1. Foundations | 1891 ‐ 1903
The prehistory of the Australian Labor Party can be traced well back into the 19th Century, notably with the beginnings of the trade union movement in mid-century and spasmodic attempts to give workers some representation in colonial Parliaments. In most colonies in the second half of that century there were occasional candidates for election some of them successful who claimed that they represented the interests of workers or of trade unions. Some had the formal backing of a trade union or workers’ organisation, others were self proclaimed workers’ delegates. However, reforming social or industrial legislation depended completely upon the willingness of the established political elites, factions, or parties to recognise such interests. Some leaders of the trade union movement became convinced about 1890 that a different form of political mobilisation was necessary to face the consequences of the severe economic depression of that decade and the hardening attitude of employers to trade unionism. The catalyst for this change of strategy was a disastrous intercolonial strike in that year that involved almost all unions but was especially threatening to those in the pastoral (especially shearers and maritime industries (dockworkers and seamen).
The Labor Party as a formal organisation had its beginnings in Queensland (initially called the Workers’ Political Association) and New South Wales (initially the Labor Electoral League). Which came first depends upon what level of organisation or symbolism is regarded as more important. Often the symbolic birthplace of the party is regarded as the Queensland town of Barcaldine , where pastoral workers demonstrated in 1891, out of which protest came the Manifesto of the Queensland Labor Party in the following year. However, the Queensland branch of the Australian Labor Federation had already been organising to endorse parliamentary candidates in 1890, and the first local branch of the WPO was formed in Fortitude Valley in February 1891. Meanwhile, in 1890 the NSW Trades and Labor Council, through its parliamentary committee, was already drafting a constitution and rules for a new party to contest elections in 1891. The first local branch of the LEL is claimed for Balmain, in April 1891. In both colonies the new party was the creation of the trade union movement, especially of shearers, but with many other unions participating.
The first demonstration of the electoral clout of the new body was its success in the NSW election of June-July 1891, where the Labor Electoral League (usually called by its members and supporters the ‘labor’ or ‘democratic’ party) won 35 of 141 seats in the Assembly, winning the balance of power between the Free Trade and Protectionist parties. Success followed in Queensland, where the 1893 election saw Labor win 16 of 72 seats in the Assembly. Although this was a similar proportion to that in NSW it was not enough to give the party the balance of power. Nevertheless, even without that strategic advantage, Queensland Labor led by former miner and journalist Anderson Dawson, made history in December 1899 by forming the first elected Labor Government in the world, even if, without a majority in Parliament, only for five days.
Although there were eleven successful Labor candidates in the 1892 Victorian election, the origins of the party there were rather different. Of course the initiatives in NSW and Queensland were important, so that unions and branches had some input, but there is a sense in which the party in Victoria had its origins in Parliament more than in the trade union movement. The Protectionist party in that colony had been more accommodating to social and industrial reform than in most other colonies so that there was already a core group of MPs who regarded themselves as representing the interests of working men, or, as one historian suggests, ‘the advance guard of liberalism’. The leadership of the Labor Party by moderate reforming liberals like William Trenwith (he insisted that the parliamentary party be called the ‘United Labor and Liberal Party’) led to a reaction against parliamentarism and pragmatism from more militant unionists that would be a feature of the Victorian ALP for much of the next century. Part of the reaction in Victoria was an attempt almost at a re-foundation of the party in the early years of the new century to reflect a grass roots desire for a more ideological and socialist party. This was influenced strongly by English socialist Tom Mann, even though Mann was disappointed with the level of success.
In South Australia Labor candidates won 10 of the 54 parliamentary seats in 1893. In Western Australia and Tasmania there were stirrings of development but the presentation of a slate of Labor candidates for election had to wait until the new century and the coming of Federation.
1. Foundations | 1891 – 1903
Although the Labor Party had been founded by the trade union movement it very soon developed a life of its own, so that stresses between the party and unions were already evident in the 1890s. In New South Wales the TLC lost control of the party organization almost immediately, although this was not particularly significant because a more important development was that a chasm opened up between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary sections of the party. This led to a split at all levels between 1892 and 1894 over party discipline, the imposition of a pledge on MPs, and whether to support Free Trade or Protectionist administrations. Despite the imposition of stern discipline by the NSW Executive on the MPs, at the time this had little lasting effect. The continuing economic depression and drought, along with the consequences of losing the maritime strike of 1890, meant that trade union organization was itself struggling to survive. With a similar collapse of the branch base of the party, by the end of the 1890s the Labor Party in NSW and Queensland was (as was already the case in Victoria) effectively left to the MPs to manage. In other colonies, even without a split in the party, similar pressures ensured that the extra-parliamentary organisation was only skeletal.
One important development, whose consequences for the Labor Party were to be delayed till economic conditions improved, was the formation of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in 1894. The core of the new body was the federation of shearing unions in the various colonies. Workers in other pastoral industries were incorporated, and a process of drawing in other smaller unions from associated industries began so that the AWU quickly became the largest and best organised trade union in Australia. The leaders of the AWU had a definite political agenda, which found expression in their support for the Australasian Federation of Labor, a body seeking to exert greater industrial influence over parliamentary representatives of the labour movement. The AWU was important because its strength in every colony gave it enormous strategic importance once economic conditions improved at the end of the 1890s, and, significantly, when the Federal Labor Party was created.
