Thursday, July 9, 2015

John Douglas in parliament after losing the 1878 Queensland general election

The Queensland parliament was prorogued on 22 January 1879 - the day after McIlwraith was installed as premier - to allow time for his ministry to contest by-elections.  During the recess, on 23 March 1879, the president of the legislative council, Sir Maurice Charles O’Connell, who had held the post since August 1860, died.[1]  In replacing him, it was important that the ‘right’ person be appointed, for in the absence or death of the governor, they would assume those duties.  The Telegraph paper suggested that Douglas would be a suitable choice: “The colony at large would have gladly seen Mr. Douglas in the presidential chair; the post is one for which he is eminently fitted.”[2]

Unfortunately, for Douglas, two factors were against him.  The first was that the Liberals were in opposition, and, as the paper glumly observed, it would be “Too much to expect a political party to display such a refinement of Christian spirit as to hand over its first plum to a political opponent.”[3]

Despite this, any decision by McIlwraith and his ministry not to recommend Douglas would have been a difficult one, because if Douglas were selected then McIlwraith would have “gracefully disposed of one of the ablest of the opposition and a formidable adversary.”[4] 

The second factor was equally insurmountable and concerned the unsuitability of Douglas’s wife.  As the Colonial Office assistant under-secretary, John Bramston, remarked to Governor Kennedy:

I see that Mr. Douglas is mentioned in the slips, but his appointment would for social reasons have been a serious mistake.[5]

The position went to Joshua Peter Bell, a squatter and the member for Northern Downs, in a decision that met with general approval.[6]  Less than a year later he spent eight months as the administrator of Queensland.[7]

When parliament reconvened, Douglas announced his retirement as leader of the opposition and Griffith succeeded him.[8]  However, the reality was somewhat different, for at a meeting of the members of the opposition,[9] Douglas had voluntarily resigned rather than be summarily deposed.[10]  The Brisbane Courier lamented Douglas’s departure as leader of the opposition,[11] but William Coote, writing in the Week, believed that Griffith was the right choice - a younger man, with a clear head, a cool cautious temperament, and more energy.  As for Douglas, Coote noted that he was:

Scarcely the man to be the successful leader of a turbulent political party in a parliament where personal feeling as well as party spirit runs high.[12]

Douglas was too principled and even-handed to be a successful factional leader and lacked the necessary ambition and ruthlessness to counter McIlwraith, traits Griffith had in abundance.  Douglas, relieved of the leadership, thereafter exercised in parliament a “liberty of action and freedom of expression and opinion” free of factional constraints.[13]

Douglas now acted as an ‘independent Liberal’ and expressed his own thoughts and opinions while acting in the best interests of Queensland.  He was never a strong supporter of political factions, considering it undesirable for parliament to “absolutely divide into two hostile camps.”[14]

[1] Queensland Parliamentary Handbook, p. 349
[2] The Telegraph, 29 March 1879
[3] Ibid.
[4] Toowoomba Chronicle, 1 April 1879; Darling Downs Gazette, 1 April 1879
[5] John Bramston to Kennedy, 7 June 1879, Colonial Office 234/39
[6] The Telegraph, 29 March 1879; Darling Downs Gazette, 1 April 1879
[7] Queensland Parliamentary Handbook, p. 195
[8] Mr. Griffith. “Address in Reply.” Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 29, 1879, p. 9; Douglas to Griffith, August 1879. Griffith Papers. Dixson Library, State Library of NSW, MSQ 185, p. 170a
[9] Brisbane Courier, 27 March 1879, p. 2
[10] Bohemian. “Odd Notes.” The Week, 29 March 1879
[11] Brisbane Courier, 28 March 1879, p. 2
[12] Bohemian. “Odd Notes.” The Week, 29 March 1879
[13] Mr. Douglas. “Address in Reply.” Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol 29, 1879, p.39
[14] Ibid.