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Kidston, William (1849–1919)

by D. J. Murphy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Kidston (1849-1919), bookseller and premier, was born on 17 August 1849 at Falkirk, Scotland, son of Richard Kidston, ironmoulder, and his wife Janet, née Reid. Apprenticed to his father's trade at 13, he later completed a certificate in chemistry, declined a position as a chemist in England and returned to his trade. On 22 January 1875 he married Margaret Scott of Falkirk with Free Church of Scotland forms; they had five sons and one daughter.

To escape the Scots industrial environment, Kidston migrated to Sydney in 1882 and nine months later settled at Rockhampton, Queensland, as a bookseller and stationer. A supporter in Britain of the Liberal Party and Home Rule for Ireland, he soon became involved in local politics. One of the founders of the Workers' Political Association and a sergeant in the local Volunteers, he was court-martialled and dismissed for refusing to be enrolled as a special constable in the 1891 shearers' strike. Kidston was Rockhampton's principal Labor figure throughout 1891, defending gaoled strikers and addressing public meetings.

In August 1892 Kidston represented the W.P.A. branches of Rockhampton, Mount Morgan and Clermont at the Labor-in-Politics convention in Brisbane; his proposals for electoral reform and for central and northern separation were adopted. He lost the contest for the two-member Rockhampton electorate in 1893, but demonstrated his loyalty to the Labor Party and to central Queensland separatism. Kidston worked hard for election at his second attempt in March-April 1896, emphasizing local loyalty and standing as a democrat rather than a Labor candidate. He won and was accepted as a Labor member.

Practical politics, Kidston soon found, was more difficult than he had envisaged. He could not see Labor soon taking office but foresaw the possibility of Liberal and Labor progressives coalescing to remove 'the continuous government'. Pursuing the alliance tenaciously, he was one of three Labor representatives appointed by the 1898 convention to confer with the Liberal Opposition. He judged Federation by its possible effect on central Queensland separation, the influence of interstate free trade on Queensland industries and by whether the referendum would be taken under adult franchise. His attempts to have a referendum on central Queensland separation with the Federation referendum and to introduce white adult male suffrage into the Federation enabling bill were both defeated, but his campaign against Federation led to a 'No' vote in Rockhampton.

In December 1899 Kidston was treasurer and postmaster-general in the brief minority Labor government of Anderson Dawson. It taught him that a Labor-Liberal alliance was possible. Albert Hinchcliffe referred to Kidston as 'the most tenacious': the next three years proved him right. Visiting Scotland briefly in 1901, Kidston returned to Queensland for the 1902 election. Because clause 124 of the Federal Constitution left the question of separation to the State parliament, he concentrated on securing a Labor government. Robert Philp's ministerial party won easily in 1902, but eighteen months later they were in Opposition and Kidston was treasurer. Though only deputy to Labor leader William Browne, he had grasped a favourable opportunity and was the architect of the plot which brought down the Philp ministry.

Kidston had envisaged a moderate centre coalition that would attract Labor support for electoral reform and workers' compensation, and Liberal support for electoral reform and efficient administration of the State's finances. For an acceptable leader he chose (Sir) Arthur Morgan, who had publicly admired Kidston's 'shrewd, clear-sighted and far-seeing … qualities', and succeeded in replacing the thirteen-year-old 'continuous ministry' with a Liberal-Labor coalition. Seven years in politics had changed Kidston. He was plumper, he wore spectacles, his well-kept beard showed traces of grey and the old uncertainty as a speaker was gone. Despite his success he was not gregarious and preferred to spend spare time at home with his extensive library of English literature.

Queensland's first full-time treasurer without outside business commitments, Kidston managed well and improved the efficiency of government. He financed the clearing of scrub lands by the unemployed but lost in the Legislative Council a bill to reduce tax on incomes below £52 a year. In April 1904 Browne died and Kidston became party leader and deputy to Premier Morgan. Despite Kidston's emphasis on Labor moderation, the coalition remained tenuous and lost defectors to Philp, particularly over Kidston's demand for electoral equality. Having barely survived a division, the government went to an election in August which proved a triumph for Kidston. Labor won 34 seats, the Morganites 21 and the Opposition only 17. As leader of the larger partner, Kidston could have claimed half the portfolios and the premiership for his party but chose to do neither, because without electoral reform Labor's electoral base remained weak. He preferred a judicious alliance with Morgan.

