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  Issue No 122 Official Organ of LaborNet 07 December 2001  




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Freedom or 'Federation'?

Mark Hearn and Greg Patmore argue that the journey to federation was not a one-way street.




Brother Toilers, vote for Freedom,

For your own and children's weal.

Strike out "Yes" today when voting,

And the fate of "Traitors" seal.

As we are invited to celebrate the Centenary of Federation in 2001 we are also implicitly invited to forget that many Australians objected to the terms of the nationhood inaugurated one hundred years ago. The advertisement placed by 'Nozim' in the Melbourne Age on 3 June 1898 captures the spirit of the labour movement's often fierce opposition to the Constitution Bill presented at colonial referenda in 1899-1900.

Nozim's anonymous and defiant appeal for a 'no' vote does not focus on specific objections. It is a protest of the marginalised and excluded, a voice of those left out of the process of political change, but aware that their fate was fundamentally tied up with the outcome. The essays in Working the Nation reflect a belief that it is vital for Australia, as it considers another fundamental redefinition of national identity through the republican debate, to recall the forgotten voice of the marginalised - a voice that still struggles for recognition and so often responds to change with suspicion and apathy.

Labor Opposes 'Fetteration'

The 'no' vote advocated to the Australian working class by the labour movement was based in a belief that their claims to citizenship had not been adequately recognised in the Constitution Bill. The Labor Party and the unions were sceptical of the promises being made about the benefits of Federation, and were rightly suspicious, as subsequent history proved, of the political structures being put in place under the Bill. The labour movement believed these structures perpetuated elite resistance to working class political demands. A resistance symbolised in the creation of an undemocratic Senate, a national version of the conservative-dominated upper houses in the colonial legislatures - and now armed with a new barrier to reform: 'states' rights'.

As Victorian unionist William Trenwith, the only (unofficial) labour representative told the 1897 Federal Convention: 'if we vote for greater power for one citizen than for another, we shall be putting chains upon the legs of the citizens in the larger states in this commonwealth.' It was these chains the Victorian labour movement newspaper Tocsin had in mind when it tartly described the terms of the Constitution Bill as 'fetteration', a 'Fatman's trick to dam back the ocean of Democratic state legislation on co-operation, banking, insurance.'

Labour was unrepresented at the federal conventions of the 1890s, when these structures were created. Faced with the Federation referendums in 1899-1900, many workers felt they were only being asked for their opinion after the key decisions had been made. Decisions taken, as Federation historian Helen Irving conceded in a debate on the Centenary of Federation, by 'white middle-class bearded men who were strutting on the parliamentary stage'. Perhaps this is why, as Irving continued, 'a complex combination of dependency and mistrust' of politicians 'has led to a situation where the great political achievement of the 19th century and the early 20th century in Australia is under something of a cloud of suspicion.'

Labour movement hostility had the effect of making Federation architects like Alfred Deakin, Charles Cameron Kingston and Henry Bournes Higgins all the more determined to ensure that the new nation offered tangible benefits to the working class: a determination manifest in Deakin's New Protection and the tariff barriers to imports implemented by Kingston as Trade Minister. Attracting working class support was also a vital motivating factor behind the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act (1904), which Higgins did so much to design as convention delegate and federal politician, and to implement as President of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court.

The Immigration Restriction Act (1901) allayed labour movement fears that Federation would be a 'piebald fetteration', as a Tocsin poet feared in 1899, imagining that anglo-celtic workers would be chained in competition with 'The South Sea man, the Chow, the Black, likewise the Japanese', in the hunt for jobs. Most importantly, immigration restriction protected the white working class from 'racial contamination', as Federal Labor leader John Christian Watson baldly described the first principle of Labor's demand for a White Australia.

Introducing the Bill in 1901, Attorney-General Deakin responded to this 'instinct of self-preservation'. Deakin acknowledged an appeal for citizenship and inclusion with sharply regulated limits: to reassure white workers of their legitimate place in the nation, non-anglo-celtic peoples had to be excluded and indigenous Australians denied citizenship.

Women were acknowledged as citizens, with equal voting rights granted in the first Commonwealth Franchise Act passed in 1902, although a fully meaningful citizenship was effectively denied by their marginalisation in the workplace. As Rae Frances notes in her Working the Nation contribution, 'Gender, Working Life and Federation', the formulation by Justice Higgins in the 1907 Harvester case of the living or family wage of seven shillings per day was designed to secure the role of the male breadwinner, supporting a wife and three children. Subsequent decisions handed down by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court entrenched a bias towards the needs of male workers at the expense of women, as the Court gradually adopted a practice of paying women 75 per cent of male wages. In some cases the Court awarded equal pay rates, knowing that this practice would encourage employers to hire men instead of women.

Labour History and Federation

Although Labor had been substantially left out of the process of creating the Constitution, labour history played a role in appropriating Federation to the Labor cause. The Immigration Restriction Act initiated a process by which Labor came to support the Australian Settlement, as the policies of tariff protection, compulsory arbitration and White Australia are sometimes described. Robin Gollan's Radical and Working Class Politics (1960) typified the Old Left interpretation of Labor's positive role in helping shape the terms of the settlement through 'liberalising and democratising the constitution.' Bede Nairn's Civilising Capitalism (1973) stressed the Labor Party's role in 'making Federation possible' - acknowledging, in a rather back-handed way, that while the Labor Party was unhappy with the terms of Federation, it would not, at least in New South Wales, cripple the enterprise. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but an interpretation that also stressed Labor's positive role in nation building.

