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Five things we can learn from the first Labor Government

Consider this scenario: a minority Labor Government, a vicious press gallery, an opposition saying the government is illegitimate, a bold new policy program, tension between cabinet and caucus, and three Prime Ministers in the same year. Sounding familiar?

That was the story of the very first Labor Government, under Chris Watson in 1904.

ALP 1904 Chris Watson

Prime Minister Chris Watson, Parliament House, 1904

Chifley Executive Director Michael Cooney suggested recently that each generation needs to cast the Labor net anew, without nostalgia for an age long gone. Taken another way – let’s learn from the past but then build upon it.

The first Labor Government has plenty for us to learn. It was 1904 and for a young nation of around four million people we had our share of turbulent politics. Edmund Barton, the country’s first Prime Minister had gone off to the High Court, his Protectionist Party successor, Alfred Deakin, struggled on the floor of the House and ultimately resigned. Led by Chris Watson, a Chilean-born thirty seven year old Sydneysider, Labor was asked to form Government.

Here are five things we can learn from the following three and a half months.

1)      Labor has to take the country with us

Speaking to his own Labor caucus and to the media the first Labor Prime Minister said, “you cannot go ahead of the general sense of the community; no step can be permanent unless founded upon the affections of the people.” Party activists may have wanted him to go faster or more radically and he was derided as being a ‘moderate’ but under Watson Labor-in-Government wanted to be in the long-lasting nation-changing business.

When we reflect on what Labor does best we can think about the big reforms that become entrenched as the Australian way of life and ultimately become impossible to reverse, despite the opposition of our political foes.

Medicare, the old aged pension, penalty rates, an open economy or more recently the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Better Schools all readily spring to mind. Properly tackling climate change will surely be added to that list in years to come.

In conceding the 1996 election Paul Keating said Labor had ‘set new community standards’, evidenced by the Liberals finally dropping decades-long opposition to Labor policies on Medicare, education, health, the labour market and the environment. That’s Labor’s job – raising the community standard.

Chris Watson was on about the same thing in 1904.

2)      We’ve got to fight hard to get our message out

A feisty press gallery is no new thing. Here are some of the headlines and editorials that faced Watson and the new Labor cabinet in 1904:

“It is wholly and solely an apprentice Government…under the tutelage of a secret caucus…(it) goes too far beyond a joke.” The Daily Telegraph

“This is the sort of action which is almost sure to destroy any Constitution … the whole business is bad, as futile as it is bad.” The Hobart Mercury

“The type of Government we are about to have foisted upon the country, to the sure peril of our financial credit … the alarm of capital … and the serious determent of the trade and commerce … every industry must go to the wall.” Maitland Daily Mercury

Put another way – Labor always has to work twice as hard to overcome the vested interested and sceptical commentators. I’m reminded of something Greg Combet said, “There’s no point moaning about it all — stand up and join together and bring about change.” That’s the job of Labor and a job currently being done, whether it’s on the GP Tax, the petrol tax or the unfair higher education changes. We win by taking our message door to door.

3)      We change ourselves

At university I managed to avoid student politics until my final year. Although my limited record at the ballot box wasn’t impressive we were able to recruit a large number of new members to the Party. We were blessed with a very impressive cohort of new members, many of whom now hold important positions across the Federal Opposition and the party.

I can’t count how many times I got thrown this question from potential new members – “Why would I support Labor if they support XYZ?” On university campuses ‘XYZ’ would invariably be a combination of asylum seeker or marriage equality policies. I always had the same reply, to say that Labor used to be the party of the White Australia policy but we changed because young, energetic and passionate activists joined the party, rather than carped at it from the sidelines.

Our first Labor Government did a lot of good things in those short few months, but supporting diverse migration and social cohesion between communities weren’t among them. Our first national conference in 1900 could only agree on four policies – one of which was ‘the total exclusion of coloured and other undesirable races’.

While the Watson Government didn’t change on that one, Labor certainly has. We’re the party of an inclusive migration program and of multiculturalism and we’re the party of Native Title, Mabo and the apology.

We can learn that Labor can and does change, especially with a broad and inclusive party membership.

4)      We care about outcomes not ideology

Whilst equivalent labour and socialist style political parties and ideologues in Europe were sitting in salons and writing lengthy treatises, Australian Labor was forming governments. Australia became an oddity of high practical achievement.

Our political movement didn’t rise solely through the ranks of academia and urban environs but rather under the shade of a ghost gum in outback Queensland in the midst of an industrial dispute. We were a political movement of practicality and necessity rather than isolated ideology.

Chris Watson led a Government that tried to get things done to benefit Australian workers 0 he didn’t try to upend the organs of government to fulfil a little red book, a revolution or manifesto.

As Bill Shorten told the ALP National Policy Forum recently, “We are a party of government – because we seek always the power to do good. We strive to deliver a better deal and a fair go for the millions of Australians who depend upon us, who count upon Labor governments.”

That grounded approach, attuned to the needs of working people, has meant we’ve been the party of the current generation time and time again. We’ve legislated base protections for the aged, the unemployed and workers. We’ve led a country through and out of war. We’ve modernised social policies, expanded higher education and made healthcare affordable. We’ve opened the country’s financial markets, deregulated industries and created a massive pool of compulsory retirement savings. Each has been in lockstep with the current generation and it started with the approach Watson took in office.

5)      We showed we can do it

Watson only had three months and a half months to do achieve something truly ground breaking. You won’t find it in our legislative program – Labor passed only six bills, almost entirely supply bills for the functioning of government.

He did something more impressive and of greater importance for Labor – he proved we could govern the nation.

Under Labor the country didn’t grind to a halt, finance and credit markets didn’t upend themselves and industry certainly didn’t ‘go to the wall’. We didn’t lose Government in scandal or even the ballot box but rather in trying to pass industrial relations policies through a hotly contested House of Representatives.

When Andrew Fisher formed Australia’s second Labor Government, and the nation’s first majority and full term government just six years later it was because Watson had shown it was possible. Every Labor Government since has had Watson to thank for getting our credentials on the board early.

He started the Labor model – to lead the nation with progressive policies at a pace in lock step with the community to benefit the whole nation. There’s plenty to learn from that.

About Elliot Stein

Elliot Stein

Elliot Stein is a ALP branch member in Logan South in the Federal division of Rankin.

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