Tuesday, April 28, 2015

John Douglas and the 1874-75 parliamentary session

Parliament resumed sitting on 27 April 1874, with Macalister at the head of the government.[1] Douglas took his seat as a supporter of the government mainly because it was prepared to address the land question “in a manner which circumstances demanded.”[2]

In his contribution to the address-in-reply to the opening speech of the governor, Douglas flagged his priorities for the session. His speech, like most throughout his parliamentary career, was notable for being considered, thoughtful and polite, and comprised ample dollops of erudition and well-researched scholarship. However, as was often the case with many of his parliamentary speeches, it was also long-winded and contained unnecessary detail. A tendency to pedantry in his speeches often prevented Douglas from his arriving at a satisfactory conclusion, which frequently left his listeners confused as to its purpose.[3]

Douglas’s top priority was land reform, with an emphasis on ensuring actual land settlement by removing dummying practices still taking place on the Darling Downs.[4] Other goals included extending the colony’s rail network by “making the land pay for the cost,”[5] and introducing a comprehensive education bill incorporating the findings of the royal commission on which he had sat.[6]

Douglas saw these priorities addressed primarily because he took an active role in achieving their implementation. The Education Act, passed in September of that year, largely contained the measures he and his fellow commissioners had recommended, while Douglas himself was the minister responsible for the carriage of new land legislation the following year. The Western Railway Act, providing for the reservation of land for 50 miles on either side of a straight line drawn from Dalby to Roma in Western Queensland, and for the sale of such lands to pay for its construction, passed in 1875. This brought Douglas great satisfaction because he had advocated the financing of railways in this manner since first entering parliament in 1863.[7]

During all his years in the Queensland parliament, this was the first time Douglas had been a backbencher when the liberal side of politics was in government.[8] This anomalous situation nearly changed shortly after the session commenced when Thomas Blackett Stephens resigned, due to ill health, as secretary for public lands.[9] Macalister offered the position to Douglas who declined “from personal reasons, and personal reasons only.”[10]

What these ‘personal reasons’ were, is unknown, but they would have been compelling. It almost defies credulity that Douglas could or would have refused any ministerial position, especially one encompassing lands. The Brisbane Courier had earlier in the month speculated that the position could have gone to any one of four government members, with the successful candidate invariably incurring the wrath of the other three, but that appears hardly a likely reason for Douglas turning it down. Neither is it plausible that Douglas declined the honour because he did not want to sit in the same ministry as Macalister. The decision is even more puzzling in that it carried a salary with it of £1,000 per annum, money that a financially impoverished Douglas would have warmly welcomed. Nor was it due to his workload, for he continued to represent his electorate energetically in the parliament and he accepted a position as a trustee of the Brisbane Grammar School shortly afterwards.[11]

Whatever the reason, Douglas remained a loyal government supporter. This session of parliament was not disturbed by any of those outbreaks of obdurate impenitency or dogged independence that were so damaging to both him and his party in earlier parliaments. In this session, Douglas confined himself to contributing solidly to debate and to representing his constituents to the best of his ability. He was now steady, rather than spectacular, with persistence replacing obstinacy. For Douglas, politics was no longer a vocation but a career. After languishing in the political wilderness and finding it so difficult to be re-elected, he was determined to make the most of this opportunity and capitalise on what hard work, sound policy formulation and good fortune could bring.

[1] “Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 3 May 1875, p. 3;  “Opening of Parliament.” Brisbane Courier, 28 April 1875, p. 3
[2] John Douglas.  “Address in Reply to Opening Speech.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, p. 30.  It was Douglas who, in the following year, would consolidate the government’s work in this area with the introduction of the Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1876.
[3] Coote once remarked on this aspect of Douglas’s oratory: “he goes round and round a subject as if he was convincing himself, and found the process difficult.”  (William Coote.  “Our Leading Public Men.  No. 1.  The Hon. John Douglas.”  The Week, 19 May 1877, p. 616.)  Furthermore, Douglas’s oratory was delivered with “rounded periods and sonorous voice ... [as if] pronouncing the benediction!”  (Bernays, pp. 198 & 201)
[4] John Douglas.  “Address in Reply to Opening Speech.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, pp. 30-31
[5] Ibid., p. 32;  Mr Douglas.  “Continental Railway Bill.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, p. 242
[6] John Douglas.  “Address in Reply to Opening Speech.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, p. 32
[7] Mr Douglas.  “Continental Railway Bill.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, pp. 242-47 & 366.  Indeed Douglas believed that making the land pay for the railway’s cost was the “most important principle involved in the bill.”  (Ibid., p. 243)
[8] Mason, p. 139
[9] Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, p. iii
[10] Colonial Secretary.  “Ministerial Arrangements.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 18, 1875, p. 282
[11] Queensland Government Gazette, vol 16 no 65, 29 May 1875