Sir Thomas McIlwraith KCMG (17 May 1835 – 17 July 1900) was for many years the dominant figure of colonial politics in Queensland. He was Premier of Queensland from 1877 to 1883, again in 1888, and for a third time in 1893. In common with most politicians of his era, McIlwraith was an influential businessman, who combined his parliamentary career with a prosperous involvement in the pastoral industry.
Thomas McIlwraith was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1835. He studied civil engineering at the University of Glasgow. In 1854, he emigrated to Victoria where he worked as a civil engineer for the Department of Railways. He invested in pastoral holdings near Maranoa and moved to Queensland in 1862. He quickly established himself as an influential figure and was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Maranoa in 1868.
McIlwraith joined the ministry of Arthur Macalister in January 1874 becoming Secretary for Public Works and Mines. He resigned from these posts in October of that year.
The government of John Douglas was defeated in 1879 after a series of severe droughts and McIlwraith became Premier for the first time. He quickly worked to ameliorate the colony's finances and with the assistance of a return of agricultural prosperity he turned the budget deficit into a surplus. Queensland at this stage was seeing increasing numbers of immigrants and McIlwraith oversaw the colony's economic development. The McIlwraith government introduced the divisional system of local government to the larger part of Queensland and assisted in establishing a postal service through the Torres Strait Islands. In 1882 he was knighted.
The Australian colonies were extremely anxious about German colonial activities in the region, and, when it became clear that the German government was planning to annex eastern New Guinea, to Queensland's north, on 4 April 1883, McIlwraith took the extraordinary step of attempting to annex it for Queensland. This was disallowed by the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby on the basis that a colonial government had no authority to annex other colonies. On 3 November 1884 the German government annexed German New Guinea, prompting the British government to annex British New Guinea three days later. The event was instrumental in sparking interest in the federation movement to unite the Australian colonies.
In 1883 a government proposal to raise funds for the construction of a trans-continental railway line by a system of land grants was attacked for corruption in allocation of grants. McIlwraith lost office to his rival, Samuel Griffith, in November and retired from politics in 1886.
He returned to the Parliament in 1888, this time as member for North Brisbane. His party won a majority in the elections and he again became Premier and Treasurer. He came into conflict with the colony's Governor, Sir Anthony Musgrave over the exercise of the royal pardon. Musgrave died in October and McIlwraith petitioned the new Colonial Secretary Lord Knutsford, to allow the Queensland government to be consulted on the choice of Governor. Knutsford refused and appointed Sir Harry Blake. In November of that year ill-health forced him to resign in favour of Boyd Morehead. He travelled to China and Japan.
After his return, McIlwraith's relationship with his colleagues had detoriorated, and in August 1890 he formed an alliance (later known as the "Continuous Ministry") with his erstwhile foe to become Treasurer in the government of Sir Samuel Griffith. In March 1893 Griffith stepped down to join the Supreme Court of Queensland and McIlwraith became Premier again. His health was still poor and in October he resigned in favour of Hugh Nelson, contenting himself with the cabinet position of Chief Secretary. The Panic of 1893 and subsequent financial depression hit the Australian colonies hard, and McIlwraith lost a considerable amount of his own money. He resigned his seat in Parliament in 1895 and spent his remaining life attempting to recoup his losses. He died in London on 17 July 1900.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography says:
This domineering (and occasionally unscrupulous) style was to become a characteristic feature of many later Queensland premiers.
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