Tuesday, May 19, 2015

John Douglas and the George Thorm Ministry in 1876

George Thorn was the new premier, yet there was little doubt that John Douglas was the kingmaker, with the former beholden to the latter for advice and assistance.  This is evident when observing the make-up of the new ministry.  Griffith, the attorney general, was clearly too young at this time to play a pivotal role (his turn would come later.)  The colonial treasurer, James Robert Dickson, and Robert Muter Stewart, the colonial secretary, had both been in parliament for less than three years, while Charles Stuart Mein, the postmaster general, was appointed to the legislative council, the previous year.  Thorn himself was first elected to parliament some four years after Douglas. 

It was no wonder then that Governor Cairns observed that, “the ministry is not a strong one, but it represents the strongest party.”[1]  Douglas received the position of secretary for public lands.  This was considered the most challenging portfolio “and in that sense it may be considered a post of honor.”[2]  Furthermore, Douglas was considered the “only element of stability or Liberalism” the ministry possessed.[3]

The Thorn ministry was constituted on 5 June 1876, and parliament was immediately prorogued so that its members could, hopefully, be re-elected.[4]  In a speech to his electorate at Maryborough, Douglas focused on land policy, also hinting that the government’s rail program would probably include the construction of a line from Maryborough to Gympie, the cost being recouped by the sale of adjoining land.[5]  Being the only nominee, he was duly returned.

The Thorn ministry faced difficulties throughout the session.  Although it survived a vote of no confidence against it by only three votes on 19 July 1876, the following day William Henry Walsh resigned as speaker, unable to “secure for the chair that proper amount of respect which its occupant should always command.”[6]  Not for nothing did Bernays refer to Thorn’s ministry as “more or less as a humorous production,” while McIlwraith contemptuously referred to the portly premier as “a lump of blubber.”[7]  Short-lived entertainment it may have been, but Douglas at least was to make the most of the opportunity afforded him, comprehensively revamping the colony’s land laws.

[1] Governor Cairns to Colonial Office.  Despatch no. 10,188, 14 June 1876, Australian Joint Copying project (AJCP) CO reel no. 1930.  For a scathing analysis of the inability of this ministry to adequately govern the colony, given their collective lack of experience and business acumen, see the Brisbane Courier, 30 August 1876, p. 2.
[2] Brisbane Courier, 5 June 1876, p. 2
[3] Warwick Argus, 29 June 1876, p. 2
[4] The seats were declared vacant on 7 June 1876 and Douglas and all his ministerial colleagues were successfully re-elected.  (Queensland Votes and Proceedings, 1876, vol 1, pp. 24 & 27
[5]  “Mr. Douglas at Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 26 June 1876, p. 3; “Maryborough.”  Brisbane Courier, 21 June 1876, pp. 2-3 & Brisbane Courier, 2 August 1876, p. 2
[6] Joyce (1984), p. 44.  Walsh was replaced by Henry Edward King.
[7] Bernays, p. 79; Thomas McIlwraith to Robert Watson, 12 June 1876.  McIlwraith / Palmer Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 64-19/138