The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83
J. M. Grant
J. M. Grant.
We are always afraid of being provincial, and yet there are subjects where the keen, and apparently exclusive, provincial interest may involve a principle of moment to the world at large. The demise of James Macpherson Grant rips up, in our mind, the whole history of Land Legislation in Victoria.
Henty, Batman, and Fawkner, our pioneers, created the settlement in defiance of the dictum of the English Government, that this portion of Australia was unfit for human habitation. When the Imperial Parliament handed over the huge amount of property, in the Australian lands, to local disposal, it was not a matter of generous liberality, but the shuffle off of troublesome obligations. Those lands belonged to the whole English people, not to the handful of adventurers casually gathered here. They were not even English—altogether.
When the goldfields broke out, the bowels of the land were costive. "Unlock the lands!" cried the people, but nobody could find the key. Victoria was really more than once on the verge of revolution, and we have referred elsewhere to that desperate spit of rebellion at the Eureka Stockade. All the grievances formed one bundle, whether over Gold or Land.
J. M. Grant came first into notice as attorney for the defence page 27 of the Eureka rioters. He did not undertake this as a mere piece of business, but it engaged all his patriotic sympathies. His spirit was so entirely conquered by devotion to his country that he could give but a fag-end to the nucleus of the finest professional practice in Melbourne. Those splendid abilities, and that impetuous soul, must be devoted to the people, the same people that the Founder of Christianity toiled amongst, and loved, when it was said, "The common people heard him gladly." "The poor have the Gospel preached to them." Grant was all for the poor man.
With fiery impatience, champing the bit, and galled by the curb, he watched the battledore and shuttlecock battles of O'Shanassy, Haines, and Nicholson. "There must be something, more drastic than this," said Wilson Gray, Grant, Heales, Syme, Owens, and Don. The noble Wilson Gray, the Gordon of Victorian politics, led off with the demand for Free Selection before Survey, and Deferred Payments, as the basis of Land Legislation. It took fifteen years fighting to secure it, in 1869, when the people had been robbed of the eyes of the country.
O'Shanassy posed as the Liberal leader. He had sprung from nothing, worked himself up by unrivalled powers, but he ultimately followed the same course as Wentworth, and ended as a firm Conservative. Like Cranmer, he was fit to burn off the right hand that gave the Victorian people Manhood Suffrage.
Grant was trying to divert his attention to his private affairs, and keep his mind pinned on law, for the benefit of his rising family, when Wilson Gray and Heales fairly launched the struggle. Like his brother-in-law Gaunson, the troublesome member of to-day, he viewed politics "with one auspicious and one dropping eye."
Mr. Nicholson, as Premier, secured a Land Act, a hybrid affair, which satisfied nobody. The fitful Premiership of Mr. Heales was the first chance of the Democracy. Mr. Brooke, his Land Minister, introduced the Occupation Licenses, a manifest straining of the law. Grant prompted this step.
A coalition of the Conservative forces overthrew Mr. Heales, but Mr. O'Shanassy, who headed the new Government, was the most liberal among the Conservatives. Grant watched the proceedings of the Cabinet with a distrust which he never concealed. They professed to give the country a Liberal Land Act.
O'Shanassy, Duffy, Ireland!—What a combination, as Premier, Minister of Lands, and Attorney-General. Duffy meant well, O'Shanassy did not mean badly. How was it that the Act failed in such an abominably disgraceful manner, involving disasters to the country which are not done with yet ?
Two million acres of the finest land in Victoria were dummied away to the squatters, and O'Shanassy and Duffy became enemies page 28 for life. Grant was furious. He flung away every consideration but that of public duty. He consecrated himself to the cause of the wronged people of this land.
Himself a lawyer, his motive principle was hatred of the law. He perceived that it was only a cover for the rich to rob the poor. Although the O'Shanassy Administration had made such ducks and drakes of the public estate, they could not be ousted. Democracy, however, was gathering up a tremendous and irresistible backwater. It came with a torrent. Mr. M'Culloch, as Premier, had to yield, and become its passive instrument under the enginery of Mr. Higinbotham, his Attorney-General. Mr. Heales was Land Minister. His death caused a demand for Grant which could not be gainsaid, and we beheld the right man in the right place, as Lord of the Soil.
Mr. Grant was a man with grave faults, but strongly possessed with the ideal of "Peace and happiness, truth and justice" for the whole nation, as the cardinal motive, the very core of politics. He would stand no nonsense. If the law had been shamefully twisted so as to plunder the people of the richest part of their country, he would twist it the other way. Thus he invented the famous interpretation of the 42nd Clause, the real commencement of liberal land legislation. We never heard anyone speak with so much authority and mastery in the Victorian Legislative Assembly as Grant, introducing his Land Bill.
His likeness to General Grant, the late President of the United States, was often remarked, and his administration was unfortunately too much like that of General Grant His mind could not descend to details, nor did he do justice to himself with his habits.