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Speech for the launch of the Biography of Andrew Fisher, Canberra.

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Prime Minister of Australia


Launch of the Biography of Andrew Fisher, National Library of Australia, Canberra

29 October 2008


For 100 years Andrew Fisher has arguably been the least known of the 10 Australian Labor prime ministers who have served the Australian nation.

100 years later David Day’s biography sets this to right.

By any historical benchmark, Fisher’s most basic political achievements are the stuff of legend.

As a member of the Ayshire miners’ union he worked for Keir Hardie who founded the British Labour Party.

He became one of Australia’s first Labor members of Parliament, elected to the Queensland Assembly in 1893.

In 1899 he became a minister in the Dawson Government, the first Labor government anywhere in the world - or as the then Queensland Governor Sir Samuel Griffith said more prosaically in his dispatch to London: “the first instance in which a purely ‘Labour government’ has been formed in any part of his majesty’s dominions.”

While also noting with apprehension that six of the seven new Labor ministers had been, and I quote Griffith’s dispatch, had “been engaged at some time in manual labour”.

In 1904, Fisher became a minister in the Watson federal government - the first national Labor government anywhere in the world.

And in 1910 Fisher achieved the truly extraordinary; at a general election becoming prime minister of the first majority Labor government - again the first anywhere in the world. Incidentally, with a majority in both houses.

By any measure this is an impressive series of firsts.

Fisher’s critical legacy for Labor was to establish for the future that Labor was not only a viable political force but also most critically a successful electoral political force.

All achieved less than a generation after the formation of the party as the political voice of progressive politics in Australia.

Or as one newspaper recorded at the time, the Labor party was now “recognised by the representative of Her Majesty as one of the great Constitutional Parties of State from which Her Majesty’s advisors are drawn. There lies the triumph for Labor.”

These were not easy achievements. These were great achievements.

This also was the message that rang out across the world as nascent labour parties, social democratic parties, and democratic socialist parties across Europe watched with amazement, wonder and awe as Australia led the world, when through the ballot box they elected the working people’s party to become the democratically-elected government of a sovereign state.

For the European parties this was still the stuff of dreams.

For many Europeans, the debate was whether any progressive political, economic and social reform could be achieved in the absence of violent revolution.

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For the Europeans, the Australian Labor Party’s political success represented new, peaceful and progressive political possibilities for the future.

In the great sweep of history, the history of ideas and the history of political movements, establishing the political fact that reform could be achieved by parliamentary means rather than revolutionary means was of seminal significance.

Fisher was in the midst of it.

Few Australians realise that when Fisher returned to Britain as Australian Labor Prime Minister, he was hailed as a national inspiration for what Labour could achieve in Britain.

For the British, nearly another generation would pass before Ramsey MacDonald was able to form government through a majority in the House of Commons.

Of course Fisher’s contemporaries in Australia were less prone to take the broad view of Labor’s early electoral successes in Australia.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph described the 1904 Labor Government as “a political freak”.

Echoed by The Times of London which warned in stentorian tones, as only The Times, could do, that having a Labour Government would prove to be a “painful lesson for Australians”.

The passage of time, however, does enable us to take a broader and more generous view properly informed by history.

Andrew Fisher should be honoured in Australian history as a political pioneer, as a social reformer and as a great Australian nationalist committed to the great task of Australian nation building.

I have spoken of Fisher the political pioneer.

But what of Fisher the social reformer? Fisher’s visceral sense of social justice came of his experience as a child worker in the Ayshire coal mines.

These mines and the working conditions associated with them had barely emerged from the dark and bleak shadows of the Dickensian world of the late Industrial Revolution.

And for Fisher and his time and his experience this is not the stuff of literature. This was the stuff of cold daily hard reality. Miners dying in mine collapses; others being injured without any form, hope or prospect of compensation and still others dying the long and painful death of “black lung”.

Fisher’s social justice was equally shaped by his experience of the Scottish Kirk. A deep belief that singing hymns on Sunday was rancid hypocrisy unless matched by work on Monday to help liberate the human condition not just the eternal souls of all human kind.

For Fisher, being a Sunday school teacher and a union activist was part of a seamless personality, a seamless reality, for him, a seamless mission in life.

His union advocacy was fearless, causing him to be black-banned from one pit after the other - and eventually forcing him to find a new life in Australia.

In Australia he campaigned for women’s suffrage, he campaigned for workers’ compensation, he campaigned for the aged pension, and as Prime Minister, served as Prime Minister when the first aged pension was paid on 1 July 1909.

He campaigned for the arbitration system and in 1912 he introduced something called, remarkably, a “baby bonus” - some 90 years before a certain other political party may have claimed to have done the same for the first time. But again, this is the stuff of history.

Fisher’s social reform agenda was as deep as it was rich as it was broad.

But what of Fisher the great Australian nationalist? Fisher the nation builder?

Fisher introduced legislation to establish this nation’s capital, Canberra. Fisher established the Royal Military College at Duntroon. The Fisher Government introduced military aviation training.

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Fisher insisted that the newly formed Royal Australia Navy be under “complete local control” - words underlined by his own hand and with his own pen in the relevant Cabinet Memorandum.

Fisher introduced our first national currency. Fisher introduced national postage stamps which for the first time featured Australian national symbols rather than simply the monarch’s head. Fisher Australianised the Australian coat of arms.

Fisher patronised the emergence of the Australian national school of painting - often retreating, as David Day’s book describes, to the artists studio adjacent to his Melbourne parliamentary offices where the likes of Roberts and Streeton of the Heidelberg School were hard at work with the birth of Australian impressionism, crafting a new vision of Australia.

Fisher supported, although this was subsequently thwarted within the bureaucracy, the sending of an Australian team to the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 with an Australian team uniform and with Australian Government support. That was the promise, unfortunately a promise not delivered on.

Fisher brought the Northern Territory under the control of the Commonwealth for the first time in 1911. And in order to bring Western Australia more fully into the national fold he launched the trans-continental railway across the Nullarbor.

In sensing early the need for a distinctive Australian diplomatic presence and voice in the world, he personally commissioned the construction of Australia House in London - the building finally opened when he was High Commissioner in 1920.

Andrew Fisher was in every fibre of his being a passionate Australian nationalist, not just in idle and romantic sentiment, but much more importantly in the concrete, practical acts of nation building.

Barton had spoken of a nation for a continent, a continent for a nation. It was Fisher however who sought to shape these words into a reality, crafting a nation out of the idea of a nation.

But beyond all of these things, what of Andrew Fisher the man?

The stories I like most in David Day’s biography are those of this simple son of the Ayshire coal fields and the Scottish Kirk visibly squirming at the prospect of having to wear court dress in order to meet the King in London.

Refusing time and time again to take imperial honours; and even at war’s end, the war which scarred Fisher and the Labor movement for the following generation, refusing to accept the French Government’s offer of a Legion of Honour.

These are signs, simple signs yet cogent signs of a gentle humility and dignity in Fisher which speak forcefully of this great man’s integrity.

Australia is a greater nation because of the work of Andrew Fisher. Australia is a fairer society because of the work of Andrew Fisher. Australia has a more secure future because of the work of Andrew Fisher.

Andrew Fisher - a great Australian Prime Minister. And with great pride I launch this great biography of this great Australian. I thank you.

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