Interview: Power and the Passion
Unions: Tackling the Heavy Hitters
Industrial: Seeing the Forest For The Wood
Housing: Home Truths
International: Boycott Busters
Economics: Ideology and Free Trade
History: Long Shadow of a Forgotten Man
Review: Chewing the Fat
Poetry: Dear John
The Locker Room
A Place To Call Home
Long Shadow of a Forgotten Man
On 27 April 1904 the world's first Labor Government came to office in Australia, under the leadership of John Christian Watson. While the careers of other Labor leaders - John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating - have received almost extravagant examination and praise, critical reconsideration of Labor's pioneering Prime Minister has been neglected. In 1999 a biography by Al Grassby and Sylvia Ordonez described Watson as The Man Time Forgot.
Interest in Watson was recently revived by the celebrations surrounding the centenary of the Watson Government. The centrepiece of the centenary commemorations was the launch of Ross McMullin's So Monstrous a Travesty, a celebratory account of the brief Watson Government. Paul Keating launched McMullin's book and Bob Hawke unveiled a plaque in the old federal Parliament building in Melbourne, where Watson's ministry assembled on the treasury benches. There was even some rare interest in Labour history from the national and metropolitan press. The Australian praised Watson's role in bringing the working class into the young Australian nation, thus broadening the strength of Australian democracy - and setting the pattern for the Labor governments of the future.
Yet the focus on Watson's Government tends to obscure the significance of Watson's much longer role as leader of the Labor Party 1901-1907. Watson's shadow was also cast over the Labor Party and the nation for many years after his political retirement. Watson played a decisive role in shaping key Labor policies on immigration restriction, trade and defence. Driven by his passion for a White Australia, Watson played a decisive role in shaping the Australian Labor Party - both its dominance of Australian politics by 1914, and its disastrous split over conscription in 1916 - a split which had profound and lasting repercussions for Labor's ability to win government in Canberra.
Labor's success in 1904 was a momentous achievement, realised only thirteen years after the Party's formation by the trade union movement as a response to the Great Strikes and economic depression of the 1890s, and only three years after the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia.
By the personal example of his innate self-discipline, Watson led Labor to be taken seriously as a credible political force. Billy Hughes, the Attorney-General in Watson's 1904 government, provided a vivid pen portrait of the Prime Minister entering his first cabinet meeting:
'He had dressed for the part: his Vandyke beard was exquisitely groomed, his abundant brown hair smoothly brushed. His raiment was a veritable poem - 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 the statesman, the leader.'
Watson's government was not directly elected by the Australian people. Labor came to office as a result of the defeat on the floor of the House of Representatives of Alfred Deakin's protectionist government, and lasted only from April until August 1904, when power was seized by George Reid's free traders. Nor was Watson's administration able to carry a substantial or memorable piece of legislation through the parliament during its brief tenure. These factors have undoubtedly contributed to neglect of Labor's first leader and his government.
Neglect of Watson's life and career has disguised the influence that he exercised in Labor's crucial formative years. Watson was a 37 year old former typesetter and union official in 1904. He had emerged as one of Labor's outstanding figures in New South Wales politics in the 1890s. By the common consent of his caucus colleagues - there was no leadership ballot - Watson led the federal Labor Party from May 1901 until October 1907.
Watson skilfully exploited Labor's strategic balance-of-power position in Parliament to extract support for its policy platform, particularly from Deakin's government in the period 1905-7. Deakin's New Protection, with its stress on tariff protection for Australian industry and protection of wage rates and working conditions through arbitration, was strongly influenced by the rising level of support for the Labor Party, and Watson's exploitation of that support.
Watson guided the first plank of Labor's fighting platform through the Party's forums in 1905. Watson secured support for a text that powerfully expressed Labor's commitment to building what he described as 'a great white democracy' in the South Pacific:
'The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.'
