Tuesday, April 28, 2015

John Douglas and the resignation of Queensland Premier Arthur Macalister in 1876

However, while Douglas was ably fulfilling the role of a loyal party supporter and effective parliamentary performer, events were not going nearly as well for his leader. When parliament resumed, Macalister announced his retirement on 2 June 1876,[1] and was replaced by George Thorn.[2] Macalister was shortly afterwards appointed agent-general to London, in what opposition leader Arthur Hunter Palmer contended was a reward from Thorn in return for Macalister’s resignation.[3] What were the factors leading to Macalister’s resignation, a decision that would lead indirectly to Douglas becoming premier the following year?

Two factors led to the demise of the Macalister government. The first was that the ministry appeared tired and bereft of vision, enveloped by a general feeling of torpor and malaise.[4] Macalister and his liberal ministry had been in power for over three years, and it was widely felt that they had run out of energy. Legislative initiatives, especially over land reform, had stalled, with the secretary for lands, Fryar, facing probable impeachment charges over irregularities in the lands administration.[5] 

The second was that Macalister was known to be in poor health and wanted to return to England, where it was believed the cooler climate would be more beneficial. [6] That the colonial treasurer, William Hemmant, was rumoured to be going to England as well further undermined confidence in the government.[7] These factors meant there was little point in Macalister remaining at the head of his ministry, especially at a time when the colony needed strong leadership to address the many problems facing it. These problems included the issue of Chinese immigration and the widespread belief that the importation of South Sea Islanders was the cause of a marked increase in rural unemployment.[8]

It was John Murtagh Macrossan, the member for Kennedy, who brought the matter to a head when he moved a vote of no confidence against the government in connection with its proposed extension of the southern railway line from Warwick to Stanthorpe.[9] Debate raged for several days, with Douglas at one point expressing a lack of confidence in the Macalister ministry! It was not uncommon during this period for members to put the interests of their faction ahead of the party. As the historian Fowler eloquently summed up this period of political life in Queensland; “faction not principle, men not measures, cliques not parties.” [10]

When the vote was taken, the ministry hung on by three votes, 20 to 17.[11] On this occasion, Douglas excused himself from the house and did not vote, later giving as his reason that, while he had reservations about the ministry, he could not censure them because of his loyalty to the party.[12]

This action by Douglas is further evidence of his political maturation. It is the first instance of Douglas demonstrating loyalty to a party and abstaining from a motion with which he agreed.[13] The approach he took was recognised as the action of a principled politician, one able to weigh up competing interests for the benefit of the colony. A letter to the Brisbane Courier observed a few days later that, “Mr. Douglas is a high class politician, and would be creditable to any government.”[14]

Despite having won the no-confidence vote, Macalister could now only hold on through the “sufferance of the opposition,” which he considered an untenable situation.[15] He therefore resigned and did not recommend a successor. [16] William Hemmant was requested by Cairns to form a ministry, but declined.[17] George Thorn, as the only remaining member of the ministry, was the obvious candidate, despite being considered manifestly unsuitable.[18] Samuel Griffith was a rising star, but was, at age 30, believed to be too young. Douglas was also a contender, one “to whom public opinion almost universally pointed,” but being from outside the ministry, he was never seriously considered, especially as he declined to push his claims.[19]

[1] Wilson (1969), pp. 196-97; Wilson (1978), pp. 57-58
[2] Brisbane Courier, 3 June 1876, p. 4
[3] Wilson (1978), p. 58; Mr. Douglas.  “Address in Reply to Opening Speech.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 20, 1876, p. 20
[4] Brisbane Courier, 22 May 1876, p. 2; 23 May 1876 and 29 May 1876, p. 2
[5] Wilson (1969), pp. 200-01; Brisbane Courier, 25 May 1876, p. 2
[6] It was widely known that Macalister was in poor health, with one account referring to him as a “partially invalided premier.”  (Queenslander, 13 May 1876)
[7] Mr. Douglas.  “Want of Confidence Motion.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 20, 1876, pp. 216-17
[8] Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 20, 1876, p. 88
[9] Governor Cairns to Colonial Office.  Despatch no. 10,188, 14 June 1876, Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) CO reel no. 1930.
[10] John Fowler, Queensland 1860 – 1888:  Political, Social and Religious Comments.  BA Hons thesis.  University of Queensland, 1962, p. 61
[11] Brisbane Courier, 1 June 1876, p. 2
[12] Mr. Douglas “Want of Confidence Motion.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 20, 1876, p. 217
[13] According to Douglas the reason the ministry fell was because “two of its prominent members were about to retire [as well as because of] the defects disclosed in their policy.  (“Mr. Douglas at Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1876, p. 3)
[14] Queenslander.  “The Political Situation.”  Brisbane Courier, 5 June 1876, p. 3
[15] Brisbane Courier, 29 May 1876, p. 2
[16] Governor Cairns to Colonial Office.  Despatch no. 10,188, 14 June 1876, Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), CO reel no. 1930.  In accepting Macalister’s resignation, Governor Cairns informed the Colonial Office that he had done so “on account of the known unsatisfactory connection of his health,” and considered the resignation to be a “retirement.”
[17] Brisbane Courier, 3 July 1876, p. 2
[18] For a damming critique as to Thorn’s unsuitability, see, Queenslander.  “Six Years of Queensland Politics.”  Victorian Review, vol 8, May 1883, p. 63
[19] Queenslander.  “Six Years of Queensland Politics.”  Victorian Review, vol 8, May 1883, p. 63.  As a contemporary observed, Douglas “has hesitated to assume the status of leader, for reasons no doubt entirely satisfactory in his own judgement.”  (Queenslander.  “The Political Situation.”  Brisbane Courier, 5 June 1876, p. 3)