The 100th Anniversary of the Fisher Labor Government

The 100th Anniversary of the Fisher Labor Government

John Faulkner

100 years ago, Andrew Fisher achieved something no one else in Australia, no one else in the world, had managed to do. He led a Labor Party, a democratic socialist party, a party formed to advance the interests of, and composed of, working men and women, to victory in a national election.

That victory made him the first national leader of a Labor Government to have a majority, in any country in the world. It made him the first ever Australian Prime Minister to command a majority, in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, with 43 House of Representative seats out of 75 and 23 Senators out of 36.

He would have to wait four more years to become, in 1914, the only Australian Labor Prime Minister elected with more than 50% of the primary vote. A hundred years later, the idea of a labour party as a political force potent enough to hold the majority of seats in a parliament is unremarkable. In Fisher’s time, it was unthinkable.

Fisher’s election victory came just six years after Chris Watson’s minority Labor Government had been called a monstrous travesty, a political freak. After the Watson Government fell, its members were characterized by Deakin as ill-bred urchins dragged kicking and screaming from the ministry – with the inescapable implication that, in this metaphor, the conservative parties were the well-bred responsible adults doing the ejecting.

While Labor’s political opponents may occasionally act as if they still believe Labor has no right to the government benches, the ALP has, for more than a hundred years, been either the government or the alternative government in this country. That is Andrew Fisher’s greatest legacy. It is not, of course, his only legacy.

The Fisher Government of 1910 followed up on its world-first majority with the most active legislative program that had yet been seen in the Commonwealth Parliament, passing 113 pieces of legislation. Much of the core of Australia’s public policy consensus and the institutions of our Commonwealth were set out by Fisher’s Government.

  • The Seat of Government (Administration) Act 1910 providing for the organisation to establish the national capital.
  • The Commonwealth Bank Act 1911 provided for a national trading and savings bank and the Australian Notes Act transferred to the Commonwealth from private banks the authority to print paper money.
  • The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1911 introduced compulsory enrolment for Commonwealth elections.
  • Maternity Allowances Act 1912 granted European mothers five pounds on the birth of a child.
  • The Commonwealth Workmen’s Compensation Act 1912 provided for compulsory insurance and compensation for Federal and Territory employees.
  • The wattle became Australia’s national flower.
  • Legislation establishing both the Duntroon Military College and the Royal Australian Navy came into operation in 1911.

The second Fisher Labor government left a legislative legacy of increasing the number of people who participated in the democratic election of those who governed them, building the new Australian nation, and extending the power of the Commonwealth to take responsibility for the protection and care of those in need.

After losing the 1913 election, Andrew Fisher led Labor to victory again in 1914, becoming Prime Minister for the third time in a career that had taken him from the Crosshouse mines to the highest elected office in Australia, via an impressive string of world firsts:

  • member of Andy Dawson’s first Labor Government in the world in Queensland in 1899 as Minister for Railways and Public Works;
  • Elected in the first Australian Federal election to become a member of the first Federal Parliamentary Labor Party in 1901;
  • Minister in the world’s first national labour government as Minister for Minister for Trade and Customs in Chris Watson’s minority 1904 government.
  • And of course, the first majority labour government anywhere in the world.

Only five Labor leaders have won an election from Opposition: when Fisher did it he was first of any party in Australia, and he did it twice, in 1910 and, after losing office in 1913, again in 1914.

So when I read characterisations of Fisher as ‘drab’ or ‘able but uninspiring’, I have to wonder if they are indeed talking about the man who retired from politics in 1915 after a spell in the Prime Ministership that would stand as a Labor record until Bob Hawke beat it. Unlike Bob Hawke, Fisher didn’t set his record through uninterrupted occupation of the Prime Ministerial Office.

You see, the story of Fisher’s political career is one of extraordinary successes, but also one of extraordinary persistence, despite difficulty, adversity, even electoral defeat. When Fisher lost his state Parliamentary seat (Gyrnpie in Queensland) in 1896 he did not retire from politics. He began campaigning for the next election.

Nor did he give up when the Dawson Government fell after one week, nor when the Watson Government lasted less than four months, nor when his own 1908 government was brought down after little more than six. Or indeed, when his government was defeated at the polls in 1913.

On each occasion he marshalled his resources and turned to winning the next battle. In 1896, that was by founding a labour newspaper in Gyrnpie to counteract the virulent bias of the local press as groundwork for his successful 1899 campaign to regain the State seat.

In 1899, he looked beyond the Queensland Parliament to the newly established federal sphere where a broader franchise than that which prevailed in Queensland at the time promised better prospects for the party of working Australians.

After 1904, he stiffened resistance within both state and federal branches of the party to forming coalitions or guaranteeing electoral immunity, strengthening Labor’s identity as an independent party of potential government.

After 1909, as Leader, he sharpened Labor’s parliamentary strategies. Specialist committees channelled caucus efforts to create a highly effective opposition. Fisher campaigned tirelessly for the 1910 election. According to one journalist, “His hair, tinged with grey when he became Minister for Customs in 1904, was silver white when the 1910 election campaign began.”

