BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
So Monstrous A Travesty, by Ross McMullin
, July 31, 2004
SO MONSTROUS A TRAVESTY:
Chris Watson and the World's First National Labour Government
by Ross McMullin
Scribe Publications, RRP: $29.95One hundred years ago, the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia was the first nation in the world to have a Labor government, when on April 23, 1904, Chris Watson was invited by the Governor General, Lord Northcote, to become Prime Minister.
In this short monograph, Ross McMullin, historian and author of the renowned biography of General "Pompey" Elliott, examines the events surrounding the rise and demise of this forgotten Labor Government. Although the Watson government lasted in office only four months, McMullin argues that it had a seminal influence on future Labor governments.
Chris Watson's working-class background reflected that of many of his Labor contemporaries. A self-educated man, he was initially involved in the union movement and State politics before being elected in 1901 to the first Federal Parliament.
The various Labor parties themselves were only a decade old, emerging when the union movement realised the need to have representatives in parliaments to safeguard and defend the rights of workers.
Media reaction to the inception of the Watson Government was mixed. The more radical papers such as the Truth
and the Bulletin
rejoiced in its inception. However, the conservative papers were aghast. Many prophetically predicted its short existence, with one going as far to describe it as "so monstrous a travesty".
Ironically, a similar set of circumstances that gave rise to the Labor Government hastened its demise. Federal politics in the first decade of the twentieth century was largely predicated by the three-party system: the Free Trade Party, the Protectionist Party and the Labor Party. Governments were formed by alliances among the parties and hence were often short-lived. While Watson was able to gain some support from the Protectionist Party, his government fell in August 1904 when McCay proposed an amendment to the Arbitration Bill.
What did the Watson Government achieve when the only piece of legislation passed during its term was the bill that decided the site of the national capital? McMullin argues that Labor demonstrated that it had the ability to govern.
Watson's cabinet was not comprised of incompetents, as many of the ministers were to be ministers under the Fisher Government of 1908-09. Watson's Government was responsible for the preparation of much of the Arbitration Bill and it also laid the foundations for future defence legislation.
Indeed, in the latter sphere, Dawson, as Watson's defence minister, made it clear to General Hutton that the Australian Government, not he, was responsible for army direction.
Although Watson was to leave the Labor Party at the time of the split over conscription in 1917, upon his death in 1941, Curtin praised him by saying:
"He made friends wherever he went, was an influence for unity, and endeavoured at all times to make Labor a great and, indeed, a permanent force in the political system of this country." (p. 175)