Wednesday, December 21, 2011

John Douglas and the Queensland Premiership

John Douglas was the premier of Queensland from 1877 to 1879. How effective was his premiership? This is an interesting question. When I first commenced looking at it, I had no idea. Nothing detailed had been written about his premiership; the few remarks that had been made were negative, even desultory. At best, he was seen as ineffectual, at worst a stop-gap premier between better known Queensland premiers; Arthur Macalister before him and Samuel Griffith and Thomas McIlwraith after him. However, it appeared to me that no one had really done the research. Their perceptions and impressions were just that, conjecture and wishful thinking.

As I was doing a PhD on John Douglas, I really needed to be able to answer this question. There was only one way to definitively answer this question. Over the course of a year, I went through the Brisbane Courier newspaper for the entire period of his premiership, and by the end I was able to answer the question to my own satisfaction.

As I wrote in my thesis, I examined:

“the impact Douglas had on Queensland when premier and how successfully he managed the major issues concerning the colony, especially the effect of Pacific Islander and Chinese migration.  What was his impact and how successful was he in performing his duties and responsibilities?  Why did he lose the premiership within two years?  What was his legacy?  The last point is especially pertinent, for partly due to the relatively short period of his premiership, there has never been a detailed analysis of his achievements and legacy.  Although his failures while Queensland premier have been acknowledged by historians, his achievements have not.[1]

And what did I discover? Again, from my thesis:

“So how successful was Douglas as premier, and what caused his demise?  The few historians who have examined this era have been less than impressed by his performance.  Harding, for instance, considered that Douglas, along with his predecessor Thorn, “were two of the most undistinguished premiers in Queensland’s history.”[2]  However, the facts suggest that Douglas, for all of his shortcomings, does not deserve this epithet.

There were many reasons why Douglas failed to hold onto the reigns of power, including the length of time the liberals were in power (almost five years), the failure of Douglas to stamp his authority on his party and inspire the electorate, and the destabilising influence of Griffith.  None of these factors was in itself sufficient to cause his downfall, but together they were a lethal combination.  Douglas inherited liberal ballast in his saddlebags on becoming premier following the failures of his two liberal predecessors, and all through his ministry’s final session was constrained by a wafer-thin parliamentary majority.[3]  Yet, a more ambitious, ruthless and unscrupulous politician could perhaps have withstood these setbacks and possibly even turned them to his advantage.

Douglas assumed the premiership towards the end of the liberals’ political dominance.  He thoroughly deserved it, being easily the most experienced politician on his side of the house.  An experienced leader of the opposition, the former premier, Arthur Palmer, initially opposed him.  However, Palmer performed poorly against Douglas, resigned, and was replaced by McIlwraith, a more moderate man and one acceptable to the many conservatives opposed to the squatters Palmer represented.  Douglas, in turn, would suffer a similar fate, replaced by Griffith - a casualty of an inevitable desire for change from the voters and his inability to constrain or accommodate Griffith’s ambitions. 

The demise of Palmer and Douglas led to a changing of the guard and an ushering in of new, fresh talent, remarkable talent.  Griffith and McIlwraith would bestride the Queensland political stage, displaying “brilliance in political leadership rarely equalled then or since.”[4]  It was to be a brilliance that utterly eclipsed Douglas and his achievements, as the premiership passed between the two no less than five times in the 1880s and 1890s.  As the Brisbane Courier presciently noted in relation to Douglas’s premiership: “It is like the story of those later Roman emperors, who by their efforts delayed the doom of the empire, and who are forgotten because they came too late to avert its inevitable fate.”[5]

Griffith, a man possessed of a brilliant mind and even keener ambition, had continually undermined Douglas’s premiership. He wanted to replace him, both as leader of the party and premier.  Yet, despite by September 1878 being strong enough to defeat Douglas in the cabinet room, the governor refused to arrange an orderly transfer of power to him.  Griffith was rejected by the governor, and when the actions of the former became publicly known, the whiff of betrayal and the stench of disunity helped sentence the liberals to five years of opposition.  To the voters the issue was not so much Griffith’s disloyalty (for he had also intrigued against Thorn), but rather Douglas’s inability to control him.  The factional system then operating in the colony was predicated on shifting loyalties and allegiances, and it took strong, ambitious and ruthless politicians to keep recalcitrant members within the party, particularly when they had competing interests.

Unfortunately for the liberals, Douglas, despite his strong personality, had not the right temperament necessary for political leadership, as this perceptive assessment demonstrates.

Conspicuously fair in debate, he appeared invariably to feel the force of his opponents’ arguments more than those on his own side of the house, and therefore his leadership wanted decision.[6]

Douglas was also unable to keep control over his party and the intriguers within it.  As he possessed an independent mind, it was perhaps not surprising that under his premiership members felt even freer to similarly hold and express independent views.  Douglas was dedicated to the office of premier and determined to do his best, but, as Mason astutely observed, he:

failed because of his own character.  He fell because in the political life of the 1870’s Douglas maintained high views on political duty and a desire to conciliate and reconcile rather than exploit political differences.[7]

