Premier for a week, forgotten by the ages
Ross Fitzgerald hails Anderson Dawson, political trailblazer and leader of the world’s first Labor government
This week is Kevin Rudd’s Labor government’s first birthday. Whether it will form part of Australia’s collective political memory is as yet unknown.
Certainly Barack Obama’s historic American presidential victory means that, throughout the world, Tuesday 4 November 2008 will be forever etched in the global consciousness.
But there is another historic date which deserves to be remembered, and that is 1 December 1899, which heralded the world’s first Labor government. Believe it or not, this occurred in Queensland.
Especially as Australia now has a Prime Minister (Kevin Rudd), a federal Treasurer (Wayne Swan) and a Governor-General (Quentin Bryce) all from Queensland, it’s timely to recall that, as a direct result of squabbling among conservatives, the Sunshine State hosted this momentous occasion. This took place from 1-7 December 1899, when Anderson Dawson, the world’s first Labor premier, fleetingly ruled the colony of Queensland.
A member of Queensland’s Legislative Assembly for the dual seat of Charters Towers, Anderson Dawson outdoes Mr Rudd for humble beginnings. Born Andrew Dawson at Rockhampton on 16 July 1863, Dawson was abandoned at an early age and brought up in a Brisbane orphanage. At the age of 12, he left primary school to work as a miner in Charters Towers.
Ten years later, in 1885, Dawson joined the Kimberley gold rush in Western Australia, but had little success and returned to Queensland where he became active in the union movement and was elected first president of the MinersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Union. In 1891 (during the great Pastoral Strike) he was chairman of the Charters Towers strike committee, and vice president of the Queensland provincial council of the Australian Labour Federation. He then took up journalism and for a time was editor of the Charters Towers Eagle. The pastoral strikes and associated lockouts helped persuade many Australian unionists to turn to parliamentary politics, with dramatic success in the 1891 New South Wales elections and significant success in those in Queensland. They were a new force and a new kind of political party, with much stronger organisational democracy — pledge and caucus — and linked the parliamentary representatives to the party, and thus the unions, in a novel way.
In 1893 Dawson was returned as a Labor candidate for Charters Towers in the Queensland Legislative Assembly, retained his seat at the 1896 election and again in 1899, by which time he was leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in Queensland. In the 1890s, turmoil and division in the colony’s conservative ranks — similar to the situation in November 2007 which helped Kevin from Queensland into the top job — prompted Queensland’s Lieutenant Governor to call on Dawson as leader of the opposition to form a minority government on 1 December 1899. Seven days later, when the House again sat, the swiftly reunited conservatives regrouped and took the government of the colony of Queensland back from the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsocialistic LaboritesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢.
Within a week of forming a minority government, Dawson and his ministry, which included future ALP prime minister Andrew Fisher, was defeated on the floor of the Lower House.
Dawson’s minority government only had control of Parliament for four hours, which may be something of a record. It wasn’t much, but for Labor it was a start. How does the Paul Kelly song go? Ã¢â‚¬ËœFrom little things big things grow.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ Dawson’s brief flirtation with power had given the ALP a chance to have a quick look at previous Queensland colonial government files and dig up some dirt on the conservatives.
The Dawson Labor government lasted only a week, and they do say a week is a long time in politics. It was nonetheless a vital step forward in the long march of working men and women to improve their lot, and is therefore an important moment both in the history of the labour movement and of Labor politics in Australia and the world.
Initially, the new Labor parties in Australia were a third force, and benefitted from division within the non-Labor ranks, so that they enjoyed brief periods of minority government later, as we shall see, most notably in the Commonwealth in 1904. They were in office on sufferance but used the experience to prepare for majority government.
Anderson Dawson himself went on to other milestones. At the beginning of 1900, Dawson resigned his leadership of the Queensland Parliamentary Labor party on account of ill health. Nevertheless, at the first election for the Australian Senate in 1901 — the year of Australia federating to become one nation — he was returned at the head of the Queensland poll. As number one on the Labor ticket, Dawson was the first Senator ever elected for Queensland. And as had occurred in the colonies, the first Commonwealth elections revealed a remarkably strong Labor performance.
In April 1904, with the parliament of Australia based in Melbourne, Anderson Dawson became a member of Australia’s first federal Labor government led by J.C. Chris) Watson — our first Labor prime minister. This was also a minority government, which lasted a little over three months, and owed its existence to circumstances similar to those that put Labor into office in Queensland a decade earlier. The Victoria-based Alfred Deakin (who had been Australia’s first Attorney-General under Edmund Barton and our second prime minister from 1903 to April 1904) actually led the party which had the largest number of parliamentary members, but could not rely on Labor to support crucial legislative measures. He therefore put Labor into office to demonstrate that it relied on his goodwill.
The minority ALP leader Watson appointed Dawson minister for defence, and despite the fact that Dawson had a drinking problem, which was becoming increasingly noticeable, he was an effective minister.
But Dawson became in-creasingly unpredictable and by the middle of the decade he had lost Labor party support. Standing as an independent, he lost his Senate seat at the federal election of December 1906. By this time he was separated from his wife and children.
There are some other poignant facts about the life and death of Anderson Dawson. He never knew what happened to his father but at the age of 19, even though he had been christened Andrew, he adopted his father’s first name, Anderson, for life, as a sort of homage to him.
