The almost forgotten Andrew Fisher

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The front cover of the Bulletin as Fisher began
his first term as Prime Minister. It reads, ‘From
coal-miner to Prime Minister. Australia: “Come
up Fisher! Your country wants you.”’

I have just finished David Day’s excellent biography of Andrew Fisher (1862-1928).

Prime Minister Andrew Fisher was one of Australia’s great nation-builders, yet his story is largely unknown. Leaving school early to work in the coalmines of Scotland, he educated himself at night, and in 1885, at the age of 22, he immigrated to Queensland. A staunch Presbyterian and fervent unionist, Fisher committed himself to politics and was soon elected to the Queensland parliament, then to the first federal parliament. In 1908 he became prime minister for the first of three stints in the job, serving Australia for longer than John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, or Paul Keating. As prime minister, Fisher launched a massive nation-building program, which included the establishment of the national capital, the Commonwealth Bank, old age pensions, and a transcontinental railway line. His most pressing concern was to populate and defend the new nation. To this end he famously pledged to back Britain in the Great War ‘to the last man and the last shilling’ – a commitment that came at the heavy cost of Gallipoli and the Western Front. Andrew Fisher was a man who hated imperial honours, yet enjoyed the trappings of office, a leader who believed in world socialism, yet took Australians into the First World War. In this authoritative and immensely readable biography, David Day reveals the man, his politics and his remarkable legacy.

See also Electric Scotland, GYMPIE – The town that saved Queensland, a very good bio in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Ben Raue’s review The new Andrew Fisher biography and the PDF Andrew Fisher and the Media by Jolyon Sykes.

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Andrew Fisher as a young man

There is a 2007 article by David Day on his website.

Fisher also asserted the supremacy of the federal government over the parochialism of state premiers, who sometimes liked to put themselves on a par with Fisher by styling themselves as “prime minister” of their particular states. He did more than his predecessors in establishing a unifying national identity in the minds of Australians, drawing on a mixture of symbolic gestures and practical measures – whether it was giving Australia its own currency and making the wattle Australia’s national flower, or replacing Australia’s traditional reliance on Britain’s navy with the establishment of its own.

After narrowly losing office in 1913, Fisher was swept back into power in 1914 and would have added to his achievements but for the intervention of the First World War. He famously committed Australia to “the last man and the last shilling”, not realising the horror of what lay ahead. As the dire implications of that commitment unfolded in the gullies of Gallipoli, and the war demanded more and more of Australia’s limited manpower, Fisher resigned in October 1915 to become high commissioner in London.

Unlike John Howard, Fisher left politics at a time of his own choosing, but there was little sense of triumph on his departure. His earlier, nation-building achievements were overshadowed by the developing disaster on the Gallipoli peninsula. Fisher would remain in London, where he gradually slipped into a twilight world of dementia, from which he died in 1928. Forgetful himself at the end, he has been largely forgotten by Australians ever since. Yet, a century on, the challenges and parallels of his time at the top remain relevant to modern political leaders.

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See also David Day ‘Andrew Fisher: Triumph and Tragedy’ — Papers on Parliament No. 53 June 2010.

Next month [July 2010] is a landmark moment in Australia’s political history—the centenary of Andrew Fisher’s election as prime minister. He was one Australia’s longest serving prime ministers, enjoying three separate terms in office comprising nearly five years in total. Only nine prime ministers served longer than Fisher, and only one of those, Bob Hawke, was a Labor prime minister. Fisher was in power for longer than John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating and just a few weeks short of the Liberal, Alfred Deakin. Yet he is little known and his achievements are little celebrated.

Fisher has long deserved better. After all, he was the first Labor prime minister, indeed the first prime minister of any party, to be elected to power with majorities in both houses of Parliament. This was a dramatic political change that ended the era of minority governments and forced non-Labor MPs to coalesce in a single party, thereby ushering in the basically two-party system that Australia has had, for better or worse, ever since. Fisher’s landmark election in 1910 is important for another reason. It marked the first time that an avowedly socialist leader had ever been elected to lead a nation anywhere in the world.

The Labor Party might have been expected to include Fisher within its pantheon of political heroes, but until fairly recently had not done so. It may have believed that Fisher was somehow tainted by association with his successor, the Labor ‘rat’ Billy Hughes, or that his apparently enthusiastic commitment of Australian forces to the First World War was too jingoistic for modern Labor to celebrate; or his embrace of ‘white Australia’ was too controversial for our multicultural times.

Fisher did not help his own cause by retiring and dying in Britain, where his papers remained until the 1970s. This obstacle made it difficult for historians and potential biographers to get to grips with Fisher. Indeed, in the century that has elapsed since Fisher’s historic electoral victory in 1910, there was no serious biography written about him. Tragically, two biographers who began books on Fisher in recent years died before they could complete their work.

