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Andrew Fisher was Prime Minister for three terms, 1908–09, 1910–13 and 1914–15. He also served as Treasurer during all three terms.
Fisher’s second government completed a vast legislative program that makes him, with Alfred Deakin, the founder of the statutory structure of the new nation. The 113 acts passed in the three years of the second Fisher government exceeded even the output of the second Deakin government over a similar period.
These laws covered defence matters such as the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy and the introduction of compulsory military training; constitutional issues including a referendum to extend Commonwealth powers in industrial matters; and the territorial issues of establishing the federal capital and transferring the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth. Financial laws included the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank; while transport acts included the trans-Australian railway line. Social security laws included the provision of maternity allowances and workers compensation.
International and imperial relations were also a feature of Fisher’s governments. His third government took office a month after World War I began and directed the early offensive operations carried out in New Guinea. It also sent the first Australian troops to Egypt, from where they were despatched to Gallipoli.
First term 1908–09
The Labor Caucus meeting to form the new Cabinet was held in the Fisher’s home, Oakleigh Hall, in St Kilda, Victoria. On 13 November 1908, Andrew Fisher was sworn in as Prime Minister with his eight new ministers.
Fisher held the Treasury portfolio. The other ministers were WM Hughes (Attorney-General), Egerton Batchelor (Minister for External Affairs), Hugh Mahon (Minister for Home Affairs), Josiah Thomas (Postmaster-General), George Pearce (Minister for Defence) and Frank Tudor (Minister for Trade and Customs). Gregor McGregor was Vice-President of the Executive Council and James Hutchinson was a minister without portfolio. Hughes, Batchelor, Mahon, McGregor and Fisher had gained brief ministerial experience four years earlier under JC Watson.
Fisher was the second Prime Minister of the third parliament – the first federal parliament to complete a full three-year term (from 20 February 1907 – 20 February 1910). He thus inherited the legislative program developed by Alfred Deakin’s government in cooperation with Labor. Though in office only seven months (parliament was in recess for six months), the Fisher ministry shared in a bumper year for founding statutes.
The first Fisher government settled the vexed issue of the site of the national capital with the Seat of Government Act 1908. This third attempt to designate the site became law in December 1908. Early in 1909, Minister for Home Affairs Hugh Mahon directed Charles Scrivener to survey the district named in the Act – an area between the New South Wales towns of Yass and Queanbeyan. By the end of that year, the New South Wales parliament had enacted the surrender, and the federal parliament the acceptance, of the territory for the federal capital.
Defence development was as important an issue for Fisher as for Deakin. Defence Minister George Pearce placed an order in February 1909 for three torpedo destroyers. The achievement of an effective defence force, with compulsory military training for young men, was the least contentious part of the Labor program Fisher outlined in a speech at Gympie on 30 March 1909.
Far more provocative was the Labor proposal for a land tax to break up large estates and promote closer settlement, and the proposal to strengthen the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904. Perhaps the most contentious Labor project was the planned ‘new protection’ referendum to amend the Constitution and give the Commonwealth government the power to tie labour protection to industry protection.
This Labor program was precisely the bonding agent needed to bring all three non-Labor groups in federal parliament – Deakin’s Liberals, the Anti–Socialists (led by Joseph Cook since George Reid’s resignation in 1908) and John Forrest’s ‘Corner’ – into coalition.
In Opposition 1909–10
On 27 May 1909 the Labor government was defeated in the House. On 2 June 1909 Alfred Deakin was sworn in as Prime Minister, having gathered together a ‘Fusion’ ministry.
For only the second time since Federation, Labor formed the federal Opposition. Some common ground, however, remained between Deakin and Fisher. In December 1909, for example, the Deakin government moved a motion in support of British women’s suffrage. Fisher had received this suggestion from Keir Hardie the year before, but lost government before he could act on it. Although Deakin’s motion passed both Houses in 1909, Fisher took the opportunity in November 1910 to have a second motion pass both Houses, and to cable the resolution to Britain’s Prime Minister Asquith.
As Leader of the Opposition Fisher was effective and he kept Labor in the spotlight as the next federal election approached. Once Deakin set 13 April 1910 as the date for the election, Labor campaigned strongly on their program and on the character of their leader. Fisher was a man whose determination, principle and honesty were widely recognised.
Fisher’s commitment as party leader was evident. He covered as much ground in eastern Australia as humanly possible – by train and railway tricycle, in horse-drawn coaches and buggies where there were no railway tracks, and on horseback where there were no roads.
Voter turnout for the 1910 election increased to 62.80 per cent, the highest figure of the first five general elections. Labor was returned to government in an overwhelming victory and Fisher led the first federal government with a clear majority in both Houses.
Second term 1910–13
Andrew Fisher became Prime Minister for the second time on 29 April 1910. His second ministry was similar to the first and included WM Hughes (Attorney-General), Egerton Batchelor (Minister for External Affairs), Josiah Thomas (Postmaster-General), George Pearce (Minister for Defence) and Frank Tudor (Minister for Trade and Customs). King O’Malley was new Minister for Home Affairs. He was as different from his predecessor in Fisher’s first ministry, the aloof Hugh Mahon, as anyone could be. There were two ministers without portfolio, Edward Findley and Charles Frazer.
