Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cameron, John (1847–1914)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Cameron (1847-1914), pastoralist, company director and politician, was born on 13 March 1847 at New Amsterdam, British Guiana, son of Donald Charles Cameron, plantation manager, and his wife Margaret Anne, née Moore. John's grandfather had been an officer of the 79th Highlanders at Waterloo. His father, after managing a sugar-plantation at Berbice, British Guiana, migrated to Victoria in 1852, and next year his wife and family followed on the Great Britain. The Camerons took up Native Creek and later Berremboke stations, north-west of Geelong.

John was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, and at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, where 'I never did any good beyond being a good fighter'. He began work as a jackeroo in 1859; in 1861-63, with the Crombie brothers, the Camerons and their flocks pushed northwest from Inverell, New South Wales, to Barcaldine, Queensland. After eighteen months at Barcaldine Downs, John became overseer of Alice Downs and subsequently manager of Wilby. When the Camerons, Crombies, Thomas Mort, James Allan and Herbert Garrett formed a partnership embracing an empire of seven huge runs, John entered the firm. The partnership was dissolved in 1877 but he retained, with his brother-in-law James Crombie, Kensington Downs and Greenhills. The agreement with Crombie disintegrated in 1881 and Cameron and his mother kept Kensington Downs of 625 square miles (1619 km²), 62 miles (100 km) north-east of Longreach. He lived there until 1891 when he retired to Brisbane.

Cameron was more a representative of the second phase of Queensland pastoral pioneering, when capital and managerial skill generally superseded physical endurance, luck and personal persistence as prerequisites for survival. Yet he experienced many early vicissitudes and hardships which shortened his life: he once spent several days in the branches of a gum (a marooned pastoral mariner) during a terrible Dawson River flood. He took pains to avoid the homicidal problems of squatter-Aboriginal confrontation.

Cameron's 'peculiar' attitudes towards Chinese labour — 'He has always contended that the Chinese gardener or cook is unnecessary and Kensington Downs has been always for a White Australia' — blunted Labor opposition to both his person and his business interests. Cameron, whose hospitality, courtesy and essential fairness demonstrated both his generous tolerance and strong personality, survived long enough to receive the respect of western Labor politicians who had sprung from the same genre. George Kerr remarked in 1904: 'The member poses, and has a right to pose, as a good and kind employer'. In 1891, however, Cameron had fulminated that 'in the fight for a principle [free contract] he was prepared to lose every sheep that he possessed'.

On 15 April 1889 Cameron convened a meeting of employers at Barcaldine 'to consider the advisableness of forming a union for the prevention of strikes and the amicable settlement of disputes which may arise'. This body subsequently became the Central Queensland Pastoral Employers' Association: Cameron was its president in 1893-1908. On an intercolonial level he helped organize, co-ordinate and direct the pastoralists' campaign against the labour thrust of the 1890s, an activity which quietly paralleled, and historically may well have been as effective as, the 'new unions' and the colonial Labor parties. In 1897-1908 he was president of the United Pastoralists' Association of Queensland during a critical period of labour, economic and climatic problems.

Helping the conservative coalition pick up the pieces following the Queensland National Bank disasters (he served as pastoral valuer and consultant to the 1896-97 committee, which revealed unpalatable truths), Cameron became part of that brief revival and consolidation of Queensland quasi-capitalism which followed the depression of the 1890s, when he was hard hit. He was wise enough to avoid purchasing pastoral freeholds: 'I would sell land to anybody who would be fool enough to buy it', he declared in 1904, 'I do not own an acre in Western Queensland; and I do not wish to own any'. But he was forced to rely heavily on bank and agency credit: in 1896 he mortgaged Kensington Downs's 113,117 sheep to Dalgety's, the Mercantile Bank and the Commercial Bank of Australia.

Cameron survived the depression, only to suffer a serious set-back during the great drought and wool-price slump of 1900-02. Yet his probity, political influence and individual solvency enabled him to replace the old, discredited entrepreneurs as chairman of Morehead Ltd, and as a director of the Queensland National Bank, the Darling Downs and Western Lands Co., the Queensland Meat Export and Agency Co. Ltd, the Union Trustee Co. and the Alliance Insurance Co.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly for Mitchell in 1893 as a central separationist, free trader and stern retrencher, Cameron used his qualities of honesty, shrewdness and even temper to influence coalition ministers. Declining office, he worked for the pastoral interest behind the scenes. He spoke infrequently but always to the point, preferring to argue the pastoralists' case for effective wage-reduction and voluntary arbitration in public, while privately urging the government to smash the shearing strikes of 1891 and 1894. These tactics were successful and Cameron never attracted the opprobrium heaped on Tozer and Sir Samuel Griffith.

