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First Labor premier’s Anderson Dawson’s short, inglorious reign

1 December 2012 1,373 views No Comment

TODAY it is timely to recall that, on December 1, 1899, Anderson Dawson led the world’s first Labor government into office in Queensland.

Dawson, member of the Legislative Assembly for Charters Towers, fleetingly ran the colony of Queensland. His minority government lasted only a week, but it gave the Labor Party an opportunity to get the dirt on the conservatives by examining previous governments’ files.

It also paved the way for future ALP governments in Queensland and throughout Australia. Then, as now, politics was a tough and dirty game.

Dawson was born in Rockhampton on July 16, 1863, later changing his first name from Andrew to Anderson after a father he never knew. Abandoned at an early age and brought up in a Brisbane orphanage, he left primary school, aged 12, to work as a miner in Charters Towers.

Ten years later, in 1885, after unsuccessfully joining the Kimberley gold rush in Western Australia, Dawson returned to Queensland, where he was elected first president of the Miners Union. During the great Pastoral Strike, in 1891, he became 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 edited the ‘Charters Towers Eagle’.

Elected in 1893 as a Labor candidate for Charters Towers, Dawson retained his seat in 1896 and again in 1899, by which time he was leader of the Queensland parliamentary Labor Party. Turmoil and division in the colony’s conservative ranks prompted lieutenant-governor, Samuel Griffith, to call on Dawson as leader of the opposition to form a government on December 1, 1899.
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As I demonstrate in my history, ‘Seven Days to Remember’, Griffith had appointed this minority Labor government as a deliberate ploy to force the warring conservatives to get their act together.

Significantly, Dawson’s ministry included a future ALP prime minister, the Scottish-born Andrew Fisher, who had worked in Queensland as a miner and journalist before he entered parliament.

Seven days later, the swiftly reunited conservatives regrouped and took government back from what they regarded – perhaps rightly so – as the “socialistic Laborites”.

Dawson went on to other milestones. At the beginning of 1900, he resigned his leadership on account of ill health. Nevertheless, at the first election for the Australian Senate in 1901 – the year Australia federated to become a nation – he was returned at the head of the Queensland poll. Thus Dawson was also the first senator elected for Queensland.

In April 1904, with the national parliament based in Melbourne, Dawson became a member of Australia’s first federal Labor government, led by JC “Chris” Watson.

This was also a minority government, which lasted less than four months.

Watson appointed Dawson minister for defence, and despite a severe drinking problem he was a relatively effective minister.

Dawson became increasingly unpredictable. 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 1899 cabinet, also to lose their seats. So in Labor circles he was regarded as a “rat”. By this time he was separated from his wife and children.

His personal story is tragic. In 1893, the father he never met had died insane in what was then called the Woogaroo Mental Asylum, near the outer Brisbane suburbs of Goodna and Wacol.

Like his father, Dawson became an alcoholic. And as he continued to drink, he behaved in a more outlandish fashion. After playing a pivotal part in three Labor landmarks, his life began to fall apart, his marriage broke down, and in 1910 he died in Brisbane from the effects of alcoholism, isolated and alone. It is nevertheless important to remember Dawson’s pivotal role in Australian politics and Labor history.

Despite the brevity of his Queensland colonial government, it represents an important moment both in the history of the labour movement and of Labor politics in Australia and the world.

In terms of Queensland’s political history, the December 1899 minority Dawson government paved the way for Labor to rule in its own right.

This led, with the reformist premiers TJ Ryan and EG (“Red Ted”) 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 federal electoral division of Dawson is named after him, but he is still largely forgotten. This is the day on which we should remember him.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including ‘Seven Days to Remember: the World’s First Labor Government’.

The Weekend Australian, December 1-2, 2012, INQUIRER, p 16

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