GILLIES, Duncan (1834-1903)


GILLIES, Duncan (1834-1903)
premier of Victoria
was born at Overnewton near Glasgow, where his father had a market garden, in January 1834. His mother was a woman of great shrewdness and strength of character, much interested in the education of her children. Gillies was sent to the high school until he was about 14, when he entered an office in Glasgow. He emigrated to Australia and arrived in Port Phillip in December 1852. He went to the diggings at Ballarat, and it has been stated that he was one of the leaders of the diggers during the troubles which culminated at the Eureka Stockade in December 1854. This appears to be unlikely as he was little more than 20 at the time, and his name is not included among those of the prominent men by the historians of the period. However, in February 1858 he was elected a member of the first Ballarat mining board. In 1859 he was selected to represent Ballarat West in the legislative assembly of Victoria, and he was re-elected for the same constituency four times during the next 10 years. During this period he established a reputation in the house as a capable debater. In May 1868 he became president of the board of land and works in the Sladen (q.v.) ministry, but on going before the electors lost his seat. At the next election he came in for Maryborough and in June 1872 he was commissioner of railways and roads in the Francis (q.v.) and Kerford (q.v.) ministries from June 1872 to June 1875. He was again in office in October 1875 in the McCulloch (q.v.) ministry as president of the board of land and works and minister of agriculture. At the next election, held in 1877, he was returned for Rodney, but was unseated on the ground that undue influence had been used by the lands department by the issue of leases to electors during the contest. The committee found, however, that this influence had been used without the knowledge of the candidate. A new election was held in November, when Gillies was again returned, and he retained his seat in 1880. He was minister of railways in the shortlived Service (q.v.) ministry, and when Service returned to power in March 1883 had the same office, and in addition was minister of public instruction. When Service retired in February 1886 Gillies became premier and was also treasurer and minister of railways. This government lasted nearly five years, during a period of great confidence, and there was no doubt much extravagance. Gillies had the reputation of being shrewd and hardheaded, but he does not appear to have tried to check the extravagance of the time, and must take his share of the blame for the long period of depression that began in the early eighteen-nineties. He was for a time lukewarm on the question of federation, and in 1889, when Parkes (q.v.) raised the question again, was doubtful whether it was immediately practicable. However, during the Melbourne conference of 1890, over which he presided, he became more hopeful and agreed that the difficulties were not insuperable. Towards the end of the year Gillies brought before the Victorian parliament a huge railway bill involving an expenditure of about £8,000,000. Unemployment was increasing, partly on account of a great maritime strike, but principally because of the beginning of one of those reactions that always follow a boom period. On 5 November 1890 the Gillies ministry resigned and its leader never again held office. He was appointed agent-general in London in 1894 and held the position for about three years. On his return in 1897 he was elected to the assembly for Toorak, and in 1902 was unanimously elected speaker. But he showed failing health and powers, and a severe illness kept him away front the house for some months. He died on 12 September 1903. He had always been considered to be a bachelor, but after his death it was disclosed that in 1897 he had married in London Mrs Turquand Fillan who survived him without issue. He declined the honour of K.C.M.G. in 1887.
Gillies for most of his lifetime was not personally popular. He was considered reserved and somewhat unsympathetic, but towards the end of his life, when father of the house, he mellowed and was generally liked. As a freetrader and a one-time working man generally voting on the conservative side, he was much criticized by the protectionist and radical press. He originated little legislation of importance, but was a good administrator and a man of force of character, shrewd and honest of purpose.
The Argus, Melbourne, 14 September 1903; The Age, Melbourne, 15 September 1903. H . G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria; Quick and Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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