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Stable Government

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Part Three

The Forrest family

"We are not political adventurers, desirous of retaining office at the expense of the country. For my own part I am willing and anxious to devote my whole time to the service of this country; I am not actuated by any desire for office in so far, at any rate, as the spoils of office are concerned. We wish to see the population increased, and this colony made the happy home of thousands of our race."

John Forrest, 1891.

THE Forrest family put their stamp on the whole decade of unprecedented boom in the 1890s, not simply on the politics of self-government. Other Australian colonies had suffered political instability when they began managing their own affairs, but Western Australia under John Forrest was notable for its stable administration. Forrest emerged as a strong, authoritative Premier and led a series of governments focused on an ambitious programme of public works financed by large loans raised in Britain. His wife Margaret was a skilful supporter who played a key role in making their home in Perth, the Bungalow, known as the social and political centre of the colony. Brother Alexander was a close confidante and a noted financier and politician.

John and Alexander Forrest embodied qualities that were highly-valued in colonial Western Australia. They were able and self-reliant, they became prosperous by dint of application and work, and they were the sons of early colonists, though not of the colonial elite. Born in Bunbury to William and Margaret Forrest who had migrated from Kincardineshire in Scotland in 1842, John and Alexander were schooled at Bishop Hale's School in The Cloisters, on St George's Terrace. Both went on to gain international reputations as explorers and surveyors, with John rising to the post of Surveyor-General by 1883. Alexander, who as a boy had dreamed the colony's north was an El Dorado, went on to build a pastoral and financial empire with interests in the Kimberley.

John Forrest won the seat of Bunbury in the first elections for the new Legislative Assembly. In an era before party politics, he quickly established himself as the likely candidate to lead a ministry and become the colony's first Premier. A self-confident conservative with a dash of liberal individualism, Forrest was preoccupied with developing the colony and its resources by funding public works, including railways, roads and harbours. He was proud of his achievements in this field and commended similar schemes and projects as models for colonial development throughout the Empire. Forrest also wanted to open up areas of Western Australia for small farmers, and he sponsored the Homestead Act 1893 to settle a "bold yeomanry" on the soil.

Margaret Forrest was a leading figure in the colony in her own right, and a strong supporter of her husband's ambition in an age when women were precluded from entering politics themselves. Historian Frank Crowley has reflected that  . . . "Unashamedly she used her social talents for political purposes, and there was hardly a public dinner, reception or ball which did not provide some opportunity to talk to her husband's associates or opponents". Margaret Forrest was a member of the Karrakatta Club, a society founded in 1894 for well-to-do women in the colony. She was also well-known for her talent as a painter of wildflowers and she became involved in informal political action after John Forrest's move to the Commonwealth Parliament, in 1901. Yet, like all other women in Western Australia, she was unable to vote during the first decade of self-government and only cast a ballot for the first time in the Federation referendum of 1900.

Alexander Forrest was also returned to the new colonial parliament in the 1890 elections, representing the West Kimberley where he had property interests. Alexander was a financier and agent in several key colonial ventures, and he was interested in the problems of attracting investment to Western Australia. Labelled the "sixth minister" by those who believed he held great sway in the government while not formally a member of the official cabinet, Alexander was Government Whip in the Assembly and also served as the Mayor of Perth in the 1890s. He was in some ways more unpredictable than his brother, even philosophically opposed to him at times.

John Forrest was a great political survivor, who dominated the early Western Australian Parliament by virtue of his sheer physical presence and reputation, and he became the first Australian to be elevated to the British peerage. He was careful to protect the interests of the colonial elite, whose members had interests in pastoral and agricultural areas, and he often overcame opponents by incorporating their ideas in his legislative programme. John Forrest enjoyed strong support from the influential West Australian newspaper, but was criticised on the goldfields for ignoring diggers' rights to greater parliamentary representation.

"Forrest was a typical second-generation colonist of Great Britain - a self-conscious, Australian-born imperialist, not an aggressive colonial nationalist. He had always been an ardent supporter of the monarchy . . . and he had a simple, unsubtle, almost naive concept of Australia's relations with Great Britain."

Frank Crowley, Forrest, 1971.