Politics in Queanbeyan From the Counties to Federation

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Even before there was Canberra, Queanbeyan was one of the most important electoral districts in New South Wales.

Consisting in turn of united Counties, then the Southern Boroughs and County Murray until the electorate of Queanbeyan was established in 1860, from 1843, the district was represented on the Legislative Council and then, with the establishment of responsible government in 1856, in New South Wales parliament, by some of the foremost people in Australian politics. These included Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, Minister for Lands and Public Works, later Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1860 and President of the Legislative Council from 1862, and William Forster, Premier, Colonial Secretary and later Minister for Lands. Murray and Forsters’ liberal politics spear-headed the introduction of reforms in New South Wales. Murray led campaigns for the abolition of the law of primogeniture and of capital punishment. Murray and Forsters’ support for National Schools and then Public Schools under Murray’s close friend, Sir Henry Parkes, was pivotal to their establishment. It was Forster’s Electoral Reform Bill that extended the franchise to all men over twenty-one and introduced the secret ballot in New South Wales.

From the 1860s, the politics of the district was dominated by the battle for free selection, led by William Affleck, John James Wright, William Gregg O’Neill and John Gale, supported by the relatively reformist De Salis family in parliament, starting with the return of William Redman to support Sir John Robertson’s 1861 Land Bill, with its all-important Clause 13 – the “free selection before survey” clause. In 1869,  William Forster was returned in an election led on his behalf by  William Gregg O’Neill, who also successfully campaigned for Thomas Garrett of Shoalhaven and Daniel Egan of Monaro, when O’Neill was credited with almost single-handedly securing the Robertson Ministry in its battle against the “squattocracy” that had threatened to undo Robertson’s 1861 Land laws.

Local disputes over the roads and the railway spurred fierce in-fighting between the leading individuals of the district  from 1864 until the Queanbeyan railway route was decided in 1881.

After the election of extreme protectionist, Edward William O’Sullivan, as Member for Queanbeyan from 1885, the battle between the “squatters” and free selectors was superseded by the war between free trade and protection, during which time the district was definitively politically and socially split in two. With aggressive strategising and local media support from the protectionist Queanbeyan Age newspaper, O’Sullivan held his seat for nineteen years against a procession of Free Trade and Labour candidates whose main aim prior to the introduction of income tax, was to introduce an equitable direct  taxation system based on ability to pay and to abolish the sales taxes and import duties that impacted hardest on the lower and middle income earners. Free trade principles also generally tended against the closed borders policy of the protectionists which, in the form ferociously advocated by O’Sullivan and the Queanbeyan Age, translated into comprehensive race-based immigration restriction, come to be  known as the ‘white Australia’ policy, with O’Sullivan claiming to have fathered its name.

While the Queanbeyan Age, under Gale family ownership until 1891 and then mainly Skelton Brothers and Cox until 1901, promulgated the conservative protectionism of O’Sullivan, John Allan “Jack” O’Neill’s Queanbeyan Times, established in 1879, embraced the principles of free trade/labour and gave rise to the careers of the liberally progressive John Farrell and Harry Holland, who were to go on to be leading figures in labour politics. Farrell helped found the Labour Party in Sydney and his colleague, future Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, became the first Labour representative in NSW parliament in 1891. Farrell was an advocate of Henry George’s land nationalisation  principle and  organised George’s visit to Australia in 1890.  After an extensive career as a journalist, including as editor of the “Worker”, for which future Prime Minister, William Morris “Billy” Hughes also wrote, Harry Holland established the Labour Party in New Zealand in 1917 and led it in Parliament until his death in 1933.

As the relationship between O’Sullivan and workers’ movement descended into hostile enmity, under the new management of George Tompsitt, George B. Lillie, Edward Dornbusch and Arthur Ernest Kennedy from 1888 to 1892, the Times continued to support free trade, as did Jack O’Neill’s Queanbeyan Observer newspaper, established in 1889, until it was bought by John Gale’s son-in-law, Edward H. Fallick, in November, 1894, and came under John Gale’s management, at which point Gale turned its direction to protection.

Along with prominent free trade/labour advocate and colleague of Sir Henry Parkes, William Affleck, the more journalistically impartial Times and Observer newspapers, which brought balance to the Gale family monopoly on the media in Queanbeyan, supported liberal candidates against O’Sullivan, among them, the popular and technologically innovative, George Tompsitt, who introduced electricity to Queanbeyan at his wool-washing works and as Mayor in 1889, unsuccessfully attempted to introduce electric street lighting to the town against strong opposition, which included the Queanbeyan Age, at the time still led by John Gale.

With the folding of the Times in 1892 and O’Neill’s sale of the Observer in 1894, there was no longer a voice in the local media for free trade/labour, but in 1894, locally-based William Affleck was elected as Free Trade Member for Yass, in Government for five years with George Houston Reid and alongside his friend, Labour leader, William Morris “Billy” Hughes, while Sydney-based Member for Queanbeyan, O’Sullivan, and the Protectionists were in opposition. From 1899, Affleck, still Member for Yass, was then in opposition until 1904, while O’Sullivan became Minister for Works under the Lyne Government in 1899. The introduction of the Land and Income Tax Assessment Act in New South Wales in 1895, under the Reid Free Trade Government with the support of the emerging Labour Party under McGowan and Hughes, rendered the fiscal battle between free trade and protection obsolete.  From then on, the main local political focus was on Federation, followed by the establishment of the Federal Capital Territory and the selection of Canberra as the site for the nation’s capital, with Federal parliament transferring from Melbourne in 1927.

Against strong opposition, Queanbeyan remained conservative until in 1904, both the Observer and the Age, the latter also back in Gale family hands from 1901, turned on O’Sullivan, who severed his connection with the district and stood for Belmore in Sydney, while local candidate, Dr. Patrick Blackall, was defeated by the Liberal Reform Candidate, Allan J. Millard. From 1906 to 1910,  Granville De Laune Ryrie led the electorate as a Liberal until J. J. Cusack then secured the district for Labour.

The last election for the division of Queanbeyan was held in 1910. With the establishment of the Federal Capital Territory, Queanbeyan lost much of its electorate to the new Territory. For the NSW general election of 1913, a major redistribution saw what was left of Queanbeyan absorbed into the district of Monaro.

Politics in Queanbeyan – From the Counties to Federation captures some of the energy and character of one of the most significant and politically active districts in New South Wales. The book, with its broader coverage and detailed portraits of individuals and events and how they shaped politics, will be available in  the very near future. In the meantime the poster-sized table below summarises the essential stats. The table has been compiled from original research by Joanna Davis and information collated by Antony Green which is accessible online at the NSW parliamentary website at https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/electionresults18562007/HomePage.htm

Elections in Queanbeyan Table Poster