Chris Watson and the World’s First National Labour Government

Ross McMullin

Last year the ALP commemorated a special anniversary. When Chris Watson and his ministers were sworn in on 27 April 1904, they were forming not just Australia’s first national Labor government. It was the first national labour government in the world.

We were leading the world. It might be hard to imagine now, especially with the kind of national government we’ve been subjected to in recent years, but the advent of the Watson government confirmed that a century ago Australia was leading the world in progressive government, in pioneering measures benefiting the working class. Remarkable as it may seem today, curious visitors crossed the globe to scrutinise this advanced social laboratory for themselves.

The Labor Party’s rise was astonishing. Labor had only been formed 13 years earlier. Think about parties formed relatively recently, like the Greens or the Democrats or even One Nation, and the struggle they have each had to become anything beyond a minor party in the Senate, where the proportional representation system enables them to pick up the odd seat, or at best a few seats here and there. None of them have ever looked remotely like becoming, in the national parliament, anything other than a minor upper house party.

The contrast with Labor’s first years is stark. Here was a brand new party, with not just different policies but a different look and feel, a different way of doing politics with novel features like party control of MPs and policy, caucus control of the parliamentary party, a pledge to enforce solidarity.

And this new party rose so swiftly that merely 13 years after its formation it was not just picking up a Senate seat or two, but actually forming a national government. Not only that, it was doing so before any equivalent party overseas had become remotely close to doing so. For example, in 1904 there were 670 MPs in the House of Commons, but the number representing the British Labour Party was the grand total of four. In 1904 a British Labour government was still decades away.

The novelty of this first national labour government in the world under Chris Watson inevitably influenced what people thought of it. At that time the gaining of power through the democratic process by representatives of the working class was unknown. The working class got hold of political power rarely, and only when it grabbed it by force.

This prompted some alarmist observers in 1904 to start thinking anxiously about precedents like the French Revolution. Analogies between Watson and Robespierre might well seem grotesque to us now, but just as we look back a hundred years to the Watson government, when Australians in 1904 looked back an equivalent period, a hundred years or so earlier, what some of them saw in their historical rear vision mirror was the French Revolution.

The famous Sydney weekly, the Bulletin, denounced this hysterical nonsense in characteristically forthright fashion as it hopped into “those lying papers and persons that always explained to the public how the first Democratic government would take office with a flaming torch in one hand, and a gory dagger in the other, and a newly-severed head trailing behind it at the end of a bit of string.”

But the Bulletin was greatly outnumbered – in fact swamped – by the barrage of sledging the Watson government endured from the conservative press. This started even before the government started. Even before it was sworn in, the press hostility was virulent. “[The new government] will exist entirely on sufferance”, sniffed the Argus, and “has no claim on an extended life”.

There was a sentiment in some quarters that Watson and his ministry were entitled to fair play, and time to show what they could do, but the
Sydney Morning Herald was having none of that. “Why should he be given time?” it thundered in an editorial, adamant that the new government should be removed as soon as possible. Later that paper described the Watson government in a memorable phrase as a “scratch team of untried extremists”.

Numerous other examples could be cited, but one newspaper was in a class of its own, the Maitland Daily Mercury. Watson’s ministry was “such an unthinkable monstrosity of a Government”, it fumed:

To call the Ministry a Government is, of course, a flagrant misnomer, as in no respect can so grotesque and absolutely unique a body claim so distinguished a title. … To call this preposterous production a Government is ridiculous, and would be laughable were it not for the painful pitilessness of having so monstrous a travesty [in charge of this] great country.

We ended up choosing that phrase “So Monstrous a Travesty” as the title of my book on the Watson government, to reflect in the title a flavour of the remarkable press hostility the government had to put up with.

Nevertheless the new government was not totally bereft of press support. The Bulletin greeted it positively:

What it mostly wants is time to develop its policy, to show that a Labor Ministry isn’t anything like a shindy of the larrikin sons of the upper classes at a university function, and that it doesn’t drink or break things, or start revolutions, and that it has constructive ability; and to prove to the unthinking majority that the imaginary picture of it drawn by the malicious liars and crude perjurers of the daily press is just the lie that the thinking minority has always known it to be.

In 1904, Labor was one of three parties of similar numerical strength in federal parliament. Besides Labor under Watson, there were the Protectionists under Alfred Deakin and the Free Traders under George Reid. Labor was closer to Deakin and his Protectionists, who were generally more progressive than Reid’s Free Traders. Throughout the first decade of federal politics, no party had a majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. That significant fact underpins the whole historical context. The Watson government was a minority government.

Watson chose his ministry himself and made some interesting choices. Notable in itself is the fact that his ministry included two future prime ministers, in Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes. There was also Labor’s Senate leader, the remarkable Gregor McGregor, a beefy, rough and tough former labourer and wrestler who was virtually blind.

