Politics can be a tough and brutal game, and this was certainly the case in 19th century Victoria.

One of the great political battles of the 1870s culminated in the infamous ‘Black Wednesday’ mass sacking of senior public servants. It came with little warning. Arriving at their desks on 9 January 1878, department heads and other high-fliers casually opened the Government Gazette that had left the printing press the previous day.   They were rather shocked to find their names in an extensive list of retrenchments, effective immediately.

Page showing some of the many immediate sackings in the Victorian Government Gazette, No 3, 8 January 1878

Black Wednesday was part of the ongoing war between Premier Graham Berry and the privileged Upper House of Parliament. Eligibility for election to the Legislative Council (Upper House) was only open to elite property owners, with property that yielded at least £500 revenue per year. The lack of payment to any members of parliament restricted the government to only the affluent and meant the working class were effectively excluded from running for office.

Graham Berry was a radical. He left school at 11 but from humble beginnings he became a successful businessman and a voracious reader and learner.

His determination to limit the influence of the propertied class and to allow representation for the wider community brought him into increasingly bitter conflict with a conservative and intransigent Council, determined to maintain their political hegemony.

Photograph of Sir Graham Berry with full beard, wearing a dinner suit.
Sir Graham Berry Premier of Victoria, [ca. 1870-ca. 1904]; H29497

The Council had reluctantly agreed to the Land Tax Act, (overwhelmingly passed by the Assembly) that sought to break up the massive land holdings of the squattocracy. In 1870 the Council had also reluctantly agreed to payment of parliamentarians, but only for a trial period of three years. This was then extended for another three years, but in 1877 the Council weren’t going to agree to this as a permanent arrangement, defiantly rejecting Berry’s Payment to Members Bill.

Assuming that they wouldn’t dare reject supply, the Premier included the members payments provisions into the Appropriations Bill (that enables funds to run the government). As politicians a century later discovered, protecting supply is not sacrosanct.  The Council refused to agree to the Bill, thereby freezing the budget. The Berry response was to summarily sack senior public servants, judges, coroners and police magistrates, claiming that with the Appropriations Bill in limbo, he couldn’t afford so many high paid officials. Many felt there was also an element of revenge against the top bureaucrats that Berry saw as working hand in hand with the Legislative Council.

Wood engraving showing Chief Secretary, Graham Berry, speaking in Parliament
Parliamentary Sketches.-the Stonewall, 1876. Wood engraving; IAN26/01/76/1. Graham Berry was famous for his long stonewalling speeches in Parliament

The unfortunate Governor George Bowen found himself in the midst of a constitutional crisis. He had made a career of governorships, having served previously in New Zealand and Queensland, and he had advised Graham Berry regarding the mass sackings of ‘Black Wednesday’. He now felt himself under siege, and sought advice from a new Secretary of State for the Colonies, Michael Hicks-Beach, who was less sympathetic to his position than the previous colonial secretary, Earl Carnarvon. 1

The Imperial Government, understandably, didn’t want to get caught up in a colonial spat, but the tyranny of distance didn’t phase Graham Berry who set off aboard RMSS Assam, with political ally Charles Pearson and public servant Henry Hayter, to take his case directly to London. Ultimately London didn’t want to get involved and Michael Hicks-Beach’s advice was that the Victorian constitution allowed for the colony to sort out constitutional issues and deadlocks without interference from the Imperial Government. 2

Governor Bowen felt that his involvement with the crisis was viewed darkly in London and harmed his reputation. In February 1879, he left Victoria and became governor of Mauritius in 1879-82 and then Hong Kong in 1882-86.

Graham Berry gets a huge reception on arrival back in Melbourne
Reception of the Hon. Graham Berry Vic., 1879. Engraving by Julian Rossi Ashton; IAN05/07/79/97. Graham Berry arrives back from London to a huge reception

While he failed to enlist the intervention of the Imperial Government, Graham Berry got a huge reception when he returned to Melbourne and his bold London venture did soften the resolve of the Legislative Council. Eventually the Council agreed to extend the trial of payment to politicians. The trial continued to be extended until in 1886 when finally payment to serving politicians was legislated. 3 

Legislative Council also finally agreed to reducing the value of the property requirements for members to £100 revenue per year.

During the tumultuous years of the 1870s and 1880s Graham Berry served as Premier on three separate occasions. He retired in 1886 to take up the role of Victoria’s Agent General in London. But the pull of parliament proved too strong and he was re-elected in 1892, finally losing his seat in 1897. In that year he was elected to serve as a delegate to the Australasian Federation Conference, but age and frailty meant his contribution was limited.

Graham Berry was a giant of Victorian politics and lived long enough to see the federation of the Australian colonies. He died in 1904.

Relevant legislation

References

  1. For the exchange of correspondence see the our UK Parliamentary Papers Correspondence – Differences on certain Constitutional Points between Two Houses of Legislature of Victoria and Further Correspondence respecting Constitutional Question in Victoria. This database is accessible to all Victorian members.
  2. The despatch of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Leader 21 June 1879, p 23
  3. Annual payment was £300 per year. This had not increased since the trial that commenced in 1870.

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