Watson was a passionate supporter of the White Australia policy. In the debate on the Immigration Restriction bill in 1901 Watson acknowledged that his concerns about immigration to Australia by Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders were 'tinged with considerations of an industrial nature', Labor's traditional objection to cheap foreign labour imported to undercut Australian wage rates and working conditions. However the essential question, Watson asserted, was 'the racial aspect', 'whether we would desire that our sisters or our brothers should be married into any of these races to which we object - including, as he told Parliament, 'the baboo Hindoo' and 'the heathen Chinee.'
Watson shared these views with many in the labour movement, although he embraced the protection of 'British subjects' in a White Australia with particular enthusiasm. Did this search for a secure, white identity stem from his own ambiguous origins? Watson was born Johan Cristian Tanck in Valparaiso, Chile, on 9 April 1867. His father Johan, a ship's officer, was a Chilean citizen of German background, who seems to have died not long after the birth of his son; his mother Martha was a New Zealander of Irish descent.
In their biography of Watson, Grassby and Ordonez make some rather fanciful claims of Watson's "Chilean" origins and their implications for his subsequent career. Taken to New Zealand as a baby, Watson would have had no memory of Chile. His mother married a Irish-born miner, George Thomas Watson, and John Christian was raised as one of the ten Watson children until he left for Australia in 1886.
Watson may have obscured knowledge of his real father and name; he could have been challenged as a member of the House of Representatives under s.44 of the Australian Constitution, on the grounds that non-British subjects were ineligible to stand as candidates for the Australian Parliament. The evidence of Watson's concealment of his origins is as ambiguous as the versions of his family background that the otherwise careful and proud Labor leader allowed to stand in the public record.
In 1902 Watson was interviewed for a profile in The Australasian. The article noted that Watson had been born in Valparaiso while his parents, George and Martha, had gone on a voyage from New Zealand. Another profile based on an interview with Watson claimed his father was George Watson, a seamen who emigrated to New Zealand. The Bulletin believed Watson to be a Scot; in April 1904 it reassured readers that the public finances of the Commonwealth were 'in safe Caledonian hands...The world has a great and well-grounded faith in Scotchmen in matters of finance.' Watson had no Scots ancestry.
In federation Australia Watson probably found it easier to have an unambiguously white, British identity, even if the precise origins of this identity slid around the British Isles in press reports. The Bulletin was not alone in taking Watson at "face value" - identifying him as an embodiment of white Australia and the hopes placed in the young nation. In 1905 the Leading labour movement journal the Sydney Worker claimed Watson's facial features 'are undoubtedly those of an idealist', befitting 'the youthful leader of a young democracy.' Watson was certainly determined to ensure the future survival and prosperity of the white race in Australia. To that end, Watson was active in the Australian National Defence League from its establishment in 1906.
The League campaigned to establish a national scheme of compulsory military training and linked this initiative to the defence of a white Australia and protection of the British Empire. The League attracted support from both sides of the political and class divide, and included a wide range of prominent figures - judges, university professors and clergymen, professionals and retired military officers.
Watson became a vice-president of the League's NSW division; other Labor supporters included federal MP Billy Hughes and NSW MLA William Holman. Their participation reflected Labor's attempts to manage the competing tensions of nationalism, empire loyalty and a White Australia. In 1906 Watson argued that Labor's ambiguous empire nationalism required that 'Australian Defence', also meant that 'as true citizens of the Empire we must be ready to assist in maintaining its integrity.'
Watson successfully led the 1908 Commonwealth Labor Party conference debate in support of compulsory military training, overcoming fears expressed by some delegates of Labor's embrace of militarism. Watson acknowledged that Labor's support of compulsory military training represented a 'distinct departure' from the anti-militarist stance adopted by all other social democratic parties around the world, but it was necessitated by 'the peculiarly isolated position of Australia as the white outpost of the Pacific' and by the 'hard-won rights and glorious opportunities' the white working man had won in Australia under Labor, and would, Watson believed, willingly defend. Significantly it was Watson and not Andrew Fisher, his successor as federal Labor leader who was often shy of Party controversies, who led this watershed debate.