Dawson also never knew, but I was able to uncover, that in 1893, the year he was first elected to Queensland parliament, his father died insane in what was then called the Woogaroo Mental Asylum, which is near the outer Brisbane suburbs of Goodna and Wacol.
His is a tragic story. Even more so because, like his father, Dawson was an alcoholic and, as is the nature of the illness of alcoholism, as he continued to drink, he got sicker and behaved in a more eccentric and outlandish fashion. Dropped from the Queensland ALP senate ticket in 1906, Dawson’s standing as an independent caused three of his Queensland Labor mates, including one who had been a member of his 1-7 December 1899 Cabinet, to lose also. So in Labor circles he was, and sometimes still is, regarded as a rat in the ranks.
One of the interesting facts about the Dawson government in Queensland is the role played in late 1899 by lieutenant governor Sir Samuel Griffith. As the governor, Lord Lamington, after whom the lamington cake was named, was away in London, Griffith, a former Liberal premier and Chief Justice of Queensland, was the acting governor of Queensland.
If one looks, as I have, at the confidential dispatches of the lieutenant governor to the British secretary of state for the colonies, Joseph Chamberlain — who invented the game of snooker and was the father of Neville Chamberlain — it becomes apparent that Griffith appointed the minority Labor government in December 1899 as a deliberate ploy to force the warring conservatives to get their act together.
The conservatives had been in power in Queensland for such a long time in the 1880s and 1890s that they were known as Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthe Continuous GovernmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢.
As often happens with such governments, they eventually started to fracture. One group, called the Liberal Remnant, broke off, and another group of dissidents left in large part because conservative then-premier James Dickson had offered Queensland troops as military support for the British in the Boer War, the first colonial government to do so. And this was without Dickson even consulting the Queensland parliament.
As these dissidents and Liberal Remnants decided not to challenge Dickson over a matter that would be embarrassing to the Empire, they waited a few more days and then joined Labor to vote against the premier over what on the face of it might have seemed a minor railway bill. Even though the votes were actually 32 to 33 — Dickson snuck in with the aid of a Labor rat called Denny Kehoe, who originally hailed from Galway — the premier regarded it as a vote of no confidence and he went to Griffith to surrender his premiership.
In his confidential dispatches to the British secretary of state for the colonies, Sir Samuel Griffith makes it abundantly clear that what he did was a deliberate political ploy. Griffith thought that if he appointed a minority Labor government the warring conservatives would be galvanised into getting their act together against what, in correspondence, he called the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsocialistic LaboritesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢.
And that is precisely what happened. As soon as Dawson’s government was appointed, the conservatives thought, Ã¢â‚¬ËœGoodness me, what have we done,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ and very quickly voted out Dawson and appointed Robert Philp as Queensland premier. In fact, even though Dawson lasted a week as premier, he was in power in parliament for only four hours.
Yet, in terms of Queensland’s political history, the December 1899 minority Dawson government paved the way for Labor to rule in its own right. In Queensland, this led, with the reformist premiers T.J. Ryan and E.G. (Ã¢â‚¬ËœRed TedÃ¢â‚¬â„¢) Theodore at the helm, to the ALP governing the Sunshine State uninterrupted from 1915 until the Labor Split in 1957, with the exception of two years during the Great Depression.
The formation in Queensland of the first Labor government in the world meant that the prospect of the Parliamentary Labor Party achieving a more lengthy tenure of real power had become a distinct possibility. Although it lasted in office for only seven days, the 1899 minority government was the harbinger of T.J. Ryan’s electoral triumph in 1915, which itself ushered in a long period of Labor rule in Queensland. Thus, with the exception of the break during the Great Depression, when New Zealand-born A.E. Ã¢â‚¬ËœBoyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Moore was premier, Labor governed Queensland until the fall of V.C. Ã¢â‚¬ËœVinceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Gair in 1957. And this change from a Labor government to a Country-Liberal coalition led by Ã¢â‚¬ËœHonest FrankÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Nicklin occurred not because of any positive policies and action on the part of Queensland conservatives, but because of the acrimonious split in the ALP in the mid-1950s.
As for Dawson personally, after playing a pivotal part in three Labor landmarks, his life began to fall apart, his marriage broke down irretrievably, and he died a lonely, desperate death from an alcohol-induced coronary in Brisbane in 1910.
For years, Dawson’s grave at Brisbane’s Toowong cemetery was unkempt and dilapidated, without any mention at all of Dawson’s remarkable achievements. Until late 1999 his damaged gravestone simply read Ã¢â‚¬ËœAndrew (Anderson) Dawson — 1910Ã¢â‚¬â„¢. Then in December 1999 a group of Brisbane Labor supporters banded together to give the world’s first Labor premier a more fitting burial site which spelled out his achievements. The Federal electoral division of Dawson is named after him.
When my book Seven Days to Remember: The World’s First Labor Government was published by the University of Queensland Press in 1999, the British Labour government of Tony Blair purchased 200 copies, and a Labour backbencher gave a speech in the House of Commons commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Labor government in the world.
In Queensland in December 1999, ALP premier Peter Beattie gave a similarly passionate address on the importance of Anderson Dawson, focusing especially on his premiership in 1899, on his election as Queensland’s first ever Senator in 1901, and his ministerial role in Australia’s first federal Labor government in 1904.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University in Brisbane and has written 30 books.
For full article see http://www.spectator.co.uk/australia/3043956/premier-for-a-week-forgotten-by-the-ages.thtml