HISTORY - THE LABOR PARTIES IN AUSTRALIA, 1880 - 1920
[From Labor in Politics, the state labor parties in Australia, 1880-1920, D.J. Murphy (Ed), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1975]
Even if Victoria was not the richest country in the world in the forty years after 1850, its citizens certainly believed that it was and that it would continue to be so. This wealth was by no means shared evenly and there were the submerged poor within nineteenth-century affluence just as there are today. Although things had been bad in the 1860s, by the 1880s even the unemployed had ritualised their grievances. Eric Fry distinguished six features of Melbourne’s unemployed at this time: they were small in number; their condition was temporary and seasonal; they were unskilled; they would not leave the city to work in the country; they demanded work from the government as a right and immediately publicity and political agitation. “This in turn reflected a background economic confidence, large scale public works and political democracy.”
Trade unionism in Victoria had proved viable and its growth was extensive as in New South Wales, as can be seen from the lists of the societies appended to the Inter-Colonial Trade Union Congress (ITUC) reports. The 1884 report lists Melbourne’s THC with fifty societies comprising 10,000 as against New South Wales TLC’s twenty-four societies and 8000 members. More important was their relative composition. In July 1890 the New South Wales TLC had twenty-one craft and twenty-three unskilled unions as against Melbourne’s thirty craft and thirteen unskilled. The THC was a gathering of the trades, of responsible and respected citizens. It would be wrong to see the Victorian unions as passive or docile. They were in fact quite active on purely economic questions. While they were always most anxious to conciliate, they were equally insistent in negotiation that they should receive their share of the benefits from the boom. This applied particularly to the newer unions, which accompanied the upsurge of light secondary industry after 1880 and which were endeavouring to establish their position.
Factory discipline proved the seed-bed of solidarity needed for united action and there were important strikes by tailoresses in 1882-83 and bootmakers in 1884-85. Fry listed another thirteen trades organised between June 1882 and June 1883. Their primary aim was the eight-hour day which by 1890 was enjoyed by half of Melbourne’s wage-earners. The eight-hour day had the additional advantage of producing extra pay for hours worked in excess of the eight hours. Wider aims, such as amendments to the Factory Act, were not subjects for strike action but for legislative and social pressure. Union tactics were thus restricted, although their aims were less so. When the unions did engage in wider issues, which was most of the time, they did not see themselves participating in a battle of classes having no common interests, because their experience made it impossible to see Victoria in these terms. This was made inevitable by protection, which in its idealised form was a partnership of labour and capital under the be guidance of the government, to provide jobs for the workers, profits for the manufacturers, the benefits of a high wage economy and economic growth for the colony. Protection remained to bedevil the Labor until well after the adoption of “new protection” by the Commonwealth.
There was an intangible but very real import to Victoria’s polity in the years after the gold rushes. It was congruent with material prosperity but had sources and a life of its own, which in turn influenced the way that prosperity was encountered by wage-earners. Victorian Liberalism, so difficult to betray since it was impossible to define with precision, was nonetheless part of the achieved inheritance of Victoria’s labouring classes. For them its most obvious expression was the eight-hour day but this had been won — and continued to be debated — in terms of intellectual and moral improvement.
For similar reasons plural voting was totally unacceptable to the labouring classes. It is impossible to appreciate the intensity of feeling that this issue generated if its abolition is seen merely as a means to the end of political power, which would in turn result in improved economic conditions. Plural voting was a moral affront to the labouring man since it classed him as less valuable than someone else’s property. Perhaps if he had perceived himself as property he would not have felt so outraged. Because he was so far from being a wage-slave in his self-perceptions, he was indignant at what he considered to be a political castration of his manhood.
In its material prosperity and confidence, in its notions of colonial and racial superiority, in its political radicalism and social reformism, in its imperialist schemes and protectionist policies, Victoria in the 1880s was a vast companion piece to Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham. Different in detail as geographic considerations demanded, Victoria and Birmingham were the products of a similar conjuncture of British imperialism. Victoria’s entire workforce can be seen as an aristocracy of labour, within which the Melbourne THC operated as a House of Lords.
The import of this brief sketch of the totality of Victoria’s society in the years before the appearance of a “Labor party” is essential if its failure vis-a-vis the other colonies is to be understood. True, the party’s practices compounded its initial difficulties. But the inheritance of Victorian Liberalism, ideological and organisational, meant that there was no Labor party in Victoria till after 1900 and that when it did emerge it would be confounded in the struggle to exorcise Liberalism’s spectre. In this struggle for an identity, Victorian Labor often isolated itself from those groups whose support could have given it greater parliamentary power. Yet these groups, particularly the small farmers, had received their share of the inheritance as well, and were not as susceptible as their counterparts in other colonies.
When it is remembered that the committee consisted entirely of leading Victorian unionists, it is at first surprising to learn of the opposition within the THC to a resolution to bring forward candidates to contest the 1896 election. After a series of special meetings of the council the motion was withdrawn. This apparent defeat for “direct representation” must be understood in the context of the developing struggle between the old and new unionists: the old guard was headed by Ben Douglas, who was chairman of the Trades Hall trustees, while the new men of power were led by William Trenwith, who became THC president in March 1886. Trenwith’s forces finally gained control but only after years of negotiations and a sensational court case. Failure to obtain THC endorsement did not prevent F.H. Bromley, W.A. Trenwith, and W.E. Murphy from contesting seats at the 1886 election: what is significant about these three is that they had been president, treasurer, and secretary of the parliamentary committee appointed in 1884. Their belief in direct representation had thus found an opportunity to develop an organisational cohesiveness. While none was successful, none polled disgracefully. Certainly there was reason to hope that the Labor vote could be improved into a winning position.
As the 1889 election approached, the THC adopted a fourteen-point platform and urged all workmen to vote only for those candidates who supported its demands. No specific candidates were endorsed. Murphy and Trenwith again contested seats, with the latter being successful in Richmond. This victory brought an immediate change in the THC’s position as it passed a resolution appreciating “the service of all members who worked for Labor candidates”. The council’s response to Trenwith’s success leaves no doubt that it would have endorsed him (and others) at the next election. His long battle had been won without the intervention of the 1890 strike.
Thus the THC’s decision in March 1891 to form local district committees in the electorates was not a “turning point” so much as the fulfilment of a long process; a change of emphasis, not of direction. Almost immediately a vacancy occurred for one of the two Collingwood seats and the parliamentary committee recommended endorsing a candidate: John Hancock, secretary of the Typographical Society and chairman of the Maritime Strike Committee, was selected and eventually headed a poll of four. This local success reminded the THC of the tremendous victory which their New Zealand confreres had achieved in the previous January. In addition, the Shearers’ Union announced its intention “to organise the Labor vote in the country” and the ITUC in Ballarat came out strongly in favour of “direct representation”.
The THC organised a political Labor convention for the last weekend in May 1891. Thirteen representatives attended, two from each of the Trades Councils in Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong; two each from the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (ASU) and the AMA, and one from the Social Democratic Federation. They agreed to form the Progressive Political League (PPL) of Victoria. The choice of name with its intention of appealing to a wider constituency than labour, shows that the consensual underpinnings of Victorian Liberalism had survived intact. The political platform which they announced called for the abolition of plural voting; the repeal of Conspiracy Acts; a legally enforced eight-hour day; and the “Federation of the Colonies on a Democratic basis”; as well as sixteen other items, which showed no appeal to rural interests. Seventeen rules were adopted including an objective:
to secure for all
classes such legislation as will advance their interests by
The PPL’s platform provoked immediate adverse comment from the rigidly Protestant executive council of the AMA, which demanded the addition of a plank calling for the “Maintenance of the Education Act” before it would affiliate. At the AMA No. 1 Colonial District conference at Bendigo fresh approaches were made by Trenwith, who attended specifically for this purpose. The most the AMA would agree to was to support individual PPL branches, which accepted the AMA’s secular education policy. Spence moved for complete support but was overwhelmingly defeated. The rift between the miners and political Labor in Victoria persisted for another seventeen years and was one of the important factors inhibiting Labor’s electoral success and organisational growth outside the metropolitan area.
Absence of finance was part of the overall economic collapse in the colony. Some indication of the extent of the depression can be gauged from incidents such as the decision in 1892 to make Melbourne’s trams run at 12 mph instead of 9 mph so that fewer cars could make the same number of trips; by 1894 the Melbourne Metropolitan Gas Company had repossessed 6233 gas stoves — about half of those on loan in l890. Many unions had spent heavily on strike funds in the preceding eighteen months: the Melbourne Typographical Society had given £1400 in the six months to May 1891. With rising unemployment there was a fall in income with an increased demand for benefit payments: “In one year from October 1892, the Australian branches of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers paid out the massive sum of £7137 in donation benefit” Poor union response to PPL requests cannot be seen as lack of political interest; it was more generally the lack of money to give.
The third meeting of the PPL central council on 30 January 1892 sought an alliance with the unemployed, an understanding with the farmers and unity with the AMA. Failure to achieve any of these in its first half-year of existence accurately foreshadowed the league’s overall future.
Choosing candidates for the 1892 elections presented some real difficulties, particularly in Fitzroy where the “anarchists” S.A. Rosa and W.F. Fleming sought endorsement. Rosa headed the pre-selection poll but was replaced at the insistence of Trenwith. A similar situation occurred in Carlton South, where W.D. Flinn, a foundation member of the PPL as the representative of the Social Democratic Federation, was replaced as the endorsed candidate. The free-thinking Josh Symes was given even shorter shrift in Collingwood. Far more typical was F.H. Bromley, who told his cheering audience that “he had no prejudices against any class”. So the party’s nature was determined as much by its candidates as by its stated policies.
As the obvious, though unelected, leader of the PPL, Trenwith deserves further attention. His dilemma was how to live up to and live down the revolutionary reputation that he had had thrust upon him by the Argus for his role in the maritime strike. He chose simply to explain that he had never “counselled strikes … [but had] … hundreds of times prevented them … [always urging] … that strikes are barbarous and cruel methods of attempting to settle labour disputes”. Reporting to his constituents at the Richmond Town Hall on 25 February 1892, Trenwith showed his support of protection to be as much a “roads-and-bridges” issue as a matter of national policy, as he listed the nail factories and leather shops he had helped, thereby increasing local employment. He had other claims to fame, since the Mallee lands had been opened up at his initiative: the importance of rural escape routes for Richmond’s factory workers was a question of continuing concern to their astute representative. Here is that persistent but often overlooked combination of land hunger and state action, which constituted so much of what passed as socialism in late nineteenth-century Australia.
As if poor organisation, lack of funds and a diminishing electoral base were insufficient problems for the fragile PPL, it was faced with some of the argument over free trade and protection, which was concurrently racking the New South Wales Labor Party. Moreover, neither of the issues most in the public mind in April 1892 could be turned to the league’s specific advantage. Allegations against the railway commissioners were the preserve of The Age and any benefit to be gained went to its immediate political coterie. But by far the most exciting thing in the papers during the election campaign was the Deeming murder sensation.
Undeterred, the PPL’s paper, Commonweal (16 April), issued a pre-election “Manifesto of Progressive Democrats” indicating that the old Liberalism was out in force. The manifesto declared against class rule and for “peaceful and constitutional” reforms to “elevate the general conditions of all classes”. An editorial appealed to “farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, labourers, producers and distributors of all kinds” to vote for the league and against “the encroachments of the idle few”.
