Sir John O'Shanassy - Encyclopedia

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SIR JOHN O'SHANASSY (1818-1883), British colonial statesman, was born in 1818 at Holycross Abbey, near Thurles, Tipperary, his father being a land surveyor. He married in 1839, and the same year emigrated to the Port Phillip district of New South Wales, where he was for some time engaged in farming, and subsequently commenced business in Melbourne. Dr Geoghegan, afterwards Roman Catholic bishop of Adelaide, induced him to take part in public affairs. He was one of the founders, and later the president, of the St Patrick's Society of Melbourne, and represented the Roman Catholic body on the denominational board of education. When Port Phillip was separated from New South Wales in 1851 and became the colony of Victoria, O'Shanassy was returned to the Legislative Council as one of the members for Melbourne. A few weeks after the new colony began its independent existence gold was discovered, and the local government had to solve a number of difficult problems. The legislature was composed partly of elected representatives, and partly of nominees appointed by the governor in council. The great natural ability of O'Shanassy forced him to the front, and for some time the policy of the country was virtually shaped by him and by Mr (afterwards Sir) W. F. Stawell, the attorney-general. It was very much owing to the strong position taken by O'Shanassy that the Legislative Council was allowed to control not only the ordinary revenue raised by taxation, but also the territorial revenue derived from the sale and occupation of crown lands. From that date the Legislative Council, led by O'Shanassy, became virtually supreme. After the Ballarat riots in 1854, O'Shanassy was one of the members of a commission appointed to inquire into the condition of the gold-fields. The commission's report was the foundation of the mining legislation which, initiated in Victoria, was gradually followed by all the Australasian colonies. O'Shanassy, together with Sir Andrew Clarke, was one of the framers of the responsible government constitution. Under this constitution O'Shanassy was returned in 1856 to the Legislative Assembly for Melbourne and Kilmore, but took his seat for the latter constituency. Early in 1857 the Haines ministry, the first formed after the concession of responsible government, was defeated, and O'Shanassy formed a ministry of which he became the premier. But he was defeated after holding office for little more than six weeks. He returned to power in 1858 as chief secretary and premier. One of the first duties of the new ministry was to inaugurate the system of railways, and to raise the necessary funds for their construction. O'Shanassy decided to float a loan of eight millions sterling through the instrumentality of six of the Melbourne banks, and he began the series of borrowings by the Australian governments which subsequently attained such large proportions. In 185 9 the ministry resigned, but in August 1861 O'Shanassy formed his third administration. During the two years that it held office the government passed an Education, a Local government, a Civil Service and a Land Act. The object of this last act was to abolish the system of selling the crown lands by auction, and to substitute another which insisted rather upon residence and cultivation than upon obtaining the highest possible price. The act did not carry out all the intentions of its framers, but it was a step in the right direction. The O'Shanassy government was defeated in June 1863, and its chief never again succeeded in regaining office. He did not stand at the general election of 1866, and paid a visit to Europe.. In 1867 he returned to Victoria, and was elected to the Legislative Council. In 1870 he was created C.M.G., and in 1874 K.C.M.G. In the latter year he resigned his seat in the council, and did not re-enter public life until 1877, when he was returned to the Assembly for Belfast. His strongly expressed Conservative opinions and his devotion to the interests of the Roman Catholic church impaired his influence in the legislature, which had become extremely democratic during the eleven years that he had been absent from it; and although Sir John was a fearless critic of the policy of the government, he never succeeded in defeating it. He had a singularly comprehensive grasp of all constitutional questions, was an eloquent speaker and an ardent free-trader. He retired from parliament in 1880, and died in 1883.

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