This relatively clear line of interpretation fragmented into the more critical interpretations of the New Left, which criticised the Old Left for failing to define concepts such as class, ignoring issues such as racism and not developing an alternative historical methodology. Humphrey McQueen's A New Britannia (1970) could find little good to say about the Australian Settlement, the Old Left or the labour movement generally. Terry Irving has argued that the colonial bourgeoisie dominated the Federation movement and it never became a popular cause. He notes 'that while some Labor leaders supported the federal movement, the Labor press revealed widespread indifference or suspicion.'

Working the Nation reflects the complex heritage that has evolved from both Old and New Left interpretations. An overview chapter by Stuart Macintyre outlines Labor's efforts to fashion an effective response to Federation during the 1890s and its attempts to come to terms with its brief - and unexpected - experience of power in 1904. Macintyre concludes in 1914 as Labor assumed the wartime responsibilities of national government - 'the curtain's fall on wide-eyed expectation', as Macintyre describes the collapse into militarism and the devastating split over conscription.

War and domestic crisis certainly exhausted the first rush of enthusiastic nation building. That ending could also be symbolically defined by the defeat of Labor's referendum proposals in 1911 and 1913. Deakin had played an influential role in fashioning the terms of Federation and the expressions of federal power. As opposition leader in 1911 he played a strong role in defining the limits of that power by vigorously campaigning against Labor's plea for effective control over corporations, trade and industrial relations. Implicit in the referendum campaigns was a conflict over citizens' rights. Labor believed it lacked the power to comprehensively 'civilise capitalism' on behalf of its supporters. Deakin believed the 1901 Constitution amply defined the individual's rights. The 1911 referendum revealed that the inclusive promises of the Australian Settlement were undermined by a fundamental Labor/non-Labor divide over the state's role on behalf of the citizen, and the needs of national government versus the rights of state governments.

Four sections follow Macintyre's overview, exploring key themes - Issues, Institutions, Place and People, a structure designed to demonstrate the relationship between the general issues at hand and the particular experience of community and the individual. Ray Markey's paper, 'Federation and Labour', clarifies an important theme of Working the Nation: the importance of locality and the myriad individual stories in the making of Federation. As Markey argues, 'local loyalties were as important as, and largely constructed, those of nation, class or party.' National policies to raise living standards and protect jobs were played out in communities like Lithgow and manufacturing shops like Eveleigh, and in the efforts of individuals to fight for the rights of the unemployed, and the right of women to decent workplace conditions. A brief introduction to each section highlights the important themes of the papers.

Working the Nation holds the mirror up to who we are now. We have not resolved the treatment of the unemployed. We continue to fight over terms of international trade. We continue to dispute workplace rights - freedom to unionise resisted by the employer's freedom of contract - freedom of unfettered management. We continue to categorise some Australians as unworthy of the full benefits of citizenship - aborigines, gays and lesbians, the 'working poor'. A remnant of White Australia lingers in the isolationism of One Nation.

The debate about who we are and how we define our citizenship will never be finally settled. If a meaningful citizenship is to be carried forward into an Australian republic, it must acknowledge the aspirations of the marginalised - a similar demand for inclusion that animated 'Nozim's' appeal for freedom in 1899, but liberated from the imaginative 'fetteration' of race and gender exclusion. The heritage of Federation continues to both trouble and inspire the instinct for change. A story that played out in the complex ways described by the contributors to Working the Nation.

This article is based on the introduction to Working the Nation, Working Life and Federation 1890-1914, an important new study by leading labour historians on the impact of Federation on the labour movement and working life during the period 1890-1914. Edited by Mark Hearn and Greg Patmore, Working the Nation is published by Pluto Press and is available directly from the Labour History Society for the special price of $29.95 including postage. Contact Margaret Walters at [email protected] to purchase your copy.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 122 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Reality Bytes
Labor's IT spokeswoman Kate Lundy on how a third Howard Government will hurt the IT industry.
*  Unions: My Way or the Highway
Since 1997, workers employed by Serco/Great Southern Railways, have been locked in a struggle with their employer to have their choice of industrial instrument recognised.
*  Legal: Three Degrees of Contract
Marian Baird argues there is a need to more fully understand what workers, employers and our society expect from the employment relationship.
*  International: Bogota Terror
The assassination of a Colombian unionist has prompted international outrage.
*  History: Freedom or 'Federation'?
Mark Hearn and Greg Patmore argue that the journey to federation was not a one-way street.
*  Health: Wearing the Right Genes to Work?
Matt Brooks tracks the DNA trail to discover genetic testing in the workplace is already here.
*  Satire: Demidenko Releases New Book About Her Life As Afghan Refugee
Controversial author Helen Demidenko has written a brand new novel based on her gripping true life experiences as an Afghan refugee.
*  Review: Can Blinky Bill Save Unions?
Neale Towart browses the kiddies' shelves to find an Australian icon with a union-friendly message.

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»  Activists Notebook

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
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»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Apology to Tim Harcourt
»  Tom is Gobsmacked
»  Who was Gordon Freeth?
»  More Compo Feedback
»  Trains of Treasure
»  The Great Tuckpointer Debate Revived

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