Victorian Liberalism was not only ideologically well-prepared to absorb a Labor challenge, it also had state-wide organisational linkages, which could be turned to purely political ends. Contacts established through the Australian Natives’ Association and the Protectionist Associations could be employed for the liberals, while young imperial federationists established the Victorian Patriotic League in March 1892 to support the Conservatives.
Considerable relief was expressed in the Argus the day after the election since the PPL had increased its membership merely from six to thirteen in a house of ninety-five. Hancock had lost his seat and three of the PPL members had won by majorities of only 107, 97, and 25. The Age (22 April) was content to affirm its consensual principles by pointing to the impossibility of a “purely sectional institution” gaining political strength.
Of the thirteen PPL members who were elected, one immediately defected; another joined the ministerialists within a year; and two of the remainder expired before their terms and their seats were lost in the subsequent by-elections. A Victorian Labor party had been stillborn. A month after the elections Commonweal expressed a strategy that fully recognised the extent of Labor’s failure:
it is clearly understood that our Party is to avoid the serious mistakes made by the Labour Party in New South Wales, notably that primary error which placed the party in a position of hostility to all other sections of the Parliament. The Victorian Labour Party constitutes itself a wing of the Liberal Party, and is prepared support a Liberal Government so long as that Government promotes genuine democratic legislation in the interests of all classes, workers included. New Zealand should furnish us a model.
Financial trouble hit Commonweal and in September 1892 it launched an appeal fund. By the end of May 1893 it had been reduced from eight to four pages and it ceased publication entirely on 1 July that year. In the preceding February the THC had replaced its permanent secretariat paying £4 a week with an honorary one at £1 a week. If the incidence Commonweal reports is any criterion, there was a sharp decline in branch activity after the elections. The central council continued to meet monthly but reported little organisational work. The fate of the Ballarat West branch was perhaps representative. After much discussion as to whether it could afford to support a candidate it nominated one, only to find after the election that its liabilities exceeded its assets by more than £57. The July meeting lapsed for want of a quorum and the minute book contains no further entry. In the enthusiastic expectation provoked by New Zealand and New South Wales successes, the PPL had overreached itself with fatal results.
Seven years of Conservative-liberal coalition government in Victoria had ended in November 1890. Budget deficits brought down three governments in the next four years since failure to balance the budget was taken as proof that a government had failed to cure the depression. These depression deficits raised other problems: how to make up the difference? Should expenditures be cut? Or revenues increased? And if so, how? All this questioning eventually produced doubts concerning protection. Legislative form was given to these doubts by the Conservative ministry of James Patterson in his 1894 budget. For the first time in over twenty years, Victoria’s protectionist policy was faced with real opposition from a government. Confronted with this direct conservative thrust, the THC was fortified in its resolve to broaden the base of its political organisation.
Invitations to a conference “to devise some method of political action” were extended to all societies affiliated with the THC and with the TLCs in Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong, and Horsham; to the AMA, the ASU, the Eight-Hours Movement; and to the Democratic Club, the Womcn’s Suffrage Society, the Protectionist, Liberal and Federation League, and to all extant PPL branches. The conference met late in June and drew up a platform for a United Labour and liberal party (ULLP), which was slightly more radical than the PPL’s had been; the budget crisis which occurred in August meant that the new party would be even less radical in practice than its predecessor. Even the “socialist”, G.M. Prendergast, declared himself to be a Liberal.
Patterson’s government was defeated on 29 August 1894 and an election was called for 20 September. Because of the clear-cut nature of the issue — Protection or Free Trade — the campaign was vigorously contested. Sectional groups such as Temperance and Scripture leagues were absent, thereby helping to sharpen the basic conflict. Candidates did have to compete with the football grand finals for the voters’ interest. Since it is uncertain how many ULLP candidates were endorsed it is impossible to decide how many were elected but it was somewhere between sixteen and eighteen. What is beyond doubt is that Patterson was soundly defeated and that George Turner’s liberal supporters won over two-thirds of the seats. Equally apparent was Labor’s enthusiasm for the new premier, despite some annoyance at being excluded from the ministry.
Liberalism had re-established its hegemony via protection. The difference between Liberals and Conservatives after 1894 was sufficiently great on this issue, so vital to the THC, that there was no opportunity for Labor to trade support for concessions. The PPL’s earlier failure to break through was compounded, and until 1902 the Trades Hall party could do no more than act out the role prescribed for it by The Age — that of advance guard for liberalism. In this environment it is little wonder that the Ballance and Seddon Governments in New Zealand were taken as ideal models for Liberalism in Victoria to follow. Every new reform across the Tasman provided another opportunity to remind Turner that, as a Liberal, he should do likewise. As the 1890s progressed, and Turner did not, New Zealand’s “lib-lab-socialist” governments became a yardstick against which to measure the failings of Victorian liberalism. Criticisms derived from these comparisons eventually assisted in creating organisational autonomy for political Labor in Victoria. Yet this was achieved under a debt to liberalism, albeit a liberalism twelve hundred miles away.
In 1896 liberalism scored two victories, which reinforced its hold over the allegiance of the Victorian electorate. One of these was of general appeal: a balanced budget. The other was aimed directly at the working classes: wages boards, which were subsequently extended to many categories of workmen. The boards established minimum wages and thus attempted to spread the benefits of protection to the employees: the unity of class interests being given a further practical demonstration.
The attempt at a ULLP had never really passed beyond the wishes of the Labor side, so yet another organisation was launched in May 1896 when the THC adopted the constitution of the United Labor Party (ULP) of Victoria. The policy of the “new” party was barely distinguishable from that of the ULLP. Organisationally the changes appeared more substantial since a pledge was to be obtained from all aspiring candidates to support the platform. This was still a long way from the “caucus pledge” since the Victorian pledge was to be given through the nominating organisation, which could be any “trades and labour union [or] democratic bodies” affiliated with the ULP. The THC maintained a proprietary interest in the new party.
Internal dissension was the most important fact facing the ULP as it contested the 1897 election. Some discontent with Trenwith’s passive support for the Turner ministry, and with Liberalism in general, had been present for some time but it was not until 1897 that it came to the fore. The radicals were centred round Tocsin, a paper they launched on 2 October 1897 with a platform of seventy-four points, which showed that there was little specifically socialist about even the radicals. Or as the first editorial put it: “The functions of a Labour Paper in a new community like Australia are necessarily greater, and less sectional and factional, than they are in older countries. There such an organ voices the claims and the despair of the hunted and cornered, and the aspirations of those of them who have been left long enough unmolested to have time to aspire; here it voices, or should, and must voice, the claims and realisable hopes of the whole community.” The area in dispute was that of organisational autonomy from Turner and David Syme’s Age.
Before the election of 14 October 1897 there was little open criticism of Trenwith by his fellow ULP members, who concentrated their fire on Turner and The Age. This led to Turner attacking the ULP in his policy speech for not giving him all the support it could have in the previous parliament, a suggestion denounced at the THC and denied by Trenwith, who was nonetheless critical of some of his colleagues. It was The Age which presented the matter most succinctly: the difficulty arose because some members of this party … are no longer content to consider themselves as owning any allegiance to Liberal homogeneity. They declare for a policy of separation and segregation”. Accepting this challenge The Age went all out to defeat its perpetrators, who had been encouraged by the presence of the British dock strike leader, Ben Tillett.
Once more it is difficult to be certain how many ULP candidates were returned, but the most likely figure is thirteen, which meant that Labor’s numerical strength was unchanged but the confidence of its radical wing had taken a beating, especially with the defeat of Prendergast. The Age summed it up thus: “The net result of this part of the contest has been exactly what the Government asked for. The Labor party has suffered a check, but not sufficient to discourage it altogether. The effect should be to make it Liberal without going into impractical extremes … there is no standing room in Victoria for the people who look to Mr Tillett as the long-expected Messiah of a Socialist Millennium”.
The radicals’ attempt to establish the ULP as the official opposition had failed, and by the time the next elections occurred in 1900 the homogeneity of Liberalism had been re-established. The intervening years were marked by the disintegration of the ULP; the proliferation of other “Labor” organisations; and the regrowth of the trade unions. Each of these will now be examined briefly.
The collapse of the ULP proceeded both inside and outside the Parliament. Shortly after the 1897 election Tocsin hit upon one of the complaints against Trenwith when it asked if “the duties of the leader begin and end with his Parliamentary work, or whether he should also exert a guiding and active influence in the work of outside organisation”. Failure to break out of Melbourne certainly was the heart of the difficulty, but Trenwith’s reluctance to take part in organising country seats was part of the general attitude of the movement and was by no means a mere personal fault, although his failing sight must have affected his attitude. Discontent came to a head in June 1898, when Hancock unsuccessfully challenged Trenwith for the leadership.
Four months later Trenwith gave a very revealing interview to Tocsin in which he listed the three important measures which the “Labor party” had secured: firstly, the ending of the alienation of land in the Mallee; secondly, the limiting of the area of land to be held by an individual; and thirdly, the securing of the minimum wage and eight-hour principle. Significantly “land” occupied the leading positions. The rest of the interview should explain by itself the state of the ULP:
Q. Do you think it is advisable to admit
membership of the Labour Party who never speak at Labour meetings, or
who never identify themselves directly with the Labour Party unless at
It was this set of conditions which led Tocsin into its bitterest attack. In an editorial for 10 November 1898 it denounced “The policy of dillydally, drift and disaster” which marked the ULP: “Plan of campaign it has none, democratic work it does none. It never meets as a party to decide on measures to be introduced … It is leaderless, functionless, out-classed: its existence is as a constitutional abortion, with neither the cohesion of a Party, nor the daring and initiative of a guerilla band or a company of free lances …”
If the ULP was to continue, increased THC intervention was inevitable and early in 1899 it decided to rewrite — yet again — the rules and platform. The new proposals were finally adopted on 20 October. Commenting on the new program The Age pointed out that “there is not one of its fourteen items which has not received the sanction of many staid and sober thinkers and writers”. After examining each plank the editorial concluded that “so far from the aspirations of this political organisation being violent or mischievous, they are but a few short forward steps in advance of the main body of Liberalism”. With the defeat of the Turner government two months later Liberalism’s ideological dominance was to be given organisational linkages far stronger than had previously existed.
Late in 1899 it appeared that the reorganisation of the ULP might have come too late. Defeats and divisions associated with three by-elections certainly lent weight to this view. Tocsin’s fury at these defeats knew no bounds and in an editorial, “Labour’s Bunglers and Log-Rollers”, it attacked Trenwith’s treachery and bewailed the lack of organisation. Editorially The Age expressed its genuine concern at the “acrimonious denunciations” and “aimless vituperation”, which were put forward in place of penetrating evaluation of ULP’s parlous position. It was desirable that the party should recover so that it could spur Liberalism “into renewed activity by the admonitions of men who can speak for the sections of the community where the impulse towards democratic reform must always find its source”. Unfortunately the ULP did not have the confidence of the labouning classes and if it was to come into its own politically it would need to accept this truth. This gloomy but accurate picture augured inauspiciously for the future of the refurbished ULP as it faced a new century.
