Abstracts – Labour History No. 114

Vice-Regal Intervention in Australian Domestic Politics: Ronald Munro Ferguson and the ALP Split of 1916
Peter Bastian

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) split over conscription has usually been interpreted as arising from the actions of William Morris (Billy) Hughes on the one side, in conflict with various forces within the labour movement on the other. However, this bipolar view ignores the role of the Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson who had been proactive in Australian domestic politics from 1914 in order to maximise the war effort on Britain’s behalf and to enhance his own office. His firm belief that conscription was necessary and Hughes was the only man capable of being Prime Minister led him to work behind the scenes to secure those objectives. He was also suspicious of the ALP and its ties with the Catholic community that he saw as linked to Irish disloyalty and so supported counter-intelligence measures against them. This article examines how this largely overlooked vice-regal involvement contributed to the political upheaval in this period.

Revolutionary Ireland and Transnational Labour Solidarity on the Victorian Railways: The Case of Alex Morrison and Tom Wilson, 1921–22
Jimmy Yan

In 1921, the Victorian railways became a site of contested loyalties surrounding the response of the Australian labour movement to the Irish revolution. This paper will examine the case of Alex Morrison and Tom Wilson, two non-Irish shop stewards of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Railways Union (ARU) victimised by the Lawson Government in March 1921 for publicly sympathising with Irish railway workers killed by the “Black and Tans” in Cork during the Anglo-Irish War. The controversy, which coincided with the birth of the Self-Determination for Ireland League, became a focus for both an Empire loyalist backlash and a labour movement defence campaign in the lead up to the 1921 State Election. It marked a moment at which the Irish crisis of 1916–23 catalysed organised campaign activity in the industrial wing, in addition to the political wing, of the Australian labour movement. Framed within the paradigm of international labour solidarity instead of Irish diaspora, the stance of Morrison and Wilson reflected the mutual entanglement of Irish-Australian and labour internationalist allegiances in the wake of both the Australian conscription plebiscites and the Russian Revolution. A “view from below” of the “Irish Question” in the Victorian railways presents an alternative, if parallel, form of transnational politicisation around Ireland to that of “long-distance nationalism.”

“More Like a Swagman than a Parliamentary Candidate”: Federal Election Meetings in Rural New South Wales and Victoria, 1910–22
Chris Monnox

Public meetings were one of the key electioneering methods employed in early twentieth-century Australia. These meetings and the beliefs that surrounded them did much to shape the era’s broader approach to electioneering. Rural candidates embarked on extensive tours of their constituencies, reinforcing a political culture focused on local representatives. Wide-ranging networks of party supporters were required to organise and publicise these tours, and so the public meeting also helped sustain a need for large party memberships. Meetings could be used to target some voter groups, but the time-consuming character of candidates’ tours meant that this potential was not often fully realised in the country.

Black Trackers: Labour Contributions of Aboriginal People in the Hunter Region of New South Wales, 1804–54
Greg Blyton

This article identifies the important work of Aboriginal people dubbed in colonial ethnography as “black trackers” with a specific focus on their work as agents of colonial law enforcement in the Hunter region of New South Wales between 1804 and 1854. Within Australian historiography the roles and occupation of black trackers are somewhat blurred with the native police forces. The article shows that the role and occupation of black trackers differed from that of the native police forces who were employed by colonial governments during the same period. While the importance of “black trackers” in Australian history in the nineteenth century is recognised in popular literature and cinema, there are few if any regional studies and none which explore this work as an aspect of Australian labour history. This article adds to knowledge of the role of black trackers as casual labour supporting soldiers, police, magistrates and civilian posses in pursuit of escaped convicts and bushrangers. In the focus on the Hunter region, it argues that black trackers’ labour was important in assisting settlers as well as protecting their own communities by apprehending fugitive European felons.

