How Watson shaped Labor

The country's great ALP governments followed the foundations laid down by the party's first prime minister

By Paul Kelly

Democracy took root in Australia faster than in any other nation on earth, a reality affirmed 100 years ago yesterday when the first federal Labor government began under the astute but forgotten Chris Watson. It was a first not just for Australia. Watson, aged 37, gave Australia a historic role in the annals of working-class power when he led the first national Labor government anywhere in the world. The French had Robespierre but Australia had Watson.

After the defeat of Alfred Deakin's Protectionists on the floor of parliament, Watson formed a minority Labor government on April 27, 1904, that survived less than four months and whose achievements were necessarily limited. In his life, Watson captures the transforming nature and the tragedy of the Labor Party. As an industrial and a political leader, he represented the new class power that swept the nation before 1914; as a nation builder, he became one of the architects of the Australian Settlement that defined our social and economic values; and, finally, he was expelled from the ALP during the Great War when he sided with conscriptionist leader Billy Hughes, who had been external affairs minister in Watson's government.

Labor uses its history to energise its future. So Watson's centenary was celebrated in Melbourne yesterday in a series of events that featured Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Mark Latham, with John Faulkner operating as master of ceremonies. It saw the release of the book So Monstrous a Travesty by Labor historian Ross McMullin, an account of Watson's government. The media briefly attended a caucus meeting where Latham pointed out that Labor was the only party -- "the only constant'' -- to span the full history of Australia as a nation.

McMullin's book has a wonderful description by Hughes of Watson's attire at the first cabinet meeting: "a superb morning coat and vest, set off by dark striped trousers, beautifully creased and shyly revealing the kind of socks that young men dream about and shoes to match. He was the perfect picture of a statesman.''

In 1904 it was a radical and, for many people, frightening notion that Labor would actually govern. Such an idea was yet to be tested and Watson delivered the trial run. It is easy to say his results were modest. The point is such modesty and moderation was the quality needed.

McMullin is surely correct in seeing Watson's triumph not in any decision but in proving to the nation that Labor was fit to govern and able to govern properly. This is Watson's legacy. The great Labor governments of the future walked on his foundations. When Watson died in 1941, aged 74, Hughes told the house that "of all the men in public life whom I have known, he stands out in my memory as the very embodiment of steadfastness and loyalty''.

Watson was involved in two of the foundation policies, White Australia and industrial egalitarianism. McMullin doesn't deal with Watson's role in the creation of White Australia but it is revelatory. After Edmund Barton, as inaugural PM, introduced the bill in 1901, Watson led the attack seeking not a dictation test but, on Labor's behalf, a direct racial ban. He told the house his objection to the mixing of coloured and white people "lies in the main in the possibility and probability of racial contamination''. With Barton prepared to resign if Watson's amendment was carried, the direct racial ban was defeated 36-31. The episode revealed Labor's vision of a white, high wage, unified Australia.

In the early Federation era of three parties -- Deakin's Protectionists, George Reid's Free-Traders and Labor -- the ALP tactic was support in return for concessions. Deakin and Watson formed a close relationship but events tell the tale: Deakin was an adroit manipulator of Watson.

Deakin's government fell over the conciliation and arbitration bill when Deakin made this an issue of confidence, knowing that the commission would fall to Labor. Watson selected his own ministry (the leader's prerogative at that time) and his government was assisted during its brief tenure by votes from a bunch of friendly Protectionists.

Watson, in turn, fell on Labor's commitment to a clause for preference in employment to trade unionists in the conciliation and arbitration bill. For Labor, it was non-negotiable. Without this clause, Watson said, "we might as well pass a measure with a view to running a railway to the moon''. In August 1904, Labor was defeated on this issue, and when governor-general Henry Northcote rejected Watson's advice for an election Reid was commissioned as Australia's fourth prime minister. The defeat launched a mythology: Labor never fails, it just falls victim to plots.

The accusations were that non-Labor's tactics were unfair and Deakin, who had turned on Labor, was a prime culprit. The Bulletin complained that "Deakin has gone over to the Tories''. Deakin described Watson and his chief associates as "personally sincere and trustworthy'' but added: "I cannot accept their program or their exclusive organisation with its class basis and unless they get rid of these I must take the other side.''

Despite the Labor-Protectionist flirtations, it was clear the two non-Labor parties led by Deakin and Reid would eventually merge to form a Liberal Party, thereby creating the two-party system.

Watson resigned the ALP leadership in 1905 because of his battle with the machine over how Labor should function. The federal conference imposed its will on the parliamentary wing by requiring that the ministry be selected by the caucus, not the leader. Watson saw this as a "censure upon myself''. He was persuaded to stay, but remained only briefly. Labor was quickly moving beyond the cautious gradualism of its first leader, who had steered Labor as a minority party.

Article above originally appeared on Wednesday, 28 APR 2004, Page 013 of "The Australian"

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