In the absence of a vigorous Labor party it was hardly surprising that the partial vacuum would be filled by grouplets and even by organisations attempting to supplant the ULP. Such groupings had long existed and it would be unwise to ignore the implicit warning of their weakness in Bernard O’Dowd’s verse:
Tocsin, which O’Dowd edited, never developed into the centre of organised opposition that its editorials suggested and its press provided for. Rather it saw itself as a clearing-house for ideas and as an organising journal for all groups.
The Workers’ Political League (WPL) was the likeliest contender for the ULP’s right to represent Victoria’s labouring classes. Its platform contained little to distinguish it from the ULP but its organisation appeared to have resolved the dilemma which had impeded the growth of political Labor in Victoria for almost a decade. The League’s headquarters were in Creswick and its officers included two members of the Legislative Assembly, two past presidents of the THC, the secretary of the Ballarat TLC, the secretary of the AWU, and the ex-president of the AMA. Whatever prospects it had were cut short by the THC’s reorganisation of the ULLP during 1899. Also active, from 1898 onwards, was the Rochdale-style co-operative Victorian Labour Federation (VLF), of which Frank Anstey was president. As well as selling tea to raise funds, the VLF organised a bookshop, a quadrille club and relief for the unemployed. By the end of 1900 it was in severe financial difficulties and Anstey stood down as president. A Victorian Socialists’ League was formed in 1898 and existed till 1902 when it emerged into the Social Democratic Party, but its own influence was slight. The Knights of Labour held picnics, sang the “Marseillaise”, and marched behind a red flag; and Hegemony Club contemplated a war for position on the ideological front but went cycling; and the Marxian Club held social evenings, where very pleasant times were had by all. None of the above groups seriously challenged the THC’s control of the political movement and if they had it is unlikely that they would have been any more successful in overcoming the besetting problems. The effort that went into them meant that the ULP was deprived of this energy and enthusiasm, a loss it could ill-afford, but a consequence that was inevitable in light of its own failing prospects.
After the collapse of unionism in Victoria in the face of the depression there was a period of quietism with few if any unions reforming. An attempt to reorganise the trade societies was undertaken at the THC early in 1900 with excellent results, and, by the end of July, eight unions had been formed in Melbourne and four in Geelong. Within a year, over twenty-five new unions had been formed, half-a-dozen amalgamations arranged, and eight unions resuscitated. This revival of unionism did not automatically mean a revival of the ULP since the organising work was directed towards industrial rather than political ends. Nor did all the unions affiliate with the ULP. But the success held out hope for the IJLP. Ultimately the increase in membership of the THC, and of the union business it needed to conduct, forced it to sever its controlling interest in the ULP. This could have proved disastrous had it not freed the party at a time when it could benefit from other forces at work — the Commonwealth, the arrival of Tom Mann, and the break-up of the old liberalism. Before they were reached the ULP suffered from two more upheavals: the Boer War and federation.
In the early stages of the Boer War the Victorian Labor movement split down the middle. Trenwith supported the war, for which Tocsin described him as “a compromiser, a lickspittle to Liberalism and a recreant”. When the THC president reported that he had attended a banquet to mark the departure of the Victorian troops to the Transvaal he encountered strong opposition but his action was endorsed by a narrow majority. Tocsin remained hostile to the war throughout and lent its support to the Peace and Humanity Society, of which Dr Maloney, a state member of parliament, was treasurer. Tocsin’s primary objection was that the war was engineered by Jew capitalists to replace white labourers with blacks and Chinese. It was forced on 21 June 1900 to admit that the “… Victorian Labor Party, with one or two notable exceptions, are intensely Jingoistic, because the majority of the people favour the war”. Although the Labor movement as a whole supported the war, the opposition of a minority not only deepened divisions within the ULP but made the whole ULP suspect by association.
The ULP was no less at odds with itself and the electorate over federation. Demands for a democratic federation had been part of Labor’s political program from the start but this created little interest until the preparations for the 1897 convention were under way. By 1898 Tocsin was completely opposed to the draft constitution which it scarified as “Fat Oration”. The vote against adoption of the constitution in Victoria was less than half that which any of the “Labor parties” had achieved at any election since 1892.
The split in the Liberal Party, by which Allan McLean had become premier late in 1899, gave fresh life to the unity of ULP and Liberal interests. Addressing an election meeting the ULP candidate for Carlton South and THC secretary, J.G. Barrett, announced that “as a member of the Labor Party, the advance wing of the Liberal Party, he would, if returned, sit in opposition, if Sir George Turner was in opposition … He, for one, had every confidence in Sir George Turner, who, he considered, would be the only person who could reunite the Liberal Party”. Trenwith was on the platform when Turner gave his policy speech and the liberal caucus around Turner endorsed all the metropolitan ULP candidates. At least sixteen ULP candidates stood, of whom possibly twelve were successful, which meant no numerical change. One important change was that ULP members held the balance of power in the Assembly. There was no attempt to bargain for concessions and all ULP members attended a caucus called by Turner a week after the elections. Trenwith was appointed commissioner of public works and minister of railways on 17 November and resigned his leadership of the ULP six days later; there was no suggestion that he did not have the approval of his colleagues. Bromley was elected the new leader on 3 December.
There were signs of increased activity by the ULP after the 1900 elections: parliamentarians agreed to donate towards an organising fund; a few new branches were launched. Important alterations were made to the ULP, renamed the Political Labour Council (PLC), at a meeting on 23 February 1901. A federal platform was adopted calling for “one adult, one vote”; constitutional amendments to provide for initiative and referendum; a White Australia; old age pensions; and protection. The state platform remained unaffected. Partly as a consequence of this reorganisation, the preparations for the federal elections due at the end of March were painfully slow. Only four of the twenty-four federal seats were contested by the PLC of which two were won, as was one Senate place.
A conference was called by the PLC for Thursday 26 June 1902 “to devise the best method of organising the Labour vote in Victoria”. Tocsin’s excitedly jubilant headlines were quite justified as this was the first truly representative political Labor conference held in Victoria. As an indication of the PLC’s electoral weakness only eight branches were represented compared with forty-seven unions. The most important decision was “that a contribution of sixpence per annum per member be paid by the unions and branches towards the organising fund of the PLC”. The AWU was empowered to organise the country electorates and the PLC agreed to endorse its candidates. Although this — the fourth political “Labor Party” launched in Victoria in little over a decade — managed to survive and grow, it was not free from serious initial problems, not the least of which was the refusal of some unions to affiliate. As the PLC began to exert its influence, it ran into the accumulated difficulties of the preceding decade, particularly the unregulated existence of suburban branches. Having persisted for so long without central direction, many branches and some members of parliament were reluctant to be brought into line.
Ted Findley’s victory in the Melbourne seat was the only surprise in the ULP’s 1900 state election results and the conservatives were most put out that their financial centre was represented by a Labor man. Largely in response to a hue-and-cry initiated by the Argus, Findley was expelled from the Assembly on 25 June 1901 on the charge that he was responsible for an issue of Tocsin which had reprinted “libellous” extracts from an attack on Edward VII in the Irish People. In fact Findley was a mere figurehead; he apologised for the article and dissociated himself from it. Spence claimed that Findley’s expulsion was crucial in altering the PLC’s attitude towards the city Liberals, but this is unlikely, as evidenced by the statement of the parliamentary leader, Bromley, in the Argus of 21 November: “I do not think that would turn one vote from our members against the Government. Mr Irvine was more bitter on that question than Mr Peacock.” The Findley episode did point towards the shape of things to come.
A.J. Peacock’s Liberal ministry was defeated on the floor of the house on 3 June 1902 on the grounds that it had not pushed ahead vigorously enough with retrenchments and economies. The new government was led by William Irvine, who made his attitude clear with his claim that “the regeneration of politics in Victoria may be taken to date from the time when I brought forward my want-of-confidence motion”, because up to that time the government had been controlled by the “Labor party”. This exaggerated view of Labor’s importance was the basis of Irvine’s intention to put Labor back in its place, which was out of politics altogether.
Two major legislative measures were before the parliament in August 1902: reduction in public service salaries and the re-enactment of the Factories and Shops Act. As part of its general economy drive, the Reform ministry introduced the Members’ and Public Service Retrenchment Bill, which was designed to cut all salaries over £125 pa. When the government was defeated on an amendment, it chose to go to the people. This had two important consequences: it forged an alliance between the PLC and the public service; and it meant that the wages boards and their rulings no longer had legal force. Wages boards had been introduced in 1896 for a trial period of three years; in 1899 they were renewed for two years, after which they were to remain in force until the end of the next session of parliament, which was unexpectedly cut short while the reenactment legislation was before the Council. Some thirty-six trades were covered by its provisions and its future was of vital concern to all unions. Its abeyance during the 1902 election was a considerable spur to union support for the PLC. Labor made the wages boards and public service salaries the centrepieces of its campaign. It was this second aspect which was novel since it brought into direct union with the PLC, workers who had hitherto been hostile or at best apathetic. Internally the PLC was in almost as great a state of disorder as ever. An attempt to enforce a fairly loose pledge succeeded, much to everyone’s surprise. There was a sizeable improvement in the vote cast for Labor, even allowing for the increase in the number of candidates. Tocsin claimed eleven “pledged” members, all from metropolitan seats. However the overwhelming return of Irvine supporters was the dominant feature of the results. This presaged a new era in Victorian politics.
Initially the conservative upsurge centred on the Kyabram movement, which expressed rural demands for reform; that is, cheaper and more efficient government. The mood of austerity was heightened by the drought, which reached its climax in 1902 when the wheat yield was 1.3 bushels per acre, about a quarter of an average harvest. In these circumstances rural discontent could be easily mobilised against the rapacious city.
As a result of the 1902 state elections The Age suggested separate representation for public servants so as to break their alliance with the PLC. The Constitution Act of 1902 provided for this, the object being to teach the Labor movement a lesson — perhaps to the point of its destruction. Thus the rail strike of May 1903 must be seen as a link in a long causal chain extending back to Kyabram. Wage cuts and retrenchments had created grave discontent in the service. In April 1903 Irvine precipitated a confrontation by issuing a decree that all railway unions must withdraw their affiliation from the THC or have their executive officers dismissed. Most of the unions refused and the threat was carried out. The engine drivers struck immediately. Irvine hurriedly introduced a Coercion Act under which all strikers were dismissed, losing all pension and retirement rights. The commissioners had power to re-employ on such terms as they felt warranted. Three days before the act was passed by the Assembly, the strikers agreed to return unconditionally. The act proceeded and its provisions were carried out in full. It was this strike, rather that the 1890 maritime dispute, which established the organisational autonomy of Labor in Victoria. It was “Iceberg” Irvine, rather than “Firelow” Price, who loosened the bonds that had limited Labor’s independence to an inchoate Liberalism.
