Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Gillies, Duncan (1834–1903)

by Margot Beever

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Duncan Gillies (1834-1903), by unknown engraver, 1868

Duncan Gillies (1834-1903), by unknown engraver, 1868

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN23/05/68/8

Duncan Gillies (1834-1903), politician, was born near Glasgow, Scotland, the second son of Duncan Gillies, market gardener and his wife Margaret. He left school in Glasgow at about 14 and worked in an office until he migrated to Victoria. He arrived in December 1852 and promptly went to the Ballarat goldfields.

Gillies was a successful miner, sharing a productive claim in the Gravel Pits area with several others, including Peter Lalor, and later became a working partner in the rich Great Republic mine. Despite his youth and skimpy education he was soon something of a public figure, a frequent speaker for the miners' cause at meetings, a member of the local court and the mining board which succeeded it in 1858 and a delegate to the land convention in 1857. In February 1861 after defeats in August 1859 and November 1860 he was elected for Ballarat West in the Legislative Assembly. His platform was proper representation of local interests and although quiet and cautious in the House he brought forward issues of importance on the goldfields. If as some accounts suggest he was paid by his constituents, he served them truly for some years even though his early radicalism faded and in the constitutional crises of 1865-68 he opposed the government and popular opinion. From the start of his parliamentary career he had studied questions of order, procedure and convention and his growing respect for the Constitution placed him on the conservative side and alienated his constituents. In May 1868 he accepted the post of minister for lands in the Sladen administration but lost his seat at the ministerial by-election.

Gillies was returned for Maryborough to the Legislative Assembly in March 1870. From July 1872 to August 1875 he was commissioner for railways and roads in the Francis and Kerferd ministries and in 1875 became minister for lands and for agriculture under Sir James McCulloch. One of the busiest and most efficient of members and notable for the strength and lucidity of his speeches, he was valuable in office despite a certain coldness and lack of originality. Undoubtedly sincere and hard-working, he was a skilful tactician and a loyal colleague.

As a member of the McCulloch government and an opponent of the land tax Gillies overcame strong opposition from (Sir) Graham Berry's supporters to win the Rodney seat in 1877, but was promptly challenged on the ground that the lands department had used undue influence on his behalf. Although a qualifications committee found the charge proved, Gillies himself was exonerated but he had to contest a second election. He re-entered the assembly on 7 November, six weeks before the Legislative Council rejected Berry's appropriation bill including provision for payment of members. Gillies was the first to reply to Berry's call for vengeance on 20 December with a terse analysis of the government's motives. In February 1878 he was first again to answer Berry's attempt to justify the Black Wednesday dismissal of scores of civil servants, and was among the strongest opponents of Berry's proposals for reform of the council and his decision to appeal to the imperial parliament to alter the Constitution. Although he conceded that some reform was needed, he argued in defence of the Constitution and traditional parliamentary procedure, refuting Berry's explanations with such clarity that even the most persistent heckler was silenced. Gillies was not learned or given to display, but on this issue his performance was almost scholarly, almost dramatic; it was perhaps the high point of his political career though years of eminence lay ahead.

After Berry's defeat at the polls in February 1880 Gillies was minister for railways under James Service until August. In opposition he continued to take a close, practical interest in railways and was thus the obvious choice for that portfolio when the Service-Berry coalition was formed in March 1883. He knew as well as anyone the difficulty of administering the sprawling and complex department as its impermanent political head. In July he introduced the railways management bill designed to abolish political patronage and increase the efficiency of the department by substituting a board of three commissioners for ministerial control. It was only briefly successful: although Gillies referred all questions to the board for decision and conscientiously refrained from interference, he failed to protect the commissioners from the demands of other parliamentarians. He was similarly amenable to the lobbyists over the 1884 railways construction bill, allowing extensive additions to the already extensive mileage recommended by the commissioners. While minister he assisted the passage of a private bill to allow the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Co. monopoly rights to operate in the city and suburbs, a bill he had first introduced in May 1882. In response to critics of this questionable procedure he argued that he would not undertake a new private bill while in office but had been long committed to this one though he had no private interest in it. Gillies also fulfilled the duties of minister for public instruction in the Service-Berry government.

