Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Macalister, Arthur (1818–1883)

by Paul D. Wilson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Arthur Macalister (1818-1883), solicitor and politician, was born at Glasgow, Scotland, son of John Macalister, cabinet maker, and his wife Mary, née Scoullar. Educated in Glasgow, he qualified as a writer to the signet. At Edinburgh he married Elizabeth Wallace Tassie. He sailed with her in the Abbotsford and arrived at Sydney on 28 September 1839. He was appointed clerk of Petty Sessions and postmaster at Scone in June 1840. Dismissed in 1841 he opened a general store but his estate was sequestrated in 1842. By 1846 he was working for a Sydney solicitor. In 1850 he applied for admission to the Supreme Court as a solicitor, attorney and proctor and was admitted after passing an examination. He then started practice in Ipswich.

Active in the separationist movement Macalister stood in vain for the Stanley Boroughs seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1856. He lost again in 1858 when he challenged W. B. Tooth for the United Pastoral Districts seat of Moreton, Wide Bay, Burnett, Maranoa, Leichhardt and Port Curtis, but won the new seat of Ipswich on 14 June 1859. He ceased to sit on 10 December when the electorate was included in Queensland. He was given no place in the three-member provisional Executive Council chosen by Governor Bowen in December but won one of the three seats for Ipswich in Queensland's first Legislative Assembly. He joined the opponents of R. G. W. Herbert's ministry and was soon elected chairman of committees. In June 1861 he resigned in protest against Herbert's policies but changed his mind and was re-elected at the by-election he had caused. In March 1862 he joined Herbert's ministry as secretary for lands and works. In July he was temporarily appointed colonial secretary while Herbert was in England. R. R. Mackenzie resented this appointment and in August resigned from the ministry. When Herbert resigned in February 1866 Macalister formed an administration. He took the unusual course of retaining lands and works and appointed Mackenzie colonial secretary. The ministry continued Herbert's extravagant programme of works financed by loans. In July its financial guarantor, Agra & Masterman's Bank, failed and Macalister and his treasurer, J. P. Bell, tried to introduce among other corrective measures a bill for issuing unsecured government notes. In advance the governor refused assent to any such bill and Macalister promptly resigned. Bowen then recalled Herbert who advised the governor to invite Macalister to form a new government, which he did on 7 August. His government was defeated in 1867 and he resigned on 15 August but his successor, Mackenzie, was in turn defeated with Macalister's help in November 1868.

Deserting Ipswich, Macalister stood for Eastern Downs and was elected unopposed on 25 September. In a new government led by Lilley, Macalister became secretary for public lands and works but in January 1869 resigned and crossed the floor, declaring that he had been unjustly accused of double-dealing in the ministerial negotiations by the colonial treasurer, T. H. Fitzgerald. The manoeuvre succeeded: Lilley obtained Fitzgerald's resignation and Macalister rejoined the ministry as secretary for public works and goldfields. When the Lilley government was defeated on 3 May 1870 Macalister was invited to form a ministry but failed. Palmer succeeded and when the assembly met, Macalister on 15 November accepted appointment as Speaker, thereby alienating many supporters. He was bitterly attacked by Lilley in the June 1871 election and after a hectic campaign lost his seat.

In October 1872 Macalister won a by-election for Ipswich. After the elections in 1873 Palmer was defeated on the choice of a Speaker in January 1874 and Macalister formed a government. It included Thomas McIlwraith and, after Lilley moved to the bench, S. W. Griffith. In 1875 Macalister visited Britain where at court he was appointed C.M.G. In Glasgow he was given a banquet by the lord provost. He returned to Queensland in April 1876 but announced the resignation of his ministry on 7 June. Three weeks later he was appointed agent-general for Queensland and travelled to Britain by way of America, where he acted as commissioner for Queensland at the Philadelphia International Exhibition.