Dominant in cabinet, Kidston took a leading part in the deportation of Pacific Islanders, sorting out Commonwealth-State relations and reorganizing the State's finances while altering the incidence of taxes. In January 1905 an elections Act amendment bill, which introduced votes for women and abolished plural voting, was finally passed by the Legislative Council under threat of swamping. Dissatisfied with the financial treatment of his State under Federation, Kidston sought at premiers' conferences to have the Commonwealth take over State debts and make fixed annual payments to the States from customs and excise revenue.

Once electoral reform had been achieved, both parties were uneasy about the future of the coalition. The Liberals feared Labor's reforming zeal. Kidston felt hampered by the party objective of 1905 which called for 'collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' and by party policy to stop further sales of Crown land. He and George Kerr, who led the party outside cabinet, sent a statement to newspapers calling for the Labor-in-Politics convention to recommit the objective and the Crown land sales policy. The first large split in the Queensland Labor Party had begun.

Following the passage in 1905 of some reform legislation, Morgan resigned and Kidston became premier on 19 January 1906 after unsuccessfully proposing that Digby Denham should accept the succession. Outsiders, including the governor-general Lord Northcote and Alfred Deakin, expressed respect for Kidston's ability. Inside Queensland he was seen by some of his Labor colleagues as an autocrat, determined to go his own way. A break between Kidston and his party seemed likely through 1906 and when the Labor vote fell by 13 per cent in Queensland in the December Federal election, Kidston saw a rejection of Labor's socialist policies. He decided to leave the party and form his own party in which candidates would be bound to him personally. For the May 1907 election he unfolded his 'gang forrit' policy speech in Rockhampton and invited candidates to join him. All but fourteen members of the Labor Party did so and in the ensuing election he won 24 seats to Labor's 18. Philp's party won 29. Kidston reconstructed his ministry. As in the Federal parliament, there were now three parties in the field with Kidston's in the middle.

After the Legislative Council had rejected elections and wages board bills, in November 1907 the governor Lord Chelmsford refused to agree to Kidston's request to appoint government supporters to the council in order to pass the legislation. Kidston resigned, whereupon Chelmsford commissioned Philp to form a ministry and, after complicated manoeuvres, granted him a dissolution. The subsequent election in February 1908 resulted in three almost even parties in the assembly, and Kidston returned to office. His alliance with Labor produced the Parliamentary Bills Referendum Act providing that bills rejected by the council in two consecutive sessions could be made law by passage in a referendum.

Once his Old Age Pension and Wages Board Acts were passed, Kidston and Labor finally parted. After a trip to Scotland he fused his party with Philp's. As a disillusioned contemporary wrote, 'he rose by cursing Philp and died embracing him'. Not all his party accepted the fusion and he was left with a parliamentary majority of one. He was still returned easily in October 1909. His final achievement was an electoral Act based on 'one vote, one value'. The new university, established in 1911, gave him an honorary doctorate of laws. He used the title but neither sought nor accepted the knighthood usually offered to non-Labor premiers.

Kidston's loneliness in government was exacerbated by the deaths of his wife in July 1910 and of his friend John Blair. In February 1911 he left politics for the presidency of the Land Court. He died of heart disease in his home at Greenslopes on 25 October 1919 and was buried in Rockhampton cemetery with Presbyterian forms after a state funeral. Three sons survived him.

In that period in Queensland politics between Griffith and Ryan, Kidston stood out as the dominant figure and the principal reformer. He was certainly self-assured and perhaps conceited, but his ability was well above that of his colleagues. His reforms in Queensland and his political methods mark him out as a similar politician to Deakin in a period in Australian politics which precedes the simple division between Labor and non-Labor.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, The King and his Dominion Governors (Lond, 1967)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • V. R. de Voss, Separatist Movements in Central Queensland in the Nineteenth Century (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1952)
  • B. A. Knox, The Honourable Sir Arthur Morgan, Kt: His Public Life and Work (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1956)
  • K. J. Wanka, William Kidston: A Political Biography (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1962).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Kidston, William (1849–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kidston-william-6949/text12067, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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