Abstracts – Labour History No. 102


Edited by Nick Dyrenfurth, Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles

Reinterpreting the Second Fisher Government
Mark Hearn and Nick Dyrenfurth

At the April 1910 general election, the federal Labor Party, under the leadership of Andrew Fisher, became the first party of its type to form a majority government anywhere in the world. Yet the second Fisher Labor government of 1910-13 has been largely neglected by labour historians and political scientists alike. The task of this introduction and broader thematic edition is twofold. First, it explains, and places in global and comparative context, the path-breaking electoral and legislative achievements of Fisher Labor. Second, it seeks to clarify the nature of the Labor Party that emerged with such apparent political dominance from the fractious alliances and contested ideological terrain that constituted the multiparty ‘federation project’ in the decade following 1901, once again with comparative and transnational reference. The contributors to this thematic edition of Labour History range across the factors that shaped Labor’s political success, and the factors which constrained that mobilisation.

‘A Political … as well as a Propagandist Movement’: Cultural Politics and the Rise of Fisher Labor
Nick Dyrenfurth

The Australian Labor Party’s emergence during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has been a well-documented, if narrowly concerned subject of enquiry. Historians have traced the institutional growth of the federal and state parties, chronicled dramatic incidents such as Labor’s split over conscription during World War I, debated its ideological trajectory or lack thereof, and biographically eulogised its leadership. Despite the emergence of more sensitive treatments of the early Australian Labor Party in recent decades, few historical works have properly explained the importance of the party’s powerful cultural forms. Indeed, most scholars simply assume its existence. By contrast, this article argues that the distinctive language, iconography and narrative tools wielded by early Laborites – what I term the party’s cultural politics – drove much of its precocious electoral success, culminating in Andrew Fisher forming the world’s first majority Labor government following the April 1910 federal election.

‘The Benefits of Industrial Organisation’? The Second Fisher Government and Fin de Siècle Modernity in Australia
Mark Hearn

Although Labor achieved an extraordinary political ascendancy at the 1910 federal election, Andrew Fisher’s post-election speeches and interviews revealed that he remained troubled by two dilemmas: whether Labor could effectively control the transmission of its message in the public sphere and the degree to which Labor could impose its legislative agenda. Fisher stressed the need for Labor to establish a network of labour dailies. Labor also committed to a referendum to radically increase Commonwealth power to intervene in the economy and control ‘powerful and predatory’ corporate ‘trusts and combines’. Labor’s priorities had to be managed within the context of unprecedented industrialisation and technological change, the extraordinary global forces of fi n de siècle modernity that framed Labor’s interventions in government and the public sphere. Labor’s mission to master ‘the benefits of industrial organisation’, by more effectively transmitting its message and expanding Commonwealth legislative power, was colonised by the forces of fi n de siècle capital and culture to which Labor was required to adapt.

State Socialism for Australian Mothers: Andrew Fisher’s Radical Maternalism in its International and Local Contexts
Marilyn Lake

In 1912 Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher introduced one of the most radical measures of his government. The Maternity Allowance Act was radical in at least three respects: first, it was ‘socialistic’ in providing a state payment from general revenue to mothers in their capacity as citizens; second, it recognised the legitimacy of the claims of unmarried mothers on the state (unlike in the 1950s and 1960s when single mothers had their babies taken away for adoption); and third, its direct payment to women by the state undermined the traditional patriarchal power exercised by husbands in the family. Australian scholarship has tended to disparage this innovation as a ‘baby bonus’ imposed on women cast as ‘breeders for the body politic’. Closer attention to its international and national contexts, however, suggests that this very popular measure was a response to women’s new found political power.

Andrew Fisher and the Era of Liberal Reform
Marian Sawer

The double victory of Andrew Fisher in the 1910 federal election was a great political triumph for Australia’s labour movement. However the policy achievements of the Fisher Government can best be understood by applying a gendered comparative lens that takes us beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and enables us to focus on social policy issues not always at the centre of labour history. In this article I compare the approach of three governments, those of Fisher in Australia, Ballance and then Seddon in New Zealand and Asquith in the United Kingdom (UK) to three issues of the day – progressive taxation, old-age pensions and the rights of women. I use the theoretical framework of ‘policy transfer’ to examine how these three government drew on a common fund of social research and policy discourse and built on each other’s legislative innovations to progress their agenda.

Are We ‘All Socialists Now’? New Liberalism, State Socialism and the Australian Settlement
Ian Tregenza

Addressing a Labor party conference in 1908 Andrew Fisher claimed that ‘We are all Socialists now and indeed the only qualification you hear from anybody is probably that he is “not an extreme socialist”’. Despite this proclamation, the far-reaching reforms implemented by the second Fisher government of 1910-13 were of a piece with the earlier initiatives of Deakin’s liberal governments. Moreover, Fisher’s attempts to reconcile class antagonisms had much in common with the new liberalism of the period. It was common for many social liberals up to and including F.W. Eggleston to distinguish between good and bad forms of socialism, and for some Labor figures (such as H.V. Evatt) to claim the legacy of Australian liberalism for the labour movement. This paper explores the relationship between new liberalism and state socialism in the decades before the class divide came to dominate the Australian party system.

