maturation, a mix of idealism and experience, which enabled him to succeed.
Not content with objecting to the proposed northern railway, mooted by the governor in the vice-regal speech at the commencement of the 1864 session, Douglas also took the highly unusual step of trying to have a portion of it amended.[23]  In a lengthy editorial, the Brisbane Courier displayed its displeasure at the introduction of this “injudicious amendment” by Douglas, preferring that there be no opposition to the vice-regal address.[24]  Nevertheless, it was only the intention to amend the vice-regal address rather than the content of Douglas’s speech that was unsatisfactory to the paper, for it also noted with pleasure that Douglas had:
made some trenchant remarks upon the railway policy of the government, … and charged them with a grievous omission in not referring to the financial condition of the colony in the opening speech.[25]

The paper soon changed its position on Douglas’s attempt to amend Bowen’s speech, for it observed a couple of weeks later that Douglas had merely “offered some opposition without any intention of persevering in it; and, as a matter of form, moved what amounted to a mere verbal amendment on the address.”[26]  It is possible from these conflicting accounts to gain some insight into the role and nature of colonial politics in an infant colony.  While based on the parliamentary principles and institutions of England, in Queensland these standards and conventions were being tested and consolidated.  What was unacceptable in the first instance could be airily dismissed “as a matter of form” a couple of weeks later.  The attempted amendment by Douglas demonstrated his willingness to not only challenge the conduct of government business but also its associated conventions if he considered it necessary.
On 27 September 1865 Douglas had the satisfaction of being present when Governor Bowen turned the first sod at Rockhampton for the northern railway from Rockhampton to Peak Downs.[27]  Despite his reservations as to its manner of financing and doubts over whether the volume of traffic in the district was sufficient to justify its existence, he, due to his incessant lobbying and agitation in 1863, had been largely responsible for the government approving its construction.[28]

[1] “Vice-Regal Speech.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 1
[2] Mr. Douglas.  “Address In Answer.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 7
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Brisbane Courier, 27 April 1864, p. 2
[6] The term in use at the time in Queensland for this practice was ‘log-rolling.”
[7] “Mr. Douglas.  “Address in Answer.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 26 April 1864, p. 7
[8] Ibid.
[9] “Mr. Douglas and the Port Curtis Electorate.”  Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 29 April 1863
[10] “Rockhampton,” Brisbane Courier, 22 May 1863
[11] “Railways,” Brisbane Courier, 23 July 1863
[12]  “Colonial Secretary.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, pp. 8-9
[13] Allan Morrison (1961), p. 557
[14] Bernays, p. 40; “Colonial Secretary.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 9
[15] Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 11 February 1865
[16] “Railways Commissioner Bill.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 244.  Douglas did not want the whole colony to pay for the railway when only the north would benefit.
[17] Ibid., pp. 245 & 247.  Douglas set out in detail how the scheme would operate under the oversight of appointed railway commissioners; “Ten miles upon each side of a railway, would give 12,800 acres for each mile of construction, to be vested in the railway commissioners, for the purpose of sale to defray the cost of such construction.”
[18] Mason, pp. 65-66;  “Railways Commissioner Bill.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 244
[19] Fitzgerald, pp. 264 & 128-29.  The company had been advancing the Queensland Government £50,000 monthly for this purpose.
[20] Mr. Douglas.  “Northern Railway.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 317
[21] Ibid.
[22] Brisbane Courier, 10 February 1866
[23] Douglas impertinently requested the “omission of the fifth and sixth clauses altogether, as committing the house to a policy, of the details of which they are entirely ignorant; and the adoption of a paragraph that appeared in last year’s address in reply to the speech.”  (Mr Douglas.  “Address in Answer to the Speech.“  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 1, 1864, p. 8)
[24] Brisbane Courier, 30 April 1864
[25] Brisbane Courier 17 May 1864
[26] Ibid.
[27] Kerr (1998), p. 24; Bird, p. 337; Daddow, p. 23
[28] The railway was approved in 1864, tenders were called for in August 1865 and the first section of 53 kilometres to Westwood was opened on 17 September 1867.  In many ways, his concerns were justified.  Press comment at the time was that “the short section to be built was practically useless and was only a placatory gesture to the ‘noisy north.’”  (Daddow, pp. 21-23.)  The opening was a low-key affair as “politicians had little desire to publicly associate themselves with what was obviously going to be a financial embarrassment.”  (Kerr (1998), p. 25.)  By then, Douglas was no longer representing the electorate.  This line later became celebrated as “two sticks of rust leading to a gum tree.”  (Ross Johnston (1988), pp. 81-82)