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Public Works

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Part Three

Politics and progress

"My Ministers confidently believe that the policy of public works now recommended to Your Honourable House will be productive of great benefit to the Colony. It will, they are confident, attract population, develop our mineral resources, encourage the settlement of the land, greatly increase facilities of transit, and will be the means of placing the people of the Colony in a position to develop its great and varied resources."

Governor Robinson, Inaugural Speech to Parliament, 1891.

The Forrest Government embarked on an ambitious programme of public works funded by overseas loans when the first parliament convened in January, 1891. Demand for self-government in the 1880s had been driven by the widespread belief that the British Government was too cautious and slow in developing services and facilities in the colony. Immediately he became Premier, John Forrest moved to raise more than a million pounds for a range of railway, harbour and telegraph projects - at one stroke justifying the new system of government to the people, and promoting projects which would aid economic development.

Charles Yelverton O'Connor was appointed to oversee the public works programme, which included a new harbour at Fremantle and construction of railways linking Perth to the Goldfields, Bunbury and Geraldton. O'Connor was efficient and lucid in his approach to creating a base of public infrastructure to develop Western Australia's primary resources. His most ambitious scheme was to bring coastal water to the Goldfields by construction of what was then one of the longest pipelines in the world. O'Connor expressed the developmental spirit of Western Australia in the 1890s, but drew on a broader professional background that made him more outward-looking than many of the colony's leading figures. He suffered the storms of political criticism over the public works projects that were so inextricably entwined with the fortunes of the Forrest Government. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1902, a year before the goldfields pipeline was complete.

"Week by week, the demands made upon O'Connor by a colony stirred by the gold-stimulated upsurge of activity grew to an accumulated load that only a man of his physique and resilience of spirit could have borne so long unrelieved. In the last years of his life, political instability offered a favourable climate for a persistent stream of attack culminating in the disastrous pressures of early 1902."

Merab Tauman, The Chief: C. Y. O'Connor, 1978.