A BENDIGO politician helped bring a government to its knees 150 years ago this winter during a leadership cull now largely ignored by historians.
The crisis that enveloped parliament in mid-1871 is largely overlooked today because it was just one of many government breakdowns sandwiched between bigger constitutional crises.
But it transfixed the colony as politicians tried desperately to navigate a rapidly evolving power vacuum and backroom plotting.
One Bendigo politician took a few more punches than most during the sorry affair.
That man went as far as to turn against the leader of a ministry he once served in in a dramatic free for all prompted by a sudden financial crisis.
Casey and rumours of backroom deals
James Casey was Victoria's member for Mandurang in 1871.
The former Bendigo Advertiser owner was a talented politician who had once served under premier James McCulloch, the parliamentary strongman who had dominated Victorian political life through most of the 1860s.
Times had changed by the turn of the decade.
Casey was no longer part of the ministry and reacted with shock when McCulloch and his treasurer told parliament the colony would go broke by the end of the year.
It needed to find £200,000 fast, thanks to badly needed infrastructure and a history of bitterly gridlocked parliaments.
That sum would be just under $45 million today, by one estimate.
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McCulloch had a plan he presumably hoped would sail through the lower house by appealing to some of the ideological buttons of the day.
Two thirds of the money would be raised through increases in tariffs on all imported goods, which would be a win for those wanting protection for Victorian jobs.
The rest would come through a property tax, which many free trade enthusiasts had long wanted to wean the state off its fixation on tariffs and sales of crown land.
Unfortunately, many parliamentarians hated the idea of small-scale landholders enduring property taxes.
Casey thought property taxes should target wealthier people but his main problem was the tariff, which he called s a tax on "everything" and a "clog to all trade, an interference with all commerce, and an unnecessary hindrance".
But he went further than with an argument that must have left McCulloch and his allies fuming.
He said he was confident the government should "live within its means" and simply cut spending.
It was a politely framed but implicit argument that McCulloch's government didn't know how to manage a budget. It also had a whiff of wishful thinking about the realities of Victoria's budget, some critics suspected.
Whispers swirled. Had Casey made some sort of backroom deal in a plot to oust McCulloch, or at least to benefit some unseen political force?
The Advertiser's then-editor had his own take on the situation. He muttered darkly about Casey's apparent lust for higher office.
"It is not difficult to see his little game is the reascension of the giddy heights from which he has once before enjoyed," the editor said in an opinion piece.
It is hard to know today what Casey's game really was.
This was a period without political parties and the loose alliances formed in corridors of power can be hard to fully gauge.
Plus, history books are a bit vague about the machinations of the year, La Trobe University honorary associate Charles Fahey said.
"[In this period] the government is changing very rapidly all the time and there is very little detailed discussion," he says.
The history books tend to focus on other crises roughly five years either side of 1871
What is clear is that by mid-June McCulloch's government was being subsumed by a mounting sense of doom its enemies were moving in for the kill.
Finally, McCulloch and his ministers trudged dolefully into parliament to put up whatever limp resistance they could muster in favour of their budget.
Their defeat was overwhelming.
Casey and the cold light of day
In the weeks that followed, Casey made sure to leave no-one in any doubt about how he had voted.
But the win would soon ring hollow.
Casey was quickly ruled out of a ministry in the new government. He insisted he had not sought a portfolio with the new premier, Gavin Duffy, but that did not stop the rumour mill churning.
Casey skipped a banquet in Bendigo that July, which the new premier was holding as part of a colony-wide charm offensive/victory lap.
Casey said his absence was unavoidable, citing other "professional engagements".
The excuse was met with "slight derisive laughter" when his apology was read out at the banquet, according to the Advertiser.
In August, Casey interrupted McCulloch with a point of fact during a parliamentary debate.
McCulloch shot him down by saying "the honorable and learned member for Mandurang is not yet a member of the government, and perhaps he will allow me to proceed".
In even more bleak news, Duffy had left the door open to higher tariffs to help manage government spending.
Still, that was politics in the early 1870s. Tariffs were some of the easiest ways to raise money.
Casey and his allies launched into vigorous campaigning for reductions on goods that could not be made in Victoria.
He and other anti-tariff politicians never got to see their hated tariffs axed, especially as new generations of leaders arrived in parliament who wanted to move on from those fights.
"By the 1880s there are certain issues in Bendigo that you have to agree to if you are going to win office. The tariff is one of those," Dr Fahey said.
"These great issues that had dominated politics just fall by the wayside."
In the meantime, the leadership instability went on. Duffy was soon replaced by another premier, then another, all the while ambitious parliamentarians jockeying for positions.
The bitter events of 1871 were soon a distant memory.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series WHAT HAPPENED?
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