Convicts of the “Proper Description”: The Appropriation and Management of Skilled Convict Labour
Richard Tuffin

Previous research into the management of convict labour in the Australian colonies has demonstrated that the identification and utilisation of the skills embedded within the convict population was an essential element of convict labour management. Focussing on Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and the co-option of the skilled labour of convict miners in a penal setting, this article demonstrates the extent to which station administrators and colonial government alike sought to actively appropriate and manage the labour of convicts with this particular skill set. The appropriation records of 13,438 convicts transported to the colony between 1835 and 1846 will be used to illustrate a pattern of deliberate appropriation that, at times, subverted the emplaced regulations for managing convict labour. Through the records generated by and for their management, as well as evidence of the carceral landscape within which they laboured, this paper also examines the processes by which the labour power of these convict miners was appropriated and how they reacted to such appropriation.

New Zealand’s Meat Board, Markets and the Killing Season: A Twentieth-Century Labour History of Unintended Consequences
Bruce Curtis

From its beginnings (in 1923), the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board, a statutory agency representing the collective interests of farmers, unintentionally and indirectly empowered meatworkers and their unions. This empowerment was instituted despite farmers and the Board being inherently hostile towards labour organisation. Through the Board, farmers exercised a self-interested collective control in local and international product markets that also benefited meatworkers in localised labour markets. The Board used its statutory powers to limit the scale and scope of meat companies and, by limiting their powers in the product markets of central concern to farmers, made these companies commensurately weak in labour markets. This analysis owes much to the insights of Fligstein and Fernandez (1988) regarding weak employers. Farmers’ unintended empowerment of meatworkers as militant unionists was a remarkable irony given the often bitter antagonism between the two groups over industrial relations in New Zealand.

Economic Thought and Social Democracy in Australasia and Scandinavia, 1919–39
Jim McAloon

The New Zealand Labour Party and the Swedish Social Democratic Party were early pioneers of the welfare state, winning government and enacting reform from 1935 and 1932 respectively. The federal Australian Labor Party (ALP), however, struggled in government from 1929 to 1931 to respond to the Depression and was only able to develop a comprehensively reformist approach in government from 1941. This paper compares the development of economic policy in the three parties in the 1920s and 1930s, and suggests that the extent to which party leaders engaged with new economic thinking in the 1920s contributed to the parties’ success or otherwise in enacting policy reform.

“Making the Native a Useful Person”: Indigenous Labour in Twentieth-Century Australian Leprosaria
Charmaine Robson

From 1930, Commonwealth and state governments established institutions (leprosaria) in the north of Australia for Indigenous people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). At each leprosarium, all able-bodied inmates were expected to contribute their labour. This work was vital for the maintenance of these institutions, but doctors also prescribed work as therapy. Yet, no such mandatory policy existed at separate institutions for European-origin inmates. This article analyses work policies for Indigenous leprosaria inmates from the 1930s to 1950s. It argues that administrators also valued labour for its potential to produce inmate compliance and institutional order. With Western cultural paradigms framing regular work as morally uplifting and signifying civic responsibility, leprosaria labour regimes became mechanisms for training purportedly “uncivilised” Indigenous inmates to become cooperative leprosarium citizens. Although offered only a limited citizenship, some inmates adopted a sense of their own rights and, paradoxically, borrowed Australian trade union methods to contest the financial terms of their employment.

Resisting Whig History: Putting the Australian New Left in Perspective
Llewellyn Williams-Brooks

The theoretical insights associated with the Australian New Left contribute to enriching our understanding of the intricacies of Australian history. Two of the most influential works associated with the movement, A New Britannia and Class Structure in Australian History, are compared to enable a consideration of both objective and subjective accounts of class. This paper has three parts. First, it identifies the historic context of history written in Australia within the Whig tradition of the Old Left. Second, it examines how debates within the British New Left came to influence discussions in the Australian New Left. Finally, it suggests that McQueen provided foundations to the theoretical approach to class undertaken in Class Structure in Australian History. It is argued that class remains an important and necessary abstraction in order to engage with the relationship between existing political economic structures and social subjects.