The legacy Andrew Fisher created through his endurance and persistence should have secured him a place in both Australia’s history and in the labour movement pantheon. Instead, like Chris Watson, Fisher has largely been remembered during the last hundred years as the answer to a trivia quiz question.

I hope this centenary and this conference will make more people aware of the importance of Fisher’s Government to the development of Australia’s public policy frameworks and institutions. But for Labor, Australia’s oldest and most enduring political party, Fisher’s legacy is seen at every election.

Leaving aside the raft of legislative reforms his government passed, important though they are, Fisher deserves a place in our history for his role in setting the shape of Australian politics: Labor, and the rest.

From our twenty-first century perspective, the division of Australian politics into two – on the one side, the ALP, and on the other, a range of anti-Labor parties that govern in coalition, regardless of their policy differences – from our perspective, that state of affairs is so much the norm that it hardly seems worth remarking on.

But the early years of the Australian Parliament were dominated by shifting, unstable alliances. All governments were minority governments. The first two Labor governments that of Chris Watson in 1904 and of Fisher himself in 1908, were hamstrung by their inability to get legislation through a House where they did not have the numbers, making it impossible for them to govern.

We hear a certain amount today about the flaws of the two-party system, and the supposed desirability of a government being held to account ­or held hostage – by the lack of a majority in the House of Representatives. I invite anyone who considers that to be the epitome of democracy to look at the records of the early Commonwealth Parliament: seven governments in ten years, with an average term, by my rough-and-ready calculations, of a little bit over fifteen months.

In steering Labor’s growth from a minority exchanging ‘support’ for ‘concessions to a solid parliamentary force able to form a minority and then majority government, Fisher brought stability, not only to the Labor caucus, but to the Parliament.

The success of the Labor Party, both electorally, and as a responsible minority government, demonstrated that Labor was no group of ranting, wild-eyed radicals. It put the wind up Deakin, Cook and Forrest.

The Free Trade Party, rebadged as ‘Anti-Socialist’, the Corner group, and the Protectionists realised that the class interests that united them were greater than the diametrically opposed policy convictions that divided them. The Fusion was born, their only chance to avoid electoral irrelevance.

Fisher was the first Australian Prime Minister to be elected, rather than to emerge from negotiations for support between minority parties. You could say he was the first Australian Prime Minister to have a clear mandate from the electorate; and he was the first Australian Prime Minister to have the numbers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and to be able pursue the legislative program he had been elected to enact.

In the early years of our Federation, Labor battled the perception that a bunch of former miners, laborers, farmhands, cabinet-makers, watch­makers, fitters, tinsmiths, union activists and other riff-raff were not capable of forming a responsible government. The steady hand of Andrew Fisher kept the Labor caucus – not always a compliant and amicable group – stable and largely harmonious, certainly to those who viewed it from the outside.

His Ministries were stable. With the exception of Hugh Mahon, every living member of his 1908 Ministry returned to serve in his 1910 Ministry. The only reshuffle in his second term was caused by the sudden death of Egerton Batchelor in October 1911. His Cabinets ran smoothly. Relations between the ministry and the Caucus were characterised by “mutual trust and confidence”. I can think of one or two Labor – and Liberal – leaders since who would read those words with a certain wistfulness!

No Labor politician should pretend to you that every caucus is a bastion of peace and harmony, but the severity of the strains and tensions within Fisher’s parliamentary party can be seen by the fact that it took a just eleven months from Fisher’s resignation for his successor, Billy Hughes, to rip the party asunder.

The swiftly rising tide of Labor’s early fortunes is not, of course, the sale result of anyone person’s efforts. But while the politics of a Party leader’s personality were less important in 1910 than they are in the age of television, they were not irrelevant.

Fisher campaigned throughout eastern Australia by train and railway tricycle, in horse-drawn coaches and buggies where the trains didn’t run, and on horseback where the roads didn’t run either. Everywhere he went, his solid respectability reassured that while Labor’s program was progressive, its representatives were not reckless.

Like his predecessor as Labor Leader, Chris Watson, Andrew Fisher was sometimes criticised for not looking, or acting, ‘labour’ enough. At a time when opponents challenged the legitimacy of Labor politicians, let alone Labor Governments. Andrew Fisher’s good suits, immaculate grooming, and carefully tended moustache radiated respectability. As the paper he founded, the Gympie Truth, argued in 1896, the Labour member did not need to “array himself in a flannel shirt and hobnailed boots” but “should always be respectable” and aim for “friendly conversation” rather than “acrimonious debate”. And a respectable party is an electable party.

I do not know what the fortunes of the Labor Party would have been if there had been no Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes had won the ballot to succeed Chris Watson. It is possible, no doubt, that the steadily strengthening support for Labor’s program, for the idea of a Commonwealth Government with an active role in building the nation and leveling the playing field, might have swept Hughes into office. But, I doubt it. Andrew Fisher’s patience, his persistence, and his sensitivity to the moods of Caucus and the electorate provided sure and certain leadership as Labor made the leap from power-brokers to power.

Every Labor government since is in his debt.

This is an edited extract of an address by Senator the Hon john Faulkner to the ‘The Australian Settlement and the Fisher Government Conference’, The University of Sydney, 30 April 2010.