Commonwealth political concerns became central in the twelve months after the rail strike. Tocsin decided that “the Federal Parliament is the Victorian workers’ political hope” because adult franchise would operate as from the 1903 federal elections. In June 1903 the federal platform and pledge which had been drawn up at the Commonwealth Labor conference in the preceding December were adopted “with provision for ensuring the Victorian members being pledged to the New Protection policy”. In 1903 four PLC candidates stood for the four Senate vacancies and Ted Findley was returned. Three of the eleven House of Representatives seats contested by the PLC were (eventually) won for Labor. Overall Labor had almost doubled its strength, so that the House of Representatives was divided evenly into thirds. Late in April 1904 Deakin resigned after his Conciliation and Arbitration Bill had been amended, and Watson formed a minority ministry from 27 April to 17 August when it too was defeated on a proposal to extend arbitration to public servants. It was highly significant for the fate of the proposed Labor-Liberal alliance that Deakin’s supporters should defeat Watson on an issue so intimately related to the rail strike of recent memory. Watson’s government stayed in power with the tacit support of a section of the Liberals for whom the federal Labor party requested electoral immunity. This presented special difficulties in Victoria, and not simply because most of the radical Liberals came from there. Partly because the PLC was anxious to retain its newly acquired independence, and partly because it was still smarting from the hammer blows of reaction, which in the main had been supported by the Liberals, there was strenuous opposition to granting the requested immunity.
If the lib-lab alliance was dead at the state level there was still life in it at the federal, and elements on both sides set about reinvigorating it. Within Victoria most of this initiative came from the Liberal side, since the 1905 PLC conference had unanimously supported an addition to the state pledge which bound politicians not to join any alliance or coalition, or other combination, without the sanction of the organisation to be determined “by a general or special conference”. The year 1906 saw renewed pressure from the federal Labor caucus for electoral immunity for the radical Liberals such as Isaacs, Higgins, Mauger, Hume, Cook and Crouch. With great reluctance the PLC executive left the final decision to individual branches. The alliance lingered on until the elevation of Higgins and Isaacs to the bench in October 1906.
Throughout this dispute the PLC never denied that it had considered itself part of the old Liberalism but it blamed the so-called radical Liberals for its break-up. In reply to an attack by The Age, Tocsin declared on 26 October 1905 that “with a Seddon at the head of a progressive Government, it is unlikely that the Labour Party as we now know it would have come into existence, for the simple reason that it would not have been required.” Indeed the preface to the 1906 PLC constitution insists that “the Political Labour Council came into being about 1902, as a result of the disappearance of genuine Liberalism from Victorian politics”.
In the middle of these disputes a state election was held in Victoria. Labor fielded its largest team so far — thirty-nine for the Assembly, which had recently been reduced from ninety-five to sixty-eight members. When the new parliament met, Labor held seventeen seats, which was absolutely and proportionately the best result yet. It had not only survived the “Reform” onslaught but had emerged strengthened and secure with a recently tightened pledge. Yet it was still only halfway to gaining a majority within an electoral system that was weighted heavily towards rural interests, which did not provide for adult franchise, but which still retained a form of the property vote. And if all these could be overcome there remained the powerful Legislative Council, to which Labor returned its first two members in 1904. Nor was there any prospect of “giving support for concessions”; alliances were now out of the question. The realisation of Labor’s impossible situation in state politics provided the field in which two otherwise unconnected but important developments occurred — the rise of John Wren, and the relative success of Tom Mann and the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP).
Happy indeed would be the historian who could define precisely the range of John Wren’s influence in Australian politics. Opinion ranges from those who see him as a dominant figure in three states to those who dismiss him as being unable to control even the Collingwood branch of the party. For Victoria before 1920 there are inconclusive clues that should not be ignored. One Labor member, Robert Solly, told the Assembly that he knew “Mr Wren to be a man with force of character, and people admire a man with force of character, although when that force is used in a certain direction it cannot be admired. Napoleon was a man with force of character — a man who was determined as far as he could with his great intellect and ability to have his way in controlling the world ... I think the same thing applies to John Wren.” Perhaps the most intriguing item is the £100 which Wren sent in 1916 to the PLC to establish a fund for the widow of his “boyhood friend” and PLC president, Laurie Cohen, who had, although a reputed teetotaller, fallen to his death from a hotel window in Adelaide only six months after the fatal robbery at the Trades Hall, of which Cohen was assistant secretary. And why is there such voluble but empty resistance to a call to nationalise the totalisator at the 1915 PLC conference? No answers have been found to these questions: only more questions. They are reproduced so that readers will not neglect the possibility that — if the PLC was controlled from Tattersalls Club rather than from the Trades Hall — this account will be entirely irrelevant. No further detailed reference will be made to Wren, but this silence should not be interpreted as acquittal. Indeed, one might reflect on his influence in any discussion of control of the liquor traffic.
Temperance and prohibition persisted as minor themes throughout the history of the Labor Party in Victoria well into the 1930s. If there was general agreement that alcohol was not the cause of poverty, there was nonetheless widespread support for the view, expressed by Dr Maloney in the 1899 report of the board on habitual drunkards, that “when a working man becomes a drunkard he very often, on that account, loses his employment, and as a drunkard does not save money, he will either at once, or very soon become destitute”. This led to an acceptance of temperance as an ideal although total abstinence found supporters in the THC as a 1905 debate revealed. At the political level this was expressed as a policy of nationalisation of the drink traffic by which means the commercial drive to create drunkards would be removed, and a motion to this effect was carried at the 1905 PLC conference.
In the following year legislation was introduced to the state parliament to reduce the number of hotels and to impose a time limit on compensation payable to hotelkeepers. F.W. Eggleston commented that “the Labor Party, although a great number of them were total abstainers, were far more enthusiastic for compensation to hotelkeepers than for compensation for compulsory purchase under the Closer Settlement Act; indeed with one or two exceptions, such as Mr Lemmon, the Labour Party voted with the trade”. This opposition undoubtedly arose from the fact that most of the hotels to be closed were in working-class areas and since they were little more than family affairs the loss of compensation would be a real hardship both to the families and to the election funds they supported. A motion at the 1915 PLC conference calling for prohibition was amended to “the Socialisation of the liquor traffic with a view to prohibition”. From correspondence to Labor papers and from union and branch resolutions it is clear that liquor reform was of genuine concern to the labouring classes. To their parliamentary representatives it presented an embarrassment but one which could occasionally be turned to tactical or debating advantage when prohibition without compensation could be attacked as less moral than socialism.
Two days before the 1902 election, Tom Mann, the famous British union leader, arrived in Melbourne. Before the end of the year he had been appointed organiser for the THC-PLC with a fund of £600, half of which was to be his salary. Throughout 1903 Mann formed branches in country areas where Labor’s case had never been heard before. His style was superbly captured by a Labor politician, George Elmslie:
He seems to say to the audience, “You’ve got hearts and brains; I’m going to reach them”. And reach them he does. What a time we have … No mincing or smoodging; no toning down; straight out; the real thing, clear, pointed, and explicit. What! … Surely this is not socialism? … Authorities are supplied, cheers for the Labor Party and Tom Mann are heartily given, and those who are favourable to the formation of a branch are asked to stay behind.
Tom does not sit down — before you know where you are he is in the middle of the room explaining the rules of the PLC, and taking names down … they don’t want you to enrol them. They want to give their names to Tom. Brother X, sing a Labor song; right; anything; stand on your head or try to fly, it’s all the same. Let it go: “The March of the Workers”, “Coming of the Light”. This is another success; another branch formed, secretary appointed, and night of meeting fixed.
The long-term effectiveness of his organising is open to doubt. Elmslie hinted at this in the conclusion of his report by pointing out that “if more system be not displayed, the splendid effort of Tom Mann will end in a fiasco”.
This is a criticism of the PLC’s inability to follow up Mann’s breakthroughs, rather than a criticism of Mann’s style. While the PLC’s organisation was extended significantly under Mann’s guidance, several factors undermined even greater success. Firstly, there was the lack of follow-up from head office and the refusal of some politicians to join in the work. Secondly, there was Mann’s own ambivalent attitude to the task: for about half the time he was under the shadow of his own resignation. In addition there were his interstate speaking tours and from 1904 he spent more and more time with the Social Democratic Party. But Mann’s principal contribution was to that vital but immeasurable dimension of ideology.
Various socialist political sects existed in Australia before 1920 but none was as important numerically or ideologically as the VSP. In 1905 Mann organised a social questions committee (SQC) to investigate unemployment in Melbourne and by October it was so successful that the metropolitan district council of the PLC expressed its fear that the SQC might undermine the esprit de corps necessary for electoral success. At its first half-yearly meeting in March 1906, the SQC had 758 members and it agreed to change its name to the VSP and to publish The Socialist, with Mann as editor. The VSP was not conceived as an electoral opposition to the PLC but as a ginger group for socialism.
In June 1907 at its peak membership of 1500 the VSP participated in moves for the federation of the disparate socialist groups throughout Australia. The VSP wanted the new organisation to continue working within the Labor parties but this move was defeated. As this controversy raged within the VSP its membership declined. Two VSP candidates were endorsed for the 1908 state elections, polling 167 votes between them. By 1909 membership had fallen to 430 and acquiescence to the hard line against the PLC was losing support even amongst the remaining membership. Because most of its membership remained active in the wider stream of the labour movement it was able to exert an ideological influence on the Labor Party.
Mann preached a two-pronged message — socialism and internationalism — and for each his achievement is ambiguous, although socialism found a readier audience. At the 1905 federal Labor conference the Victorian delegation urged a thoroughgoing socialist objective, and one delegate, Harry Scott Bennett, a state Labor member and associate of Mann’s, opposed the racial purity clause on strictly internationalist grounds. Mann concentrated his internationalist propaganda to breaking down xenophobia towards other Europeans. On altering attitudes towards non-Europeans there was little success, and the PLC’s attitude was perfectly expressed in a Tocsin editorial, 4 October 1906: “We do not object to a man because his complexion or the cast of his eyes differs from our own, but because his complexion and the cast of his eyes are inseparably connected in our experience with certain qualities of mind to which we do most emphatically object.” An article, “The Slant-Eyed Idolator”, in Labor Call, 21 July 1910, argued that “if the Chinaman is going to be suppressed and repressed in the Commonwealth, he must be registered and numbered, even if he has to carry a brass plate or collar. To walk in some streets of Melbourne now would make one fancy he was in Canton so plentiful is the Chinaman, and the rising mongrel between him and the white woman.” Racism was to reveal its significance more fully in the conscription debates of the First World War.
Once established the PLC settled down to a decade of uninterrupted dullness, which achieved its finest moment in 1913 with the formation of a pre-Christmas Labor ministry. Thus the organisational aspects became dominant, as they will in this account. Comment will be made on the central organisation, the branches, relations with unions, Labor papers, and women’s organisations. While none of these are totally new developments in themselves, their combination around a pledged parliamentary party meant that they were very often qualitatively different from their antecedents.
A full-time secretary was not appointed until the middle of 1907, when P.J. Heagney received £156 annually, which was far from satisfactory; Heagney subsidised his income by contributing anonymous Labor news to the Argus. When this was discovered in August 1909, the executive passed what amounted to a motion of censure and in December Chas Gray took over as acting secretary, while Heagney tendered his resignation on grounds of “illness”. By implication a report to the 1910 conference was extremely critical of Heagney’s entire stewardship, for it considered “it absolutely necessary that in future, copies of all outward correspondence should be kept; all correspondence received should be properly filed for the information of the Central Executive and future reference”. These failings were partly the result of Heagney having to do all the office work himself until the second half of 1909 when he gained some part-time assistance. Having been re-elected at the 1910 conference, Heagney shortly afterwards again resigned and was finally replaced by Arch Stewart from the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in Ballarat.
