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Founding fathers – Review

5 August 2009 1,706 views No Comment

ANDREW Fisher was born in Crosshouse, a coalmining town in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1862, and went to work in the mines at 13. He became involved in the union and lost his job.

In 1885 he and his brother migrated to Queensland in search of work. He found it at first in the mines; this staunchly teetotal Presbyterian went on to serve three terms as Australia’s prime minister: 1908-09, 1910-13 and 1914-15. As historian Peter Bastian points out, his 1758 days as a Labor PM would not be bettered until Bob Hawke came along in the 1980s.

As one of two MPs for the goldmining town of Gympie in Queensland, Fisher was secretary of  railways and public works in Anderson Dawson’s world-first, week-long Labor government. Then, as federal member forWide Bay, he was minister for trade and customs in Australia’s first national Labor government, led by ChrisWatson (April 21 to August 17, 1904). Yet, despite these achievements and his own stints as prime minister, Fisher is still best remembered for his 1914 federal election pledge that, in the event of war, Australia would defend Britain to our last man and our last shilling.

As Bastian documents, Fisher was no orator but he was a shrewd numbers man who, especially as federal opposition leader and then as PM, had a good head for parliamentary tactics. Although of limited education, Fisher loved the poetry of the Ayrshire-born Robert Burns and the writings of Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. As Bastian also makes clear, Fisher, in common with many Laborites at the time, was an avid supporter of racial purity and of a White Australia.

By far the strongest section in this surprisingly passionless biography is Chapter 11, Portrait of a Prime Minister, where we get some understanding of Fisher the man. Thus, even after decades in Australia, Fisher, who had the broad shoulders and straight back of a miner, still spoke with an Ayrshire accent, and so when he spoke too quickly his brogue made him difficult to understand.

As well as being staunchly teetotal, Fisher disliked swearing in any setting and also eschewed dirty or crude jokes. Yet he was not a rigid puritan. In the main, Fisher practised an easy informality and insisted on being called Andy even when he was PM. Although we are not told which footy club he supported, after moving to live in Melbourne, then the site of federal parliament, Fisher became an Australian rules follower who lined up at the turnstiles with ordinary Melbourne sports fans and stood with them in the stands to watch Saturday afternoon football. Whenever possible he spent each Sunday with family and friends.

From time to time his teetotalism produced consternation, especially in Labor circles. Bastian recounts how, on an all-male visit to Kalgoorlie, the official delegation entered a pub where Fisher asked for his usual soda water and the others felt obliged to do the same. Throughout his political life Fisher regarded himself as a socialist and he never hid his trade union sympathies. Indeed, after the conservative Queensland premier requested Fisher provide federal troops to keep order during the 1912 Brisbane general strike, he not only refused but publicly donated money to the strike fund. Although Fisher exhibited some disdain for local military forces that, in the main, he thought unnecessary, he was much more sympathetic to the concept of naval defence, which he thought was crucial to Australia’s security.

As Bastian points out, Edmund Barton, Robert Menzies and Andrew Fisher are the only Australian prime ministers to resign at a time of their own choosing. Unfortunately, during his time as a wartime PM, and even more so as Australian high commissioner in London from 1916 to early 1921, when he returned to Australia, Fisher experienced significant physical illness, family problems and, perhaps even more important, was showing noticeable signs of mental decline. And his problems were not helped by the increasing political difficulties of dealing with the irascible Billy Hughes, especially after the 1916 ALP split over conscription. Although Bastian’s book is nowhere near as enthralling as its recent rival, David Day’s 2008 biography Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia (Fourth Estate), it is hard to disagree with his contention that Fisher was a thoroughly decent man. John Bannon’s biography of one of the lesser- known founding fathers of Federation, John William Downer, comes out of left field in more ways than one. For starters, it is intriguing that this study of one of our great political conservatives is written by an ALP man who was premier of South Australia from 1982 to 1992.

Yet Bannon is a widely published author who has specialised in federal-state relations and especially in the history of Federation. So he was in fact an ideal choice to write this fascinating political life. It helps that he had years of practical experience as a politician and understands the pressures and influences in political life as well as the role of sheer chance. As a result, Supreme Federalist is utterly fascinating. Indeed, it seems remarkable that, despite his 40 years of public and professional life in South Australia and his prominent role in promoting Federation, that this is the first biography of Downer.

In terms of South Australian politics, as member for Barossa from 1879, the year he became a QC, to 1901, when he moved to federal parliament, Downer was returned for eight successive elections, during which time he led two ministries as premier. As readers soon become aware, Downer was the grandfather of Australia’s longest serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer, who retired from federal parliament in 2008. Bannon makes clear there is ample evidence to demonstrate that Downer’s contribution entitles him to be recognised as one of the key founders of the Commonwealth of Australia. And that this dated from the time he first served as South Australia’s attorney-general, from 1881 to 1884.

In 1891, Downer was part of the seven-man South Australian delegation to the National Australasian Convention chaired by Henry Parkes in Sydney.Moreover, he was among the select group of passengers on the famous voyage of the Queensland government steam yacht, the SS Lucinda, on which our first constitution was drafted. It is useful to remember that initially it was hoped our proposed Federation would include not only what were then the five Australian colonies and the crown colony of Western Australia, but also New Zealand and the crown colony of Fiji.

