I just finished David Day’s third book in what is rapidly becoming a series of biographies of Australia’s Labor Prime Ministers: Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia. This follows on the back of his John Curtin: A Life and Chifley.
Andrew Fisher’s story is one that has mainly disappeared from Australian political folklore, overshadowed by his primary rivals (Alfred Deakin and Billy Hughes) and the passing of time. Yet he was a central figure in shaping our modern party system.
Fisher set a lot of firsts during his term. He was a minister in the first ever Labor government in Queensland in 1899, before being a minister in the first national Labor government, when Chris Watson briefly served as Prime Minister in 1904. He then proceeded to form government in 1908 and in 1910 became the first Prime Minister of any party to win a majority in Parliament at a general election in 1910.
Day paints a fascinating picture of the way that the Labor Party managed to move from a position as a fringe minor party in the 1890s to become the dominant political party in Australia in1910. While many Labor supporters pushed the party to move fast, taking government at the first opportunity and pushing their agenda through, Watson and Fisher resisted opportunities that could blow up in their face.
The 1901 election produced a close result between Protectionists and Free-Traders, with Labour coming a distant third (with 14 seats). After Barton resigned in 1903, Deakin went to the polls to seek a new mandate, and produced the most unstable Parliament in Australian history. The Protectionists won 26 seats, the Free-Traders 25 and Labour 23. In the short term, Deakin led a coalition with Labor, while George Reid’s Free-Traders tried to split the coalition and bring down Deakin’s government. Watson resisted for a long time, recognising that the limited common-ground with the Protectionist Party was much more achievable than implementing Labour’s platform in a Parliament dominated by conservative parties.
When Watson did briefly take office, the party ended up implementing a similar policy agenda to the Deakin government, with its more radical agenda taking a backseat while the party sat in a minority. Deakin eventually returned to government, and the 1906 election practically destroyed his Protectionist Party. Yet Watson, and then Fisher from 1907, supported Deakin for two years after the election, in spite of his party being the smallest in Parliament.
When Fisher took office in 1908, he recognised that he lacked a majority in Parliament to implement his agenda, and instead aimed to use the office of Prime Minister to give credibility to his party. He was obsessed with ensuring that he was not treated differently than the conservative Prime Ministers in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, who saw a socialist Prime Minister as more of an aberration.
In early 1909, Australia’s two major parties emerged for the first time, when Joseph Cook’s Anti-Socialists and Deakin’s Protectionists merged to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party, which immediately held a majority in the House of Representatives. Fisher held off returning to Parliament for months, using the time to travel around the country and do what he could with his Prime Ministerial powers, before inevitably losing office when Parliament returned.
In the end, Fisher’s management of the Labor Party’s position paid off, and the party that had won less than a fifth of seats in 1901 managed a solid majority in 1910. In his second term as Prime Minister, Fisher managed to launch much of what would make up the federal government, including the Royal Australian Navy, the Commonwealth Bank, the transcontinental railway and the choice and naming of Canberra as the national capital, amongst others. The experience of Watson and Fisher in the first decade of Federation is a fascinating case study for those, like the Greens, who seek to challenge our quasi-two-party system of 2009, one century after fusion.
Day’s book also raises a fascinating question as it examines Fisher’s last year as Prime Minister, as Australia descended into the First World War. Fisher threw almost everything Australia had at the War, although the British government barred Australian access to information about the Gallipolli campaign. Yet Fisher insisted that he would not impose conscription for battles outside of the Australian continent, in the face of the opposition of his Attorney General, Billy Hughes.
After close to a decade as the number-two figure in the party, Hughes took over at the end of 1915 when Fisher resigned to become High Commissioner in London. Hughes proceeded to take the country to a referendum on conscription, which failed, and saw Hughes and his supporters leave the ALP to form a new government with the conservative opposition. Fisher remained the only former Prime Minister to oppose conscription, and quickly fell out with Hughes.
You’ve got to wonder what would have happened if Fisher had held on until the end of the war. I wonder if it would have been possible for any Labor prime minister, including Fisher, to withstand the pressure to introduce conscription. Of course, it’s possible that Fisher could have well introduced conscription and managed to avoid a split in the ALP. On the other hand, Fisher’s largely-untarnished reputation may have been ruined by the debacle of Gallipolli, which only really hit after Fisher’s resignation.
Prior to Fisher’s resignation, the ALP appeared to be in a dominant position in Australia. If the 1916 split could have been avoided, it’s possible Labor would have stayed in power for another decade, particularly if Hughes could have been passed over for leader if Fisher’s resigned at a later date. It’s fascinating that such an influential figure has been largely forgotten.