Thursday, January 2, 2014

John Douglas and the "land question" in 1868

The government of Sir Robert Mackenzie lasted from 15 August 1867 to 25 November 1868. Douglas was a trenchant opponent of this openly pro-squatter ‘Pure Merino’ government comprised of the squattocracy and their supporters.[1]  Land was the dominant issue in the colony, and he opposed the government’s pro-squatter land policies at every turn.

Douglas was anti-squatter but pro-selector.  Like many liberals, he believed that agriculture represented an advance on pastoralism.[2]  Moreover, liberals believed, in the words of Charles Lilley, that:

the state is not a merchant selling land, but a trustee holding it for equitable distribution among the people, so that it may be occupied and cultivated.[3]

Douglas’s electorate was situated on the Darling Downs, where the conflict between squatter and selector was especially intense.  Ranged against the squatter government of Mackenzie, and on the side of the selectors was a group of parliamentarians including Douglas, and the ‘town liberals,’ an anti-squatter group who endorsed agriculture by advocating closer settlement throughout the colony.[4]  These town liberals used the expansion of agriculture to political advantage in gaining urban anti-squatter support.[5]

Now in opposition, Douglas was free to focus his undivided attention on ‘the land question.’  Land, especially how to distribute and use it, was the dominant issue in Queensland as pastoral settlement spread rapidly in the country.[6]  During the colonial period, there was ongoing tension between liberals and conservatives over what the ideal land settlement for Queensland should be.  Squatters wanted their pastoral holdings protected and extended, while liberals and townspeople wanted agricultural development through closer settlement.

Mackenzie moved swiftly on behalf of the squatters.  During the parliamentary recess, only one day after coming to power,[7] he instructed the surveyor-general, Augustus Charles Gregory,[8] to issue new regulations permitting unsurveyed portions of agricultural reserves to be opened up.[9]  While making this land available was similar to what Douglas had advocated, the intent could not have been more different for it resulted in a decrease rather than an increase in the number of selectors[10] and further encouraged ‘dummying’[11] on a spectacular scale.  The Queenslander called land purchased in this way as fit only for “sheepwalks,”[12] and observed that the regulations were designed to assist the squatters consolidate their land holdings.[13]

The pioneer squatters on the Darling Downs regarded selectors as intruders and were determined to lock them out of any land ostensibly released for agricultural purposes.  Squatters were able to overcome restrictions preventing the purchase of such land by dummying their runs.  They lodged land claims using the name of a family member or employee to purchase vital reserves and prime agricultural lands.  In so doing, they thwarted both selectors and the opposition’s plan for closer settlement in the colony.

Douglas opposed this unscrupulous practice because he considered it illegal, immoral and inimical to the colony’s progress.  He believed that a “deteriorating effect on the public mind morally” would occur if laws were circumvented or flouted.[14]  Douglas’s attack on dummying was calculated.  Aided by his first-hand knowledge of pastoralism and supported by the Warwick Argus, he initiated the first serious attempt to check the squatting monopoly on the Darling Downs.[15]  He forced parliament to table all instructions given to the land agents,[16] presented a petition from his electorate,[17] and successfully demanded a select committee to investigate dummying.[18]  Douglas insisted that the limited surveying of agricultural land was the major cause of dummying and supplied specific examples, including a transaction involving 24,000 acres of land on the Eastern Downs.[19]

He chaired the Select Committee on Selections in Agricultural Reserves under the Notification of 17th August Last, derided by its opponents as the “Mare’s Nest Committee”.[20]  However, only one of the 17 witnesses was prepared to admit that he had prima facie been involved in dummying and claimed to have only done so following legal advice.[21]  The concerns of Douglas’s petitioners were discounted, because they had apparently erred by applying for land already selected.[22]  It was hardly surprising therefore that the committee was unable to find much evidence of dummying.  Nevertheless, it observed that land was being purchased for speculative reasons rather than with “the intention of bona fide settlement,” and recommended that it be sold only through auction or leased for pastoral purposes.[23]

The findings of the committee were sufficiently disappointing for Douglas that he, despite beings its chair, dissented from its findings.[24]  It had been his sustained attack on the practice of dummying that led to the establishment of the committee in the first place.  Unable to substantiate the allegations, Douglas then took the extraordinary step, as its chairman, of dissociating himself from its findings and recommendations.[25]  He considered the findings especially galling, as he, along with everyone else, knew the practice of dummying to be rife.  Nevertheless, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had attempted to curb it on behalf of his constituents, and the government subsequently acted on the committee’s recommendations and introduced some measures to address the problem. 