The ordinary conference in 1910 had instructed the executive to revise the party’s constitution before its next publication by omitting redundant matters and by a more convenient arrangement of the items. At the same time it was agreed that the executive should “draw up a scheme to give all leagues and unions affiliated, fair representation at Conferences, such scheme to be submitted to all unions and leagues for consideration before next Conference”. Despite and because of the variety of suggestions and interests involved a similar motion was carried at the 1912 conference, which did manage to adopt a new plan for organisation. It was not until 1915 that the upper limit on four delegates from any one organisation was lifted, so that henceforth every thousand members in excess of the first thousand entitled a branch or union to an additional representative. The AWU was the prime beneficiary under this scheme, its conference delegation in 1916 increasing to ten.
After the resignation of Tom Mann as organiser late in 1904, the PLC’s country work suffered a severe decline, which the continuous rearrangement of party structures did nothing to reverse. Financially matters were also precarious and “Labour Tea” was sold for 1d a pound royalty. Sporadic meetings were held in country centres, but by May 1905 the PLC executive was forced to admit that its organising attempts were neither widespread nor effective. Some of this was due to intimidation by rural employers and the Property Owners’ Association. One stalwart advised the executive that he had “received the parcel of Labor leaflets on Thursday. I was discharged on Friday, and, therefore have plenty of time to distribute them.” In its report to the 1907 conference the PLC executive noted that “generally speaking, the Labor forces during the past year have been and still are, in a state of disorganisation”. In the final quarter of the year the organisation sub-committee reported a desperate situation with no money to employ an organiser and little or no interest in election meetings anywhere. This malaise was partly due to the growing independence of Mann’s Socialist Party.
From this languishing state the AWU, whose Victorian segment had only recently been restored to life, delivered them when it affiliated in 1905. The way forward was cleared in 1907 when facsimile voting slips in The Worker were accepted by the PLC for state and federal preselection ballots. Having thus secured its influence over future candidates, the AWU extended its interests to the branches and in April 1908 generously appointed J.H. Scullin as its political organiser to work with the PLC. Scullin’s efforts were concentrated in the country electorates such as Corangamite, which he successfully contested in 1910. Within a year of his appointment twelve country branches had been revived and thirty-nine new ones formed, compared with four in the metropolitan area. The PLC directory published in Labor Call registered an increase from ninety-eight branches on 23 April 1908 to 186 on 9 June 1910. In less than three years the AWU had secured control of the two full-time positions of organiser and secretary, had been instrumental in forming almost half of the PLC branches, and could influence the selection of candidates for public office and party conferences through the facsimile voting procedure.
Relations with other unions were not always so close. In June 1907 the PLC executive reported that of twenty-five unions recently approached for affiliation only two had agreed. But in 1908 and 1909 there was an absolute increase of almost 4000 affiliated unionists each year. Despite this general improvement there were still thirty-seven unions unaffiliated at the end of 1910. Disputes arose between competing unions, and the THC persisted with its demand that only unions affiliated with it be granted affiliation with the PLC. By the 1911 conference at least one long-standing gap was overcome with the affiliation of a significant section of the miners. The public service and railway unions, although sympathetic, were prevented by law from affiliating.
Increased union affiliation was certainly helpful to the growth of the PLC, but of even greater importance was the nature of unionism after 1905. Instead of being dependent on a small coterie of Melbourne-based trades, it now had access to and derived benefit from the organisation of unskilled and non-metropolitan workers. Unionisation also assisted in creating the climate of opinion in which rural workers were prepared to vote Labor.
Labor papers in Victoria in the 1890s came and went with even greater ease than did Labor parties. Commonweal was the official PPL weekly from 1891 to 1893, while the Shearers and General Labourers’ Record and later The Worker were Shearers’ Union papers that gave some support. In addition there were Henry Hyde Champion’s Champion from 1895 to 1897, and Boomerang for a few weeks in 1894.
It was not until the appearance of Tocsin on 2 October 1897 that Victoria saw the beginnings of a continuous Labor paper. Tocsin did not commence as an official publication but as the brainchild of three public servants, especially the poet Bernard O’Dowd; the technical side was handled by the political aspirants, George Prendergast and Ted Findley. From the start there were some very doubtful financial dealings and the paper was never very successful, requiring constant subsidies from J.P. Jones, a sympathetic tailor. In a letter dated 12 May 1899 the lawyer, Marshall Lyle, advised Jones to sever all connections with the Tocsin company, which he alleged was “open to grave charges of mismanagement” and “sweating”. Jones, however, maintained his support and Tocsin lived from crisis to crisis until it was adopted as the official organ of the PLC on 4 July 1904. On 9 June 1905 the THC dismissed a series of allegations concerning the paper’s management, but this was a mere prelude to the stormy scenes at the two annual general meetings in the following October when the attendance of the police was requested.
If these internal ructions were insufficient to undermine the paper’s strength, it was being challenged by other contenders. As well as the VSP’s Socialist, there were three schemes under way to launch a Labor daily, which meant very little if any new capital was available for Tocsin. Tocsin itself had initiated the demand for a Labor daily in an editorial (11 June 1903) immediately after the rail strike. This general proposition gained support and by October there were plans for a Daily People, a National Independent supported by Trenwith, and Progress as the proposed organ of the THC-PLC. An amalgamation was arranged into National Progress, whose directors included Senator Trenwith as chairman, Robert Solly, a state member, and representatives from the PLC and the THC. Despite this backing, it proved almost impossible to sell shares in the company. More than 2000 people attended a rally in support of the new paper but only eighty shares were sold; by the end of June 1905 a mere £650 worth of shares had been sold and Trenwith had resigned from the board. Worse still, it was costing as much to run the board as was being collected in shares, and so on 3 July a new policy of “rigid economy” and “increased activity” was adopted. By February 1906 the board was left with almost £800 and decided to negotiate for the purchase of Tocsin, which was eventually achieved, so that Labor Call commenced on 2 November 1906. Although the new paper was more soundly conducted, the PLC was as far from publishing a daily as it had been three years earlier, despite a tremendous expenditure of effort and enthusiasm.
This failure did not end hopes of starting a Labor daily. Once again it was the AWU whose resources offered a solution to a long-standing organisational problem. After hearing an address from W.G. Spence, the 1910 PLC conference pledged its support for a paper to which the AWU promised £70,000 if the rest of the Victorian Labor movement could raise £30,000. By April 1911 the THC had agreed to contribute £25,000. Spence reported progress to the 1912 PLC conference: an eight-storey building was under construction in Sydney and it was expected to have the New South Wales edition out before the 1913 federal elections; once this was well established it would expand into other states. War interrupted these plans, but the demand for a Labor daily naturally intensified during the conscription campaigns. After a THC sub-committee investigated the question for almost a year, it was decided that nothing could be done while wartime shortages and costs persisted.
To some extent the plans for a metropolitan daily were justified in Ballarat, where a weekly Labor Vanguard had appeared in connection with the 1910 federal elections. In 1912 AWU officials were engaged in a “hurry-up scheme” to obtain an extra 10,000 subscriptions in three months for the Evening Echo, which came under their control and then under the editorship of Scullin in 1913. The Echo played an important role in the conscription campaign when special editions were brought to Melbourne, where they sold very well. By May 1918, however, Scullin was appealing to the THC for financial assistance. Labor Call may not have been the best paper in Australia but it did appear every week for almost half a century, which gave it certain advantages over the illusory Victorian Labor daily.
The growing radicalism of the twentieth century spawned a range of sectional journals including Ross’s Monthly, Industrial Solidarity, Labour Light, Proletarian, OBU, and the One Big Union Herald. While they inevitably added to the store of socialist ideas, none appears to have had an identifiably individual influence in the Labor movement at large.
From 1903 women were permitted to vote in federal elections, but they were not enfranchised for Victorian elections until 1909. The first Labor platform in 1891 called merely for “manhood suffrage”, but from 1894 all subsequent Labor parties advocated “adult suffrage”, and Tocsin, under O’Dowd’s influence, was particularly sympathetic to the cause while Dr Maloney persisted with the fight in the Assembly. However in 1903 the PLC came into conflict with the major movement for women’s rights — the Women’s (Federal) Political Association led by Vida Goldstein, who unsuccessfully contested the 1903 Senate elections as a feminist independent. Goldstein was a social reformer and agreed with the Labor Party on all issues but refused to sign its pledge, which she pointed out was honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Non-Labor women organised the Australian Women’s National League, which quickly constituted the backbone of the conservative political machine in the Melbourne area. A women’s committee of the PLC was formed in August 1903 to organise the vote for the forthcoming federal elections, after which the committee declined severely. Attempts were made to reform it every year thereafter, but it had a fitful and largely social life until June 1909 when a Labor women’s political convention met with thirty-three delegates from electorates and thirteen from unions. Up till this convention the PLC women’s committee had consisted of a majority of men who organised women into fundraising activities at which they were very successful: nearly £350 was raised at a fair in March 1909, thereby doubling the PLC’s income for the year.
After the resignation of Tom Mann as organiser, Miss Lillian Locke was employed on a temporary basis in 1905, and in the following year Miss Powell was taken on as a recruiting agent. Demands for a full-time “lady organiser” were fulfilled in April 1909 when the THC agreed to employ one at £156 a year; this was half the salary that had been paid to Mann six years earlier and £50 less than the amount originally proposed by the PLC. Lower wages seemed to have been at the heart of the PLC’s desire for “lady organisers”. It was in this frame of mind that the 1906 PLC conference unsuccessfully invited the Countess of Warwick to campaign in the 1906 Federal elections in order to attract the women’s vote on the grounds that a titled “lady organiser” would make a great impression.
While women could join their local PLC and there exercise the same formal rights as men, they were also able to form separate women’s committees, which were used to convene a PLC front, known as the women’s convention, every two years. The local electorate committees were very much organisational bodies, while the conventions were sounding boards for Labor policies and discontents and lacked any genuine power to alter the party ideologically. Moves to remedy this were made at the 1912 women’s convention and came before the next PLC conference in 1914 in the form of a motion to “provide for the creation of a permanent Council of Women, consisting of delegates to be elected annually by the electorate women’s organising committee …” Speakers in support concentrated on the electoral advantages to be gained while those in opposition stressed the unity of Labor’s struggle and deprecated any division on sex lines. After a debate extending over two days the proposal was defeated by sixty-eight votes to sixty-seven; at the 1915 conference the vote against was eighty-eight to forty-nine. By the 1917 conference this had changed into a ninety-six to fifty-three majority in favour of a “Central Council of Women, composed of PLC members and affiliated unionists … whose function shall be to propagate the principles of the Labor Party’s platform and organisation, and to assist in the better education of women, socially, industrially and politically”. At least one woman spoke against on the grounds that it was implicit discrimination.
This change in attitude was due in part to the decidedly political role undertaken by women in the antiwar and anti-conscription campaigns. As early as September 1915 the women’s convention entered “an emphatic protest against the present methods of enforced recruiting — namely by starvation. Further, that all the delegates pledge themselves to work, speak and write against conscription in any form, and desire a definite statement from the Prime Minister as to his attitude on the matter.” Women such as Adela Pankhurst, Mrs Baines, and Miss Suter were arrested, and the first of these gaoled, in the anti-conscription battles that followed and there was a widespread belief in the Labor movement that conscription had been defeated by women to whom propaganda such as the “Blood Vote” verses had made direct appeal. Certainly the conscription fights presented Labor women as political beings and not mere brewers of tea and carters of cakes, since “the history of working-class women only begins in revolutionary periods. For it is only in times of great social upheaval that the proletarian woman, the lowest of the low, is buoyed up on the radical upsurge to become visible to the historian.” Unfortunately this liberation was not fulfilled or complete, and women were never entirely freed from their fundraising “social” activities: in 1918-19 the women’s central organising committee raised more than £1000, which it dutifully handed over to the central executive.
