Loves Labor lost

Chris Watson is one of Australia’s forgotten prime ministers. The forgotten prime ministers are virtually all of those, with the possible exceptions of Deakin and Hughes, who occupied the Lodge before Curtin. Not all of them occupied the Lodge, of course, especially those who served in the years before it was built. Watson was prime minister for a few months in 1904, achieving the distinction of becoming not only Australia’s first Labor prime minister but the first Labor prime minister of any country anywhere. He took office at the age of 37, making him still the youngest alpha-male in our history.

Watson was also the only Australian prime minister not to have been born within the British Empire. People who spend their lives helping good causes at trivia nights will be aware that he was born in Chile: it is one of those evergreen questions which nobody is meant to be able to answer but everyone can because they attended the same worthy function last year. Watson’s father vanished when Chris was young and the boy acquired the name of his stepfather.

It is shameful that such a significant character should have fallen from the national story. Virtually all that stands in his memory is a dour part of Canberra. It is one of the characteristics of Canberra that all the suburbs named after prime ministers are curiously out of keeping with the nature of those they honour: there are no pubs in Curtin, no trains in Chifley, no seances in Deakin, not much retail competition in Reid, no waterfrontage in Holt, no labour ward in Lyons and no art in Fadden. I’m sure, when it is built, that Keating will house the offices of Australians for the Restoration of the Monarchy, not to mention Australians for the Restoration of Victorian Terraces. Howard will be the site of a major public hospital. Watson, which already exists, is a scene of middle class comfort and relaxation. Chris Watson wanted, at the same time, both more and less for his people.

Ross McMullin’s short biography works, like Watson himself, both unostentatiously and effectively to achieve results. It is not only a window on the first decade of federation, although McMullin’s extensive use of newspaper extracts of the period from all over the country do move the reader into another era for long stretches.

At its deepest level, this book is a lament to a lost Labor Party; one which knew what it was supposed to be doing and whose members had a strong sense of identity. They relinquished government rather than compromise their principles of arbitration in workplace relations. Read this book for its account of Labor’s first program of legislation, which included the preposterous idea that Aborigines should be allowed to deliver the mail. Read it also for its paean to early Labor figures, such as the Queenslander Andy Dawson who rose from poverty and sank into alcoholism but, in between, led the first Labor Government anywhere in the world.

This book briefly charts the rapid rise of parliamentary Labor from its formation in 1891 to being invited to form a minority federal government in 1904, a turn of events which caused consternation among those accustomed to rule. Today, only the formation of a green federal government would cause anything like the same reaction. The return of Labor under Latham would be dreary stuff by comparison and, reading between the lines, you wonder if McMullin, knows it. McMullin was Labor’s official centenary historian. He is not the only true believer itchy for the frisson of the early days. Occasionally, he links Watson’s time to our own, as when he comments on the negative tactics of the conservative leader, George Reid, which soon brought Watson’s minority government unstuck:

Conservative scare campaigns, covering a variety of bogeys ranging from communism to children overboard, have been a feature of federal politics in Australia.

There are many striking vignettes in this edifying tale. Soon after Watson was sworn in, for example, he had to attend a function in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. The man on the door would not let him in. In an era before radio and television, he had simply failed to recognise the Prime Minister. Watson meekly produced his entrée card. This is not just an insight into Watson’s personality: he and his Cabinet all lived in a modest hotel in East Melbourne when Parliament was in session. On Friday afternoon, he joined the stampede to catch the train to Sydney for the weekend. The incident of the entrée card also serves as a reminder that Watson had no choice but to be known for the substance of what he said. It would be interesting if, these days, those standing for office were forbidden to be filmed or photographed and if no image of them were allowed to appear. But maybe this would make them feel even more like God. We have no footage of God. No image. This is why God has had no choice but to say and do stuff that matters. Sadly, God will not be standing this year.  

So Monstrous a Travesty: Chris Watson and the world’s first national labour government
Ross McMullin.Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76912 9, rrp $29.95

Michael McGirr is the fiction editor of Meanjin. He notes that Canberra currently markets itself as the Bush capital of Australia.





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