Socialists and Labor
Its trade union origins gave the new party its own distinct progressive character. Hence the name of ‘Labour’ or ‘Labor’ party that was almost universally used, even when not the formal title, because it was meant to represent workers. The original ideological mixture in the party in Queensland and New South Wales was pragmatic, with a strong underlay of socialist idealism. A number of Australia’s small socialist organisation were active in the formation of the party, both institutionally and as individual members active in their unions. The most prominent of these was the Australian Socialist League, which had been founded in 1887 in NSW and included some of the Labor Party’s most prominent figures. Billy Hughes, JD Fitzgerald, Arthur Rae , Andy Kelly, WF Schey, William Holman and George Black were all ASL members. It was George Black who best summed up the attitude of the new parliamentarians when in an address in reply to the NSW chamber he stated: ‘We have not come into this House to support governments or oppositions. We have come into this House to make and unmake social conditions”. Labor parties arising later in Britain and New Zealand took much of their inspiration from the Australian model. The spelling of the word ‘Labor’ was optional for many years, but the American form was preferred by the AWU and its journal, The Worker, (to be progressive meant to prefer progressive spelling!) and quickly became the preferred form in the movement, although the daily press in the major cities insisted on using the British spelling well into the 20th Century.
Although socialist and ideological bodies had not been the primary founders of the new party, there were certainly many attempts to exert an influence. At the end of the 19th Century almost all prominent trade union leaders and Labor Party MPs would have described themselves as ‘socialists’. However, that term had a very wide range of meaning, ranging from utopians, state socialists and Fabians to supporters of any kind of better deal for workers. Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited Australia to preach Fabian socialism in 1898. Another prominent socialist movement in Australia at the time was led by William Lane, founder of the Brisbane weekly, the Worker, and a leader of the Queensland Labor Party, who eventually became so disillusioned with prospects for political change that he led a party of idealists to found a utopian ‘New Australia’ colony in Paraguay in 1893. On the moderate side of the wider socialist movement were apostles of the cooperative movement, others who placed all their trust in self education or temperance, and tentative alliances with religious movements such as Methodism or the Salvation Army. More radical were Marxist ideologues who were waiting for revolutionary change to capitalism, and some anarchists who wanted the state to disappear. There were also a number of movements based on simplistic remedies to the social problems of the day; the most important at that time was the Single Tax movement of Henry George (who visited Australia in 1890).
Although the word ‘socialism’ was widely accepted by these people, there was almost nothing other than that word which united them. It made sense for most of them to support the new Labor Party. Many of them also believed that the best way to promote their ideology was to convert the Labor Party to its values. Even though ideological socialists did not ever dominate the organisation, most remained either in the party or on its edges, providing another source of progressive ideas to balance those of the trade union movement and the local branches in the wider Labor Party.
A National Party
The early Labor Party had to identify its social base if it wanted to have continuing and improving electoral success. Obviously it made an appeal to trade unionists. However, most workers were not unionists at this time, and anyway even many trade union members in the various colonies had developed an allegiance to protectionist parties that promised to protect jobs and industry. From the beginning until well into the next century the main social base of the party was in rural districts where the AWU, mining and railway unions were strong and where workers in country towns identified the conservative parties with big city interests.
The initial success of the Labor Party drew many other organisations and movements to seek some kind of common cause. Female suffragists, for example, saw the party as more likely than the conservative parties to promote women’s political rights, although male trade unionists could be just as chauvinistic as male employers. At least in this period the Labor Party was in advance of the conservative parties in promoting policies to protect children and to give support to families. The temperance movement, which was very important at that time, also tried to exert an influence on the party, arguing that the interests of workers would be best advanced by getting them to abandon alcohol. Most leaders of the party in all the colonies in the 1890s would have agreed that grog was a major social problem for workers and that some control was necessary. Many were teetotalers. Meanwhile, and with more eventual success, the liquor trade saw an opportunity to maintain its place in society by identifying itself with Labor, as temperance bodies succeeded in having a greater influence on conservative parties. Any mass political party has to promote itself by attracting the support of pressure groups in society. This was the beginning of a long history of such political alliances.
When it became clear that a newly federated Australia would become an important, if not the most important, focus of politics, there was little disagreement that there should be some kind of coordination between the existing colonial Labor Parties. In most colonies, which were about to become States of the Commonwealth, serving MPs were the only people capable of effective national coordination, since the extra-parliamentary organisations were still very weak. The inaugural Federal Conference (it was called the Intercolonial Conference for most of the first decade of the new century) was largely the initiative of the New South Wales PLL and brought together delegates from four of the colonies with only Tasmania and Western Australia absent, although they quickly joined so that the new national party could contest the first Federal Elections in 1901. The Australian Labor Party began and remains a federal party, with power devolved from State branches to the centre, although the evolution of power relationships has meant that more control has gravitated to the centre over time. There was considerable debate over a proposed Federal Platform. Otherwise, the only real task for the new national party was to organize for the coming Federal election, and that was resolved by leaving the electoral machinery almost entirely in the hands of the State bodies. No Federal Executive was constituted, and no permanent national machinery was recommended at the first conference.
