Wednesday, January 8, 2014

John Douglas contests the seat of Brisbane in the 1873 Queensland elections

Douglas contested the seat of Brisbane because there was a genuine vacancy, it being newly created.[1]  Douglas had learnt from his previous election experience that independent candidates were out of favour and therefore announced that if elected he would be “a decided and moderate member” of the opposition.[2]

In his initial campaign address, Douglas touched on several themes.  These included opposing the importation of Pacific Islander labour, supporting ongoing immigration to the colony, again pledging to look after the interests of his electorate “on a footing apart altogether from party politics,” and supporting government funding of secular, not religious education in primary schools.  He concluded his address with the astonishing remark that:

although he would not be disappointed if he were rejected in favor of a more suitable candidate, as he had lost most of his former love of political life, still he would do his best to serve them faithfully and disinterestedly if they put their trust in him.[3]

It was astonishing, because Douglas was desperately keen to get back into politics.  Nevertheless, it appears from these remarks that he was now more worldly wise and politically aware.  Douglas was now less idealistic and all too aware from bitter personal experience of the level some politicians could stoop in pursuit of self-interest, power, patronage, and privilege.  Douglas the idealist was fast becoming Douglas the realist - but never Douglas the pragmatist.  For even now, after all he had endured and suffered at the hands of his fellow parliamentarians, he remained true to his core principles.  Douglas may have been bowed and bloodied, but he unwaveringly believed in liberalism, a sense of fair play, and service to his fellow man until his death.

Douglas also reconsidered his earlier position in relation to political parties, because “without this you cannot have good parliamentary government.”[4]  Douglas the independent liberal was slowly developing, much against his will, into Douglas the party liberal.

Nevertheless, sections of the electorate refused to support him as the liberal candidate. [5]  The Brisbane electorate was home to many of the city’s businessmen and, as a recent insolvent, Douglas was considered by many to be a most unsatisfactory candidate, manifestly unable to manage his financial affairs.  A delegation of 25 prominent Brisbane businessmen persuaded one of their own, Robert Muter Stewart, to contest the seat against Douglas.[6]

Stewart, the owner of a merchant establishment, described himself as a “liberal, and always had been.”[7]  Douglas, having no expertise in “mercantile matters” and campaigning against a fellow liberal, was forced to appeal for support from the business community on the somewhat lame grounds of “being pretty well acquainted with mercantile matters from the political point of view.”[8]

In an editorial on polling day, the Brisbane Courier refused to recommend one candidate above the other, contenting itself with the observation “that both gentlemen cannot be returned will be the only real cause of regret.”[9]  Stewart’s mercantile backers proved decisive and Douglas lost an extremely close election by six votes.[10]   

Douglas had lost another election, although this defeat was not nearly as heavy as previously.  Nevertheless, he was devastated by the result, for his dream of representing his countrymen in parliament remained unrealised.  Douglas continued to play an active role in the communal life of the city while he waited for another opportunity.  In early 1874, the liberal side of politics finally regained control of the parliament and Macalister replaced Palmer, following the latter’s resignation.[11]

[1] Queensland Parliamentary Handbook, 1997, p. 388
[2] Mr Douglas at the School of Arts.  Brisbane Courier, 31 October 1873, p. 2
[3] Ibid., pp. 2-3
[4]Brisbane Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 7 November 1873, p. 2 
[5] Ibid.
[6] “The North Brisbane Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 10 November 1873, p. 3
[7] Ibid.
[8] John Douglas.  “To the Electors of Brisbane.”  Brisbane Courier, 13 November 1873, p. 1
[9] Brisbane Courier, 14 November 1873, p. 2
[10]Brisbane Election.”  Brisbane Courier, 15 November 1873, p. 5.  Stewart polled 221 votes and Douglas 215.
[11] Bernays, p. 77