Stephen Wilks interviews Lyndon Megarrity, author of Robert Philp and the Politics of Development (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Press, 2022)
Congratulations, Lyndon, on your new book. Let’s start with the essential facts – who exactly was Robert Philp and what is he known for?
The Scottish-born Robert Philp is known primarily as the co-founder of Burns, Philp & Co., a successful Australian shipping and mercantile company established in 1883 which rapidly expanded into the South Pacific. Philp as a businessman was heavily associated with the commercial and civic development of Townsville as a major Queensland port. However, he was also a long-serving Queensland MP who became Premier twice (1899-1903; 1907-8). It is Philp’s career as a politician which is the focus of the book.
Yet Philp isn’t exactly a household name today, or perhaps even in his own time – what drew you to him as a subject?
When I was researching my MA thesis on the North Queensland mining town of Ravenswood, Philp’s name kept cropping up because of his personal and political involvement with the Queensland mining industry. He was clearly an important political figure in Queensland history and evidently much admired by his peers as a man. However, very little had been written about him by historians. As an historian, I’ve always been keen to shed new light on the forgotten figures in Australian history and persuade readers that they are worth remembering. Given that I committed myself to completing a PhD thesis on Robert Philp involving several years of research, it also helped that I liked him as a person (although he was very much a man of his times, not mine). Unlike many politicians, he was neither self-serving nor focused on self-promotion. Researching such a modest man was a great challenge, but I like to think that the surviving records allowed me to understand Philp and his era in more depth.
And the historical setting of Philp’s life – what should we be aware of?
Upon arriving in Brisbane with his family as a ten-year-old in 1862, he became part of a network of Scottish migrants who developed strong business, family, friendship and political links. Without the support of fellow Scots like businessman James Burns and politician Thomas McIlwraith, Philp may not have become as prominent as he later became.
Burns, Philp is a name to conjure with! What’s the connection with Robert Philp?
James Burns (b. 1846) and Robert Philp (b. 1851) developed a friendship in the 1860s when they were both working as office juniors in the Brisbane CBD. By the early 1870s, Burns had set up a store in Townsville to cater for the growing mining and pastoral industries in North Queensland; he employed Philp as his Townsville manager from 1875. By the end of the following year, Burns had moved to Sydney and Philp was running the Townsville store under his own name but with some continued financial support from Burns. Philp prospered in Townsville and, along with Burns, became active as a merchant in several North Queensland districts. An amalgamation of the two men’s commercial interests took place in 1883 and the company Burns, Philp & Co. was born. While he moved from Townsville to Brisbane in 1886, Philp remained deeply involved with the company until he resigned in 1893.
Two big issues he grappled with early in his public career were the proposed separation of north Queensland, and a labour supply for primary industry – making him a dull guest at a dinner party, maybe?
The evidence suggests that if you met Philp at a dinner party in the 1880s and 1890s, you would like him very much, as he was a good listener and very keen to introduce you to others. He was also widely read, was a keen sportsman and kept up to date with current affairs in the United Kingdom. Philp’s concerns about labour supply would have also received a sympathetic hearing, given the business circles he mixed with. North Queensland Separation excited the passions of many northerners, so Philp’s discussion of Brisbane-centred government with Separation as the proposed solution would have attracted lively debate at any Townsville dinner party!
Would it be fair to call him a slave trader, given his role in securing Pacific Islander labour for North Queensland, so-called ‘blackbirding’?
No, it would not be fair. Burns, Philp & Co. were involved in the recruitment of Pacific Island labourers for the sugar industry between 1882 and 1885 as ship owners. Pacific Islanders were not slaves. They were indentured labourers working under contracts for wages, after which they either returned home or signed up for a new contract: from the 1880s onwards, those who chose to sign up for new contracts increasingly worked on a short-term contractual basis and the number of essentially permanent residents grew in 1890s and 1900s. Pacific Islanders were exploited, suffered severe health problems and were subjected to racial discrimination in Queensland, but in my view, it is stretching the definition of slavery to suggest that Pacific Islanders were slaves. It is true, however, that the recruitment of Pacific Islanders was at times subject to abuse and scandal, mostly in the first two decades of the trade. There is much that remains to be written about this subject of Pacific Islanders in Queensland history.
Like most people connected with the sugar industry, Philp believed that Pacific Island labour was necessary for cane-cutting because Europeans would not, or could not, do the work. Indeed, there was a pseudo-scientific view across many European and European-dominated countries that white men could not work effectively as labourers in the tropics. These views influenced Philp’s perspectives and he was a strong advocate for Pacific Island labour until machines could displace them on the cane fields.
Business leaders as government leaders are the exception in most of Australia – so how did Philp rise to the ministry and then the premiership, and was his background so unusual in the Queensland of his time?
Nineteenth-century Queensland politics was dominated by the competition between the interests of small-scale capitalists and large-scale capitalists, with the latter being dominant for much of the period. There were small-l Liberals concerned with social and industrial reform during this period, and as the 1890s progressed, the labour movement gradually made its presence felt. Philp was a member of the dominant developmentalist party of the era; like many of his like-minded colleagues, he was an experienced businessman and an investor in Queensland’s primary industries, especially mining. Nevertheless, Philp as a politician had to balance the interests of developers with the sentiments of the broader electorate, which included strong support for the independent digger and modest farmer.
