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Gaunson, David (1846–1909)

from West Australian

In the mid-seventies, when Victoria was in the throes of one of the bitterest political fights ever known in Australian history, David Gaunson enrolled himself as an ardent supporter of the Liberal policy, as enunciated by the Age. Graham Berry had just ousted Sir James McCulloch and assumed office with a tremendous majority in the Assembly. The Legislative Council was, however, stolidly indifferent, and a crisis speedily arose, an outcome of which was the dismissal of nearly every civil servant in the State. The Berry Government kept their master stroke a close secret until the very last moment, and it was not until the publication of a special Government Gazette, one Wednesday morning, that almost every public officer, from heads of departments down to junior clerks and messengers, found themselves peremptorily dismissed. What has ever since been known as Black Wednesday paralysed the entire community. Business was practically suspended from one end of the country to the other, and as even police magistrates were included among those dismissed, the outlook was decidedly serious. Banking and all financial institutions were seriously affected, and a commercial panic set in. One unexpected result was the boycotting of the Age by the big auctioneering, shipping, and other firms, whose advertisements are the life-blood of any metropolitan journal, and David Syme, who was regarded as the von Moltke of the Berry forces, was very hard hit. It was part of his policy to bring out young ardent politicians to espouse the Liberal cause, and among those of his own staff who entered politics at that stormy period were Alfred Deakin, J. L. Dow, and John Quick. David Gaunson, then a rising young lawyer, and a fierce denunciator of McCullochism and "the gag," attracted the notice of the other David. Gaunson, who was related by marriage to J. McPherson Grant, Chief Secretary in the Berry Ministry, was returned for a country constituency, and at once assumed a prominent position as a hard-hitter. He was a good-looking, fair-bearded, young man, irreproachable in appearance, and outside the House a general favourite. Fond of music and an excellent pianist, he was always a welcome guest at convivial gatherings, but as a Parliamentary debater he established a record for qualities of quite a different character. He had a sharp tongue and it played all round his opponents like a Toledo rapier in the hand of a skilful fencer. On one occasion the House was considering the Gippsland Railway Bill—or rather the proposal to bring the railway from Oakleigh to the city. The late Townsend McDermott, who was one of David Gaunson's pet antipathies, alluded to the necessity for forming the connecting link, whereupon came the retort, like, a flash, "Why, the hon. member forms the connecting link himself." To everybody who knew McDermott the sting was at once apparent, and the old man never forgave his adversary. Another member with whom David was always at variance was J. L. Purves, the redoubtable criminal lawyer. When one of them was speaking, the other would always be in readiness to interject something sarcastic and cutting, and had Hansard given everything absolutely verbatim in those days, the proceedings would have furnished some lively reading. Gaunson, whilst a thorn in the side of his opponents, by no means spared members of his own party, and some of them were not at all sorry when he sustained defeat at the hands of the late William Wilson, a former Minister of Railways. It was rough on Gaunson, who had just been appointed a member of the Ministry, and had really a promising career ahead of him. His friends were hopeful that the responsibility of office and increased experience would have curbed his unruly tongue and otherwise steadied him, but the chance was denied him, and, it was not until many years afterwards that he entered the House again. He made a bitter enemy of David Syme by cursing the Age at one of his meetings, and there can be no doubt that his lengthy exclusion from politics was largely due to that cause. Professionally, he was fairly successful, and was counsel in many sensational cases, one of which was that of the Mercantile Bank, when he defended Milledge, general manager of that institution. After several trials, which excited very great interest, Milledge was acquitted or rather the charges against the defendant were dropped. William Gaunson, a weak and vacillating platform speaker, vainly essayed to enter Parliament on the reputation of his brother, but was so badly beaten on many occasions that he finally disappeared from public view.

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Citation details

'Gaunson, David (1846–1909)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gaunson-david-3599/text24304, accessed 25 November 2017.

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