Putting the ‘Australian Settlement’ in Perspective
Alan Fenna

This paper reviews arguments about the origins and significance of Australia’s formative policies of Developmentalism, Tariff Protection, Industrial Arbitration, White Australia, and Old-Age Pensions. To do so, it applies the comparative method, following a ‘most similar systems’ approach that juxtaposes Australia and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere and the United States and Canada in the northern. Putting the Australian experience in comparative perspective allows us to distinguish what was ‘normal’ in either a settler society and a broader context; to identify what was distinctive; and to get a clearer picture of what factors contributed to any such distinctiveness. Developmentalism, tariff protection and racial exclusion were common to all four country cases; only arbitration and old-age pensions were peculiar to New Zealand and Australia. In explaining that distinctiveness, comparative analysis confirms the decisive role of unusually strong labour movements and supplies a corrective to prevailing interpretations based on treating the Australian case in isolation.

Postscript: The Significance of the Fisher Labor Government, 1910-13
Raymond Markey

The authors of this thematic issue have substantially rescued the second Fisher-led Labor government of Australia from the relative neglect of labour historians, by acknowledging the significance and achievements of the first majority labour or social democratic national government in the world. The government’s significance was twofold: first, its election was based on the creation of a mass working class constituency; and second its busy legislative program extended the Australian Settlement, contributed significantly to the nation-building project, and instigated a progressive redistributive welfare program well in advance of other countries. The government’s reforms were based on liberal philosophy as well as prior initiatives, but it also extended the terms of the Australian Settlement and contributed to the divergence of liberalism and laborism. This postscript reviews the contributors’ arguments in the context of the government’s full reform agenda to assess the significance of the Fisher government’s achievements.


The Low Rumble of Informal Dissent: Shipboard Protests over Health and Safety in Australian Waters, 1790-1900
Michael Quinlan

This article charts patterns of informal collective dissent amongst seamen, mainly those on merchant ships but also some involved in pelagic (deep sea) whaling, in Australian waters between 1790 and 1900. It highlights both the widespread nature of collective action (unmatched by any other group of workers) and the importance of health and safety concerns as the single more significant impetus for such action. Much can be learned about the experiences of these workers, and the meanings they attached to their actions, by carefully using sources generally unsympathetic to them, namely contemporary newspaper reports. The Australian experience is not unique and affords insights into the important and neglected role of informal collective action both within the global maritime industry and more broadly. In terms of labour historiography, examining both informal and formal organisation provides a more complete picture of patterns of worker mobilisation.

‘Citizens Who Serve’: The Political Rights of Victorian Public Servants, 1856-1916
Dustin Halse

The history of legal restrictions imposed upon Victorian departmental public servants dates from the introduction of responsible government in 1856. This article examines the evolution of Victorian public service regulations by paying particular attention to the historical influence of the master and servant legacy. Viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that the ‘public servant’ was subject to political coercion and persistent accusations of ineptitude by successive governments down to World War I, being labelled as self-interested and seditious. In response, public servants, with the aid of the public service union, collectively opposed the limited parameters of their political status. By daring to challenge the rationale underpinning political rights regulations, public servants came into direct conflict with the political executive and a unique public service work culture emerged.

‘Conflicts of Loyalty’: The Australian Labor Party and Uranium Policy, 1976-82
Ashley Lavelle

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has periodically been enveloped by ‘conflicts of loyalty’ as a result of being forced to choose between representing its supporters in the trade unions and social movements and paying heed to powerful business groups whose investment decisions underpin the capitalist economy. This paper explores this dilemma through a case study of uranium mining policy from 1976-82. It is proposed that the party’s initial policy of opposition to the mining and export of uranium was overturned, despite its wide appeal among party members and constituents, because of the anticipated backlash from powerful commercial interests in a climate of economic downturn and the increasing globalisation of capital. This policy outcome also needs to be seen in the context of the desire on the part of federal ALP leaders to resurrect the party’s economic management credentials in the years following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. The case was symptomatic, moreover, of the fading energy for fundamental political change increasingly afflicting social democrats worldwide.

From Unpaid Maternity Leave to Paid Parental Leave in New Zealand: Changing Approaches in Legislation
Katherine Ravenswood and Ann-Marie Kennedy

New Zealand first introduced legislation for parental leave in the private and public sectors in 1980, with the Maternity Leave and Employment Protection Act. This Act provided up to 26 weeks of employment protection and unpaid leave for women only. Eligibility required 18 months of continuous employment of 15 hours or more per week for the same employer. Subsequently, there were two major developments in the legislation. In 1987 the introduction of the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act gave men the right to parental leave and reduced eligibility requirements. The second major change was in 2002 with the introduction of paid parental leave in the Parental Leave and Employment Protection (Paid Parental Leave) Act. This paper applies Baird’s typology of maternity leave orientations to analyse the fundamental debates occurring for each of these changes in legislation. An historical approach is used to gain a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the development of parental leave legislation for all employees in New Zealand.