If this had occurred, how different could have our commonwealth been? Bannon is strong on documenting Downer’s passion throughout his colonial and federal parliamentary careers for protecting South Australia’s access to the waters of the Murray and the Darling rivers. The government of NSW was especially in his sights. The situation reminded him of the old story of a dispute over a beast: When the two men declared it belonged to both of them, one man said, ‘I wish to kill my half.’ Bannon also highlights Downer’s role in ensuring the Senate had the power and authority to play its role in protecting the states from federal domination. And, perhaps unusually for a constitutional conservative, Downer argued that the newly created High Court should be the highest court of appeal. That is to say, he rejected the notion that the Privy Council in London should be the final arbiter of appeals from legal decisions made in Australia. Although he did not prevail, his passionate position on this issue showed him to be an Australian patriot at odds with a number of fellow conservatives and in common cause with radicals, including his long-time South Australian enemy Charles Cameron Kingston.

The Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated on January 1, 1901, in Sydney. Choosing our first prime minister and his cabinet was the task of Lord Hopetoun, the governor-general, who made the monumental blunder of asking the hitherto anti-federal premier of NSW, William Lyne, to form a national government. While the resulting confusion has been well documented, Bannon describes in detail the role played by then senator Downer in support of his federalist friend Edmund Barton. After Lyne was forced to return his commission and to recommend to Lord Hopetoun that Barton be asked to form our first federal government, Downer thought he had reason to be optimistic about being included in the first national cabinet. But this was not to be, largely because the numbers did not fall his way.

Even though this is a distinctly political biography, Bannon offers insight into Downer beyond that. He loved cigars, for example, and was anti-sport. In his second term as premier of South Australia, he objected to the idolatry of manly sports abroad in the colony at the present time. He continued that if our notoriety is to alone be due to the fact that we are successful in football or cricket, I can only say so much the worse for us.  After Downer became a senator in 1901, he experienced a twofold disappointment. He was appointed neither to a federal ministry nor to the High Court of Australia. At least partly as a result, his drinking escalated markedly, as did his bouts of depression. By 1903 he had had enough of federal parliament. Yet, soon after he pulled himself together and, after two years in the wilderness, returned to the political fray. If, as originally intended, there had been five justices of the High Court, it is very likely Downer would have been one of them, as Barton was a close friend and would have pushed for him against the other possible South Australian, Samuel Way.

But when the legislation went through the federal parliament in 1903, for reasons of economy the number was reduced to three. Samuel Griffith had to be chief justice, Richard O’Connor, an even closer mate of Barton’s, was one of the others, and when Barton decided to quit politics he got the third spot.

Remarkably, in more than a century of the High Court there has never been a judge appointed from South Australia. Standing as an independent, in May 1905 Downer, at the age of 62, was back in the South Australian parliament, this time as a member of the Legislative Council, where he would be active for the next 10 years. He spoke with eloquence and authority on a number of topics, in particular his dislike of what these days would be termed the machine politics of the ALP. Thus he repeated, in a variety of ways, his displeasure that South Australian Labor was acting on the direct orders of the federal ALP.

In 1909, distressed by federal Labor’s social- istic policies, Downer abandoned his independence and rejoined the conservative party. He regarded Labor’s proposals on compulsory land repurchase and a progressive federal land and property tax as immoral, wicked and destructive, and a direct fraud on the Constitution. Downer argued that such taxes ought to be state matters. In a nutshell, he believed that federal parliament was exercising its power to raise taxes in a reckless manner.

In 1910 Downer travelled to federal parliament house inMelbourne as part of a delegation to the Labor PM — Bastian’s underestimated man,  Fisher — that aimed to persuade him to reconsider the matter of federal imposts and taxes. As far as I can ascertain, this was the only meeting between the two subjects of these biographies, and it was not a success. Downer’s final parliamentary speech, in November 1914, concerned a proposal by the South Australian government to hold a referendum on the early closing of hotels. Although supporting a ban on Sunday trading, he reiterated his opposition to restricted hours and to six o’clock closing. He not only opposed early closing but, perhaps more significantly, strenuously objected to the means proposed to implement it. He was a lifelong opponent of the use of referendums to decide political questions: they should, he argued, be decided by state and federal parliaments, where sovereignty properly lay. In contrast, the government’s bill, involving the use of a referendum, was an abrogation of the rights of constituents and a vindictive attack upon (and tampering with) the Constitution.

Reading these two quite different books highlights the fact that, for the first time since 1945, we have a prime minister who does not come from NSW or Victoria. Perhaps this marks a shift to taking the politics and politicians of the four outer states more seriously.

Andrew Fisher: An UnderestimatedMan By Peter Bastian, UNSW Press, 419pp, $49.95 (HB)

Supreme Federalist: The Political Life of Sir John Downer, By J. C. Bannon Wakefield Press, 304pp, $39.95 (HB)

Published in The Australian Literary Review, 5 August 2009

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