His few big policy initiatives on mining, railways and the sugar industry seem to have been one dimensional and hence ill-thought out – a fair assessment, do you think?
Philp was one of the hardest working parliamentarians of his era; I’m reluctant to judge him too harshly as he had to contend with long drought, economic recession, the upheavals of Federation and sharply competing views of Queensland’s future. Sheer bad luck also played a part in preventing him from achieving some of his goals. In the short term, for example, his mining reforms did not attract the British capital to Queensland that he sought because the Boer War and investor jitters about so-called Australian “socialism” limited the amount of London money available for Queensland projects. However, his establishment of the Charters Towers School of Mines and his support for sugar research were initiatives which had a long-term impact on the state’s economic development. At times, however, Philp had a strong bias towards favouring mining entrepreneurs which was not justified by the proposals or the outcomes.
You see the 1900s as an important turning point in Queensland history, with the staunchly developmentalist Philp being challenged by new parliamentary forces – why did his first government (1899–1903) fail to respond adequately to this, to Federation, and to a recession in Queensland?
The Labor Party became the official opposition in Queensland during 1898, and in an attempt to gain power, their leaders sought a coalition with non-Labor MPs who sought to secure the industrial and electoral reforms that were taking place in other parts of Australia. Small-“l” Liberal-minded politicians took some convincing, as they objected to Labor’s strict party discipline and some of its more radical MPs. The actions of Philp during his Premiership made a Liberal-Labor coalition easier to contemplate. Despite claiming to support electoral reform, especially female suffrage, Philp failed to deliver, as he was focused on assisting Queensland’s economic recovery through the provision of public and private railways. The recession, however, hit Queensland hard and the Premier was forced to adopt austerity measures which were unpopular. Had Philp introduced electoral reforms, his more socially progressive and personally ambitious backbenchers might have been appeased. Philp was also distracted by his unsuccessful attempt to prevent Commonwealth legislation enforcing the deportation of Pacific Islanders from Australia after 1906; in 1902 Philp even suggested the possibility of Queensland seceding from the Commonwealth. He believed that the sugar industry was doomed in Queensland without Pacific Island labourers. Philp had misjudged the mood of the electorate and the press also began to turn against him. It is likely that the key issues which provoked Liberals to join forces with Labor and defeat Philp in parliament in 1903 were Philp’s failure to act on electoral reform, along with his increasingly unfashionable campaign against deporting Pacific Island labourers (which symbolised his unwillingness to fully support the White Australia political rhetoric of the time).
In politics, timing is often all; you quote the American historian Richard Hofstadter that what ruined Herbert Hoover ‘was not a sudden failure of personal capacity but the collapse of the world that produced him and shaped his philosophy’ (p. 211). How does this apply to Philp?
Philp and his developmentalist colleagues had dominated Queensland parliament throughout the 1890s. While economic development remained at the heart of Queensland politics, the push for social, electoral and industrial reforms became stronger in the 1900s as such reforms began to be achieved elsewhere in Australasia. Philp continued to concentrate on economic development and failed to grasp that the time was politically right to deal with reforms such as female suffrage and the abolition of plural voting (i.e. the right to vote in all electorates in which the elector held property, subject to certain conditions).
In many respects, Philp seems a failed premier and minister – yet can such failure and its causes still be of historical interest?
I don’t agree with the notion that Philp was a failed premier and minister. He helped bring Queensland into the Federation, supported the sugar and mining industries in numerous ways, and in a sectarian climate, quietly changed the rules for Queensland scholarships in 1900s so that the successful candidates could study at Catholic and other non-government schools, not just at Grammar schools as was formerly stipulated.
Like any politician, however, he had his fair share of failures. Such failures can definitely be of historical interest. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the political debates, Philp’s struggles to persuade the Commonwealth to see things Queensland’s way (or at least, the way he saw Queensland) sheds symbolic light on the lopsided nature of Federal politics. The Commonwealth was and remains dominated by Victorian and New South Wales politicians, who can become overconfident in their ability to understand the problems and perspectives of the rest of the continent. This over-confidence can come back to bite the major political parties, as Queensland results from various Commonwealth elections (e.g. 1961, 1975, 2019) have shown.
What does your study of Philp contribute to the wider history of his state and of Australia?
From a Queensland perspective, I think it fills a gap in the historiography. Even now, many Australian and British books/articles mentioning Queensland politics rely on sources from the 1970s and early 1980s which have a bias towards narrating the labour movement’s evolution between 1885 and 1915. While I am by no means the only author who has explored the non-Labor side of politics during the 1890s and 1900s, I believe that it is only through an understanding of Philp and his era that you can understand the emergence of a new Liberal-Labor force in Queensland politics in the 1900s and ultimately, the election of the Ryan Labor Government in 1915.
In terms of the history of Australia, I believe my study persuasively shows that Philp was a more important national figure than is remembered. Many a book about the Federation of Australia fails to mention Philp, or at best, only in passing. In reality, Philp’s ideological confrontation with Prime Minister Edmund Barton over the sugar industry and his fiery (if ultimately ambivalent) push for Queensland to separate from the Commonwealth were national events that demand more attention from historians in the future.
Finally, your book has been out for a few months now – is there anything you would have liked to have added to it?
I would have loved to include more about Philp’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, but alas, Philp burnt nearly all of his early correspondence before his first marriage. He explained to his fiancé Jessie that “it wouldn’t do to let you know what a bad boy I’ve been”!