The First Labor Government in the World
The First Labor Government in the World proved a week was a long time in politics
by ROSS FITZGERALD
Queensland has had many political firsts. These include the fact that Australia’s only Communist Party MP, Frederick Woolnough (“Fred”) Paterson, was a two-term member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly.
Widely known throughout Queensland as “The People’s Champion”, Paterson represented the state seat of Bowen for the Communist Party of Australia from 1944 to 1950. This was until his electorate was gerrymandered out of existence by the state Labor government.
On St Patrick’s Day 1948, during a trade-union demonstration he was observing in Brisbane, Paterson sustained permanent head injuries after being bashed from behind by a plain-clothed Queensland policeman. In effect, this was the attempted murder of a serving Australian politician.
But despite some history buffs still remembering the story of Fred Paterson, few Australians know that Queensland also boasted the first Labor government in the world.
In late 1899, the radical MLA for the two-seat colonial electorate of Charters Towers, Anderson Dawson, who was brought up in a Brisbane orphanage, became the world’s first Labor premier.
Though the Dawson government lasted just one week, from December 1-7, 1899, it was the harbinger of TJ Ryan’s and EG Theodore’s huge state election victories of 1915 and 1919 respectively.
This ushered in almost half a century of Labor rule in Queensland. In 1922, “Red Ted” Theodore engineered the abolition of the Queensland Legislative Council. This was achieved by appointing an obedient, so-called “suicide club” of 11 new members who then voted to abolish the state’s upper house.
Dawson was born in Rockhampton in 1863. His mother died in a fire in Brisbane when he was six. His aunt eventually rescued him from the Brisbane orphanage, taking him to live with her family in Ipswich, and later to Gympie, whose famous gold-rush had, in 1859, saved from bankruptcy the then impecunious Queensland treasury.
After beginning work as a miner at the trade union stronghold of Charters Towers, in 1887 Dawson married an Irish widow, Caroline Ryan, nee Quinn.
Elected first president of the local miners’ union, Dawson was originally attracted to politics by the contentious issues of republicanism and Irish Home Rule. In 1890 and 1891 Dawson became a leading light of the Australasian Republican Association and the Australian Labor Federation. During the bitterly divisive Queensland shearers’ strike, he was appointed chairman of the Queensland provincial council of the ALF.
Dawson strongly advocated “Marxian economics, scientific socialism and the theory of surplus value”, especially when he was editor of the Charters Towers Eagle, and later during his time as a feisty Queensland parliamentarian.
At the colonial Queensland elections of 1893, 1896 and 1899, Dawson was returned as one of the two Labor members for Charters Towers in the Queensland Legislative Assembly.
Soon after the conservative Ministerialist Party premier, James Robert Dickson, had resigned in a huff after squabbling with his Queensland coalition partners, on December 1, 1899, Dawson formed the first Labor (then spelt Labour) government in the world. Future ALP prime minister Andrew Fisher, then MLA for Gympie, was a member of Dawson’s cabinet.
Almost immediately, conservatives in Queensland realised the gross error of their ways and, when the Legislative Assembly met again a few days later, they united to defeat the minority Labor ministry. Dawson’s seven-day stint as premier of Queensland still remains the briefest of any Australian colonial or state government.
In Australia’s first federal election, Dawson was returned at the head of the Queensland Labor ticket in the Senate in 1901. While in the national parliament, he struggled with persistent lung problems, caused by his work as a miner. Dawson’s poor health worsened after he relocated with his family to the much cooler Melbourne, where federal parliament was sitting at the time.
Dawson was often absent from the Senate. This was mainly due to his burgeoning problems with the booze, which embarrassed and upset a number of his fellow parliamentarians and especially some of his Queensland ALP colleagues.
However, when the Chilean-born JC (“Chris”) Watson, at the age of 35, formed Australia’s first national Labor government in 1904, he appointed Senator Dawson as Minister for Defence. During the Watson government, which lasted from April 21 to August 17, 1904, Dawson repeatedly clashed with the haughty English head of the Australian military forces, Edward Hutton. Also in Watson’s cabinet was Andrew Fisher who, so unlike Dawson, was an abstainer from alcohol. Before the 1906 federal election, Dawson had fallen out badly with the Queensland state executive of the ALP. He was thus demoted to the unwinnable fourth position on the Labor Senate ticket.
As a result of concerns about a backlash by Queensland voters, especially in the regions, a few days later Dawson was elevated to third position. But, citing illness, the increasingly unpredictable Dawson resigned as a Senate candidate. When he suddenly changed his mind, the state ALP executive refused to reinstate him. So, the ex-Queensland premier stood as an independent. As a consequence, the Labor vote was split. The entire Queensland ALP Senate ticket lost the 1906 election and many Laborites at the time regarded Dawson as a rat. Dawson was unable to find work anywhere in Victoria. Increasingly alienated from her erratic husband, Caroline and their four children lived apart from him in Melbourne.
In 1909 Dawson returned, alone, to Queensland. There, his drinking worsened. Largely as a result, despite being Queensland’s first elected senator and a minister in the first national ALP government, his achievements were long overlooked, and still are.
Indeed, until the publication by the University of Queensland Press in 1999 of my book, Seven Days to Remember: The World’s First Labor Government, Dawson – who died, from alcoholism in 1910 – was buried in an ignored grave, the headstone on which made no mention of his illustrious political career. His estranged wife and children didn’t even attend his funeral.
However, with the help of ex-Queensland premier Peter Beattie, history-conscious newspaper editor Chris Mitchell and a number of fellow academics and political commentators, an appropriate grave and headstone were created in Brisbane’s Toowong cemetery.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are the co-authored political satire The Lowest Depths, a memoir, Fifty Years Sober,and My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics, coedited with Neal Price (Connor Court).
The Australian, 6 December 2022, p 12.