As a parliamentary party the PLC’s entire efforts at organisation and its policy arguments were all intended to improve its electoral achievements. Comment upon these will now be made at the federal, municipal and state level. Partly because the federal parliament was in Melbourne, but largely because of the impossible electoral and constitutional system in Victoria, the PLC’s attention was directed towards federal elections. While its share of the Senate vote climbed steadily from 13 per cent in 1901 to 33 per cent in 1906, its seats in the House of Representatives rose from two to four. This was not due to lack of preparation as some electorates had organised their campaign committees as much as eighteen months before the polls on 12 December 1906. Nor was foresight lacking at the centre, since Senate preselection results were announced at the end of March 1906. Some electorates were either less prepared or the selection process produced severe disruptions as in Batman and in Melbourne Ports, where the sitting member, Rev J.B. Ronald, was defeated five to one in a preselection ballot. The nomination of two farmers and a stock agent for the Wannon preselection indicated in Tocsin’s words “that the men on the land are taking an active and leading part in the Labour Movement”. There was, if anything, an embarrassment of contenders; “some of them decline to join the organisation or sign the pledge” and were thus rejected outright. A decade earlier they would have been welcomed with open arms. Money was still scarce, and the PLC conducted a self-denial fund of 5s squares at 3d a section. However it was necessary for the redoubtable J.P. Jones to advance £75 for the deposits of three candidates.
The improved condition of the PLC’s organisation was evident in the 1910 federal campaign, when a majority of the candidates were selected at least ten months before polling day, 13 April, and the PLC showed itself to be a vote-getting machine of hitherto undreamed-of proportions. Three PLC senators were elected, and the Senate vote, which is the best indicator of the party’s overall standing, increased by a half to reach 48 per cent; it improved slightly in 1913, but reached an all-time peak in 1914, when it rose to 53 per cent. In the House of Representatives PLC candidates won eleven of the twenty-two seats in 1910; nine of twenty-one seats in 1913; and twelve out of twenty-one in 1914. These performances show that Victorians are not congenitally anti-Labor.
Long before 1890 labouring men stood for municipal elections with occasional success but they were independents in every sense; it was not until the 1890s that Labor candidates stood as teams, and it was not until 1901 that the first Victorian Labor mayor was elected. If caucus alignments were insecure in the Legislative Assembly, they were often non-existent in council meetings, and there was some difficulty enforcing the pledge after 1902. PLC interest in municipal affairs intensified because control of a council meant an opportunity to enforce minimum wages and other ameliorative portions of the party’s platform, which were important because the immediate condition of the labouring classes was determined by the administration of local affairs as much as by the decisions of parliament. Control of a council also meant the prospect of relief works for the unemployed, and, less wholesomely, it led to jobs for the boys. Municipal politics attracted what a Labor parliamentarian later described as “the diversified type of Labourer adventurers … the conduct and the motives of whom are to say the least very questionable”.
Having survived so well the Tory onslaught of 1904, the state parliamentary Labor Party remained a compact and stolid faction of the Assembly for the next twenty years. Something of its tone can be gauged from George Elmslie’s advice to the Glenelg electors in 1906 to vote for the PLC candidate “if they could, but in any case to be sure and record a vote”. When Prendergast led the party to the polls in April 1907, there was a net loss of two seats under what the executive’s report to the next conference described as “unusually adverse” circumstances: “Thousands of Labor voters were disfranchised by the sudden act of the Government in rushing the elections. Candidates had not sufficient time to place their views before the electors, or to organise their supporters.” The editorial of the Australian Typographical Journal for January 1907 had a different explanation of the PLC’s malaise and listed sectarianism, Wren, brewers, and cliques as the root causes. Certainly the new gaming and liquor laws had inflamed sectarian passions once more, but three non-metropolitan seats were lost because the government and opposition parties had arranged electoral immunity for each other so that Labor could not benefit from three-way contests.
After a ministerial crisis had brought down the Bent government, elections were held on 29 December 1908 under what were indeed “unusual” circumstances. Labor’s vote remained steady at 35 per cent, but to their great amazement their share of the seats increased by a third, to twenty-one. Some of these wins resulted from the reappearance of three-way contests. A.R. Outtrim, who had been a member of the Assembly since 1884, adhered to Labor for the first time; Scullin’s organising was also beginning to show results and the western district seat of Port Fairy was won; deposits for improvident candidates were provided as usua1 by J.P. Jones. Labor’s unexpected success at such short notice, combined with the far better results in the federal elections in 1910, to make the loss of one seat at the 1911 state poll a bitter blow.
Within two years, however, the party was to have office somewhat casually dropped upon it. During a debate on a bill to redistribute electorates the government of W.A. Watt was defeated by the defection of a conservative faction of its supporters. Watt resigned, and on 7 December 1913 George Alexander Elmslie was commissioned to form a ministry, which he did after a ballot of his supporters. It was then that what could have been a melodrama was turned into a low farce. Newly elevated salaried ministers were still obliged to resign their seats in Victoria and face the will of their electorates. Thus six of the Legislative Assembly members of the Labor cabinet were not on the floor of the Assembly when parliament reassembled on 9 December; their government, however, faced a want-of-confidence motion. With a third of his supporters and all the best debaters temporarily relegated to the gallery, the unfortunate Elinslie saw his government defeated on 16 December without as much as being able to say a word in its defence. The lieutenant governor refused Elmslie a dissolution, and Watt was recommissioned on 22 December 1913. Elmslie had been nominal premier for less than two weeks. This period in office left an indelible stamp on the minds of all members of caucus, as their parliamentary tactics throughout the next sixteen years were designed to recreate the events of 3-4 December 1913. They never realised who had done what, with which, and to whom.
When compared with the near chaos that marked Victorian labor politics in the 1890s, the key achievements of the PLC were stability and order, so that by 1914 no one doubted that a Labor Party was a viable and independent part of the state’s political make-up. Organisationally the PLC was free from total dependence on the unions for survival, although its expansion was contingent on AWU patronage. In state politics it offered little and received less; in the federal sphere it had been initially the recipient but repaid the federal party’s investment with compound interest. While there were areas of dispute around John Wren, sectarianism, and the Socialist Party, the future appeared to hold nothing but further success.
Bishops Carr and Mannix warned that they would organise a Catholic Labor party, but on 1 September a Catholic Workers’ Association was inaugurated by Catholic members of the PLC and industrial unions. Its declared policy was to secure state aid for Catholic education and to work “through the PLC to improve the social and industrial conditions of the workers”. This meant that it was outside the provision of rule 38(g) although group action by PLC members was quickly but ineffectively proscribed by the central executive. In the early months of 1916 Labor Call was full of arguments and news items about secular education and Catholic penetration of PLC branches. When the conference met on 21 April 1916, rule 38(g) was rendered inoperative by a vote of 124 to 30, and the extension of all benefits enjoyed by state school children to children attending registered schools was supported. As Victoria’s Catholics exerted their influence at the PLC conference, the Easter rebellion raged in Dublin. The significance of the Catholic penetration can be fully appreciated only by asking “what would have been the fate of conscription in the Labor movement if Mannix had carried out his threat to establish a separate Catholic labour party?”
Opposition to the growth of militarism in the Australian Labor movement in the pre-war years was most pronounced in Victoria, largely as a result of the influence of Tom Mann’s VSP, but there remained general support for a citizen volunteer army. The adoption of compulsory military training by the 1908 interstate Labor conference unleashed such great opposition that it was decided to hold a special conference to disavow this policy. Shortly afterwards the THC voted against conscription while the AWU expressed its support. Less than a fortnight before the special conference was due to meet, Andrew Fisher formed his first government and there was reluctance to rock the boat. When the conference assembled, the president’s ruling that it had power to alter the federal platform was disagreed with by forty-three votes to thirty. Anti-militarist attacks persisted and were often directed against the Fisher government, especially at Senator George Pearce, who was described by Labor Call as “A Military Czar of Tom Thumb dimensions”. Well before 1914 the Victorian Labor movement possessed a significant and vocal anti-militarist minority, which was to become the core of the anti-conscriptionist movement in Ausiralia.
The division of Labor opinion was apparent in August 1914. Two days after war was declared, Labor Call warned that it was all a capitalist plot to defeat Labor at the elections, and the Sandringham PLC passed a general strike resolution to end the war. Late in August the THC affiliated with the Victorian Peace Alliance. However, these moves were marginal to the true temper of the time, which can be judged from the cancellation of many union meetings because members were engaged in “patriotic outbursts”, and from the jingoistic programs of the People’s Concerts conducted at the Temperance Hall in conjunction with the THC. Pro-war attitudes among Victorian Laborites persisted well into 1916, including enthusiasm for the “heroic deeds” performed at the Dardenelles.
In the second half of 1915 there were indications that sections of the Victorian Labor movement were less happy with the continuance of the war: the THC passed a resolution calling for a statement of the terms for a negotiated settlement, while the PLC suggested an international conference of workers to settle disputes by arbitration. Opposition to a conservative call for conscription was far more precise.
Growing disenchantment with the war did not proceed in isolation but was tied to opposition to the Labor government’s general policy. Senator Pearce, defence minister, was the first to be attacked for his failure, and later for his apparent refusal, to enforce preference for unionists in Defence Department work. No less severe were the attacks on Hughes, who later in 1915 was described as a “bosses” representative when pre-conscription criticism of the Labor government reached its peak with the dropping of the powers referendum in November 1915; this was taken as final proof that Hughes had no intention of curbing prices and profits, or of ending unemployment. It was a particularly bitter blow to the Railway Union and to its secretary, Frank Hyett, who had been banking on the extension of Commonwealth powers to escape from the continuing consequences of the 1903 strike. Right from the very start of the war the Victorian Labor movement was deeply involved in the fight against censorship; when in June 1915 Frank Anstey resigned from the federal parliamentary Labor Party over the War Precautions Act, his stand was supported by the THC. A Labor split had begun.
Hughes certainly did nothing to bind up the wounds. Early in 1916 he referred to his Labor opponents as “devils in swine” which led at least one PLC branch to declare unanimously that he was no longer a Labor man. Shortly afterwards the PLC executive called on the cabinet to resign and for caucus to elect a new ministry. A motion to support this resolution was defeated at the THC by fifty-one votes to thirty. However, attitudes hardened after the military raided the THC on 29 July and seized anti-conscription pamphlets. Even without conscription it was highly unlikely that the Labor Party could have remained formally united for very much longer. Certainly the dissatisfaction up to August 1916 would not by itself have caused the split — nor would it have caused Hughes to be the loser. But the continuance of the war would have inexorably exacerbated the causes of discontent to the point of open division. To this extent conscription was contingent to a Labor split.
If Melbourne was the ideological heart of the anti-conscription movement, so too was it the organisational centre simply because the federal parliament was located there: the Australian Political Labor Executive at its first meeting in June 1915 appointed as its secretary Arch Stewart, who was also secretary of the PLC; in 1916 the secretary of the all-Australian trade union conference (E.J. Holloway) and of its anti-conscription committee (John Curtin) were also Melbourne-based.