Early in 1886 when Service and Berry retired, Gillies and Alfred Deakin became leaders of the coalition, Gillies at the head of the so-called Conservative wing and Deakin as head of the Liberals. Formerly rather limited in the range of his political activities, Gillies as premier, treasurer, minister for railways and later for mines as well had to cope with the intricacies of international and intercolonial diplomacy, and in a wildly booming economy was responsible for defining the government's financial policy. He was not quite equal to the task. In negotiations with the Colonial Office over French annexation of the New Hebrides he displayed admirable persistence but poor judgment and ignorance of the European situation.

Gillies's government worked consistently to bring about Federation but his determined efforts to initiate closer co-operation between the colonies invariably failed to interest Sir Henry Parkes. His down-to-earth temperament made him suspicious of Parkes and when the old man suddenly proposed in June 1889 that they plan to federate at once Gillies's response was cold. At that stage he saw insuperable difficulties in the way of immediate federation and proposed instead to reform the Federal Council and increase its powers. By October, however, when Parkes suggested a meeting of colonial representatives to plan a federal government Gillies had recovered sufficient optimism to take the lead in inviting Parkes to a less ambitious alternative conference. At that conference in Melbourne in January 1890 Gillies took the chair. Although persuaded that the present was as good as any time to create a federal government, he firmly pointed in his summing-up speech and at the Sydney conference in 1891 to the problems to be overcome. Unmoved by the visionary eloquence of his fellow delegates, Gillies saw only danger in emphasizing the 'bright and noble aspect' of federation.

In his administration of Victoria Gillies was ruled by the same fatal pliancy as he had shown over the Railways Management Act. An inexpert treasurer, for some years he swam with the tide of the boom, building and borrowing freely in response to demands from all sides of the House. In mid-1889 he predicted a surplus of £1,700,000 but by the end of the year the wisdom of his financial management was causing strong doubt among those who discerned the onset of depression. His railways bill providing for eight hundred miles (1287 km) of track increased such doubts but also alienated those members whose demands were not satisfied. The ministry's apparent hostility towards striking unionists further dissipated support for Gillies, and in October the coalition was defeated on a motion of no confidence.

Many blamed Gillies for the depression, while members who had been personally involved in the boom escaped censure; his own conservative reaction increased his unpopularity. In opposition he was a liability and in 1893 he reluctantly accepted the post of agent-general in London. In 1887 while premier he had refused a knighthood. He returned to the Legislative Assembly in 1897 but was never influential again for his health and ability failed. A victim of Bright's disease, he did not retire but lived on his past reputation, and on 14 October 1902 was elected Speaker by a sympathetic and respectful House. Aged 69 he died on 12 September 1903.

Gillies's long career in Victorian politics was not remarkable for originality. His strength lay rather in the mechanics of politics, his skill in debate, his knowledge of tactics and procedure, and above all his ability to hold disparate groups together in a workable parliamentary majority. In the end his habit of placating all interests proved disastrous but for years before his defeat in 1890 it had worked well, contributing largely to the legislative achievement of the coalition.

Gillies was always thought to be a bachelor but at 63 in a London registry office on 15 January 1897 he had married Harriett Turquand Fillan, née Theobald, a widow of 37. She followed him to Melbourne after he returned but was persuaded by his friends to go back to her nursing in Johannesburg without announcing herself to Melbourne society. This episode contrasts strangely with the general pattern of Gillies's personal existence. Cold and reserved to most people, although a few friends knew him to be sincere, warm-hearted and a charming conversationalist, he had no family, no lasting business associations. He divided his time between his lodgings, the Athenaeum and Australian Clubs and parliament. Politics was his life.

A portrait by J. M. Munt is in Parliament House, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 (Lond, 1913)
  • R. L. Wettenhall, Railway Management and Politics in Victoria, 1856-1906 (Canberra, 1961)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin, vol 1 (Melb, 1965)
  • J. M. Tregenza, Professor of Democracy: The Life of Charles Henry Pearson, 1830-1894 (Melb, 1968)
  • G. Serle, ‘The Victorian Government's Campaign for Federation, 1883-1889’, in A. W. Martin (ed) Essays in Australian Federation, (Melb, 1969), pp 1-56
  • D. Blair, ‘The Hon. Duncan Gillies’, Once a Month, May 1886
  • Ballarat Star, Feb 1861, 13, 14 Sept 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Sept 1903
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Sept 1903.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margot Beever, 'Gillies, Duncan (1834–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillies-duncan-3617/text5619, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014