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Burns, John Fitzgerald (1833–1911)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

John Fitzgerald Burns (1833-1911), by unknown photographer

John Fitzgerald Burns (1833-1911), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

John Fitzgerald Burns (1833-1911), politician, flour-miller and merchant, was born in northern Ireland, son of John Burns and his wife Jane, née Fitzgerald. At 8 he went with his parents to New South Wales. By 1860 he had established himself as a flour-miller in West Maitland and was active in the Northumberland Volunteer Rifles. In 1866 at East Maitland he built a new flour-mill with 'first class machinery', but later sold his interests in Maitland and moved to Sydney. He advertised as a share-broker in 1873 and in 1876 made his home at Braeside, 23 Regent Street, Paddington.

Burns claimed to have struggled long against the influence of those who 'kept fine carriages and horses'. He served his political apprenticeship by campaigning for the Liberal government of Charles Cowper. At a by-election for the Hunter in August 1861, when no suitable candidate came from Sydney, he stood himself at the eleventh hour. He campaigned as an independent Liberal, in favour of Robertson's land bill, payment of members and the abolition of state aid to religion. He narrowly won after a tough fight with a Conservative, Henry Vindin, who was backed by the squatters and made much of Burns's private affairs. He was returned unopposed in 1864 but by 1869 had alienated some of his old followers when he deserted Cowper to support the coalition of James Martin and Henry Parkes. He had also become a marked man to denominationalists for his advocacy of the 1866 Education Act. With this combination against him in the bitter election of 1869, he was defeated by the Catholic, John Dillon. Nevertheless the Maitland Mercury ascribed his defeat to 'a settling of old scores that had nothing whatever to do with Parliament or politics'.

Burns became one of the few professional politicians in the nineteenth century. He opposed the Robertson-Martin coalition and in the 1872 elections successfully helped other supporters of Parkes, whom he kept informed on prospects in the Hunter, believing that his own 'never appeared better'. Although he had to ask Parkes for £10 from 'the Association' to bring electors to the poll, he won the seat. Soon afterwards a rift separated the two men, perhaps because Parkes refused to propose Burns as chairman of committees or because Burns helped to defeat the electoral bill and voted against the release of Frank Gardiner which led to the fall of Parkes's ministry.

Robertson included Burns in his ministry as postmaster-general in 1875-77. He held the office 'with satisfaction to the public', introduced postal cards and was the first to employ women in the telegraph department. He was dropped from Robertson's next ministry, and 'at the solicitation of mutual friends' wrote to Parkes and admitted to being 'largely responsible for our protracted estrangement', but doubted that their friendship could be easily renewed. Parkes responded by offering him a seat in a prospective ministry. Instead he became postmaster-general in James Farnell's government and while in office arranged with the other colonies and New Zealand to duplicate the submarine cable to Australia.

In 1878-83 Burns supported the Parkes-Robertson coalition and then joined the Opposition, briefly acting as its leader. In 1885 when Robertson formed his short-lived ministry Burns became colonial treasurer. His appointment was bitterly attacked by (Sir) Joseph Abbott who asserted that apart from association with some building societies and a savings bank Burns had no financial experience; Parkes explained that he refused to join Robertson because he would 'never consent that the hon. member for The Hunter should go into the Treasury'.

These bitter exchanges did not stop Burns, 'wishful for office', from serving under Parkes as colonial treasurer in 1887-89. He was appointed temporarily to the Legislative Council to push through a supply bill. Burns had inherited a deficit of over £2,500,000, for which he made George Dibbs the scapegoat. Optimistic in his first financial statement, he proposed to issue debentures for the deficit and, more important, to balance the budget. A staunch free trader, he was committed to the repeal of ad valorem duties, and since the government did not intend to impose a property tax, he proposed a 'purely revenue tariff', which included increased duties on beer and tobacco.

His proposals were attacked by the Bulletin, tobacco manufacturers and employees loudly protested, and critics discovered that the rapidly mounting cost of relief works was not covered by the estimates. Even his visit to the Adelaide Exhibition with Governor Carrington was marred by the extravagance of the commissioner, John Cash Neild. In September Burns visited Cessnock and at a surprise banquet, indiscreetly claimed that only £600,000 was due in arrears of pastoral rents. As the secretary for lands had put the sum at £2,000,000, the press took Burns to task, and Dibbs demanded an explanation. The treasurer's statement for 1887 was very unsatisfactory: he had raised false hopes and the deficit was as large as ever. His land and property tax bills of 1888 were considered hasty, ill judged, and introduced only to spin out time; according to the Newcastle Morning Herald, the property tax bill was 'on a par with the extraordinary proposal of Mr. BURNS when Treasurer in the last ROBERTSON Government to place an impost upon all stocks and goods in private warehouses. As financial blunders, these two proposals stand unrivalled and will become enduring records of ministerial incapacity'. Certainly Burns was incompetent but he had to contend with Parkes's control and many disagreements over expenditure. Although he ended the year with a small surplus, the deficit remained and £400,000 was owing under the Rabbit Act. His handling of the treasury was one of the reasons for the fall of the government in January 1889. Although Parkes thanked Burns 'in handsome terms' for his co-operation, more than honesty and candour were needed to make a success of the treasury.

Despite rumours that he had used the unemployed to work on his own property, Burns was returned for St Leonards in 1889. He was not included in Parkes's new ministry, and declined to be vice-president and leader of the government in the Legislative Council for he did not want to leave the assembly. In the 1891 elections he was defeated. He had served in many ministeries but remained true to his main political principles. He strongly supported free selection and the Education Acts, and was against any state aid to religion. A free trader from the early 1870s, he tried to steer clear of sabbatarianism and the liquor question. Apart from the bills he introduced as treasurer, none of his six public bills became law, but twenty-two out of his twenty-seven private bills were eventually enacted. He was conscientious in his parliamentary duties and rarely failed to vote in divisions.

Burns claimed to be a capitalist but his 'large commercial interests' are hard to trace. In 1887 he was managing director of a life insurance company and speculated with some success in land. Early that year he had resigned his directorship and regretfully sold his interests in the Australian Steam Navigation Co. when the government decided to acquire all its wharves in Farm Cove; even so, he was attacked for land jobbery by J. P. Abbott. He was a trustee of the Sydney Permanent Freehold Land and Building Society and chairman of directors of the Wickham and Bullock Island Coal Co. Ltd. He was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales and, although he declined a C.M.G. in 1887, he was gazetted an Honourable in 1900. Largely forgotten at 78 he died of senile decay on 19 March 1911 at his home in Paddington, and was buried in the Church of England section of Waverley cemetery. At Maitland in 1854 he had married Lucy Maria Smith; of their nine children, four sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1885-86, 531, 1887, 493, 1889, 842
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1888-89, 3, 1091, 1889, 6, 575
  • Maitland Mercury, 1861-91
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 1875-91
  • Town and Country Journal, 27 Mar 1875
  • Bulletin, 1887-89
  • printed sources catalogue under Burns (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Burns (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Burns, John Fitzgerald (1833–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burns-john-fitzgerald-3118/text4637, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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