Thursday, July 14, 2016

John Douglas and his involvement in the Steel Rails affair in 1880

An article on John Douglas and his involvement in the Steel Rails affair in 1880. My PhD chapter on this is here

Capricornian (Rockhampton), Saturday 2 October 1880, page 3
It is greatly to be feared that the Hon. John Douglas is steadily deteriorating in political morality. Time was when, however much his opinions were differed from, be was almost universally regarded as the incarnation of sincerity, and the very soul of honour. But that time has long since gone past. Ever since he consented to the degradation of continuing office, as the subordinate of the most profligate and brainless of our legislators, Mr. Douglas’s “moral superiority” has assumed a fossilized type to the destruction of whatever influence be would otherwise have continued to wield as the most accomplished and experienced of the Colony’s public men. MR Douglas has still at command a full collection of fine phrases, and under cover of these he of late almost daily advances the most disingenuous, not to say, indecent, insinuations. During the present session he has done his very best to blast the reputations and destroy the power of more than one Minister of the Crown, and his performance would be beyond praise but for the fact that the business in which he is engaged is in its very nature mean and despicable. Surely such a role is quite unworthy of a leading politician of gentle birth and scholarly culture such as Mr. Douglas may undoubtedly claim to be.
The latest discreditable exhibition of the honourable gentleman now under notice is seen in Hansard of Tuesday last. On that day, with a display of something akin to ‘malice afterthought’ this honourable gentleman moved the adjournment of the House to initiate discussions on a matter well-known to be still sub judice. But he did even worse than this. With a fatuous persistency which we hesitate whether to impute to unpardonable ignorance or gross indecency, he calmly set about the work of misconstruing the late judgement of the Supreme Court in the suit of Miles v McIlwraith and circulating through Hansard a series of false conclusions with respect to that judgment.  As by this time most of our readers well know, the judgment in questions was simply on a “demurrer:' in which the plaintiff took exception to the pleas lodged by the defendant. Mr Douglas insisted that not only had the Court pronounced the Premier to be a contractor with the Government, but that he had acknowledged the fact; and also that Chief Justice Lilley had laid down that as a contractor he could not sit in Parliament. Mr. Douglas then proceeded to urge parliament to take the matter into consideration as one gravely affecting its honour. At the same time, with what almost looks like unconscious humour, be admitted that as a partisan he was disqualified from discussing it dispassionately. He 'craved’ that some gentleman not connected with the Opposition — 'some member who cared more for the freedom and independence of Parliament than for the aggrandisement of any contractor or party' — would take the matter into consideration. What high-flown aimless twaddle all this surely is. How absurd that the oldest politician in the House should thus gratuitously all its members while pretending to invoke the free play of their deepest moral feelings. But he went farther. After expressing his wonderment at the situation, he affirmed that “the highest court of which we have any knowledge, seemed to assert that-the Premier is a contractor, and disqualified to sit in Parliament.  He then solemnly appealed to the Premier to 'purge himself' whatever' that may mean, regardless of consequences to himself or the country. Which means, that in the middle of a most important session the Ministry should be broken up, and the business of the colony indefinitely postponed, in order that the Hon. John Douglas may again display his incompetence on the Treasury Benches. Surely this unfortunate colony has already suffered too much by this gentleman's limpet-like adhesiveness to office to permit either Parliament or people contemplating his early return to office without a. shudder.
There might be some excuse for Mr. Douglas had be thought fit to proceed in the manner dictated by common sense and justifies by parliamentary precedent. His obvious course, if any action in the Assembly was justifiable — was to take a substantive resolution affirming the disqualification of the Premier, or referring the matter for investigation by the Committee of Elections. Had be taken that course be might with same show of reason have appealed to me impartiality of honourable members and entreated them to record a just judgement. Bat such a course was altogether too straightforward for the honourable John. What he wanted was to occupy the first page of Hansard with a disingenuous and garbled version of the judgement, with a view to excite public feeling against the Premier, destroy his reputation and undermine his influence. His capacity in this way had been already proved by partisan summary published by him in the Courier of Mr. Thomas Hamilton’s evidence before the Select Committee. That evidence, until neutralised by subsequent cross-examination, was a carefully concocted and damaging libel on the Premier, but Mr. Douglas did not find the cross-examination worthy of his facile pen. Under the pretence of securing publicity for a Parliamentary inquiry, he in an illicit and clandestine manner, published falsehoods which he desired to scatter broadcast through the colony. 
That attained, his anxiety for publicity ceased. He has never published a line of the evidence or any abstract from it, since it was laid on the table of the Legislative Assembly and was available for publication in a legitimate manner, and it is evident that he has no intention to do so. He has set himself to pose as a patriot of the purest water in the first page of Hansard, and on the assumption that if mud is skilfully thrown some of it must stick, he has descended to that mean occupation. We think, however, that both Parliament and the country are beginning to estimate this honourable member at his true value, and that his concoctions’ will not be swallowed by any but the most credulous without a free admixture of salt.
The conduct of the Opposition in this matter leads to the conclusion that they do not intend to proceed to trial. It is known that the venerable plaintiff already complains bitterly of the law costs imposed upon him in this fighting the battle of his party in the Supreme Court and that an attempt has been made to procure the sinews of war by initiating a public subscription. Possibly by that means the Premier may yet be farther harassed, but his position is certainly in no way endangered. He has more than enough political vitality to carry him safely through the consequences of this blow below the belt; and his pocket is perhaps as well able to furnish the law costs as is the subscription of his adversaries. But his position is nevertheless one demanding public sympathy. A Premier bent on initiating and carrying through a bold and dangerous policy has quite enough to contend against without those wretched and unjustifiable attacks upon his political integrity and personal honour. We, for our part, do not doubt that he will survive the trying ordeal, and will yet live to see his traducers put to shame and confusion.