Turner, A HISTORY OF THE COLONY OF VICTORIA
To return from this anticipatory digression to the opening of the fourth Victorian Parliament on the 29th of November, 1864, Sir Charles Darling, in the speech provided for him, emphasised two important points, which were alleged to require immediate attention. Of the promised amendment of the Land Act he said: ” My advisers deem it necessary to the settlement of this difficult subject that Parliament should be invited to pass a law which shall be simple in its principle, unencumbered with superfluous and impracticable conditions, calculated to bring the lands of the colony within easy access of the public at large, whilst dealing equitably with existing interests “. Then he passed cautiously to open the subject which was destined to wreck his career. ” It is proposed by my advisers that the revenue collected through the Customs House shall be levied partly by reduced duties upon objects already chargeable, and partly by “duties, moderate in amount, on various commodities which as yet have been altogether exempt from taxation. The effect, it is conceived, will be to decrease the burden of taxation borne by the mining and other industrious classes, and to distribute it more equitably among all classes of society.”
The debate on the speech was mainly noticeable from the great dissatisfaction expressed by Graham Berry at the half-hearted manner in which the revision of the tariff was referred to. To him it was
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the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night that heralded the redemption of the working man from his hard lot, and gilded his future with glowing promise. Holding the views he did, it was not unreasonable that he should distrust the “Ministerial professions. For, had not McCulloch said on the hustings at Mornington in a previous election: “I am opposed to Protection. . . . What this colony wants is to buy in the cheapest market and to sell in the dearest.” Had not the sarcastic Michie withered the Protectionist cause in many witty public addresses? And had not Attorney-General Higinbotham quite recently declared that he would never remain in a Cabinet that sought to promulgate such a doctrine. Even the Treasurer Verdon, who in response to the mandate of the people made tentative advances towards it, showed by his apologetic manner that he had been trained in a commercial school where its theories had no honour. The Ministry were, however, strong enough in supporters to be indifferent to criticism, and the reply to the speech was promptly carried. The real debate on the tariff was postponed until the land legislation had been disposed of.
Mr. James McPherson Grant had on the death of Mr. Heales succeeded him in the charge of the Lands Department, and on the 30th of November he introduced an amending Land Bill, which reached its third reading on 18th January following. It was further amended by the Legislative Council, and sent backwards and forwards several times, until finally a conference between the Chambers adjusted all difficulties, and it became law on 28th March. This Act, commonly known as the Land Act of 1865, was based upon the principles propounded by Grant in his election address : ” that bona-fide settlement should precede alienation of any description; that not an acre fit for agricultural purposes shall be alienated until the person who selects it shall have given evidence to the State—and the best evidence to the State—that he is a bond-fide selector by the “improvement that he puts upon his allotments”. Conditional leases were therefore granted for seven years at 2s. per acre to any applicants for allotments of no less than 40 nor more than 640 acres in extent, in any proclaimed agricultural area. If the holder of such lease resided continuously thereon for three years, and during the first two effected improvements to the value of £1 per acre, he could
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then acquire the freehold on payment of that sum, without competition. There were other clauses by which non-resident selectors who made improvements within a year could have the land put up to auction, with a valuation for their outlay, which they would receive from the buyer if they failed to purchase. But up to this point the leasehold rent in all “cases was strictly a rent, and did not go towards the purchase money, as in subsequent enactments. This Act was memorable for the introduction of a principle somewhat akin to the ” Occupation Licences ” of the Nicholson Act. The forty-second clausebecame a very popular mode of settlement, as it enabled miners, storekeepers and any one occupying Crown lands to obtain a licence for a holding, up to 20 acres, at an annual rental of 2s. per acre. It was intended to confine the provisions of this clause to the gold-fields and their immediate vicinity, but the Minister had unfettered discretion, and he used it very freely in extending the area of its application. Any person of whose bona fides the Minister was satisfied was allowed to hold four licences, and thus many small farms of 80 acres were established, and frequently on the choicest parts of squatters’ runs. Within four years of this enactment 786,000 acres had been taken “up under this clause by over 13,000 applicants, the average holding being 46 acres. Widely as these facilities were availed of, the selectors remained dissatisfied. They objected to a rental of 2s. per acre while the pastoral tenant paid only about 2d., and they eventually succeeded, under subsequent Acts, in getting the rental accepted as instalments of the purchase money. In the prolonged struggle, however, some of the attractions of a free farming life had been dispelled by want of success. Uncertain seasons, inexperience, make-shift methods, and perfunctory cultivation left no profits, and during these few years many hundreds of selectors had their leases forfeited for non-completion of conditions, and improvements to the value of over £100,000 were confiscated by the Crown. For three or four years the political arena was so fully occupied by the contention between the Assembly and the Council that no constructive legislation was possible, and reformation of the abuses which had crept into the administration of the existing Land Acts was practically hung up until 1869.