Friday, January 3, 2014

John Douglas and the Queensland East Moreton by-election of 1871

Douglas’s first chance to stand for parliament presented itself shortly after his return to Brisbane from London, when, on 20 October 1871, the seat of East Moreton fell vacant following the resignation of Henry Jordan.[1]  It was Douglas’s old seat and therefore presented an excellent opportunity to resume his political career.  As usual, he quickly announced his candidature, his election advertisement appearing in the Brisbane Courier the day after Jordan’s resignation.

In it, Douglas extolled his previous political achievements and set out his views on the major issues of the day, namely the push for separation by the northern part of the colony and demands by the electorate for increased parliamentary representation. [2]  Rather than advocating separation, Douglas sought, given the rapid growth of the colony, to have more power devolved to local authorities.[3]  He supported increased parliamentary representation, to be achieved by creating additional seats to increase the representation of new and existing districts whose populations were growing.  In a personal plea to the voters, he reminded them of his previous service as their member in 1868.[4]

In his first address to the electorate, Douglas informed them that the reason he was standing for election as an independent was to be “free from any defined connection with any party.”[5]

However, instead of supporting separation for that portion of the colony north of Rockhampton, Douglas made a passionate, and, for the time, far-sighted plea, for unity rather than disunity, for federation rather than separation, noting that the “different colonies should be united under a federal government.”[6]  It was, to his mind “absurd that a country possessing such a geographical unity as Australia should be so divided into separate states.”[7]

It is evident that his time in London as agent-general had profoundly influenced his thinking on this matter.  Rather than supporting and promoting the popular push for separation as he had done when the member for the Port Curtis electorate in the mid 1860s, Douglas now perceived Australian politics as “assuming a national character [and] that separation would be most undesirable at the present time.”[8]  Douglas believed in federation rather than separation, unity ahead of fragmentation, and a united Australia instead of a collection of competing colonies.[9]

Douglas called for an additional members’ bill or a redistribution of seats bill to correct representation anomalies.  He also opposed the practice of bringing Pacific Islander labour into the colony, noting that there had been “a great deal of kidnapping going on,” and that this was having a deleterious effect on relations with “their fellow countrymen in England.”  He promised, if elected, to work towards repealing the Polynesian Labourers Act, thereby halting any further importation of Pacific Islanders into Queensland.  Nevertheless, Douglas would permit those already in the colony to remain.[10]

Douglas, the first aspirant to declare his candidature for East Moreton, had indicated to the electorate a willingness to act as an independent, and had passionately and eloquently opposed separation and the importation of Pacific Islander labour while also calling for electoral reform.  Nevertheless, the Brisbane Courier sounded a warning over Douglas’s determination to retain an independent stance, noting that if he wanted to implement his platform, “he will find party union not the least indispensable preliminary to their attainment.”[11]

However, Douglas’s main barrier to electoral success was another liberal candidate; William Hemmant, a 33-year-old draper shop-owner, who, like Douglas, opposed Palmer, but, unlike Douglas, had also the explicit and unqualified support of the leader of the opposition, Charles Lilley.[12]  Unfortunately, for Douglas, standing against a candidate expressly backed by his former political colleagues considerably reduced his chances.  That both men’s campaigns were largely indistinguishable - for Hemmant also supported emigration, additional representation based on population, and the cessation of Pacific Islander importation – did not help either.  Where they differed was that Hemmant, unlike Douglas, loyally supported the liberal opposition.[13]

In an address to the electorate, Hemmant belittled Douglas’s declaration of independence and warned of dire consequences if it returned an independent candidate.  The seat of East Moreton returned two members to parliament and  both Henry Jordan and Robert Travers Atkin, the previous incumbents, supported the opposition. [14]  Hemmant used this to illustrate his point that if Douglas was returned, then one member would be supporting the opposition and one would be on the cross-benches as an independent.  This would create an intolerable situation, with the government able to say:

that East Moreton had re-considered its decision, and that it had withdrawn its support from the policy of the opposition ... and how the hands of the government would be strengthened thereby there could be no doubt.[15]

In supporting Hemmant at the meeting, Lilley reminded the electorate of Douglas’s previous speech to them where he had proclaimed that after a two-year absence from the colony he:

scarcely felt warmed up into that fervid state of mind which no doubt was a characteristic evidence that party-feeling was running very high[16]

To the delight of the crowd, Lilley lampooned Douglas, thereby extracting political capital from these remarks:

And in drawing-room tones he [Douglas] said, ‘Well, now, my good fellows, you are very warm; you have been engaged, I am told, in a fervid struggle; pardon me, my good fellows, I don’t feel quite so warm myself, you know.’  [Mr. Lilley here put an eye-glass to his eye, and continued in an assumed voice, which created roars of laughter.]  ‘You can hardly expect that sort of thing from a gentleman like me.  It is not the thing for a gentleman like me to get too excited, and we had better take political matters coolly.  If you will honor me with your confidence, I will go into the House and I will exercise impartial judgement between the contending factions.’[17]

While this may have been great theatre, the important question behind it was why did Lilley and the liberal side of politics not support Douglas?  The answer lay with Douglas’s insistence on being an independent.  It must be remembered that Lilley, in order to counter Douglas’s propensity for independence in the assembly, had, when he was the premier, consigned him first to the upper house and then to England.

Lilley refused to have a maverick such as Douglas again cause mayhem on the liberal side of politics.  A strong supporter of the party system, Lilley had unsuccessfully attempted to establish a Queensland Liberal Association as early as 1859.[18]  He wanted loyal party men supporting him in the parliament, and therefore preferred the loyal Hemmant to the independent-minded Douglas.