Previous studies of Douglas as premier and his involvement in the Queensland parliamentary process have overlooked just how unorthodox his leadership style was.  He failed to attack his political opponents at every opportunity and gave them many opportunities to succeed.  Two examples illustrate this unorthodoxy.  In Maryborough, in March 1878, Douglas was urged to conserve the colony’s timber resources by imposing an export duty levy on log cedar.  Despite this being a measure he himself had advocated some three years earlier when chairing a select committee on forest conservancy, Douglas informed the deputation that the government was too busy to respond to this issue and suggested that if he initiated a private members Bill, then the government would support it.[8]

This was not an isolated example.  In June that same year, the opposition demanded that the government introduce a volunteer defence bill, spurred on by concerns amongst the electorate over the threat of war with Russia.[9]  Douglas, having made no provision for such a bill, invited Palmer to introduce it, promising the government’s support![10]  The bill was duly introduced by the opposition, supported by the government, and assented to on 27 August 1878.[11]  These actions, coupled with McIlwraith’s audacious attempt to wrest control of the government’s public works program, was proof to many in the electorate that the Douglas ministry was losing control of its political program.  As the Telegraph newspaper caustically remarked, “The Liberal ministry is merely a contrivance for giving to the opposition all they want without any responsibility.”[12] 

The Brisbane Courier, as usual, emphasised the benefits of this approach:

The opposition leaders have been allowed to shape the legislation of the colony, but they have not been permitted to grasp the reins of power.[13]

The scandal surrounding Douglas’s marriage, while not central to his demise, undoubtedly offended sections of the electorate.  As Buzacott noted, “the premier committed an indiscretion which, although credible to his conscientiousness, gave the finishing touch to the life of the ministry,”[14] while another observer believed that his actions “played into the hands of the illiterate, scurrilous and unscrupulous canaille.”[15]

Despite losing power, Douglas had achieved much during his time as premier.  Although he was the dominant figure in the Thorn ministry, his ministry was no mere continuation, because Douglas provided a new emphasis and direction to liberal policies.  He had halted Chinese migration to Queensland and curbed the worst excesses associated with Pacific Islander immigration, issues that the Thorn ministry had been unable to resolve.[16]  The Douglas ministry also brought a new vitality to parliament, with some 40 Bills introduced in the first session alone.[17]  Legislative achievements included enactment of the Railway Reserves Bill, the Local Government Bill, the Government Loan Bill and an Electoral Districts Bill.[18] 

While Douglas’s legislative program was productive, his control of his party, and ultimately of government, was not.  He was unable to convince the electorate that he was, in the immortal words of Sir Henry Parkes, “the man for the hour.”[19]  Douglas paid the ultimate price for putting principle before politics, duty ahead of ambition, and fair play instead of ruthlessness.  He was a gentleman politician who played by the rules, while others played to win.  An average premier, he would have made an outstanding governor.  Relieved of the premiership by Griffith and McIlwraith, the circumstances of his marriage would forever deny him a governorship.”

[1] John William Harding. Crises, Deadlocks and Dissolutions:  A Constitutional and Parliamentary History of Queensland, 1859-1922.  PhD thesis.  James Cook University, 1997, p. 203
[2] Harding (1997), p. 203
[3] As one commentator remarked, Douglas “had to take up the growing tangle produced by the continuance of a weak government, apt to evade rather than meet difficulties, and to consider the postponement of a danger the highest exercise of political foresight.”  (Brisbane Courier, 8 November 1878, p. 2)
[4] P. S. Callaghan.  Political Alignments in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, 1878-99.  BA Hons thesis.  University of Queensland, 1968, p. 24
[5] Brisbane Courier, 8 November 1878, p. 2
[6] Our First Half-Century: A Review of Queensland Progress Based upon Official Information.  (1909) Brisbane, Government Printer, p. 23
[7] Kevin James Mason. The Honourable John Douglas.  BA Hons thesis.  University of Queensland, 1969, pp. 162-63
[8] “Deputations to the Premier.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 March 1878, p. 4
[9] Russia and Turkey were at war, (the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78) and it was feared that Britain would become involved.  However, this scenario was averted after the cessation of hostilities following the Treaty of Stan Stefano, and the decisions flowing from the Congress of Berlin.
[10] Brisbane Courier, 14 June 1878
[11] Pugh’s Queensland Almanac and Directory, 1903, p. 98; Queensland Votes and Proceedings, 1878, vol 1, p. 331; J. X. Jobson. A Biography of Sir Arthur Hunter Palmer.  BA Hons thesis.  University of Queensland, 1960, p. 116
[12]The Telegraph, 7 August 1878, quoted in John Vockler. Sir Samuel Walker Griffith.  BA Hons thesis.  University of Queensland, 1953, p. 105
[13] Brisbane Courier, 11 September 1878, p. 2 & 4 November 1878, p. 2
[14] Papers of R. B. Joyce (1924-1984.)  National Library of Australia, MS 7691,
Box 105, Chapter 5, p. 300
[15] Queenslander.  “Six Years of Queensland Politics.”  Victorian Review, vol 8, May 1883, p. 64
[16] Mason, p. 146
[17] Ibid., p. 147. Almost half of these Bills became law.
[18] Ibid., p. 153.  For more details see Bernays, pp. 289-90
[19] P. Loveday & A. W. Martin.  Parliament Factions and Parties:  The First Thirty Years of Responsible Government in New South Wales, 1856-1889.  Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1966, p. v