Wednesday, July 8, 2015

John Douglas and the Queensland general election of 1878

The Queensland parliamentary sitting ended on 10 September 1878[1] and a general election was called for the following month.[2]  Due to parliament being so finely balanced, it was widely expected that the elections would be close, and because the government and the opposition largely had similar policies, the election itself was not solely contested on well-defined party lines.[3]

Candidates, while nominally aligned with Douglas or McIlwraith, campaigned strongly on matters of local concern; railways - with the government advocating developing branch lines, and the opposition main lines - and, as always, public works. [4] As one commentator cynically, but rather accurately observed.

There are now no political questions in agitation which the differences between Mr. Douglas’s policy and Mr. McIlwraith’s – if there are any difference – may be displayed.  To all appearances the policy of both parties is the same.  Their candidates will pledge themselves to the construction of every railway or other local work that every constituency may demand, and the probability is that both will, if they get into office, show an equal capacity for eluding the fulfilment of these pledges; the fulfilment of which would probably ruin the colony.[5]

Douglas had spent an eventful 18 months as premier.  He had successfully curbed Chinese immigration, overseen electoral and local government reform, and ameliorated the worst excesses associated with Pacific Islander employment.  The opposition was in disarray, because its leader, Arthur Palmer, had resigned only a few months before.  Nevertheless, it was generally believed that the Douglas ministry would struggle to retain office.  There were no obvious reasons for this although,

The country is tired of the present ministry … They have not committed any glaring wrong, but they have, in one way or another, failed to satisfy the perhaps not perfectly reasonable expectations of all their former supporters .… an impression appears to prevail in many constituencies that it would be advisable for a change.[6]

The liberal side of politics had been in power since January 1874.  First Macalister, then Thorn, and now Douglas, had carried the torch on its behalf.  This had been the first parliament in the history of the colony to last its normal term,[7] but Douglas and his supporters would struggle to retain control of government in the next.  Macalister commenced his term of office with a vigorous program, but found that retrenchments were necessary to ensure the ongoing welfare of the colony.  Thorn was a ‘stopgap’ premier, incapable of satisfying public expectations for public works while balancing the budget.  It had been Douglas’s misfortune to become premier at the end of a long political struggle, when politics “were comparatively flat and uninteresting.”[8]  Inheriting a wafer-thin majority, a budget deficit, and having to contend with the economic and social impact of a lengthy drought compounded his problems.  Furthermore, Douglas refused to add to the public debt and spend his way out of trouble, and so slowly but surely, imperceptibly at first and then with gathering speed, the reins of power slipped from his grasp.[9]

Douglas had not done anything wrong; indeed he had done many things right, but he had failed to inspire the electorate.  Although a powerful and convincing orator, he relied on intellect and ideas rather than passion and emotions to get his message across to the public.  While the electorate respected him, too many wanted more.  Despite delivering them land reform, railway construction, and electoral and local government reform, Douglas was now seen as having little new to offer.  Tides advance and then retreat.  This tide had turned for his government and, try as he might, Douglas’s character was such that he was unable to reverse it, for he was widely seen as being too accommodating and pragmatic on issues not involving the compromise of his principles, yet too dogmatic and obstinate on those that did.  As a contemporary observed,

Mr. Douglas’s character for honour and integrity stands as high as that of any Australian public man.  He is remarkable for courtesy and gentleness of manner.  Unhappily these qualities, if unsupported by firmness and strength and purpose, are apt to injure rather than to benefit a colonial premier … Although Mr. Douglas is a good man, he makes a very indifferent premier.  Like all such men, he was weak in the wrong place and strong in the wrong place.  Firmness was represented by obstinacy, and just concession by easy compliance.[10]

Nor was Douglas helped by the quality of his ministry, because, as the Warwick Argus tellingly observed, with the obvious exception of Griffith, its members have “earned their promotion neither by length of service nor conspicuous ability.”[11]

The public were ready to give the conservatives a chance, now that Palmer, the archconservative representative of the ‘squattocracy,’ was no longer its leader.  From now on, differences between the liberal and conservative sides of politics would not overwhelmingly be about land, but railway construction, financial settlements and South Sea Islander legislation.[12] 

Once parliament was dissolved, Douglas faced ministerial disaffection over his decision to change his ministry.  The secretary for public works, William Miles, reluctantly resigned after refusing a transfer to the department of lands, causing Douglas to add this portfolio responsibility onto Griffith’s broad shoulders.[13]  This dispute received wide publicity in the press and damaged Douglas politically, especially as Miles wrote to several newspapers complaining about this treatment, and insisting that he did not resign of his own free will.[14] 
[1] Brisbane Courier, 10 September 1878, p. 2
[2] Our First Half-Century, p. 171. Parliament was dissolved on 2 October 1878 and this election was the first to be held under the new electoral laws, with 55 seats being contested for the eighth parliament, twelve more than had sat in the previous parliament.
[3] Brisbane Courier, 31 October 1878, p. 2; Brisbane Courier, 9 October 1878, p. 2; “Summary for Europe.” Brisbane Courier, 4 December 1878, p. 4
[4]Donald Dignan. Sir Thomas McIlwraith: His Public Career and Political Thought. BA Hons thesis University of Queensland, 1951, p. 59
[5] Warwick Argus, 5 September 1878, p. 2
[6] Warwick Argus, 8 August 1878, p. 2; Francis Ivory to Thomas McIlwraith, 8 December 1878. McIlwraith / Palmer Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 64-19/1
[7] Wilson (1938), p. 73. Up until 1873, the average duration of parliament was two years and four months, but this parliament had lasted nearly four years and ten months. (Brisbane Courier, 11 September 1878, p. 2)
[8] Wilson (1938), p. 73
[9] Ibid. This was best illustrated over the funding of railways. McIlwraith proposed to add to government debt, while Douglas favoured the cost being borne by private enterprise or loan grants. For a detailed discussion of this, see Wilson (1938), p. 72 and Harding (1997), pp. 225-26
[10] Queenslander. “Six Years of Queensland Politics.” Victorian Review, vol 8, May 1883, pp. 63-64
[11] Warwick Argus, 26 September 1878, p. 2
[12] Wilson (1938), p. 74
[13] Warwick Argus, 26 September 1878, p. 2; Harding (1997), pp. 225-26; Brisbane Courier, 20 September 1878, p. 2
[14] Joyce (1984), p. 45; Warwick Argus, 26 September 1878, p. 2. For a detailed explanation, from both Douglas and Miles, as to what actually transpired, see Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 29, 1879, pp. 2-5