Tuesday, May 19, 2015

John Douglas and the collapse of the Thorn Ministry in 1876

Parliament was prorogued on 1 December 1876.  The session had lasted over six months, the longest thus far in the history of the colony, and Douglas had been the government’s standout performer.  His land legislation, a major improvement on the 1868 Act, was considered the most important business the parliament had conducted since the advent of the Thorn ministry.[1]  He had decisively broken the shackles that had plagued his predecessors when it came to land reform.  Douglas was now regarded as an experienced and successful politician, one who had “some weight in the eyes of the country.”[2]

The same could not be said of his leader, who was scathingly depicted in the press as one whose only talent was that of “saying the wrong thing in the wrong place [and] and being reticent when he should have been candid and communicative.”[3]  It was inevitable that eventually doubts would be raised about Thorn’s fitness to remain as premier, as well as who should be the best person to succeed him.[4]

When this occurred, Thorn was replaced by Douglas.  This was due to a combination of factors: his experience, the decisive manner in which he successfully reformed land ownership and administration, and the inescapable fact that Thorn, although a genial and pleasant man, was deemed incapable of effectively governing the country.[5]  Thorn was a poor public speaker, and the ministry believed that holding one’s own in debate on the floor of parliament was a prerequisite for success as a premier.[6]

Following much intrigue amongst his ministry, Thorn was therefore replaced as premier in March 1877.[7]  Although details of this dissension first appeared in the press towards the end of February, they were immediately denied by those close to him.[8]  While the attorney general, Samuel Walker Griffith, clearly coveted the post, he was considered too young[9] and it was rumoured that the honour would fall to Douglas.[10]  Thorn reluctantly resigned[11] and the governor then requested that Douglas form a ministry.[12]  Douglas accepted the governor’s invitation with alacrity and secured, a day after his 49th birthday, the ultimate political prize in the colony.

Rarely had anyone ascended to the premiership of Queensland with such universal acclamation and goodwill from all sides.  As one paper noted:

He is beyond all comparison the most competent and experienced member of his party.    He has the confidence and respect of his own party.[13]

Another paper observed that there were no politicians whose “claim to statesmanship can be compared to him.”[14]  That Douglas’s wife had died tragically less than six months earlier also generated considerable sympathy, as was evidenced by the size of her funeral and the glowing tributes in the press.

[1] “Land Acts.” Queensland Times, 25 November 1876, p. 2
[2] Brisbane Courier, 30 August 1876, p. 2
[3] Brisbane Courier, 1 December 1876, p. 2; Bernays, p. 79
[4] The doubters extended all the way to the governor, with Cairns noting on 6 December 1876: “I do not doubt, however, that some pretext will be sought during the recess for getting rid of Mr. Thorn, or, at least, for reconstituting the ministry so as to place Mr. Douglas or Mr. Griffith at its head.” (Cairns to Colonial Office, 6 December 1876, Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), CO 234/36, pp. 472-73)
[5] One commentator observed of Thorn that, “as a minister he was useless, and as prime minister he was ridiculous.” (Queenslander. “Six Years of Queensland Politics.” Victorian Review, vol 8, May 1883, p. 63)
[6] Queensland Times, 8 March 1877, p. 2
[7] For an account of this intrigue, see Joyce (1984), p. 44
[8] Brisbane Courier, 24 February 1877, p. 4 & 8 March 1877, p. 2; Queensland Times, 8 March 1877, p. 2. When Thorn did resign, it was widely reported that he had done so voluntarily. However, this was incorrect. If he had had his way, he would have continued as premier.
[9] Griffith was 32 years old. His turn came later, for he was premier from November 1883 to June 1888 and again from August 1890 to March 1893.
[10] Brisbane Courier, 24 February 1877, p. 4.
[11] Brisbane Courier, 9 March 1877, p. 2
[12] Joyce (1984), p. 44; Roger Joyce. “Samuel Walker Griffith: A Liberal Lawyer.” In, D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce, eds. Queensland Political Portraits. Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1978, p. 151
[13] Brisbane Courier, 8 March 1877, p. 2
[14] Warwick Argus, 15 March 1877, p. 2. As this comment from the Queensland Patriot attests: “As a debater the new premier is amongst the foremost orators who have ever stood on the floor of the Queensland House of Assembly; as a departmental minister he has long been acknowledged to have no superiors, and as a leader we believe he will be as successful as the best of his predecessors.” (Queensland Patriot, 10 March 1877, p. 180)