In October 1907 Watson had resigned the Labor leadership to a widespread outpouring of regret and dismay from fellow MPs and rank and file Party members from around Australia. He became the managing director of Labor Papers Pty Ltd, a company formed by the unions to establish a daily newspaper as a powerful national public voice for the labour movement.
Drawing on his prestige, managerial skills and popularity in the labour movement, by 1914 Watson had succeeded in laying the necessary groundwork for the establishment of The World, including overseeing the construction of the purpose-built Macdonell House in Sydney - no mean feat giving the often amateurish and divisive nature of labour movement commercial projects. All these achievements, and Watson's personal reputation as a Labor leader, were soon destroyed in the controversy over conscription and his role in establishing a new and powerful organisation for Labor's political enemies.
As it became evident following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the logic of compulsory military training was compulsory military service. From mid 1915 Labor figures became increasingly divided over the conscription issue, which developed into an open split when Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes proposed a conscription referendum, held in October 1916. By this time Watson and NSW Premier William Holman had returned to a familiar strategy of mobilising cross-class support for conscription through the Universal Service League. While the pre-war National Defence League had attracted little controversy, The USL was condemned by many in the labour movement as 'a league of the privileged classes.'
As a result of their support for conscription Watson, Hughes, Holman and many other senior Labor figures were expelled from the Party. Watson was also forced to step down as managing director of Labor Papers, which lapsed into neglect. Watson emerged as the first chairman of the new National Party in 1917, the political machine that Hughes and Holman exploited, with the support of their previous non-Labor political enemies, to continue in office federally and in New South Wales, and to organise another, even more divisive conscription referendum in December 1917.
A pioneer in capturing political office, Watson was also a pioneer in carving out a post-politics life as a former Prime Minister. From the 1920s and until his death on 18 November 1941 Watson continued to pursue a successful career in business. He served as the president of the NSW National Roads and Motorists Association, bringing his skills to establishing the MRMAs pre-eminence as a motorists organization. Watson also became the inaugural chairman of the Australian petrol company Ampol in 1936. There would be no reconciliation with the labour movement. Watson would not be commemorated or eulogised as other Labor leaders. Many of the significant, if unwelcome implications of his career would remain overlooked by historians and the Party faithful.
Watson's disciplined leadership approach was maintained by Fisher and guided Labor to its commanding position in federal politics by World War One - winning control of both houses of the Commonwealth Parliament at the September 1914 elections, after having previously enjoyed a three year term 1910-13, during which it implemented many lasting initiatives, including the establishment of the Australian Navy and the Commonwealth Bank. Labor was clearly fulfilling the ambitions expressed in the fighting platform of 1905 - to embody a spirit of inclusive nation building on behalf of the Australian people.
Yet in leading Party support for compulsory military training, Watson had also helped lay the seeds of Labor's disastrous fall into political oblivion that was precipitated by the conscription crisis of 1916-1917. The federal Labor Party would only briefly recover office in 1929-1931 and not substantially regain its political authority and prestige until the administrations of Curtin and Chifley in the 1940s.
Neglecting Watson's career and his preoccupation with race and defence overlooks the highly racialised nature of the labour movement in the early twentieth century, and the consequences of that racism. Labor championed an essentially white and British cultural identity while attempting to forge a self-reliant and increasingly militarised Australian nation, an ambiguity that spilled into open division in 1916, as many Laborites were forced, often unsuccessfully, to negotiate the conflicting loyalties of class, nation and empire.
* Dr. Mark Hearn is a Sesquicentenary Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Work and Organisational Studies, School of Business, University of Sydney. For more information on his research into Watson and the labour movement see http://www.econ.usyd.edu.au/wos/workinglives/progress.html
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