Tuesday, May 19, 2015

John Douglas and the Queensland parliament of 1877

Parliament reconvened on 15 May 1877.[1]  Before then, on 17 April 1877, Douglas resigned his Maryborough seat, for on being appointed as premier he had also taken on the position of vice-president of the executive council and was still the minister of lands.[2]  He immediately announced his intention to re-nominate for the seat, and his subsequent nomination, being the only one received, resulted in him being re-elected unopposed on 27 April 1877.[3]  Douglas’s decisive actions in addressing the Chinese and Pacific Islander issues meant that by the time parliament opened it was widely considered that the new ministry would implement the previous Thorn ministry’s program in an energetic and determined manner.[4]

This confidence was somewhat diminished when the ministry released its Treasury estimates the following month.  Concern was expressed over the increase in departmental expenditure for loans to pay for projects that were considered incapable of generating sufficient revenue to repay the outlay expended on them.[5]  Moreover, the business community was concerned over Douglas’s proposal to pay for ongoing railway construction by land sales along their routes, [6]  preferring them to be paid for through loans.[7]

This led to the Douglas ministry being perceived in some quarters as incapable of administering the finances of the colony.[8]  Douglas ignored this disquiet and announced that all six proposed railway lines would go ahead.[9]  There was widespread support for this expenditure, although the Brisbane Courier fretted over whether Douglas had the “firmness to practice the economy in administration.”  As the paper presciently noted, if he did not, then “it will destroy his ministry and his reputation as a politician.”[10]

The parliamentary session of 1877 was the longest parliamentary session in the colony so far, sitting for almost six months.[11]  While Douglas had restricted Chinese immigration and innovatively funded the construction of railways, it was generally felt that the government’s accomplishments were “not commensurate with the number or length of sittings.”[12]  Much of the blame for this was laid at Douglas’s feet,[13] the Telegraph newspaper devastatingly observing that Douglas was simply too nice and too much of a gentleman to control his party and belittle the opposition.

The premier’s gentlemanly courtesy, great patience and forbearance, and incessant efforts to conciliate individuals on the opposite side and retain supporters who were suspected of being slippery was carried to an excess which amounted to a serious blunder.[14]

Douglas possessed the requisite ambition, experience, knowledge and social standing to be a successful premier.  Unfortunately, he lacked the ruthless ambition and desire to win at all costs by advocating his own agenda at the expense of all others; the admirable qualities that raised him to the premiership could not keep him there.  He had “premier material, but not party calibre.”[15]  A different set of skills was required to hold power, and Douglas lacked them.  Palmer and Macalister had them in abundance, but not Douglas.  He was unable to disregard his convictions as Macalister did, or subscribe to views not sincerely or conscientiously held as Palmer did.[16]  Douglas, in many ways, was the wrong man for the job.[17]  He did his best, governing according to his ideals and his principles, but it was not enough.

Despite this, the session was seen as a victory for Douglas and his government.  As the Brisbane Courier remarked, any session which passed both ground-breaking legislation restricting Chinese entry to the colony and an innovative Railway Reserves Bill - legislation, “which will leave its mark on the Queensland of the future” - had to be considered a successful one.[18]

One day after the parliamentary recess, Douglas restructured his ministry, transferring Thorn from public works to the secretary for lands.[19]  Douglas vacated this post in order to take up the post of colonial secretary, which William Miles had left to succeed Thorn as secretary of public works.[20]  Thorn was thus relieved of the responsibility for railway expenditure, the government believing him incapable of effectively and impartially managing the large expenditures involved.[21]  As the Brisbane Courier delicately put it, the problem with Thorn was “that he was not unlikely to be influenced by political motives in dealing with demands for the expenditure of public money.”[22]  These changes were favourably received and were widely seen as strengthening the ministry.[23]  On 6 February 1878 Thorn, in order to travel to England, resigned from his post and was succeeded by James Francis Garrick.[24]  Again, this replacement was seen as strengthening the government.[25]

