Tag Archives: Commonwealth Liberal Party

Issues that swung elections: rural voters get a voice and topple a government in 1913



Prime Minister Andrew Fisher meets farmers in Murgon, Queensland, in 1913.
Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 3057

Peter Woodley, Australian National University

With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.


One of the forthcoming federal election’s many questions is how rural Australians will vote. On issues such as climate change, coal seam gas extraction, water management and basic decency in politics, voters in regional Australia are disillusioned. The old certainties of rural politics seem to be breaking down, and there is a heightened sense that the long-established structures amplifying country voices are no longer working.

More than a century ago, rural Australia was in a similar state of flux over how farmers should engage with state and federal politics. The 1913 federal election was a pivotal moment in the contest of ideas about what sort of polity and society rural Australians wanted. The alliances that emerged from the election led to the formation of the Country Party, the precursor to today’s National Party.

The 1913 election was called by the Labor prime minister, Andrew Fisher, a former coal miner and avid trade unionist. Fisher first served as PM in 1908-09, leading a minority government. When he attained a comfortable majority in both houses of the parliament at the 1910 election, he initiated an ambitious reform program that included liberalising disability and old age pensions, introducing maternity allowances and workers’ compensation, and enacting a progressive land tax on the unimproved value of the largest rural properties.

It was a considerable record on which to seek another term of government, but also contained elements that would galvanise resistance in rural Australia.

Prime Minister Andrew Fisher ran into considerable opposition to his reform agenda prior to the 1913 federal election.
State Library of South Australia (PRG 280/1/3/289)

Developments in rural Australia

At the time, the New South Wales Farmers and Settlers Association (FSA) was emerging as a powerful and effective voice, claiming to represent farmers, both large and small. By 1914, it would boast 430 branches across the state.

The FSA executive opposed any form of land tax, even on the largest landholders, on suspicion that a Labor government would one day impose it on all farmers. However, farmers still struggling to acquire a “living area” were sympathetic to the Labor Party’s agenda, as many were once shearers or rural labourers.

When a resolution was proposed at the FSA conference in 1907 that would bar members of the Labor Party from joining the organisation, a Jerilderie delegate objected that such a motion would “cause disastrous splits in families the members of which included supporters of both organisations”. During that same period, senior members of the FSA executive resigned rather than renounce Labor sympathies.




Read more:
Issues that swung elections: the ‘credit squeeze’ that nearly swept Menzies from power in 1961


By 1913, another issue had intensified the FSA executive’s antagonism towards Labor: the increasingly active Rural Workers Union (RWU).

The conservative government of George Reid, which held power in Australia from August 1904 to July 1905, had excluded large numbers of rural labourers from the federal Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904, arguing that the seasonal and unstructured nature of agricultural work made formal schedules of pay and conditions impractical.

The Labor Party contested this view, and in 1910, Fisher’s government amended the act to include rural workers. The RWU then sought registration with the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration as a first step towards achieving an industrial award mandating minimum wages and conditions of employment.

Then, in early 1913, the RWU began negotiating with the powerful Australian Workers Union, which represented shearers and shearing shed hands, with the aim of amalgamating into one big rural union.

This provoked significant disquiet in FSA branches. The FSA executive, led by the articulate and politically astute farmer Robert Patten, redoubled its efforts to energise and expand its membership among small-scale farmers and their families, encouraging them to align themselves firmly on the side of capital.

The 1913 election

In the midst of these developments, Fisher called an election for the middle of 1913. He was opposed by Joseph Cook who, like Fisher, was a British migrant with a coal mining background.

Cook entered the new federal parliament in 1901, and by 1909, had become deputy leader in Alfred Deakin’s Commonwealth Liberal Party – a new, anti-Labor coalition, or “fusion,” of members formerly associated with Free Trade and Protectonist alliances. (It was also a predecessor of the modern Liberal Party.) Cook then became leader of the opposition when Deakin resigned in January 1913.




Read more:
Cultivating a nation: why the mythos of the Australian farmer is problematic


Fisher presented six referendum questions to the electorate to coincide with the 1913 election. Each was designed to extend Commonwealth powers in light of the High Court’s unsympathetic rulings on aspects of his reform agenda. All six proposals were rejected by a slim margin – a sign the electorate was perhaps wary of the pace and breadth of Fisher’s reform agenda.

In the election itself, the country vote would prove to be crucial.

Like the referendums, the House of Representatives election was tight. The main parties were separated by only 9,000 of the 1.85 million total votes cast.

Labor entered the election holding nine more seats than the opposition, picking up seats in the big cities and Victorian regional centres of Bendigo and Ballarat. But in rural areas, the Liberal Party prevailed, picking up four Labor seats alone in Victoria.

In New South Wales, the FSA endorsed supporters of its platform running as opposition candidates in seven seats. Four of them deposed sitting Labor Party members, including Patten, who defeated the pro-Labor independent William Lyne in Hume. It was the last seat declared, and Cook won government with a majority of one.

But Cook’s victory was short-lived. By the time he had selected a speaker, his majority had disappeared, and Australians would be back at the polls by mid-1914, just as war broke out in Europe.

The election would have a longer-lasting legacy with the organisation of rural voters into a sizeable – and powerful – voting bloc with a dedicated, conservative presence in federal politics. The Country Party emerged as an independent and distinctly rural voice during the war and held the federal balance of power by 1922.

Australia’s population was already drifting to the cities when the Country Party formed, but that has not prevented the rural vote from continuing to exert a strong, often disproportionate, influence on Australian politics.