Macalister was active in the Presbyterian Church and a founding trustee of St Stephen's, Ipswich. He served briefly on the Ipswich Municipal Council in 1862 and on the Board of Education from 1860 and was its chairman in 1862-67. He was a founding trustee of the Ipswich Grammar School, a member of the Caledonian and Prince of Wales Lodges and president of the Caledonian Society. As agent-general he was involved in the 'steel rails' controversy but a select committee and a later royal commission found him innocent of any misconduct. However, the commission criticized the efficiency of the London office and soon afterwards Macalister took six months sick leave. On 17 October 1881 the Queensland parliament granted him a pension of £500 and two days later he formally retired.

One of Macalister's notable legacies to Queensland was its narrow gauge railway system. As secretary for lands and works he enthusiastically approved the plans submitted in 1863 for the 3 ft 6 ins (1.1 m) gauge line between Ipswich and Toowoomba. His uncritical acceptance of construction estimates later gave his opponents ample opportunities for attack as costs escalated, but his faith in a widespread railway system for Queensland never abated even when the Brisbane-Ipswich line led to loss of electoral support. In contrast, frequent changes in his land policy gave him, according to one opponent, a 'chameleon-like' character. Macalister used the land question to electoral advantage, varying his tactics to shifts in public opinion. He believed that agricultural settlement was necessary for prosperity but, as a townsman capable of losing himself on a well-worn bush track, he made little allowance for the Queensland environment. He ably administered the land laws in 1862-66 but had little success in implementing new legislation. While premier in 1875 he took a strong stand against pastoralists in the settled areas and authorized resumption of large quantities of pastoral land for agricultural settlement but by 1876 selectors were having difficulty in finding good farm land while the political manoeuvres of Macalister and his supporters were increasingly restricted.

Nicknamed 'Slippery Mac', Macalister frequently changed his attitudes, alliances, allegiances and colleagues, but not more often than some of his contemporaries. His methods of change earned criticism, not the changes themselves. To colleagues and electors he was an inveterate maker of promises but many were soon broken. He had remarkable political resilience and ability to survive and could usually restore confidence in those whom he had failed. He lost only one election between 1859 and 1876. He enjoyed political power and its privileges, and his shifts of allegiance and broken promises must be seen against the background of his ambition. The peaks in his career were the attainment of the premiership in 1866 and his successful comeback in 1874, after failure in 1871.

Macalister was handicapped by his health after 1867. In 1871, as Speaker in a Legislative Assembly bitterly split between Palmer and Lilley factions, he began to have difficulty with his speech. His absence from parliament in 1871-72 renewed his vigour, but in mid-1875 under pressure of office he collapsed. A skilled tactician and debater, he could still snap 'right and left with such certainty and force that very few care to receive a second bite at one encounter', but by 1876 his health increasingly prevented him from coping with changes in the political scene.

Macalister had many faults but commentators have over-emphasized them at the expense of his undoubted astuteness and administrative ability. Aged 64 he died bankrupt near Glasgow on 23 March 1883. His wife died in Brisbane on 14 September 1894, survived by two sons and three daughters of their nine children.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1864, 158, 1866, 519, 1867, 200, 1868-69, 108, 1870, 2, 1874, 16, 1881, 839
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1866, 949, 1880, 2, 311, 1881, 2, 121
  • Moreton Bay Free Press, 17 Mar 1856
  • Moreton Bay Courier, 22 Mar 1856
  • Brisbane Courier, 3 June 1861, 21 Mar, 29 July 1862, 18 July, 8 Aug 1866, 6 May 1867, 26 Jan 1869, 23 Mar 1874
  • Queensland Daily Guardian, 4 Aug 1865, 8 Aug 1866, 15 Aug 1867
  • Warwick Examiner and Times, 16 Jan 1869, 2 July, 19 Nov 1870, 24 June 1871, 23 Mar 1883
  • Warwick Argus, 10 Mar 1869
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 2 Nov 1872, 27 Mar 1883
  • Queenslander, 18 Mar 1876
  • B. R. Kingston, Land Legislation and Administration in Queensland, 1859-1876 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1970)
  • A. A. Morrison, Town Liberals and Squatters (University of Queensland Library)
  • CO 234/16.

Citation details

Paul D. Wilson, 'Macalister, Arthur (1818–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macalister-arthur-4055/text6455, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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