Wednesday, July 8, 2015

John Douglas, Samuel Griffith and the Queensland election of 1878

Samuel Griffith was a ‘shining light’ in the Douglas ministry and a man destined to be a dominant figure in Queensland and Australian politics.  Born in Wales in 1845, his family came to Queensland in 1854 where his father was the Congregational minister at Ipswich.  A brilliant student, Griffith went to Sydney University where he graduated with an MA degree in 1870 and earned first-class honours in mathematics and classics.  He was admitted to the Queensland Bar in 1867 where he soon earned a reputation as an outstanding lawyer.  Entering parliament on the liberal side of politics in 1872, he combined a successful political career with his work as a barrister.  In 1874 and not yet 30 years of age, he entered the ministry as attorney general.[1] 

Griffith, although young, was eager for greater success.  As the journalist William Coote observed, he possessed a “certain form of character strengthened by no small amount of self-opinion”[2] and desired to be premier as early as 1876, but was overlooked in favour of George Thorn.  In 1877, he again missed out to Douglas.[3]  On 20 September 1878, he tried once more.  Following an early morning cabinet meeting, where Griffith had “resolved on Douglas’ resignation,”[4] Douglas was forced to ask the governor, whether, in the event of him resigning, would he request Griffith to form a government.[5]

Governor Kennedy replied that he would not, and informed the Colonial Office that,

Douglas did not inform me of his reasons for taking the step he proposed but I feel assured that he was pleased with the decision I arrived at, though he did not express himself in words.”[6]

Griffith’s diary entry for this day is revealing, “Governor refused to accede to our proposition.”  Later he wrote; “went to Cabinet.  Offered my resignation, which was not accepted.”  He had also visited Miles at his Dalby property just before these events, presumably to shore up support for his actions. Griffith was finally challenging for the premiership.[7]  While Griffith respected Douglas, the former was a man of “vaulting ambition” who possessed a brilliant mind, was extremely capable, and firmly believed that the government was doomed so long as Douglas remained at the helm.  Although Griffith had the numbers to force Douglas to go to the governor, for several supporters were upset with Douglas’s ministerial reshuffle,[8] Griffith knew that Kennedy would be most unlikely to replace a premier between a parliamentary dissolution and an imminent general election.  Thus, it was only proper that Griffith should have offered his resignation after his unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Douglas.

Why did Douglas not accept it?  The simple reason was that Douglas needed Griffith to have any chance of winning the forthcoming election.  For if Griffith was forced out, other members of the ministry might also leave.  Disunity in politics, then as now, was seen as a sure way to political suicide and so for the sake of the liberal side of politics, Griffith stayed, and even assumed Miles’ ministerial responsibilities.[9]

News of what occurred soon leaked out.  The Telegraph reported, “there can be no disproving the proposition that … [Griffith] will be the leader of the Liberal party in the immediate future,”[10] while the Brisbane Courier pointedly asked, “how far is Mr. Griffith involved in the designs of his disloyal admirers?”[11]  Douglas, as leader, therefore went into the campaign hampered by “an insubordinate spirit among the rank and file.”[12]  With his party divided, he was forced to fight the elections as best he could aware that his ministry’s loyalty, and with it the governments’ chances of re-election, was collapsing.  Douglas was well aware of the challenge facing him, promising his electorate that:

Whether in or out of office, whether as a ministerial supporter or in opposition, I shall endeavour, if elected, to maintain the honor of parliament, and to advise to the best of my ability for your welfare and the welfare of the people.[13]

The government ran a strange and confused election campaign.  On the one hand, there was Douglas, the nominal head of the government, and on the other, Griffith, the brash young pretender, barnstorming the colony as if he was its leader.[14]  The result was a caretaker government effectively without leadership or agreed policies.[15]  Douglas’ talents for administration, while recognised, were not rewarded.  The man who a year earlier “began a great party fight with an enthusiasm and vigour,”[16] had, in a few short months, almost faded away, his party “apparently worn out and demoralised.”[17]

Not that this spectacle, as the Brisbane Courier reminded its readers, was unusual in the short history of the colony.