As in 1913, the 2019 election could prove to be a decisive moment in shifting rural political alliances, with broader consequences.The Conversation

Peter Woodley, PhD candidate, School of History, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


What Malcolm Turnbull might have learned from Alfred Deakin


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In jettisoning Alfred Deakin, the Liberals made a great mistake and showed the thinness of their historical memory.
National Library of Australia

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Australia’s federal Liberal Party began not with Robert Menzies in 1945, but with Alfred Deakin’s Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1909, and before that with his Liberal Protectionists.

As a leadership party, the Liberals have always needed heroes. But in the 1980s, as Liberals embraced deregulation, they turned against Deakin and the policies he championed.

In his brilliantly succinct description of Australian settlement, Paul Kelly identified the core policies of the early Commonwealth with Deakin, and compulsory arbitration and the basic wage with his Liberal colleague, Henry Bournes Higgins.

Deakin’s support for protection and for state paternalism were his key sins in the eyes of the Liberal Party as it rehabilitated the free-trade legacy of New South Wales Liberal premier George Reid. Reid is not a well-known figure, so this left the Liberals with only Robert Menzies for their hero, although he has now been joined by John Howard.

In jettisoning Deakin, the Liberals made a great mistake and showed the thinness of their historical memory. The party and its traditions did not begin with Menzies, but stretched back to the nation-building of the new Commonwealth, and into the optimism and democratic energies of the 19th-century settlers.

Indeed, Deakin was one of Menzies’ heroes. The Menzies family came from Ballarat, where Deakin was the local member, and his Cornish miner grandfather was a great fan.

Accepting his papers at the Australian National Library just before his retirement, Menzies described Deakin as “a remarkable man” who laid Australia’s foundational policies. It must be remembered that in 1965, Menzies supported all these policies the Liberals were later to discard.

When it came to choosing a name for the new non-labour party being formed from the wreckage of the United Australia Party, it was to the name of Deakin’s party that Menzies turned, so that the party would be identified as “a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary”.

Alfred Deakin In England, 1907.
National Library of Australia

This is a direct invocation of Deakin and his rejection of those he called “the obstructionists”, the conservatives and nay-sayers, who put their energies into blocking progressive policies rather than pursuing positive initiatives of their own.

In June this year, Turnbull quoted these words of Menzies, in his struggle with the conservatives of the party. Clearly Turnbull wants to be a strong leader of a progressive party, rather than the front man for a shambolic do-nothing government. He does have some superficial resemblances to Deakin: he is super-smart, urbane, charming and a smooth talker who looks like a leader. But as we all now know, he lacks substance.

When I first began thinking about this piece I was going to call it “What Malcolm Turnbull could learn from Alfred Deakin”. But I fear it may now too late for him to save his government, and might be more accurately called “What Malcolm Turnbull might have learned from Alfred Deakin”.

First, he could learn the courage of his convictions.

Deakin too was sometimes accused of lacking substance. He was not only a stirring platform orator, but he was quick with words in debate, and could shift positions seamlessly when the need arose. But he had core political commitments from which he never wavered. The need for a tariff to protect Australia’s manufacturers and so provide employment and living wages for Australian workers was one.

One may now disagree with this policy, but there was never any doubt that Deakin would fight for it.

Federation was another. In the early 1890s, after the collapse of the land boom and the bank crashes of the early 1890s, Deakin thought of leaving politics altogether. What kept him there was the cause of federation, and he did everything he could to bring it about.

He addressed hundreds of meetings and persuading Victoria’s majoritarian democrats that all would be wrecked if they did not compromise with the smaller states over the composition of the Senate.

Deakin had a dramatic sense of history. He knew that historical opportunities were fleeting, that the moment could pass and history move on, as it did for Australian republicans when they were outwitted by Howard in 1999.

In March 1898, the prospects for federation were not good. The politicians had finalised the Constitution that was to be put to a referendum of the people later in the year, but the prospects were not good. There was strong opposition in NSW and its premier, George Reid, was ambivalent.

Alfred Deakin at Point Lonsdale front beach, 1910.
Brookes family and Deakin University library

In Victoria, David Syme and The Age were hostile and threatening to campaign for a “No” vote. If the referendum were lost in NSW and Victoria, federation would not be achieved.

Knowing this, Deakin made a passionate appeal to the men of the Australian Natives Association, who were holding their annual conference in Bendigo. Delivered without notes, this was the supreme oratorical feat of Deakin’s life and it turned the tide in Victoria. Although there were still hurdles to cross, Deakin’s speech saved the federation.

The second lesson Turnbull could have learnt is to have put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of the party and the management of its internal differences.

Deakin always put his conception of the national interest before considerations of party politics or personal advantage. And he fiercely protected his independence.

He too was faced with the challenges of minority government, but it is inconceivable that he would have made a secret deal with a coalition partner to win office. Or that he would have abandoned core beliefs, such as the need for action on climate change, just to hold on to power.

As the Commonwealth’s first attorney-general, and three times prime minister, Deakin had a clear set of goals: from the legislation to establish the machinery of the new government, or the fight to persuade a parsimonious parliament to establish the High Court, to laying the foundations for independent defence, and, within the confines of imperial foreign policy, establishing the outlines of Australia’s international personality.

Party discipline and party identification were looser in the early 20th century than they were to become as Labor’s superior organisation and electoral strength forced itself on its opponents.

But as the contemporary major parties fray at the edges, and their core identities hollow out, Australians are crying out for leaders with Deakin’s clear policy commitments, and his skills in compromise and negotiation.

Had Turnbull had the courage to crash through or crash on the differences within his party on the causes we know he believes in, he too might have become a great leader and an Australian hero.


The ConversationJudith Brett’s new book The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is published by Text.

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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