Monday, December 3, 2012

John Douglas and the electorate of Camden in New South Wales

Now resident in Sydney, John Douglas again pursued his interest in politics, presenting himself in November 1860 as a candidate for the seat of Camden, a conservative stronghold to the southwest of Sydney.[1]  Because Douglas did not reside in the electorate, it was alleged by conservatives that he had been sent by Cowper to carry the liberal banner in the seat.[2]  Douglas was characteristically modest in rebutting this allegation:
I am myself sorry to observe that my determination to come forward has occasioned remarks which gives me a prominence I scarcely deserve.[3]

The seat of Camden was dominated by the pastoral properties of the Macarthur family, who let out the land surrounding Camden village to tenants.  Previously the leading men of Camden village had routinely supported the invariably conservative candidates sponsored by the brothers William and James Macarthur. 
Douglas was aware of these sensitivities and informed Sir William that:
Nothing that I shall do in my canvass will I trust be in the slightest degree other than courteous to you, and respectful to the influence which you deservedly posses.[4]

The election of 1860 for the fourth parliament of the colony was again dominated by the issue of land, the cry being “free selection before survey.”[5]  The Robertson government had recently introduced the Crown Lands Alienation and the Crown Lands Occupation Bills to allow for the conditional purchase of land and free selection before survey over all the unimproved lands of the colony.  Under this proposed legislation, non-suburban land was open for selection as freehold, conditional on bona fide residence and certain improvement conditions.  As the government’s aim was to free up land for selectors, all crown land, including that held on pastoral lease, would now be open to free selection.
However, one of the bills was amended in committee with the insertion of the words “after survey as hereinafter provided,” and this resulted in the dissolution of parliament on 9 November 1860.[6]  This amendment was unacceptable to the government, for, given the supposed lack of surveyors and corruption in the survey department, free selection could have been delayed for many years.  In a notice to the Camden electorate, Douglas affirmed his continuing support for the Cowper/Robertson administration and its land reforms.[7]  Nevertheless, Douglas also sought the support and forbearance of William Macarthur in standing against his sponsored candidates, indicating that he was ready and able to accept his opposition for “I can take a licking with perfect good humour.”[8] 
As events transpired, Douglas was in no danger of having to “take a licking.”  The principle of free selection, which enabled a person to settle anywhere, appeared to promise instant fulfilment for many who dreamed of independence on the land.  Despite the reality being that the land still had to be paid for by instalment, and at the high price of £1 per acre, there was widespread enthusiasm for a bill that promised, “to give everyone everything.”[9]  Free selection was even more alluring in the Camden electorate as floods had devastated the last two seasons’ crops.  The liberals informed farmers whose crops had been destroyed that if they were returned to government then farmers could put their families and their possessions on drays and travel until they found suitable land on which to settle.[10] 
Consequently, support for the liberal cause in seats such as Camden was overwhelming; because its land program offered many tantalising possibilities that they could escape from their inferior position in the social hierarchy and assert their independence from landowners like the Macarthurs, whom they currently deferred to both socially and politically.  The promise of land reform was irresistible to those who wished to curb the power of the squatters as well as to tenant men who dreamt of farming their own land.[11]  Such was the climate in which Douglas nominated, to “great cheering,” at the Camden courthouse.[12]  Addressing the assembled voters, Douglas was eager for continued political success:
They would understand the state of excitement in which he had been waiting, and would forgive him for saying he was rather agitated upon stepping upon a platform upon which he was to receive his sentence.  There were certain duties and privileges they had to impose upon two of them and also certain disadvantages. ...  but though they had to pronounce their verdict, he trusted it would not be upon him.  He did not want to be politically extinguished.  Let them not kill him or string him up upon this place of execution.  He was young and there were others fitter to meet their fate than he.[13]

Douglas devoted most of his nomination speech to the land question, coming out strongly in favour of free selection, for “every man should have the liberty and right to go where he liked and choose where he should make his home.”  Douglas aligned himself with “hard working men,” appealing to the electorate as “a simple man amongst men.”[14]  He was concerned that the land bill would struggle for assent in the upper house, for “there were prejudiced men in that house, blind to the interests of the country.”
In rebutting conservative allegations that he was Cowper’s nominee in Camden, Douglas declared that:
He had never slavishly served him - nor would he do so.  He would rather serve them (the electorate) than any man.[15]

At the election, Douglas, along with most of Robertson and Cowper’s supporters, achieved an overwhelming victory.[16]  Only nine members opposed to free selection were returned while at least 45 of its supporters were successful.[17]  The Macarthurs were not unduly upset with the result, John Macarthur noting, “Douglas is a man of old family and educated as a gentleman.”[18]
Douglas, as promised, voted for the land reforms introduced by the Cowper administration[19] as well as for a bill to reshape the upper house,[20] and was active on several committees.[21]  The parliamentary session ended in May 1861 and on 17 July 1861, Douglas announced his resignation as member for Camden.[22]  He had served his electorate, whose constituents he had assured “would not resent their choice,” for only six months.[23]  This was the end of his political and administrative career in New South Wales.  Despite being only 33 years old he had gained valuable parliamentary experience representing two electorates, and had strongly pursued issues close to his heart, particularly that of land reform.  The rest of his life would be spent in serving the colony of Queensland, to whose development he would greatly contribute.

[1] Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1860
[2] Hirst (1988), p. 92
[3] John Douglas to William Macarthur, 24 November 1860.  Macarthur Papers, Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, ML A2937
[4] Ibid.
[5] Richards, p. 320.  The term was a misnomer, as the land had to be purchased on deferred terms at £1 per acre.  However, it was free in that a selector could choose any unalienated crown land within the colony.
[6] Richards, p. 320; Loveday (1966), p. 30
[7] John Douglas.  “To the Electors of Camden.”  Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 1860, p. 2
[8] John Douglas to William Macarthur, 21 November 1860.  Macarthur Papers, Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, A2937.  In his nomination speech, Douglas was reported as having said; “no man should be a representative of the people who was not prepared to take rubs with a good face.  He believed that was the old English spirit; he was taught to cultivate it when at school, and he hoped to see more and more of it in this country.”  (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1860, p. 2)
[9] Hirst (1988), pp. 91-92
[10] Ibid., p. 92
[11] Ibid., p. 95
[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1860, p. 2
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.  One interjector referred to Douglas as “the poor man’s friend.”
[15] Ibid.  Putting party interests first never came naturally to Douglas.  As Browne accurately observed, “he was always more concerned in the welfare of the country than in a small party advantage.”  (Browne (1927), p. 78)
[16] The New South Wales Parliamentary Record ...  17th ed.  Sydney, Government Printer, 1950, p. 120.  Over 80 per cent of the Camden electorate voted, with John Morrice and John Douglas being returned with 614 and 519 votes respectively.  (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 December 1860)
[17] Loveday (1966), p. 32
[18] James Macarthur to William Macarthur, 24 March 1861, p. 2.  Macarthur Family Letters, vol 36, A2932.  Macarthur Papers.  Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, reel 2259.
[19] When the parliament sat on 10 January 1861, Charles Cowper was once again holding the office of premier, John Robertson having retired in his favour.  (Richards, p. 321)
[20] Mason, p. 42
[21] New South Wales Legislative Assembly.  Standing and Select Committees Appointed During the Session of 1861, pp. 1 & 3.  New South Wales Votes and Proceedings 1861, vol 1
[22] Mason, p. 42
[23] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1860, p. 2