05 February 2011

The deeds of mandarins

The last posting dealt with the deeds of the Parliament’s Select Committee and their sometimes quixotic relationship with the government of-the-day. In this installment it is time to consider the role played by the three Railway Commissioners in the process.  These people were extremely powerful in their own right – separated from ministerial interference as far as was possible in those days.   This independence produced yet another twist in this tale…

Prior to the introduction of the Dubbo to Coonamble Railway Bill 1899 to the NSW Legislative Assembly the Railway Commissioners of the day wrote privately to the Premier to express their collective concerns about the economic integrity of the railway network if the Dubbo route was selected over the Mudgee route.

While not expressing concern about the Dubbo route the Commissioners proposed that not building the Mudgee route would have a deleterious impact on the overall profitability of the Wallerawang to Mudgee line.  Curiously, this private correspondence was obtained by many other parliamentarians prior to the Assembly’s consideration of the legislation.

The impact of the Railway Commissioners’ late interjection into the parliamentary and public debate cannot be understated.  At the time it was an unheard of step.  Even today it would still be considered as highly irregular.  In effect the office-holders appointed to administer the Colony’s railways by a previous administration took the extraordinary step of attempting to overturn a decision of the most powerful standing committee of the parliament by appealing to the first minister of a recently-installed government and then applying pressure to the premier by apparently releasing the letter to others.

Over the next century similar office-holders’ tenure were summarily terminated for much lesser challenges to the legislature’s authority.  It is perhaps a mark of the confidence or the magnanimous nature of the Lyne Government that the Commissioners remained in office throughout the term of this administration.

A second impetus for controversy arose due to the existence of a perhaps apocryphal minute from the recently departed Chief Commissioner of the Railways, Mr Eddy.  Mr Eddy had died unexpectedly at age 46 in June 1897 and such was the esteem in which he was held, his funeral was attended 3,000 railwaymen, making it one of the largest funerals held in Sydney to that time.  Prior to his demise it was alleged that Mr Eddy had penned a minute of such ‘damaging character that it absolutely placed out of court any consideration for an extension of the present Mudgee line’.

Apparently despite its notoriety and the high office of its author no-one could produce a copy of the minute for the Assembly’s review.  Conspiracists inside and outside of the Assembly made much of the inability of the Railway Commissioners to produce the minute, combined with the public release of the Commissioners’ ‘preference’ for the Mudgee route. Others simply referred to the minute as ‘lost’.

The reasons behind the absence of the Eddy minute are now lost to time.  While it is convenient to accept that the Railway Commissioners were attempting to hide exculpatory material, a more benign assessment may lead one to conclude that the minute was of a private nature from the late Chief Commissioner which was amongst his personal papers at the time of his demise.

A third explanation may be based in the approach of the times.  While the Victorian era is often characterised as a stiffly formal period, this cannot characterise legislative proceedings within the New South Wales Legislative Assembly at that time.  It is notable that the Standing Committee’s Report was twice tabled without the relevant survey documents.  The debates were similarly characterised by a lack of discipline in speaking order and speech content.  It is simply conceivable that a record of Eddy’s minute was not kept.

In any event, in response to a question from the Member for Coonamble on the very day that the Assembly was to debate the railway’s construction, the Secretary for Public Works announced that he ‘was still looking for it’.

So, at this point, we are about to plunge into the parliamentary proceedings.  It is a suitable time to cease blogging for the moment!

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