Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Andrew Fisher, by David Day

A thoroughly enjoyable book from the always enjoyable David Day. This must be my fourth David Day book. None of them have disappointed so far. Day has an interest in Labor politicians and labor history.

Andrew Fisher is perhaps not a particularly well known Australian prime minister, but he should be. He headed the first majority Labor party in the world. He also introduced many social security measures that are still with us today. He was also ahead of his time when it came to being in favour of extending the vote to women.

Fisher was born in Scotland, had a meager education, and worked as a miner. Constantly agitating for improved pay and conditions, he was frequently fired and blacklisted. With grim future prospects in Scotland, he decided to emigrate to Australia. From there on the rest is history. He threw himself into Australian politics and eventually became prime minister.

If you want to learn about the early days of the Labor party, what it really meant to support and fight for Labor values, what motivated the people who worked for the Labor Party, then this book will give you a good education.

These days, with Rudd heading modern Labor, it's a real eye opener to read about the Labor Party's historical achievements. They were a grass roots political movement that made great advances against a conservative status quo that was frequently horrified at the idea of a government being formed by the working man to defend the rights of the working man.

In our day, where Labor is led by the technocratic Kevin Rudd, the reason why the Labor party is called the Labor party is easily forgotten. They were once a ground breaking political movement.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia on the achievements of Fisher's second (1910-1913) government:

'Fisher carried out many reforms in defence, constitutional matters, finance, transport and communications, and social security, achieving the vast majority of his aims in his first government, such as establishing old-age and disability pensions, a maternity allowance and workers compensation, issuing Australia's first paper currency, forming the Royal Australian Navy, the commencement of construction for the Trans-Australian Railway, expanding the bench of the High Court of Australia, founding Canberra and establishing the government-owned Commonwealth Bank.[12]'

On the dark side of Labor party history, there was always the white Australia policy. When you read the openly racist speeches and proclamations of the times, they do make your jaw drop. Racial ideology - white supremacy really - was widespread. Australia, at the turn of the century, was to be only for the whites. It was commonly believed that the Aboriginal population was dieing out - natural selection was showing them the door to extinction. Whites would rule the world. (Ironically, there was also widespread worry in Australia, and by Fisher especially, about Australian male virility.) This was all normal at the time. These thoughts were published and proclaimed everywhere. No wonder it took until 1967 to even think about legislating specifically to help the Aboriginal population.

Fisher came to an unhappy end. He pledged unlimited support to Britain when the First World War broke out. Andrew Fisher's worker's paradise, his dreams for Australia, were lost. He sent thousands of Australians to their death at Gallipoli, in a travesty of a campaign. Nor did he, as Australia's prime minister, demand enough information about the campaign. Rather, we trusted blindly to the British. In the end, it all became too much for Fisher. The pressures of office during the war took a toll on his health. He resigned while still in office, then took a job as High Commissioner and moved to the United Kingdom.

This was bad for Australia, as the pugnacious and divisive Billy Hughes became prime minister, putting the country through a traumatic conscription debate and two referendums on the matter.

Fisher's story is one of innocence and experience, and by extension, one of Australian innocence and experience. Before the First World War, it seemed Australia would be the world's first worker's paradise. Then we were dragged into the most horrific global politics, and everything was changed forevermore.

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