Tuesday, May 19, 2015

John Dougla and Queensland land legislation in 1876

Land - or ‘the land question’ as it was called - was the major issue in the colony, and had been since its creation in 1859, for the competing demands of squatters and selectors caused perennial conflict.  In order to promote selection, in 1860 the Crown Lands Alienation Act had been enacted to set aside agricultural reserves in the settled districts and to allow for selectors to purchase up to 320 acres at 20 shillings an acre.  In 1863, the squatters managed to have this act diluted with the passing of the Agricultural Reserves Act under which restrictions, in the form of development conditions, were imposed on any land that had been taken up under the 1860 Act.  This Act established in Queensland the principle of permanent land settlement under conditional purchase.

In 1868, all lands legislation was consolidated and updated under the Consolidating Land Act, which allowed for resumptions from pastoral holdings, restricted selection areas, and set out the manner in which selections could be occupied and improved.[1]  The following year squatting interests again triumphed with the Pastoral Leases Act, which enabled them to purchase and convert up to 2,560 acres of their pastoral leases to freehold status.[2]

Much of the best land in the colony was subsequently converted to freehold status by squatters under this Act.  As well, extensive dummying and other irregularities on their part continued to undermine those provisions designed to protect the small farmer, with agricultural reserves set aside by government often falling into the hands of squatters and speculators.[3]  The Lilley and Macalister ministries attempted, without much success, to make the land laws fairer and less open to abuse by squatters.[4]  These failures were the prime reason for the disillusionment expressed by the electorate over the performance of the Macalister ministry.

The Brisbane Courier accurately reflected this public mood:

The patience of the country has really been exhausted by the delays and shuffles which have, session after session, been interposed to excuse the non-effectment of some intelligible law to suit the altered circumstances of the colony with regard to its estate.[5]

Two main issues needed to be addressed; firstly, the manner in which land for settlement should be provided; secondly, the method to adopt in populating it.[6]  Douglas wanted to raise revenue from the sale of public lands while ensuring actual settlement on “real and bona fide homestead areas” that in the past had been stymied by dummying and ‘peacocking.’[7]

He moved quickly, introducing into parliament an amending and consolidating land bill, which was passed as the Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1876.[8]  The Act, designed to curb the power of the squatters, limited selection of land to 5,120 acres, provided for 10 year leases and ensured that homestead areas selection was limited to 80 acres with residency made compulsory.  Improvements of 10 shillings per acre were necessary before the property could become freehold, and homesteads were protected against claims for debt.[9]

In framing this Act, Douglas incorporated many of the measures he had long and consistently advocated to facilitate the development of small-scale agriculture in the colony.[10]  Agrarian reserves for public purposes were finally created, something he first advocated in his unsuccessful 1863 Bill.[11]  The practice of dummying was firmly addressed through a provision that occupancy had to be by the selectors themselves, and not their nominees,[12] while unlimited speculation was also checked, despite the best efforts of the squattocracy, through their representatives on the opposition benches, to prevent its passage.  The Act was assented to on 27 November 1876.[13]

The Act made provision for two classes of settler - the larger, conditional purchasers, who bought at auction; and the smaller and, to Douglas, the more important, agricultural homesteaders, who alone could select in the Darling Downs, the garden of the colony – and who only had to pay one quarter as much.[14]  Encouraging agriculturalists resulted in increased and closer settlement in the colony.[15] 

The other Bill introduced and enacted by Douglas was the Settled Districts Pastoral Leases Act.[16]  Although comprising only nine sections, its importance lay in the way it allowed for the continuation of the leasing provisions of the Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1868.  As leases expired, the new Act allowed them to be offered at auction for a further lease at a rental of not less than £2 per square mile.[17]

Douglas had consolidated and improved the land legislation of the colony by placing all settlers, past and present, under one set of regulations and by repealing the number of preceding Acts still in operation, Acts that had made for chaos and inefficiency in administration.[18]  His achievements in the areas of land management and administration reform were widely recognised and applauded, and he was considered a ‘shining light’ in an otherwise weak and lacklustre ministry.[19]  As Mason correctly observed, it was “Douglas the individual rather than the Thorn government as a whole,” who deserved full acknowledgment for reforming land legislation in the colony.[20]  Douglas’s vision was to encourage and support farming and closer settlement in the colony by favouring selectors at the expense of the squatters.  In achieving this, he demonstrated his ability to put plans into actions and words into deeds when required. 

[1] Our First Half-Century, p. 57
[2] Cilento, pp. 278-79
[3] Fitzgerald, p. 189
[4] For more details, see Bernays, p. 318
[5] Brisbane Courier, 17 June 1876, p. 4
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 21 June 1876, pp. 2-3
[8] Mason, p. 142.  This Act, which was 105 sections in length, repealed all provisions of the existing 1868 Alienation Act and its 1872 and 1875 amendments.  It was introduced to parliament on 20 July 1876, and received assent on 29 November 1876.
[9] Our First Half Century, p. 59
[10] Neil Byrne.  Bishop Robert Dunne:  A Study of his Attempts to Implement Catholic Social Policy in Southern Queensland 1863-1885.  MA thesis.  University of Queensland, 1981, p. 29
[11] Mason, p. 143
[12] Fitzgerald, pp. 189-90
[13] Bernays, p. 318
[14] Stephen H. Roberts.  History of Australian Land Settlement, 1877-1920.  Melbourne, Macmillan, 1968, p. 263
[15] Ibid.; The Governor.  “Opening Speech.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 23, 1877, p. 3; Brisbane Courier, 19 April 1877, p. 2
[16] This Act was introduced to parliament on 20 July 1876, and received assent on 18 October 1876.
[17] Bernays, p. 319; Our First Half Century, p. 59; Roberts, p. 262
[18] Cameron, p. 32
[19] As Governor Cairns correctly observed: “The great measure of the session has been the Crown Lands Alienation Bill.  (Cairns to Colonial Office, 6 December 1876, Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) CO 234/36, p. 473), while William Henry Traill, the editor of the Darling Downs Gazette, believed that “there is no enactment which is likely, for the next few years, to engage the attention of the public of Queensland in an equal degree to the Land Act of 1876.”  (William Henry Traill.  A Plain Explanation of the New Land Act of 1876, and Regulations: Specially Designed for the Information and Guidance of Selectors in Every part of the Colony.  Toowoomba, 1877, Preface.  Copy in National Library of Australia, call no. FER F9947) 
[20] Mason, p. 143