A SHADOWY cabal tried to trump legitimately elected Bendigo representatives 165 years ago in a battle over who could sit in Victoria's parliament.
The group cast a pall over a fledgling democracy.
Then its boss was horsewhipped by a supposed supporter.
Sands shift quickly when you are undermining democracy.
Parliament house was a bubbling cauldron of intrigue in the summer of 1856 and '57.
The colony had just lurched its way through its first entirely democratic election and rival factions were jockeying for influence in the corridors of power.
Now, a group calling itself the Society For Promoting the Scrutiny of Members' Qualifications wanted a host of parliamentarians booted out of the building.
Many, if not all MPs were linked to a left-leaning opposition that had formed against a conservative-esque government, including John Owens and Ebenezer Syme, the two MPs who represented Bendigo and a wider Loddon electorate.
Both were part of a pro-democracy faction trying to change injustices including "property qualification" laws that effectively stopped poor people standing for election or even voting in certain circumstances.
Owens had been forced to ask his supporters for the money needed to legally represent them.
A doctor by trade, the goldfields leader had begun agitating for democratic rights four years earlier when a copper shot dead a miner in the Ovens district - an incident that an inquest was never held into.
In late 1856, Melbourne newspaper The Argus ran a letter from the brand new Society's boss, William Kelly, claiming Owens had no legal grounds to sit in parliament.
"The Doctor is politically dead, to all intents and purposes," Kelly wrote.
He claimed as many as six other MPs could not take their seats.
"I would sincerely advise them to anticipate an inevitable result," he warned, even as he insisted his group merely wanted to enforce a law that he himself found objectionable.
Why the Society had to do what the parliament itself had the power to enforce was a question Kelly's letter didn't bother to address.
Then, just after Christmas, The Society petitioned parliament to oust Owens and Syme.
It is hard to tell today how closely the government was linked in with The Society.
There were no formal political parties at the time and premiers (then known as chief secretaries) had to form uneasy alliances to get their agendas passed.
The Bendigo Advertiser would later portray Kelly as a man colluding with one conservative parliamentary faction opposed to democratic reforms.
"He degraded himself to be the tool of a [group] that sought to root out the liberal members from the [lower] house, and establish a kind of political inquisition," the Advertiser's editor wrote several months later.
Already, elite landholders were using their power in the upper house to block reforms in a pattern that would shape Victorian politics for years to come.
Plus, maybe it was not such a good idea to give too many people the vote - especially the gold miners who had gathered en masse in Bendigo and other parts of the Loddon electorate.
Could these people really call themselves Victorians? Gold rushes were helping triple the population. Many newcomers were expected to try and strike it rich before moving on again.
And who was to say miners could be trusted if property qualifications were dropped? Couldn't they get what they wanted simply by moving in large numbers into an electorate?
Don't trust "ultra-democrats" and "stump orators", upper house MP John Fawkner warned in parliament during one debate on property qualifications that summer.
Central Victorian miners begged to disagree.
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They had spent years calling for greater rights. Some had literally died for them two-and-a-half years earlier in Ballarat.
Soldiers had attacked gold miners who had made a makeshift stockade, demanded voting rights and refused to pay deeply unpopular licensing fees to the government.
At least 28 people died including 22 diggers and the shockwaves from the violence were still reverberating through Victorian politics.
Even as Owens and Syme watched their fates being handed to a parliamentary committee, their allies were successfully moving motions to limit its scope.
Meanwhile, Kelly's plot was coming undone. His supporters in far flung electorates were backing out.
As the [lower house has] virtually decided that I am debarred from trying several of the allegations ... it is my intention to withdraw them," one Loddon-based supporter wrote in a letter to the parliament that effectively killed the attacks on Owens and Syme.
Kelly had another blow when his man in another mining electorate, Talbot, Hector Norman Simson, withdrew his name from a similar petition against one of that area's representatives.
Kelly was livid.
He made his thoughts about Simson known in a publicly circulated letter.
"Sir - I feel it incumbent on me to inform you that I consider your conduct with regard to the Talbot Election Petition as treacherous, lying, and cowardly, and that it is my intention to write that opinion upon your shoulders with a horsewhip when you next visit Melbourne," the letter said.
That turned out to be a mistake. Simson confronted Kelly about it at a hotel in Sandridge and the pair resorted to fisticuffs, according to an account by Melbourne paper The Herald.
"Mr Simson then, calling upon the persons in the hotel as witnesses, struck Mr Kelly over the shoulder with his horsewhip and, after applying some strong epithets to his opponent, and dashing his letter in his face, withdrew from [the] scene."
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series entitled 'WHAT HAPPENED?'
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