Having two liberals with similar policies contesting the election caused difficulties for Douglas.[19]  The crowd assembled at the nomination meeting knew which liberal they would support, for when Douglas nominated, it was to loud groans and frequent interruptions.[20]  Douglas was left in no doubt of the enormity of the task facing him, observing that when he had last stood for the seat he was opposed by the then leader of the opposition, Arthur Macalister, and now he was opposed by the current leader of the opposition, Charles Lilley.  Douglas publicly mused on why this was so: what had caused such noted liberals to oppose him so trenchantly?[21]

Douglas was too independent and an independent candidate could not be a loyal party man while steadfastly and dogmatically maintaining the right to be independent under all and any circumstances.  It was ironic that his opponent, Hemmant, had unknowingly but accurately pinpointed this terminal defect in Douglas’s political character, as well as its solution, when observing, in relation to his own candidacy, that:

In every party government there were always a certain number of open questions upon which every man may fairly hold his own opinions, and his pledge would only require that he would give a hearty and zealous support to the policy of the opposition, and in every way forward the interests of the party.[22]

Until Douglas learnt to acknowledge and accept the limitations of his independence in relation to party interests, something that the younger Hemmant had evidently done, he would continue to be rejected by the current political leadership.  Unfortunately, for Douglas, he did not learn this lesson in time for this election.

Nevertheless, the Brisbane Courier came out strongly in support of Douglas precisely because he was an independent liberal, noting that while Hemmant’s liberalism had progressed from “the exponent of principle to the adherent of a party,” it preferred a “man of experience, tried consistency, and greater political weight, whose influence rests on his career, and is independent of recommendation.” [23]  Others supported Douglas for the same reason, with one commentator declaring, “Lilley objects to Douglas’s independent attitude in politics just now, but I don’t.”[24]  These comments demonstrated the fluid nature of party politics in the colony.  The early 1870s were a transition period from fluid factions based on expedience and self-interest to formalised groupings based on political conviction.  While Douglas, along with many others, resented and resisted this trend, he was increasingly in the minority.

Douglas’s fears were realised on election day (4 November 1871), when Hemmant comprehensively out polled him 906 votes to 155.[25]  This crushing defeat marked the first time Douglas had lost an election.  Hemmant graciously but inaccurately attributed his victory to Douglas’s absence from the colony and colonial politics.  Douglas, sanguine but shocked by the size of the defeat, ruefully declared that, “he was quite prepared to take his licking like a man.”[26]

He had remained steadfast to his principles despite being “told over and over again that if he had come forward under the wing of the Liberal Party without expressing any opinions he would have been returned.”  Nevertheless, Douglas refused to be a ‘party pawn’ and had serious reservations about the party system.  He:

thought that the belief in, and identification with, clearly defined principles was far better than any party combinations that could be formed, and therefore he had not seen the necessity of adhering to any party.[27]

Douglas resisted embracing the slow but gradual move towards party groupings as an integral part of Queensland politics.  Nevertheless, in losing the election, he grudgingly conceded its inevitability and that he would have to accommodate it if he was ever to again enter parliament.  While not compromising his beliefs, Douglas would have to accept the reality of the changing political landscape, for the electorate had clearly told him “that what they wanted was a thorough-going party man.”[28]

[1] Queensland Parliamentary Handbook, 1997, p. 402
[2] John Douglas.  “To the Electors of East Moreton.”  Brisbane Courier, 21 October 1871, p. 1
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Mr. Douglas at the Victoria Hall.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1871, p. 2
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] ibid.
[9] I will further explore Douglas’s longstanding support for Australian federation in chapter 18 and his part in the successful move to federate Australia at the end of the nineteenth century.
[10] “Mr. Douglas at the Victoria Hall.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1871, p. 2.  While in England, Douglas refused to encourage or support the importation of Pacific Islander labour to Queensland:  “If … I had addressed myself to the praises of capital, to be increased and multiplied by the employment of Polynesian laborers, I should have felt that such exercises were foreign to my nature, and further, that they were not in unison with English sentiment, which is quite opposed to the development of any form of predial service in a vigorous Anglo-Saxon community.”  (“Additional Correspondence between the Government and the Late Agent-General for Emigration, Mr. Douglas.”  Queensland Legislative Council Journals, 1872, p. 105.)  The Polynesian Labourers Act was enacted by the Queensland parliament in 1868.
[11] Brisbane Courier, 26 October 1871, p. 2
[12] Waterson (1972), pp. 82-83; William Hemmant.  “To the Electors of East Moreton.”  Brisbane Courier, 25 October 1871, p. 1; “The East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 October 1871, pp. 2-3
[13] William Hemmant.  “To the Electors of East Moreton.”  Brisbane Courier, 25 October 1871, p. 1.  Hemmant assured the electorate that if elected he would “give hearty, cordial, and loyal support to the opposition.”  (“The East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 October 1871, p. 2)
[14] “The East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 October 1871, p. 2
[15] Ibid.
[16] “Mr. Douglas at the Victoria Hall.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1871, p. 2
[17] “The East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 October 1871, p. 3 
[18] Mason, pp. 131-32
[19]East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 30 October 1871, p. 5.  The Brisbane Courier agreed, noting, “we are unable, however, to see any real difference in the principles professed by the two candidates.”  (Brisbane Courier, 31 October 1871, p. 2)
[20]East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 30 October 1871, p. 5
[21] Ibid.
[22]  “The East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 October 1871, p. 2
[23] Brisbane Courier, 31 October 1871, p. 2
[24] A Bohemian.  “Odd Notes.”  Brisbane Courier, 3 November 1871, p. 2
[25]East Moreton Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 6 November 1871, p. 2
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.