Douglas was frustrated by the government’s indifference to the needs of selectors, selectors that he represented.  At an electorate meeting in Warwick, Douglas castigated the ‘Pure Merino’ government for their failings.  “Free selection before survey” was the instrument he used to bludgeon them, describing those engaged in dummying as “robbers of the public estate.”[26]

Douglas was consistent in his opposition to free selection before survey, because throughout his political career he advocated closer settlement to encourage the development of agriculture.  For this he received widespread support from those affected by the pro squatter provisions of the legislation then in place.  Douglas, the aristocrat and former Darling Downs squatter, was seen as a champion of the common man. 

[1] Wilson (1978), p. 51
[2] Fitzgerald, p. 189; Wilson (1978), pp. 65-66
[3] McQueen (1970), pp. 171-72
[4] Fitzgerald, p. 189
[5] Wilson (1978), p. 65
[6] Fitzgerald, p. 133
[7] Mr. Douglas.  “Selections in Agricultural Reserves,” Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 5, 1867, p. 453
[8] Augustus Charles Gregory was born in 1819 in England and arrived in Western Australia in 1829.  A famous explorer and surveyor, he was the Queensland surveyor-general from 1863-79 and sat in the legislative assembly from 1882-1905.  Knighted in 1903, he died in Brisbane on 25 June 1905.
[9] Mason, p. 97.  These regulations were published in the press on 17 August 1867.
[10] “Mr. Douglas at Warwick.”  Queenslander, 1 June 1867, p. 7.  In his election address at Warwick, Douglas had promised not to “step back one inch” in his endeavour to open up land for agriculture and increase the number of selectors.
[11] Dummying is defined as an “Agent of squatter buying best part of run to forestall free selectors.”  (Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary.  Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 321.)  The regulations gave any man who could pay the deposit the right to select this agricultural reserve land.  Squatters hired people, known as dummies, to select land on their behalf.  The were given money by the squatter to pay for the land they had selected and once they had acquired it they handed it over to the squatter.  (Hirst (2002), p. 60)
[12] Queenslander, 7 September 1867
[13] Waterson (1968), p. 40
[14] Mr. Douglas.  “Selections in Agricultural Reserves.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 5, 1867, p. 467
[15] Denis Cryle.  The Press in Colonial Queensland:  A Social and Political History, 1845-1875.  Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1989, p. 109
[16] Mason, p. 98
[17] Ibid., p. 98.  In this petition, members of Douglas electorate were,  “alleging their rights by priority of selection to certain lands in the neighbourhood of Warwick which have been allotted by the Survey Department to other persons.”
[18] Mr. Douglas.  “Selections in Agricultural Reserves.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 5, 1867, pp. 453-54.  Douglas, in advocating a select committee, strongly attacked the government for issuing these regulations during the recess, claiming it was unscrupulous and acting in an illegal and unconstitutional manner.
[19] Mr. Douglas.  “Selections in Agricultural Reserves.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 5, 1867, pp. 453-54
[20] Secretary for Public Lands.  “Selections in Agricultural Reserves.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 5, 1867, p. 467; Mason, p. 101.  Mare’s nest was a term first used in 1619 in a phrase “to have found a mare’s nest,” meaning “to imagine that one has discovered something wonderful.”  (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. 3rd edition.  Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973, vol 1, p. 1279.)  The opposition probably used this epithet for this select committee because they and everyone else knew that while dummying was an ongoing practice, it would take more than a select committee report to halt it.
[21] “Report from the Select Committee on Selections in Agricultural Reserves under the Notification of 17th August Last; Together With Minutes of Evidence and the Proceedings of the Committee.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings 1867, vol 2, p. 910
[22] Ibid., p. 909
[23] Ibid., p. 910
[24] Ibid.  Douglas signed as “J. Douglas [dissentient], Chairman.”
[25] Morrison (1961), p. 567
[26] “Mr. Douglas at Warwick.”  Brisbane Courier, 17 July 1868, p. 3