Centenary of the 1913 Federal Election

by on 14 June, 2013

A couple of weeks ago on 31 May 2013 was the centenary of the 1913 federal election, which went unnoticed.  It was one of the most critical elections in Australian history and its story needs to be retold, writes John Ruddick 

Between 1901 and 1910 Australia had eight Prime Ministerships with no party having a majority in either the House or the Senate.  The backdrop to this period of political flux was the seemingly inexorable rise of Labor. 

In 1901 Labor had just 14 seats in the House (out of 75) making it the smallest of the three parliamentary parties.  In 1903 the Labor tally almost doubled to 23 and then strengthened in 1906 with 26 seats.  The election of 1910 saw Labor not only win a clear majority in the House (42) but almost two thirds of the Senate.  It was a historic victory – Labor was the first openly socialistic party to win a national election in the world.

At the following election in 1913 Labor lost office to the Commonwealth Liberal Party by a single seat.  Australia was in its formative years and the election of 1913 is arguable one of our most consequential – it embedded free enterprise but only just. 

Chris Watson served as the first Labor leader from 1901 to 1907.  During Waton’s leadership Labor held the balance of power between the two pro-business parties – the Protectionists and the Free Traders.  Watson was a Labor moderate who aimed to advance the Labor cause through trading the two other parties off against the other. 

Watson was PM for an inconsequential four months in 1904 (as a result of a parliamentary realignment, not an election) but when the two other parties patched things up he resigned.  Watson remained as Labor leader but his compromises were increasingly resented by the Labor caucus.

In 1907 Labor elected Andrew Fisher as leader.  Like many of early British Labour leaders Fisher was a devout Christian and a teetotaller and unlike today’s ‘Labor’ leaders had spent two decades actually labouring at the bottom of mines. 

Fisher’s colleagues, political opponents, the press and the public would soon admire Fisher as a man of integrity and conviction.  A contemporary noted Fisher: 

has a kind of Olympian dignity, an unruffled and quite impenetrable calm. 

Fisher was an avowed radical socialist who did not think of hiding it.  When campaigning for the leadership he told Caucus: 

it would be cowardly for the man who believes that nationalisation is a proper principle not to express his views in the House.  We have too long shrunk from maintaining propositions which we clearly believe in.

Fisher had absolute confidence that by boldly declaring socialism a majority of the public would soon agree.  He told the Labor Party conference in 1908: 

In the church, the Parliament, in the streets and newspapers all over the civilized world there are no more sneers and scorn for socialism.  Everyone has this one great question to consider: we are all socialists now and indeed the only qualification you hear from anybody is that he is ‘not an extreme socialist.

In late 1908 Labor under Fisher withdrew its support of Protectionist PM Alfred Deakin.  Such were the hostilities between the Protectionists and the Free Traders that Deakin gave his votes in parliament to support Fisher as PM. 

In this first of his three non-consecutive terms as PM, Fisher knew passing socialist legislation was impossible without a majority … so from 1908 to 1909 Fisher principally used the office of PM, not to legislate, but to travel the nation, give speeches and campaign for socialism at the upcoming 1910 election. 

He spoke of: 

soon having a sufficient number in Parliament to express our views in legislation,” and of “Australia being able to lead the world with Socialistic legislation in such a way that it would be helpful to those great countries of the world with congested populations.

Talk like this soon made the two pro-business parties put aside their differences.  The free-traders had lost the debate over tariffs and with socialism a far greater threat the two merged into the Commonwealth Liberal Party. 

It was now obvious Fisher would be removed as PM as soon as Parliament resumed so Fisher mischievously delayed recalling Parliament for as long as he could.  He extended his tour of the nation and his enthusiastic crowds grew. 

After a six month recess Parliament finally returned and Fisher was voted down as PM immediately.  Fisher asked the Governor General for an election but was denied and Deakin returned as PM.  Deakin however was by now tired and probably suffering the onset of dementia while Labor under Fisher had the momentum.

Prior to the formation of the Commonwealth Liberal Party the Protectionists had cut into the working class vote.  The new political environment of two parties (not three) played into Fisher’s hand.  The electorate had a clear choice – the workers versus the capitalists – and Labor’s primary vote leapt from 36.6% 1906 to 49.9% in 1910 making it easily Labor’s biggest ever swing. 

Fisher was Australia’s first powerful PM and he set about using that power.  An unprecedented 113 pieces of legislation passed easily – almost more than all previous governments combined.  Welfare programs and payments boomed. 

Government money was thrown at the arts and sport.  Taxes were hiked as were the number of public servants … but the power Fisher most wanted was to nationalise monopolies and start government owned businesses to compete with the private sector. 

Fisher feared the High Court would declare such laws unconstitutional … so within a year of winning office Fisher put forth two amendments to the Constitution via referendum.  They sought to take the power over commerce and industrial relations away from the states and give it to the federal government.

The referenda lost 61-39%.  Most politicians would back away from such a rebuff but Fisher had often said he would rather return to labouring in the mines than back down on principle.  Fisher immediately announced he would put the questions again to the electorate … and he raised the stakes.  He added six more socialist referenda and timed the vote to be on the same day as the next federal election in 1913.  Fisher reasoned his personal popularity (which was high) would this time get the referenda passed.

In 1913 Fisher’s opponent was the long term anti-socialist campaigner Joseph Cook.  During the campaign Cook focussed not on attacking Fisher but his eight referenda declaring “Labor wants to get in a position of socialistic supremacy over the whole Commonwealth”.

A hundred years ago Cook defeated Fisher by one seat despite Fisher narrowly winning the popular vote.  All eight referenda were defeated just as narrowly.

Fisher did return as PM for a year at the outset of World War One but the war consumed his agenda and he resigned in mid-1915.  He then lived out his days in London depressed at failing to bring about his socialist utopia in the Antipodes. 

One hundred years ago living standards in Argentina were higher than they were in Australia but today the OECD says Australia is the happiest nation on Earth.  Had Fisher’s Labor Party won one more seat in 1913 that may not have been the case.

John Ruddick is a Sydney based mortgage broker

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