[1] Brisbane Courier, 14 May 1877, p. 2.  Bernays incorrectly gives the date as 24 April.  (Bernays, p. 79)   
[2] Queensland Government Gazette Extraordinary, vol 20 no 30, 8 March 1877; “The Acceptance of the Premiership by Mr. Douglas.”  Brisbane Courier, 20 April 1877, p. 3; “Topics of the Pavement.”  Brisbane Courier, 21 June 1877, p. 6 
[3] “Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 April 1877, p. 5; Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 3 May 1877, p. 3.  While members were forced to re-contest their seats on accepting offices of profit under the crown, it was usually a formality, with few ever being opposed.
[4] Brisbane Courier, 14 May 1877, p. 2
[5] Brisbane Courier, 9 June 1877, p. 4
[6] Ibid. 
[7] The Telegraph, 5 November 1877, p. 2 & Brisbane Courier, 22 October 1877, p. 2.  As the Brisbane Courier remarked, Douglas should “at once boldly ask for a loan for the full amount which will be required to secure the money while the times permit.”  The paper was sceptical that land sales could generate sufficient funds, within a reasonable time, to pay for the proposed railway constructions.  (Brisbane Courier, 9 June 1877, p.4)
[8] Brisbane Courier, 9 June 1877, p.4
[9] The cost was £720,000.  For a detailed account see, Queensland 1900: A Narrative of Her Past, Together With Biographies of Her Leading Men, p. 148 & The Telegraph, 5 November 1877, p. 2
[10] Brisbane Courier, 9 August 1877, p. 2.  See also Brisbane Courier, 20 August 1877, p. 2
[11] The Telegraph, 5 November 1877, p. 2; Brisbane Courier, 2 November 1877, p. 2.  However, the second session of 1867 had more actual sitting days, 89 compared with 80 in 1877.  (Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1878, p. 346)
[12] Queensland 1900, p. 148; Brisbane Courier, 2 November 1877, p. 2 and 8 September 1877, p. 6
[13]Brisbane Courier, 22 October 1877, p. 2
[14] The Telegraph, 5 November 1877, p. 2.  As Charles Buzacott, a leader writer for the Brisbane Courier observed; “Mr. Douglas, despite scholarship and long parliamentary experience, was not a success as leader of the house.  There was little point in his speeches and it was often difficult to understand to which side of a question he leaned, until the vote came.  He was so scrupulously anxious to do the right thing and avoid the wrong.”  (Quoted by Roger Joyce.  The Papers of R. B. Joyce (1928-1984), National Library of Australia, MS 7691, Box 105, chapter 5, p. 297)
[15] Mason, p. 162
[16] Ibid.
[17] As Coote remarked on his expectations after Douglas ascended to the premiership; “I can readily suppose him to be courteous in manner; and imbued with a proper sense of the decorum due to his position, and I believe that whatever may be his inconsistencies, he will not be untruthful, in which he will furnish a strong contrast to some of his predecessors.”  (William Coote.  “Our Leading Public Men.  No. 1.  The Hon. John Douglas.”  The Week, 19 May 1877, p. 616)
[18] Brisbane Courier, 2 November 1877, p. 2
[19] Brisbane Courier, 8 November 1877, p. 2
[20] Governor Kennedy was pleased with this arrangement, especially with Douglas becoming colonial secretary.  (Kennedy to Colonial Office, 7 November 1877, CO 234/37)
[21] The Australasian, 19 January 1878, p. 86
[22] Brisbane Courier, 9 November 1877, p. 2
[23] “Summary for Europe.”  Brisbane Courier, 5 December 1877, p. 3;  Brisbane Courier, 9 November 1877, p. 2
[24] Queensland Blue Book for the Year 1899.  Brisbane, Government Printer, 1900, p. 6
[25]Brisbane Courier, 5 February 1878, p. 2