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  Issue No 78 Official Organ of LaborNet 17 November 2000  




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The Identity-Shifting Pragmatist

By Shaun Ryan

If New Zealand should have an Australian as its first Labour Prime Minister, then it is only fitting that Australia should have as its first a man who spent much of his formative years across the ditch.


John Christian Watson

Aimed at a general readership, this biography by a former minister in the Whitlam government and a Chilean-born journalist attempts to reconstruct and contextualise the life and tines of John Christian Watson, the first Labo(u)r Prime Minister in the British Empire. According to the authors, Watson is a forgotten figure in Australian labour and political history.

Mystery man

By all accounts Watson is somewhat of a mystery man. Born aboard a Chilean vessel in the port of Valparaiso, to a Chilean father of German stock and a Irish-New Zealand mother, Watson was named Johan Cristian Tanck, a name he later rejected in favour of recreating a British identity, crucial for forging a parliamentary career.

After his father, a ships carpenter, disappeared, Watson's mother took him back to New Zealand, where she remarried a man named George Watson and whose name Johan Cristian adopted. Johan who now became John Christian trained as a compositor, joined the local union movement and took an interest in land reform. He arrived in Sydney after the death of his mother in 1888.

From here we are treated to an account of Watson's rise through the political labour movement. This biography of Watson is as much a history of the ALP and the authors are able to make the links between Watson and the wider political developments. The coming man within union and Labor circles, Watson was crucial in forging a united Labor Party.

His efforts were rewarded with parliamentary election in 1894 and leadership of Federal Labour in 1900, a position he held until ill health and a desire for a home life forced his retirement in 1907.

Described by contemporaries from both sides of the political fence as a "quiet achiever", Watson soon came to have a lasting impact on the ALP. The numerous photographs within the text depict a handsome and charming man. The authors present Watson as a dashing figure on the political stage, his dictum "support in exchange for concessions".

Prime Ministership

Watson's ascension to the throne of leadership is interesting. Contentious amendments to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill over the coverage of public servants forced the resignation of the Deakin ministry and the appointment of Watson as the first Labor Prime Minister in April 1904. His cabinet included a number of figures better remembered in history including Billy Hughes and Andrew Fisher. Watson epitomised the pragmatist spirit within the ALP and quietly worked towards winning concessions to alleviate the worst of the conditions faced by working people. Unfortunately Watson's charms and negotiational skills were not enough to hold onto to reins of government. Ironically, four months later further amendments to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill forced the resignation of Watson and his Labor Government. Although Watson was a world first, his tenure as Prime Minister is one of the world's shortest.

After having contributed so much to the development of Labor as a political force, World War One saw Watson part ways with his beloved ALP. A supporter of the war and conscription, he hid his German heritage and followed Hughes out of the Labor Party and into the Nationalist Party. He soon became disillusioned with politics, changed his appearance, and turned his attention to business interests.

The authors correctly raise the issue of the financial and emotional hardship faced by the early Labor leaders. Upon retirement from active politics, Watson became gold explorer in South Africa and a land speculator in Sutherland. Both efforts failed. Friends came to the rescue and Watson returned to his early roots and joined the AWU to assist with The Worker. He also tried his hand as a political

lobbyist. His business activities saw him involved on the creation of Yellow Cabs Australia, Ampol and the mighty NRMA. After the death of his long-suffering wife, Watson remarried and lived in relative contentment in Sydney's Double Bay until his death in 1941.


The authors have competently unravelled the puzzle of Watson's early life and provide a solid account of his political and business activities, complimented nicely by a measured analysis of his personal life. Unfortunately, in some places this biography reads more like a history of early Chilean-Australian contact. A mismatched epilogue: "Chile and Australia: Two Countries in the One Ocean" explores links between the two countries and suggests the rediscovery of Australia by Spanish explorers. One suspects that the authors tried to pay homage to their many Chilean acquaintances.

A more detailed analysis of Watson's union activities would more accurately account for his rise within the political labour movement. Despite this, the authors present a well written biography that is a pleasure to read and one that should appeal to most audiences.

Al Grassby and Silvia Ordonez, The Man Time Forgot. The Life and Times of John Christian Watson, Australia's First Labor Prime Minister. Pluto Press, 1999.


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*   Issue 78 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Doubly Blessed
With that unforgettable name, Grace Grace is making her mark as the first female secretary of the Queensland trade union movement.
*  Unions: On The Line
Trade unions this week entered a landmark partnership with the call centre industry to improve the quality jobs in this growing sector.
*  History: Conspiracy or Class? The Whitlam Sacking
Never trust a man who wears a top hat and tails in Australia, in Summer. Neale Towart considers this and other evidence of conspiracy in the great shonky dismissal.
*  Legal: Return Of The Lock-out
Marian Baird reports on the increasing tendency of aggressive employers to use lock-outs to reduce wages and conditions and promote individual agreements.
*  Activists: Waterfront Hero Bows Out
John Coombs, the man the government compared to Ned Kelly - villain to the bosses, the big land owners and conservatives, folk hero to working Australians - bows out of the union movement next month.
*  International: Morocco Stonewalls In Western Sahara
Morocco has new king but its old game plan of defying world opinion over its occupation of the Western Sahara continues.
*  Review: The Identity-Shifting Pragmatist
If New Zealand should have an Australian as its first Labour Prime Minister, then it is only fitting that Australia should have as its first a man who spent much of his formative years across the ditch.
*  Satire: Hackers Infect Microsoft Computers With Mysterious Windows Virus
SEATTLE, Thursday: Shame-faced workers at Microsoft admitted today that hackers had succeeded in penetrating their network's defences and had installed a sophisticated virus on the Apple Macintosh machines used across the software giant's operations.

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