The other senator in Watson’s ministry was Andy Dawson, who had already acquired a measure of fame as leader of the brief Queensland Labor government of December 1899. In 1904 Dawson was Watson’s minister for Defence. He too was a fascinating character. A hard-drinking radical who had been orphaned in the most tragic circumstances, Dawson was an associate of John Wren, and his stint as Defence minister was dominated by his bitter feud in office with the autocratic British commander of Australia’s defence forces.

What was implicit in the rabid press hostility that the Watson government had to put up with was the notion that people from genuine working class backgrounds couldn’t run the country. And they did have genuine working class backgrounds. Watson the compositor, McGregor the blind ex-labourer, Fisher and Dawson both formerly miners, Billy Hughes the umbrella mender and odd-job-man.

Also in Watson’s cabinet were two ministers with unique attainments. H.B. Higgins remains the only MP to be a minister in an Australian federal Labor government without being a member of the ALP. Hugh Mahon remains the only MP ever to have been expelled from our federal parliament (this occurred well after he was Watson’s Postmaster-General).

As for Watson himself, it was Hugh Mahon who wrote this insightful appreciation of Prime Minister Watson while a minister in his cabinet in 1904:

He is taller than the average, athletic, full-bearded, good-looking, and under 40. Moreover, his tastes are largely those of the average man. He plays cricket and billiards, cycles when he gets a chance, enjoys a good story, and sings as well as appreciates a good song. He has neither the ostentation of a demagogue, nor the abstraction of a genius. … I have met many political leaders, some of them intimately, here and elsewhere. I remember none who excelled this self-taught Australian in the peculiar endowments essential to his task. … Though not an orator, Mr Watson possesses the gift of lucid and forceful expression. He rapidly assimilates facts, and easily sifts from a mass of detail the really salient points of a question. On all the vital issues within the scope of the national Parliament he is undoubtedly one of the best-informed men in either House.

When Watson was sworn in as prime minister, he had just turned 37. Australia has never had a younger prime minister. Watson was an accomplished party leader, and during his time in office he led the nation capably too. Yet he resigned the leadership three years later, and within a further three years he was out of parliament altogether. That is, one of Labor’s finest national leaders relinquished the leadership when he was only 40.

Observers made glowing assessments of Watson. In a discerning study of Australian prime ministers up to 1940, a top-level defence strategist named Alfred Buchanan wrote in that year that:

thirty years ago people wondered [about Watson’s resignation,] and they still wonder. There have been a number of Labor leaders since Watson, but not one of them has shown the combination of qualities that distinguished him. He had poise, tact, foresight, firmness, judgment, and self-control. He had along with everything else a natural unforced dignity, which everyone recognised and respected.

Monty Grover reported federal politics while Watson was leader. He later became a renowned newspaper editor. Grover was looking back on decades of federal politics when he wrote in his memoirs that “Watson was possibly the man with more qualities of leadership than we have ever had in the Federal arena. [His] battle tactics were sublime.”

The Watson government remained under exacting pressure throughout its existence. Its opponents in parliament and the press were relentless. Parliament kept sitting, challenges kept coming, and crises kept recurring. But the government survived. Watson and Hughes had to scramble desperately at times and make unpalatable concessions, but the government stayed in office.

As days turned to weeks and then months, Australians realised that, contrary to some predictions, the sky had not fallen in. Riot, revolution and ruin had not eventuated. The government’s administration, in fact, was distinctly impressive. This was an important achievement. By governing so competently, Watson and his ministers paved the way for future Labor governments, majority Labor governments with the parliamentary numbers to introduce substantial reforms.

Eventually, with the Watson government approaching four harrowing months in office, its opponents resorted to a dodgy parliamentary stunt to remove it. The government, and Watson and Hughes in particular, had tried valiantly to get pioneering national arbitration legislation enacted. Their opponents managed to whittle down the provisions in the bill relating to preference to unionists. In the end, when they proposed an unusual amendment seeking to restrict preference further still, Watson said enough is enough and if this amendment is passed the government would resign.

The government lost the vital vote, 36 to 34. Watson advised the Governor-General that an election should be held, but the Governor-General rejected this advice. Watson then resigned. Many Labor supporters approved of Watson’s willingness to relinquish office on a policy principle.

Watson and his pioneering government did well. Their administration was creditable, and so was the way they left office. Their performance ensured that Australia’s Labor Party continued to progress much more rapidly than any equivalent overseas party.

Despite Chris Watson’s proficiency as a leader, his significance in his time, and his special place in history as Labor’s first national leader and first prime minister, and as Australia’s youngest prime minister, he is little known today. He deserves better. We should remember Chris Watson, rescue him from obscurity, and it is appropriate that we have commemorated the recent centenary of his government, the first national labour government in the world.

Ross McMullin is the author of So Monstrous a Travesty: Chris Watson and the world’s first national labour government. Anyone interested in acquiring an inscribed copy for $30 should contact Ross on 03 9481 6409.