The First Federal Election
There was one significant problem for Labor in the first election in March 1901, because the party had opposed the terms of Federation in the referendums of the 1890s. Labor leaders had previously argued that the Australian Constitution as it was drafted was undemocratic, and most would have preferred a unitary system of government. However, once the new nation was installed there was no hesitation in contesting. For the election prominent Labor Party politicians from the various States transferred to the Commonwealth arena. Labor leaders who already had a national reputation included Billy Hughes, Chris Watson and William Spence from New South Wales, Andrew Fisher from Queensland, Frank Tudor from Victoria and Hugh Mahon from Western Australia. It was a very talented team, which included three future Prime Ministers.
Another problem was establishing a recognizable ‘brand’ for Labor as separate from the two fiscal parties. Much of the daily press, especially in the smaller States, regarded Labor as campaigning in an informal coalition with the Protectionists, although it was misleading to speak of a coalition when none of the three parties had clear national leaders or established party organisations. Although both those parties claimed to be the best ally of the working man, in many ways Labor was in more direct competition with the Protectionists (their candidates facing each other in rural electorates) than with Free Trade. The main issue of the election was the fiscal choice between free trade and protection, with important secondary issues being White Australia (which spokesmen for all parties supported) and the desirability of a national system of conciliation and arbitration (which Labor and most Protectionists supported).
The new party had moderate success, eventually claiming 16 of the 75 Members in the House of Representatives, and eight of the 36 Senators. Not surprisingly, NSW (6) and Queensland (4) dominated the party’s representation in the House, with every State returning at least one MP, although King O’Malley (Tasmania) joined the party only after the election. The party also had the support of an Independent Labor MP, J Wilkinson (Moreton), who joined Caucus in 1904. Significantly, eleven of the sixteen Labor MPs represented seats outside the metropolitan areas; this was very much a party with a rural base. The two fiscal parties had easily outvoted Labor, but neither Protection nor Free Trade had a majority without its support.
The first Caucus meeting on 8 May 1901 decided to form a Federal Labor Party, adopt its own Platform, and agree to a signed pledge. The Platform included support for women’s suffrage, compulsory arbitration, old age pensions, and White Australia. No party machinery other than Caucus was set up; at this stage Caucus was the Federal Party.
Perhaps the most important decision at this time after the elections was the choice of JC (Chris) Watson of NSW as the first Federal Leader of the party. He was a very capable political operator, skilled in convincing his colleagues to adopt his ideas, and moderate enough to give the party a wide electoral appeal. Watson had been born in Valparaiso, Chile, the son of a sailor His mother returned with the young boy to her native New Zealand, where Chris grew up and found employment in the printing trade. At the age of about nineteen he came to Sydney and found work as a compositor and journalist. His activity in the Typographical Association led him into the Trades and labor Council at the time when the Labor Party was being founded. By 1892 he was both president of the TLC and chairman of the LEL, from which positions he took a hard line in dealing with MPs involved in a Caucus split. Elected to Parliament for the country seat of Young in 1894, he became an ally of the AWU, a member of the Australasian Labor Federation, and helped reconstruct the party in 1895 to become the Political Labor League (PLL). Then, with Federation, he moved to the Federal Parliament. He was handsome, cultivated, and a good speaker, who preferred to negotiate than to impose a single line on most issues.
The second Federal Conference was held in Sydney in December 1902 . Delegates from all States attended for five days, confirming a more detailed General and Fighting Platform for the Federal Parliamentary Party. The structure of future Federal Conferences was to be an assembly with six delegates from each State, to be elected by State Conferences. They hoped to have meetings every three years. No decisions were made about a Federal Executive; there seemed no need. Caucus and the Leader could manage perfectly well on their own.
The parliamentary strategy of the party was a continuation of a State policy of exchanging support for either of the major parties in exchange for policy concessions. Labor supported the Protectionist Governments of Edmund Barton (1901-3) and Alfred Deakin (1903-4), although Labor MPs were given freedom to vote as they wished on details of fiscal legislation. There were some successes but few genuine concessions to Labor in the First Parliament. On White Australia the major parties disagreed with Labor only on the details; the Electoral Act included both votes for women and equal electoral districts; while on arbitration and aged pensions legislative reform was promised but delayed. The closeness between Labor and Protectionists that had prevailed during the first election did not long survive. Barton was not particularly sympathetic to much of the Labor Party program, while Deakin, who did share many of its values, did not appreciate the single-mindedness of Labor leaders who demanded concessions yet showed little enthusiasm for protectionism. Labor maintained the Protectionists in office, but the informal ‘coalition’ had not survived the election. Everyone by then knew that Labor was its own party.