Concern at the possible introduction of conscription started in earnest around the middle of 1915: an Anti-Militarist and Anti-Conscription League was formed in Melbourne in July, while the No Conscription Fellowship held its first meeting on 4 October. Many THC delegates were reluctant to act as long as conscription remained no more than a possibility. However, as discontent with the government over economic matters intensified and as Hughes prepared to go overseas, the anticonscriptionists in Victoria became more active. Robert Ross organised a United Peace and Free Speech Committee in January 1916 and the Militant Propagandists began work in PLC branches shortly afterwards.
Progress was made at the THC meeting on 2 March when Frank Hyett, Railways Union secretary, initiated moves for a congress of all affiliated unions in Australia to discuss conscription for overseas service. A further breakthrough came four weeks later when Hyett moved for the appointment of “a propaganda committee to bring the matter of conscription and the forthcoming congress before the Australian Trades Unions”. The congress, which met in Melbourne on 11 and 12 May 1916 recorded “its uncompromising hostility to conscription of life and labour” by a card vote of 258,018 to 753; on 6 July the THC agreed to its secretary, Holloway, taking on the job of secretary of the no-conscription campaign, but pressure of work demanded his almost immediate replacement by John Curtin. Rank-and-file opposition to the war as such remained ambivalent to say the least; when a meeting of Melbourne’s printers voted narrowly against conscription in April 1916, “the defeated group began singing the National Anthem, which was then taken up as heartily by the other side”. In October a ballot of printers voted 570 to 439 in favour of donating £50 to the PLC for its anti-conscription campaign; almost a third of those eligible failed to express an opinion. When Hughes announced his support for conscription at the end of August, the THC stepped up its activities and resolved that unions should make as many of their officials as possible free for the campaign. The national executive of the trades union conference called a 24-hour stop-work for 4 October against Hughes’s proclamation calling up single men for service within Australia. In November THC approval was given to establish machinery that could proceed to a general strike if the proclamation was not withdrawn.
Voting in Victoria favoured conscription by a margin of 25,000 but it was defeated overall. The executive of the trade union anti-conscription congress handed its responsibility to a committee of six, to be appointed from the THC and the PLC, with a reminder from Hyett that conscription was still possible and that to disband completely would be premature, if not disastrous. Much of the drive and most of the finance for the anti campaign in Victoria had come from the THC, with Hyett playing a conspicuous part. Hyett had been assistant-secretary of Mann’s VSP and had something of Mann’s charisma among other unionists: he was young, effective, personable and a Sheffield Shield cricketer. No doubt the THC would have opposed conscription if he had not been there; but whether its opposition would have been as much, as soon, or as effective is less certain. Hyett’s influence on the anti-conscription campaign was but part of the residue of the internationalism that Mann had sponsored in the Victorian labour movement.
Defeat for conscription should not be seen as the triumph of a popular internationalism. Indeed xenophobic responses to Asia were at the centre of most anti-conscription arguments; the largest banner at the women’s anti-conscription rally in Melbourne on 21 October 1916 read “Vote NO and Keep Australia WHITE and FREE”. The Japanese assumed the position of dominant threat after the war against Russia, when Tocsin on 18 February 1904 claimed that “no white Australian can legitimately back up a semi-nigger against a European race”. Once the Great War began in 1914, fear of Japan intensified: “Japan has joined in the general slaughter … Before many years this same power will dominate the Pacific, and then good-bye to White Australia”; or, as Frank Anstey would have it; “Between the Jap and the Jew — shoddy and shentage — Australia and the Australian worker in particular is going to have a hot hell of a time.” With an immediate threat of conscription Japan loomed even larger. Anstey published an open letter to John Earle (ex-premier of Tasmania) in reply to Hughes’s denial that he (Hughes) had negotiated with the Japanese ambassador in London. Anstey threatened to make public the content of Hughes’s report to caucus — a report which, according to a New South Wales Labor member, would make every man and woman in Australia vote no. Throughout 1916-17 Labor Call regularly ran articles with titles such as “The Mighty Japanese”, “The Rising Sun”, and “The Japanese Empire Bids for a New Continent”, which coloured a grotesque charade on 21 June 1917 when representatives of the THC, the PLC, the Australian Catholic Federation, and the Rubber Workers’ Union urged the Victorian premier to prohibit the manufacture and sale of contraceptives on the grounds that Australia had to populate or perish.
Neither the state parliamentary leader, Elmslie, nor Victoria’s leading federal Labor politician, Tudor, was a militant anti-conscriptionist. In September 1916 Elmslie resigned as leader because of a “nervous breakdown” but was granted “leave of absence” instead. Tudor had grown firmer in his opposition by the time the referendum was announced and he played an active part whenever he could get away from the recruiting platform. Senator E.I. Russell was the only one of Victoria’s seventeen federal Labor members to go with Hughes. Of the twenty-two state Labor members only three were expelled — the first on 26 September, that is, over a month before the referendum. PLC eagerness to deal with the conscriptionists is well expressed in Labor Call’s comment early in October that only “a split can save the Labor Party”. While the THC fought Hughes on the hustings, the PLC worked against him within the party machinery, and on 4 November 1916 its central executive called for a special interstate Labor conference to expel the conscriptionists. At this special conference in Melbourne on 4 December the expulsion resolution was moved by two Victorians, Scullin and Stewart.
Preparations against conscription persisted throughout the first half of 1917, so that on 7 June the THC set aside its meeting night for a discussion with representatives of the Trades Councils of Ballarat, Bendigo, and Geelong, the Railways Union, and the Mining Employees’ Association, from which a call was made for an interstate conference of state Trades and Labour Councils (TLCs) with power to act in the manner deemed most effective against the introduction of industrial conscription: a general strike was never far from the minds of Victoria’s industrial militants at this time.
The effect of the split on the organisation of the PLC can be seen from Table 1: The decline between October 1914 and October 1915 can be attributed to the inevitable dropping away after the major election drives of 1913 and 1914; the increase between December 1916 and April 1917 is to be explained by the renewed activity in preparation for the federal election of 5 May 1917.
Table 1. Number of Branches Listed in Labor Call
The 1917 federal and state elections were far from disastrous for the PLC. It lost five of its twelve House of Representatives seats but this still enabled it to constitute one-third of the federal caucus. At the state level the three seats of expelled conscriptionists were lost but the party managed to win eighteen others. PLC supporters were even more cheered late in December 1917 when Victoria swung against conscription at the second referendum. For a party unaccustomed to success this was no mere consolation prize.
Total war ruptured Australian society and resulted in the expansion and deepening of its proletarian segment. This was not simply a matter of imported ideas or statements by leaders but can be discerned at the branch level: Yarraville PLC early in 1916 agreed to co-operate with the Footscray Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) club; at its December 1918 meeting the Brighton Australian Labor party (ALP) unanimously protested at the prohibition of the red flag and at the imprisonment of those who had flown it; in 1919 the North Fitzroy branch carried resolutions supporting the flying of the red flag at the THC, the One Big Union (OBU), and calling for the release of political prisoners. W.A. Holman exaggerated somewhat when in late 1916 he described the Victorian Labor party as being “in a most unfortunate position, having apparently, succumbed almost unanimously to the pressure brought to bear by the workers”, but he had rightly sensed the nature of the future developments. Examination of the scheme to fly a red flag over the THC building; of attitudes towards the war; of the response to the Russian Revolution; of the adoption of a socialist objective; of the establishment of the Labor College and of the attack upon racism will demonstrate the contours of this leftward trend.
Flying the red flag over the Melbourne Trades Hall was no quixotic gesture but a political act in the finest traditions of propaganda by deed. The debate commenced in May 1916 when it was moved that “as the Labor Movement is (and must be) international, some non-national emblem ought to be recognised and exhibited as a symbol of that spirit”. The debate intensified, as did the wrath of the bourgeoisie, until a special THC meeting on 12 September 1918 decided that “the red flag be declared to be the flag and the colour the colour of the Labor Movement, and that the flag be flown upon days to honour any Labor event, and every other day determined upon by the Executive of the THC”. Throughout these months a continuous debate ensued in the Labor press, at union and at branch meetings where the issue was argued out in terms of socialism, the war and internationalism including support for Soviet Russia. The demand for their own flag indicated a growing awareness by a section of the workers that they were a class and that the Australian flag was the symbol of their oppressors.
Opposition to the war remained the central political issue as opinion hardened after the conscription split. On 18 January 1917 the THC resolved to “begin a peace campaign by holding public meetings, at which the people might be shown how their interests will be better served and their aspirations more thoroughly attained by a settlement of this war through negotiation … and that the Executive of the PLC be invited to co-operate”. On 26 July the THC called upon the PLC executive to request all Labor politicians “to refuse to assist in recruiting” and both wings of the Victorian Labor movement recommended a “yes” vote in the federal ALP ballot to determine whether the party should discontinue supporting voluntary recruiting. Nor was the parliamentary section silent, and on 6 August 1918 Prendergast, who had regained the leadership on Elmslie’s death three months previously, moved an amendment, calling for “immediate negotiations” to arrange “equitable terms of peace”, to the premier’s resolution which demanded “inflexible determination to continue” the war “to a victorious end”. Prendergast ended a forceful speech by declaring that “this is not a time to have any braggadocio in connection with the war, but a time to try to get conditions of peace for the future, so that Democracies may grow up irrespective of juntas and jingoes on one side, and profiteers and price-raisers on the other.” The war made it impossible to speak of an industrial wing in the old sense, as political strikes and actions had become regular parts of the THC’s program; in line with this trend was the THC’s decision on 21 June 1918 to appoint a committee to present “an agenda of postwar problems” which would be discussed at subsequent council meetings. One of the problems encountered was the demand by some returned soldiers for employment preference over eligibles who had not enlisted. Despite the establishment of Labor-oriented returned men’s organisations and the holding of special conferences at the THC, at least one section of the soldiers declared their intention to organise industrial unions to fight “Official Labor”.
Victorian Labor sympathy for a revolution in Russia dated back to the 1905 uprising and persisted throughout 1917 to 1920, largely irrespective of the changing composition of the revolutionary government. Lenin was quoted favourably in Labor Call as early as 18 October 1917 and the following issue reprinted H.N. Brailsford’s defence of the Bolshevik leader. Favourable reports of the Soviet government appeared regularly in Labor Call throughout 1918 and on 18 July that year there was a front-page article by Peter Simonoff, the Soviet “consul” in Melbourne. The 1919 Victorian Labor conference protested at allied intervention in Russia; expressed sympathy for Simonoff, who had been gaoled by the Australian authorities; and hoped for the success of Bolshevism because it sought “the common ownership and workers’ management of the means of production”. Labor Call occasionally carried materials critical of the Bolsheviks from Russians resident in Australia, but its editor, Maurice Blackburn, expressed the more usual position in an article celebrating the third anniversary of the Bolshevik coup: “With the Russian Revolution go the hearts and the hopes of men and women in the Labor movement all over the world; we are rebuffed in its reverses. We succeed in its successes after three years of the mightiest struggles with the foe without and the foe within, with the problems of economic reconstruction and of military defence, there endures and flourishes amid the rejoicing of its friends and the confusion of its enemies, the world’s first Socialist Commonwealth.” Bolshevik methods, however, were not to be imitated in Australia no matter how necessary they might have been in Russia.
