On 8 May, 1901, the first Caucus of ALP Federal MPs met in preparation for the inaugural sitting of Australia’s Federal Parliament, which was scheduled for the next day. The first Caucus meeting decided to form a Federal Labor Party, adopt its own platform, and agree to a signed pledge. The platform included support for women’s suffrage, compulsory arbitration, old age pensions, and White Australia. No party machinery other than the Caucus was set up; at this stage the Caucus was the Federal Party.
One hundred and twenty years on, Anika Wells MP, the current Caucus Secretary and Member for Lilley reflects on the event and what has changed.
May 8, 2021, marks the 120th anniversary of the first caucus of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. We are the oldest political party in Australia, among the oldest in the world. Alone of all political parties in the Federal Parliament, we pre-date Federation. From the beginning, Labor has had a deep sense of history, of our place within it and our obligation to the written record of our story.
Still, the quality of the minutes of Caucus across 120 years is “as variable and uneven as the story they record. Much depended on the diligence and flair of the Caucus Secretary”, critiqued former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. I wish this review had formed part of the handover before commencing my own efforts in this role!
The very first Caucus Secretary was also a proud Queenslander, 51-year-old firebrand Senator James Stewart of Rockhampton. He worked as a farm hand, then a law clerk and finally for the Caledonian Railways before emigrating from Scotland to central Queensland. Like most founding parliamentarians, he came from the state parliament to successfully run for the Senate; gaining the position of Labor Whip in 1901 and serving until 1917.
Last week, I visited the grave of Mr Stewart. Today he rests in the Lawnton Cemetery in the seat of Dickson, an easy drive from my electorate of Lilley in the northside of Brisbane. In 1901, this journey would have most likely taken place by boat, from Brisbane central up to Redcliffe pier in the seat of Petrie, then across on tracks created for the Gympie gold rush.
I wonder what Stewart would have made of his modern-day successor arriving at his grave site in an air-conditioned car with twin baby boys strapped in their rear capsules, dictating these thoughts through Bluetooth voice memo on the drive home.
They say the measure of intelligence is the ability to change. On that first Tuesday back in May 1901, 22 members of caucus gathered. The meeting was dedicated to electing the Caucus Chair, Secretary pro tem and spokesmen for the Party in each House. I say “men” because so do the minutes, the pages littered with references to “Labor men” being in agreement about various things. Even leadership – there is no evidence to suggest the leadership positions went to a ballot.
120 years on, I am still only the 132nd woman to be elected to Australia’s House of Representatives, but I sit in a Labor caucus of 45 women and 49 men.
It’s a matter of record that among the first substantive pieces of legislation to be debated in the Parliament was the Immigration Restriction bill, which enacted the white Australia policy and was supported by all parliamentarians except a few members of the Free Trade party. Today, under the leadership of Anthony Albanese, Labor fights for the rights of migrant workers in the modern gig economy, vowing the next Labor government will legislate to ensure more Australian workers have access to employee protections and entitlements currently denied to them.
Progress doesn’t move in a straight line. It zigs and it zags. Returning to Whitlam, he thought that ‘“in a very profound sense, the cause of Labor is the cause of national unity. Equality and quality of opportunity, equality of life and more quality in life, go together. Our opponents, by contrast, seek to divide, and thereby to rule. All too often, all too tragically, they have succeeded.”
Words that resonate today. I suspect Labor’s founders would be circumspect that we mark this 120th anniversary in Opposition. These are obstacles they faced themselves, that have been overcome before; that will soon again. Quietly, I believe Secretary Stewart would have been tickled to learn that despite the seat of Dickson now being long held by LNP Minister Peter Dutton, the enclave where he rests today remains staunchly Labor. We won the Lawnton booth 57.42% 2PP at the last election. Hope persists.
The Labor founders never doubted the enduring meaning of their work, and so too for today’s FPLP the work goes on and the cause of our collective perseveres. Minute by minute. Minutes by minutes. We should be good ancestors, privileged as we are to be collective agents of history.
You can learn more about Labor and the first Federal Parliament here: www.laborhistory.org.au/category/foundations/the-first-federal-election/