On the wall of the foyer at the Maryborough Council Administration Centre (Demaine House) there is a beautifully mounted document that was presented to Billy Demaine on his eightieth birthday on 25 February 1939.
The Deputy Mayor, Alderman Nothling presided at the ceremony, saying “It is a unique occasion to have in the mayoral chair a man who has today attained his 80th birthday, for anyone to attain 80 years is in itself a fine performance, but to be a mayor of a city the size of Maryborough and in full and complete possession of his faculties is something out of the ordinary.”
Later that year, on 18 August, he passed away in his home which still stands at the corner of Yaralla St and Sussex St. There was universal recognition that Maryborough, and Queensland, had lost a man of courage, conviction and principles.
He had called Maryborough home since he arrived with his wife, Polly, in May 1880 aboard the Silver Eagle which landed 270 passengers from London, a journey of 94 days.
On arrival in the colony, Demaine realised that workers’ conditions and pay were worse than he had left in England. In Maryborough they had a ten hour day – starting at 6am, having an hour off for breakfast and an hour for lunch.
He was firmly of the belief that there should be eight hours for work, eight hours for leisure and eight hours for sleep. In 1882 he formed the Eight Hour Union and campaigned for workers to have their work hours so amended. Within six months he had achieved this objective.
Early unions in country Queensland were general in coverage as they tried to ensure solidarity. The Amalgamated Workers Union covered all workers regardless of their occupation. Formed in 1885, Billy was their first secretary of this union in Maryborough.
He was heavily involved in the Australian Labour Federation, which brought together the different unions, similar to the present ACTU.
In 1892 he was the Maryborough delegate to the first Labour in Politics Convention in Brisbane. This was the precursor to the Labour Party. He would be president of the party from 1916 to 1938, a feat which will certainly never be matched.
For forty years Demaine was the owner, editor and manager of the Maryborough paper, the Alert. In this way he reported on and shaped public opinion on the issues of the day. Demaine and his friend Charles McGhie, launched the weekly paper on 17 Friday 1899 from 126 Adelaide St. McGhie would later serve as mayor himself.
He was a fearless propaganist for labour principles, often losing subscribers and advertisers as a result, but he never fretted about this. Through his editorials his views on all manner of issues are preserved.
Demaine played a central role in a defining political stoush that reshaped the constitution of the State. Queensland is relatively unique in being a unicameral system; it just has one house of parliament, it used to have an unelected Upper House, the Legislative Council. This body was stifling labour reforms and was in itself contrary to democratic ideals. It allowed wealth and property to dominate over the Queensland Parliament.
One of Demaine’s contemporaries; Premier TJ Ryan (who taught for a period at the Maryborough Grammar School) struggled with it. The Legislative Council blocked or heavily amended hundreds of pieces of legislation, much of which he had a specific democratic mandate for.
However, there wasn’t an easy way to get rid of the upper house; any bill to abolish it had to pass the Legislative Council itself. Following the rejection of such a bill twice, the question went to a public referendum.
In 1917 a referendum was taken to the people to abolish the Legislative Council, this was defeated.
The Labour government’s refusal to accept this decision put in train the “Suicide Squad”. The government stacked the legislative council with supporters, like Demaine, who signed pledges to vote down the very upper house they were now members of.
After voting itself out of existence, (28-10) the Legislative Council rose for the last time at 8:37pm on 27 October 1921. This would have been a moment of triumph for Demaine and his comrades.
Demaine took an active interest in the workings of Maryborough City Council He was an alderman for four and a half years from 1895, however, his real impact would come when he was returned to City Hall almost two decades later. He was elected to council again in April 1924 and became mayor in 1933.
When he came to the mayoralty, the Great Depression had left its mark, and unemployment was over 25%. As Labor had a majority of six to three on the Maryborough City Council, he was in a position to do something about it. Demaine set about securing funds to keep workers employed. He was able to keep Walkers union Foundry, the largest local employer provided with government contracts through these hard times.
Prior to the plague in 1905, Demaine had been very vocally calling for sanitation infrastructure. The Government was offering cheap loans which could provide necessary infrastructure and jobs. The State Member for Maryborough, James Stopford, was also Minister for Health and highly supportive.
The referendum to accept such a loan was held on Saturday 28 July 1934. The referendum was lost, with nearly 60% of voters registering a ‘no’ vote.
Both sides were surprised by the result, as the general feeling was that the referendum would succeed. Maryborough had now become the first local authority to turn down a 50-50 loan from the Government.
He forged ahead and did it anyway.
Billy left a huge legacy, he lived a full and active life; contributing wherever he could to the community and made an impact across the State and the Nation.
Fraser Coast Councillor and historian George Seymour spoke on the life and legacy of William Halliwell Demaine; better known as Billy Demaine, at the Maryborough Library Local History Talk in August.