His defeat by Labor candidates in 1896 (Mitchell) and 1899 (Barcoo) signified that the squatters' position was now electorally hopeless in western Queensland. Having declared publicly in 1895 that 'I have never believed in the principle of one man one vote, and nothing will ever convince me that men should have equal voting rights', he was clearly an anachronism. But he remained undaunted. Deeply disturbed by the pastoral industry's plight, Cameron re-entered parliament for Brisbane North in 1901 and, with his co-member E. B. Forrest, was never seriously challenged. Ill health compelled his retirement in February 1908.

A staunch Philp adherent, he was prepared to be flexible if it would help the pastoralists. By 1905 he was even conceding the right of women as well as pastoral workers to vote, although the idea of an income tax remained particularly obnoxious. Cameron never denied that he entered parliament as a squatters' delegate to retrieve a disastrous situation. Parliament, he said, 'must revive the great primary industries of the State so that all else would flourish'. 'The city', he declared in 1904, 'was only the great emporium, the great mart where primary products were distributed, where buyer and seller most easily met. Without a prosperous back-country, the city would languish'.

Most Queenslanders agreed with him. Although he failed to extend pastoral leases and revise pastoral classifications in the Pastoral Holdings New Leases Act of 1901, Cameron worked for thirty amendments in a bill of sixteen clauses. His tactics succeeded in extracting from the government more generous provisions than they were initially prepared to concede. In 1902 he effectively used the Queensland financial lobby in London and skilfully conducted a model campaign that generated light for the squatters rather than heat amongst the politicians. This was his apogee. The (Sir Arthur) Morgan ministry was less sympathetic. In March 1904, replying to Cameron's presentation of a memorial by 400 leading squatters pleading for further relief, Morgan was unsympathetic and allowed only some minor concessions.

Cameron visited Japan for his health in 1906 and never again spoke in the assembly. His political career concluded on a bizarre note which indicated that the shape of Queensland politics had decisively altered. In 1905 he had published the text of a land tax bill in the Daily Mail, alleging that he had found it on the floor of a room in Parliament House. It is probable that the text had been leaked to Cameron, whose desire to injure a Liberal government and defeat a land tax momentarily got the better of him. The tactic backfired and the conservative rump of a dozen or so members was tactically outmanoeuvred by the government. Cameron's declining health had undoubtedly affected his judgment.

On 18 April 1877 at Mudgee, New South Wales, he had married Sarah Annie (1850-1893), daughter of Oliver Lodge. Three sons survived him, the eldest of whom, (Sir) Donald Charles, had an illustrious military and political career. Cameron married in 1899 Louise Christine (1861-1917), daughter of J. C. Heussler; their only son predeceased him.

After a long illness, Cameron died of intestinal neoplasm at his home Avoca, Albion, Brisbane, on 29 June 1914. He was buried in the Toowong cemetery with ceremonies befitting an elder of the Presbyterian Church and the chief of the Caledonian and Burns clubs. Cameron had published 'A review of the pastoral industry of the State of Queensland since 1865' in Royal Queensland Geographical Journal (1905-06). He left an estate valued for probate at £73,978.

Select Bibliography

  • A. MacKenzie, History of the Camerons (Inverness, 1894)
  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1895, 73, 700, 1901, 86, 484, 1904, 92, 168-72
  • Pastoral Review, Aug 1893, July 1914
  • Western Champion (Barcaldine), 9 May 1893, 4 July 1914
  • Brisbane Courier, 16 Aug 1904, 10 Apr 1907
  • Morning Bulletin, 30 June 1914
  • Queenslander, 4 July 1914
  • 3 Aug 1918
  • Central Queensland Pastoral Employers' Association minutes, 1891-1908 (Barcaldine)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Cameron, John (1847–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cameron-john-1167/text9309, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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