Whether the premier be a Lilley or a Macalister, a Thorn or a Douglas, it is very soon discovered by intractable supporters that nothing can preserve or regenerate the party but the decapitation of its head.  Thus within the last decade the country has seen each liberal leader successively deposed, or his deposition only averted by abdication.[18]

What was unusual was how openly and energetically Griffith, in his campaigning, undermined Douglas.  Indeed, Griffith’s “insubordinate spirit” became a major election issue and damaged the government’s chances of re-election.[19]

At a mayoral dinner in Rockhampton in October 1878, Griffith gave a speech in which he outlined his railway policy.  This policy was so different to the stated ministerial policy, and so similar to that of the opposition, that it was widely reported that he would willingly serve in a McIlwraith ministry.[20]  The Brisbane Courier roundly condemned it as “political treachery.”[21]  Although Griffith rejected these accusations, [22] the liberals were damaged by his actions,[23] and the opposition capitalised on it, especially their candidate in Rockhampton, John MacFarlane, who told his supporters that on the question of railways:

It is now impossible to state what their present policy is, as the ministerial statements showed that the members of the cabinet were hopelessly at variance.[24]

Damaging revelations from Rockhampton continued to surface, one eyewitness informing the press that “the impression left in the minds of all of us was that Griffith was endeavouring to work round to McIlwraith and certainly anxious to get rid of Douglas and the other members of the government.”[25]

The Brisbane Courier continued its scathing criticism of Griffith’s actions, reminding its readers that when Douglas,

took the lead of his party and its government, it had begun to die; it has since been kept alive chiefly by his efforts.  His reputation still keeps it together, in its broken and demoralised condition; and if the adherents of the liberal party lose that support, they will not find themselves compensated for it by the attorney-general’s capacity for party manoeuvres.[26]

Despite Griffith’s actions, the paper believed that the government’s cause was not yet hopeless and that it could still win the election.[27]
[1] Roger Bilbrough Joyce. “Griffith, Sir Samuel Walker.” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 9. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1983, pp. 112-13
[2] William Coote. “Our Leading Public Men: The Hon. S. W. Griffith.” The Week, 7 July 1877. In, Coote Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 92-74
[3] Joyce (1983), p. 113
[4] Vockler, p. 105
[5] Kennedy to Colonial Office, 21 September 1878. CO 234/38
[6] Ibid. In this memorandum, Kennedy gave a detailed explanation as to why he would refuse to replace Douglas with Griffith.
[7] Joyce (1984), p. 45. For a detailed account of Griffith’s undermining of Douglas, see Mason, pp. 159-60
[8] Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1878, p. 2. Of the six members of the cabinet, Dickson supported Douglas, while Garrick, Miles and Mein sided with Griffith. Even with the removal of Miles, Griffith still had the numbers (Papers of R. B. Joyce (1924-1984.) MS 7691, Box 105, Chapter 5, p. 300)
[9] This now left Griffith as attorney-general, secretary for public instruction, and secretary for public works. (Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1878, p. 2)
[10] Telegraph, 26 September 1878. Quoted in Joyce (1984), p. 45
[11] Brisbane Courier, 26 September 1878
[12] Ibid.
[13] John Douglas. “To the Electors of Maryborough.” Brisbane Courier, 15 November 1878, p. 7
[14] Vockler, p. 107. Griffith campaigned as if “in a groove apart from his colleagues and … his policy on the whole far more resembles that of the opposition leader’s than that of the premier.” (Brisbane Courier, 23 October 1878)
[15] Vockler, p. 109
[16] Brisbane Courier, 4 November 1878, p. 2
[17] Brisbane Courier, 22 August 1878, p. 2
[18] Brisbane Courier, 26 September 1878, p. 2
[19] “Summary for Europe.” Brisbane Courier, 9 October 1878, p. 4
[20] Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1878, p. 2. Griffith’s problem with his party’s policy was that he did not believe it worthwhile to buy the support of the agricultural districts by promising what he considered to be uneconomic branch lines. (Dignan, pp. 65-66)
[21] Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1878, p. 2
[22] Charles Hardie Buzacott. “Mr Buzacott in Reply.” Brisbane Courier, 25 October 1878, p. 3. Griffith followed this denial with a detailed rebuttal when addressing his electorate the following week.“ (“North Brisbane Election.” Brisbane Courier, 30 October 1878, p. 5)
[23] Charles Hardie Buzacott. “Mr Buzacott in Reply.” Brisbane Courier, 25 October 1878, p. 3. Douglas’s bid to retain power was damaged because there was now general agreement that the party had little hope of finding an “honorable basis for concerted action.”
[24] “Rockhampton.” Brisbane Courier, 31 October 1878, p. 2
[25] William Pattison. “Mr. Griffith at Rockhampton.” Brisbane Courier, 4 November 1878, p. 3
[26] Brisbane Courier, 8 November 1878, p. 2
[27] Brisbane Courier, 2 November 1878, p. 2; “Summary for Europe.” Brisbane Courier, 6 November 1878, p. 3