Tuesday, August 6, 2013

John Douglas and a visit to Rockhampton in 1863

In September 1863 John Douglas made the journey from his home in Brisbane to Rockhampton following the proroguing of parliament, where he reported to his constituents at a public meeting, and attended a public luncheon given in his honour.[1]  At the meeting, he addressed the need for a railway and adequate parliamentary representation for the northern district.  Recounting the determined although largely ineffectual role he had played in representing his constituents’ interests in these matters, Douglas regretted that the “proceedings of the parliament of Queensland have not been as I, speaking as your representative, could have wished.”[2]  He thanked those present for electing him, and believed that their confidence in him was justified.[3]

This speech throws further light on the standards and values that Douglas believed should be held by parliamentarians - many of them observed more in the breach than in practice.  A man of strong principles, Douglas had an unwavering sense of right and wrong and expressed his convictions without fear or favour.  He regretted that several members had voted in parliament “in a manner which their constituents would not have supported,” while the Railway Bill for the Ipswich-to-Toowoomba line had been approved due “to the treachery of certain of the members voting for it.”

His speech also explained why he considered the Herbert ministry unconstitutional.  As discussed earlier, shortly after Douglas gained the seat of Port Curtis in a by-election, parliament was dissolved following the second reading of the proposed Railway Bill, where an opposition amendment was only defeated on the casting vote of the speaker.[4]  Douglas believed the correct course of action should have been for the governor to request one of the other members to try and form a ministry.”  Instead, according to Douglas, the governor,
knowing that I had been elected as your representative and was pledged not only to oppose the bill, but also that I carried the force of your opinion, took the course of dissolving parliament.[5]
With this extraordinary comment, Douglas had credited himself with an importance that was in no way supported by the facts.  The truth was that although Arthur Macalister,[6] the colony’s first minister for lands and works, had succeeded in gaining passage of the Railway Bill through parliament, he and the premier were unhappy with their victory resting on the narrow majority of one vote.  Herbert wanted a fuller mandate on such a contentious matter, as the proposed railway was being ridiculed at public meetings and through the press, it being claimed that the preferred narrow gauge would be no more than an expensive toy.[7]

While it was true that in the central and northern districts there were deep-rooted concerns that the railway would impose too heavy a drain on government funds for the benefit of only those in the southern districts, Douglas was massively overstating his influence on a parliament in which he had yet to take his seat.  In any event, at the subsequent election, Herbert, Macalister and every other member supporting the railway was returned.[8]  Nevertheless, Douglas’s remarks provide a revealing insight into the importance he attached to his parliamentary duties and his central, ever vigilant, statesmanlike role in this regard.

At a public luncheon in Rockhampton held in his honour, Douglas articulated his views on the value of a parliamentary democracy.
The very centre and soul of parliamentary government was the existence in the house of representatives of two conflicting parties opposed to each other on minor questions, yet both having the welfare of the country at heart … the very difference of opinion that existed, tended only to the advantage and prosperity of the country.[9]
As to the role and conduct of parliamentarians:
personal feeling should never be suffered to preponderate in the minds of the representatives of the public, whilst engaged in the discussion of important measures[10]
An instance of the expression of his moral approach to conduct in the parliamentary arena came during the Selections in Agricultural Reserves debate in late 1867.  Douglas, in replying to a parliamentarian who had said that had he not been a member of parliament, would “in a minute” have engaged in the illegal practice of dummying,[11] lamented this member,
might as well indulge in smuggling. And when the world saw that a man in his high position thought nothing of setting aside the law, many others would not scruple to follow his example.[12]
Douglas would hold steadfastly to his principles throughout his lengthy parliamentary career.  They gave expression to his deeply held moral and religious beliefs and his finely tuned sense of justice and fair play.  He put into practice what had been instilled in him at Rugby School and further refined at Durham University.  He believed in actively contributing to parliamentary debate, had a considered opinion on most issues of the day, and took every opportunity to express them.  He was also building a reputation as a powerful public speaker, acknowledged as “a very clever, brilliant orator.”[13]

Douglas had worked hard for his electorate, fulfilled his duty to it, and consequently had become one of the senior members of the opposition.  The forthcoming parliamentary session would see him continue his active involvement with the major issues of railways, land, and education.  However, there was a heavy price to pay for choosing to be in opposition.  Able to participate freely and fully in political debate, he was powerless when it came to having a legislative program enacted.  As well, his stubbornness and independence worked against him in a parliament where political patronage and machinations were more highly prized than integrity, logic, and impartiality.  As a contemporary ironically observed of Douglas:
In the first place, he is too precise and conscientious both in his language and conduct for a member of parliament. A man who has scruples of conscience over an electioneering statement, and such a nice sense of honor as to regard his smallest word as an inviolable bond, has no right to aspire to the position of a public man, much less a Queensland statesman. Then, again, he regulates his political conduct by set principles, and sticks to them with irritating pertinacity, whether his party go with him or not. He has a bad habit of thinking for himself and coming to his own conclusions on all sorts of questions. Being an educated man and a gentleman he has not the tact to disguise these misfortunes, but must let them be seen on all occasions, and so annoy other people who are not afflicted in like manner.[14]
Given these ‘failings,’ it is perhaps a mark of Douglas’s character that he achieved in politics as much as he did.

[1] “Mr. John Douglas and his Constituency.”  Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 5 December 1863; “Public Luncheon to Mr. Douglas.”  Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 5 December 1863
[2]  “Mr. John Douglas and his Constituency.”  Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 5 December 1863
[3] Ibid.
[4] Bernays, p. 25
[5]  “Mr. John Douglas and his Constituency.”  Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 5 December 1863
[6] Macalister had a lengthy parliamentary career from 1856 to 1876, including the premiership from 8 January 1874 to 5 June 1876.  Knighted in 1876, from that year to 1881 he was Queensland’s agent-general in London.  A Presbyterian, he died in Glasgow on 23 March 1883.
[7] Vic Daddow.  The Puffing Pioneers and Queensland’s Railways Builders.  Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1975, pp. 10-11
[8] Ibid.
[9]  “Public Luncheon to Mr. Douglas.”  Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 5 December 1863
[10] Ibid. Douglas was known for “his unfailing courtesy.”  (Brisbane Courier, 4 November 1878, p. 2)
[11] The practice of using an agent to buy up parts of your land in order to forestall free selection.
[12] Mr. Douglas.  “Selections in Agricultural Reserves.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 5, 1867, p. 467
[13] Hall, p. 34.
[14] “Odd Notes.”  Brisbane Courier, 14 November 1873, p. 2