In the absence of a biography, Australians have had to rely for their assessment of Fisher largely on the jaundiced views of his political opponents, particularly Deakin and Hughes, and their biographers, who were loath to credit Fisher with anything. Yet Fisher’s life was marked by great political triumphs…

Finally, a transcript and mp3 are available from the National Museum of The last man: the making of Andrew Fisher and the Australian Labor Party – an address by David Day introduced by Peter Stanley, with interview and audience questions.

QUESTION: The colonies were vying for immigrants – do you have any sense of why he ended up going to Queensland?

DAVID DAY: As far as one can tell it was due to the connections with Ayrshire because there were other Ayrshire people in Queensland. When he arrived in Queensland he went up and connected with other Ayrshire people on the Burrum coalfield. As well, Thomas McIlwraith, the Queensland premier, was an Ayrshire man who had come out to Kilmarnock and given a talk in Kilmarnock just prior to this, encouraging people of Kilmarnock to come out to Queensland. So there was a lot of publicity about Queensland. There were advertisements about Queensland and there was a local recruiter for the Queensland government in Ayrshire, close by Kilmarnock.

QUESTION: Thanks very much, David. That is an intriguing account. I have very mixed feelings about Fisher, and I am going to get you to comment on what I am saying. On the one hand he seemed to have such a lot of idealism and integrity; yet on the other hand we would say today that he was a racist, perhaps not all that realistically with regard to the Japanese. I know that was a compelling fear driving a lot of politicians in early federal days. And also, perhaps just through sheer lack of insight, he had no idea – as did very few people have any idea – as to what was going to be the outcome in World War One not only for Australians but also for the British, the French, the Germans, the Russians and so on. I am wondering whether one does not describe him as a tragic figure and somebody who has wanted to be a nation builder but who tragically failed? We still haven’t become as of age as a nation, one might well argue.

DAVID DAY: It is hard for us today to perhaps recognise it, but white Australia did have an incredibly strong strand of idealism running through it. People were very conscious that what they saw as an empty country for the first time had a population drawn from one particular race. So they saw Australia as being able to create for itself a modern, progressive, relatively egalitarian society, free from all those conflicts of Europe but also different from the new society of the United States – free from those racial antagonisms that bedevilled the United States and led to the Civil War. What Fisher feared from the influx of non-Europeans into Australia was that the north of Australia would end up being like the south of the United States and that there would end up being a civil war in Australia.

There was racism in the support both by Fisher and by other people. He tended not to be as rabid as some of his supporters. Henry Boote, who edited the Gympie Truth, the newspaper that Fisher owned, was quite rabid in his support for white Australia. Fisher, in what you can tell from the accounts of his speeches, was not so rabid, although some of the justifications for white Australia that Fisher used were racial ones. Comments about maintaining the purity of the British race and the idea of ‘Australia not being a mongrel race’ were words that he used. What I am trying to say is that it is not in conflict with Fisher the idealist because he is seeing white Australia in idealistic terms.

QUESTION: I am reminded in these comments of Xavier Herbert, a significant Australian, who used to bemoan the fact that we never became what we could have become – ‘a Creole nation’ – which is interesting. Xavier used to blame Billy Hughes for most of the ills of life, and he had known him. This is unpleasant, and I am probably way off the mark, but with this business of dementia that so many people had about 100 years ago, one wonders sometimes about sexual diseases. Am I way off the mark in these cases?

DAVID DAY: Yes, you are way off the mark. Syphilis often ended up in dementia and it might last a year or so. But with Fisher it was at least eight or 10 years, so it was early onset dementia…

The biography does not downplay the aspects of Fisher and his time which Pauline Hanson may have found appealing but most of us feel uncomfortable with, but it does effectively contextualise these issues. In researching this entry I found a moderate example in one of Andrew Fisher’s 1910 election speeches and there is interesting material in Kevin McCauley’s otherwise tendentious The Labor Party And White Australia, and an opposite tendentiousness – quite hard to justify I would have thought – in Jasmine Ali’s “Solidarity” piece Racism, White Australia and the union movement. In contrast to both I commend David Day as honest and judicious.

Mind you: what a nasty piece of work Billy Hughes was! See the irreverent Australian Prime Ministers on Convict Creations.

  • A famous plotter and schemer
  • Said it was ” Australia ‘s destiny to lead and enlighten the rest of the world”, to cast off the “shackles and burdens which had bound and oppressed” the people
  • A strong advocate of conscription.

Verdict: An uncanny habit of establishing parties only to be expelled from them. A man of imagination and charisma, but one not always capable of using such talents to solidify support behind him. Presided over the resignations of hundreds of secretaries, and his own sacking from every party he entered.

That site also tells me Tony Abbott “Organized protests in favour of the Falklands War” in his youth. I didn’t know that…

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