Although the Russian Revolution was seen as necessary for Russia, the prescriptive demands of Marxism did not penetrate very deeply into the Victorian Labor movement. In April 1919 the Victorian Labor Party conference rejected the OBU revolutionary objective in favour of Maurice Blackburn’s amendment, which called for “the peaceful overthrow of the capitalist system” and the institution of “democratic control of industry”. This previsaged the situation that emerged at the 1921 federal conference when a newly adopted socialisation objective was once more given a Blackburn interpretation. Blackburn had published a number of articles in Labor Call in 1919-20 outlining a scheme of national guilds along the lines proposed by G.D.H. Cole in Britain. In addition he objected to the abandonment of political struggle, which he saw as the consequence of OBU-ism; ironically he was even then further to the left than many of those who were supporting Bolshevik methods.
Another instance of this leftward movement occurred with the establishment of the Labor College in July 1917. Only two years earlier the THC had participated in the launching of a Workers’ Education Association in Victoria, but this was now repudiated by the left because “its teachers are University professors” whose “teachings are an intellectual justification” of the middle classes. In contradistinction, “the Victorian Labor College offers the workers a revolutionary culture. It pins its faith to trade unionism as the hope of the economic world … Its teachings will be conditioned by the exigencies of the class struggle, the fundamental fact of our economic life.” The college taught an amalgam of guild socialism, as personified in Reverend F. Sinclaire and Maurice Blackburn, and Marxism from Guido Barrachi. Frank Hyett and the Victorian Railways Union were equally active, and the college had its headquarters in the union’s Unity Hall.
Indicative of the strength of the leftward shift was the appearance of anti-racist material in Labor Call, which early in February 1917 quoted Debs on the colourless nature of the class struggle. Reports of strikes and other union activity in Japan were given favourable treatment, although the tone was often that expressed by the regular contributor, W. Wallis: “We believe in a White Australia, but we welcome the native of his own hearth, who strikes a blow against the devouring capitalist.” Sympathetic reports of coloured workers increased once Maurice Blackburn became editor in 1918 since he believed that the Australian Labor movement had ‘‘no hope of success except as part of the international movement”. Most of the attacks on racism came in the publications that were more directly inspired by the Russian Revolution, the One Big Union Herald demonstrating its proletarian internationalism with headlines such as “Wake-up White Australians; Turn Red and follow the Example of Your Despised Yellow Brothers”. The long haul against racism had begun.
While the most exciting political events in the Victorian Labor movement from 1916-21 were definitely occurring outside the parliamentary arena, the PLC was above all a parliamentary party and no matter how thrilled or disgusted, encouraged or frightened, individual parliamentarians might have been by the mass stirrings in society, electoral demands had to be met. After weathering the federal election in May 1917, the PLC had to prepare for a November state election that saw the entry into politics of the Victorian Farmers’ Union candidates, who won four seats. It had been in an attempt to ward off such a challenge that the state parliamentary Labor Party had split over a want-of-confidence motion in Sir Alexander Peacock’s government in July 1917. John Bowser, soon to be premier, moved an amendment to the address-in-reply censuring the government for not making “necessary savings in State expenditure” and for imposing “increased fares and freights on railway transport without the consent of Parliament”. All five non-Melbourne Labor members voted for the amendment, leaving their colleagues to provide the premier with a bare majority of two in a vote of sixty. If country members were forced to vote for freight concessions, metropolitan members could hardly support retrenchment, which would have brought increased unemployment; nor had Irvine’s 1902-4 economy drive been forgotten.
The Labor Party’s country network was reactivated after July 1918 by the appointment as organiser of yet another AWU man, ex-Senator McKissock. State elections in October 1920 resulted in the defeat of one Labor member by the Farmers’ Union, which increased its membership to thirteen, gaining the balance of power. A referendum on prohibition, conducted in conjunction with this election, revived the debate on “Nationalisation with a view to prohibition” within Labor’s ranks. In Collingwood the sitting member, Martin Hannah, was defeated at a preselection ballot because of his support for liquor reform; he eventually won the seat as an independent Labor candidate; Hannah’s opponent was backed by the bookmaker, Robert Roberts, a close associate of John Wren. The old patterns would force their way through more clearly as the leftward shift lost impetus after 1921.
In its report to the 1919 conference the central executive presented a sombre but proud account of how the ALP had “saved the liberties of Australia” by waging principled and united struggles. By continuing in this manner it hoped to turn “temporary defeat into a lasting victory”. Robert Ross was less sanguine, and in the September 1920 issue of Ross’s Monthly he traced three causes of Victorian Labor’s long-standing electoral malaise. He pointed to the combination of unequal electoral districts and the highly concentrated nature of Victorian industry, which prevented a wider geographic distribution of workers and thus kept the party’s support centred on Melbourne and the country centres of Geelong, Bendigo, and Ballarat; in addition, Melbourne had fewer dailies, so that none felt the need to chase Labor supporters in order to boost its circulation. Whether one agrees with the adequacy of Ross’s diagnosis or not, he is certainly correct to look for reasons other than the conscription split when accounting for Labor’s chronic weakness in Victorian politics. But he should have mentioned the political inheritance of Victoria’s Liberalism as an equally important consideration inhibiting the emergence, and then constricting the growth, of the party, especially in state politics. Whether the Labor Party in Victoria was a success or a failure depends upon what one considered its aim to be: for the minority who always expected the socialist commonwealth there was nothing but disappointment; for those who wanted a state Labor government there was the mere farce of December 1913; for those who sought through Parliamentary place to assist their fellows at a personal level there were ample rewards. It is appropriate that the last word on the Victorian Labor Party before 1921 should concern that typical Labor man, Frank Tudor, whose death drew the following obituary from the OBU Herald:
His electorate (Yarra) comprised Protestants and Catholics, Sinn Feiners and Orangemen, Loyalists and Pacifists, Socialists and Conservatives. How to represent this jumble of interests would present a difficult problem to the ordinary man, but Mr Tudor tactfully solved it by doing nothing — that is, unless his accepting and retaining the Presidency of the Richmond Football Club can be regarded as a definite political achievement … and no matter how loudly Labor in Conference might declare for the social revolution it did not affect Mr Tudor inside the House or out of it. The only time the Capitalist parties feared him was when he spoke on the tariff.
Table 2. Number of "Labor" MLAs by Source
Cohn A. Hughes & B. D. Graham, A Handbook of Australian
Government and Politics (Canberra, 1968), pp. 467-74.
In an interview in Tocsin, 28 October 1898, the “Labor party” leader, W.A. Trenwith, claimed to be the leader of a party of at least sixty. But the researcher’s best advice comes from John Murray, MLA for Warrnambool, in reply to a questioner at an election meeting: “I leave it to his superior intelligence to form his own conclusion as to whether or not I belong to the Labor Party.” (Warrnambool Standard, 2 October 1897)
BLACKBURN, Maurice McCrae. b. Inglewood, 1880; d. Melbourne, 1944. Graduated in Arts, 1906, and Law, 1909. MLA (Essendon), 1914-17; (Fitzroy), 1921-27; (Clifton Hill), 1927-34. Speaker, Legislative Assembly, 1933-34. MHR (Bourke), 1934-43. Expelled from ALP, 1935 and 1941.
BROMLEY, Frederick Hadkinson. b. Wolverhampton, 1854; d. Melbourne, 1908. Arrived Australia, 1879. Decorative artist. Foundation secretary, Japanners and Tin Workers’ Union, 1883. President, THC, 1885-86. MLA (Carlton), 1892-1908. First secretary, state PLP. Leader state PLP, 1900-4.
CHAMPION, Henry Hyde. b. Poona (India), 1859; d. Melbourne, 1928. Journalist. Senior office bearer, VSP. Unsuccessfully contested various elections. Published “The crushing defeat of trade unionism in Australia”, Nineteenth Century (Feb. 1891); The Root of the Matter (1895). Editor, The Champion, 1895-97.
ELMSLIE, George Albert. b. Lethbridge, 1863; d. Melbourne, 1918. Stonemason. MLA (Albert Park), 1902-18. Leader, state PLP, 1913-18. Premier, treasurer, 1913.
HYETT, Francis William. b. Melbourne, 1882; d. Melbourne, 1919. Secretary, Victorian Railway Union, 1911-19.
JONES, John Percy. b. Hobart, 1872; d. Melbourne, 1955. Tailor and company director. MLC, 1910-40. Minister without portfolio, 1913. Commissioner for public works inter alia, 1924, 1927-28, 1929-32, 1932-35. Resigned ALP in support of Premiers’ Plan.
MALONEY, William Robert Nuttall. b. Melbourne, 1854; d. Melbourne, 1940. Doctor of medicine. MLA (Melbourne West), 1889-1903. MHR (Melbourne), 1904-40. Published Flashlights on Japan (1905).
MANN, Tom. b. Foles Hill (England), 1856; d. Grassington (England), 1941. Socialist lecturer and organiser. Arrived Australia, 1902; departed, 1910. Founder-secretary, VSP, 1905-9. Organiser, Combined Unions Committee, Broken Hill, 1908-9. Published The Labour Movement in Both Hemispheres (1903); Socialism (1905); The Way to Win (1909). Editor, Socialist, 1906-9.
MURPHY, William Emmett. b. Dublin, 1841; d. Dalesford, 1921. Arrived Melbourne, 1867. Soldier and cabinetmaker. Secretary, THC, 1883-87. Unsuccessfully contested elections, 1886 and 1889. Published History of Eight-hour Day (1896).
O’DOWD, Bernard. b. Beaufort, 1866; d. Melbourne, 1953. Graduated Bachelor of Arts, 1889; Master of Arts, 1891. Public servant, 1866-1935. Published Collected Poems (1941).
PRENDERGAST, George Michael. b. Adelaide, 1854; d. Melbourne, 1937. Printer. President, THC, 1893-94. MLA (North Melbourne), 189497, 1900-26; (Footscray), 1927-37. Leader, state PLP, 1904-13, 1918-26. Chief secretary, 1913. Premier, treasurer, 1924. Chief secretary, 1927-28. Published Labor in Politics: Its influence on Legislation (1926).
SCULLIN, James Henry. b. Trawalla, 1876; d. Melbourne, 1953. Political and union organiser, and storekeeper. MHR (Corangamite), 1910-13; (Yarra), 1922-49. Leader federal PLP, 1928-35. Prime minister, 1929-32. Editor, Ballarat Echo, 1913-19.
TRENWITH, William Arthur. b. Launceston, 1847; d. Melbourne, 1925. Bootmaker. Secretary, Operative Bootmakers’ Union, 1883. President, THC, 1886-87. MLA (Richmond), 1889-1903. Senator, 1904-1910. Delegate, Federation Convention, 1898. Leader, state PLP, 1892-1900. Commissioner public works inter alia,1900-1902.
TUDOR, Frank Gwynne. b. Williamstown, 1866; d. Richmond, 1922. Felt hatter. President, THC, 1899. MHR (Yarra), 1901-22. Minister customs, 1908-9, 1910-13, 1914-16.
WREN, John. b. Collingwood, 1871; d. Melbourne, 1953. Bootclicker, sportsman, and financier. Teetotaller and non-smoker.
19. Commonweal, 14 May 1892.