The stability of Fisher’s ministries is evidence of his stable leadership. As before, his Cabinet ran smoothly and relations between the ministry and the Caucus were characterised by mutual trust and confidence. The only Cabinet re-shuffle during Fisher’s second term followed the sudden death of Egerton Batchelor on 8 October 1911. Josiah Thomas took over the External Affairs portfolio on 14 October 1911 and Charles Frazer succeeded him as Postmaster-General the same day. Ernest Roberts became minister without portfolio on 23 October 1911.
The volatility of governments in the first Commonwealth decade meant ministers were heavily reliant on senior public servants like Malcolm Shepherd, who had served as private secretary to each Prime Minister since 1903. In 1911 Shepherd became head of a new Prime Minister’s Department, completing the basic structure for the administration of the Commonwealth. Like Deakin, Fisher maintained smooth relations with departments. He also had good working relationships with the three Governors-General during his terms, Lord Dudley, Lord Denman and Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson.
Fisher's family life appears as well managed and as busy as his political life. The couple’s six children were born during the parliament’s first decade. The Fishers’ purchase of the St Kilda mansion, Oakleigh Hall, in 1907 ended the need for long separations and lengthy travel. The house served as a comfortable home for their large family, and as a congenial venue for Labor parliamentary meetings and official gatherings. Oakleigh Hall could be considered Australia’s first prime ministerial residence.
The Fisher government also established some of the enduring symbols of the new Australian nation. Fisher marked Australia’s tenth birthday by naming wattle as Australia’s national flower and redesigning the 1908 Commonwealth Coat of Arms. The latter was modified to include the State emblems on the shield, and the seven-pointed ‘territories’ star, representing the Commonwealth territories as well as the six States. The Royal Warrant for the new Coat of Arms did not, however, cover other embellishments such as the sprays of wattle that continue to grace Australia’s Coat of Arms.
Fisher’s second term was not without crisis. Fisher clashed with Queensland Premier Digby Denham during the 1912 general strike in Brisbane, when he refused the Premier’s request to use Commonwealth troops against the strikers. Nevertheless Fisher achieved a significant and historic legislative record.
The 113 acts passed in Fisher’s second term covered defence, constitutional matters, finance, transport and communications, and social security.
The Defence Act 1910, providing for seven years of military training for all men 18–25, was implemented the following year. Also in 1911, the legislation establishing both the Duntroon Military College and the Royal Australian Navy came into operation.
As well as amending the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, at the top of the Fisher government’s agenda was an act to hold a referendum to increase federal power to regulate industry. The referendum, held on 26 April 1911, sought a constitutional alteration to extend Commonwealth industrial powers to State labour matters. This attempt to overcome the obstacle of the High Court’s decision in King v Barger failed when the proposal was rejected by voters. The Inter-State Commission Act 1912 established the body to adjudicate on matters of trade and commerce between the States.
The Judiciary Act 1912 amended the 1903 Act to increase the size of the High Court to seven judges. When the Act came into operation in 1913, the Fisher government appointed three new judges, including a replacement for Richard O'Connor, who had died the previous year.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1911 introduced compulsory enrolment for Commonwealth elections.
The government passed the Seat of Government (Administration) Act 1910 providing for the organisation to establish the national capital. Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin won the design competition for the new capital in 1912. On 12 March 1913, the ceremonial foundation of the city was held among the gum trees of Capitol Hill and the city was given the name ‘Canberra’ by Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General. Andrew Fisher announced:
The wrangle about the home of the Government of Australia is over. The city is to be built, and the Commonwealth will build it. I believe all parties desire to make it worthy of the country and the nation that we belong to and govern.
As well, the government enacted laws providing for the transfer of the Northern Territory from South Australia, and for the administrative organisation for the Northern Territory, under Minister Egerton Batchelor until October 1911.
The Commonwealth Bank Act 1911 provided for a national trading and savings bank. This was a policy initiative introduced to Cabinet and to Caucus by the Prime Minister and eagerly advocated by King O’Malley. A keen amateur photographer, Fisher compiled his own album of the construction of the Commonwealth Bank’s magnificent central building, in Martin Place, Sydney (opened in 1916).
Another Fisher favourite, the Land Tax and Land Tax Assessment Act 1910 was an attempt to tax unimproved land values in excess of 5000 pounds throughout Australia.
The Australian Notes Act transferred to the Commonwealth from private banks the authority to print paper money – initially referred to as ‘Fisher’s flimsies’. Grants to the States were established on a per capita basis by the Surplus Revenue Act 1910 and the Tasmania Grant Act 1912.
Excise laws included amendments to Customs and Tariff acts in 1910 and 1911, and the Shale Oil Bounty Act and the Wood Pulp and Rock Phosphate Bounties Act.
Transport and communications Acts included the Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta Railway Survey Act 1911 and the Pine Creek to Katherine Railway Survey Act 1912 set in motion the construction of the Commonwealth sections of the Trans-Australia Railway and the North Australia railway.
The Lighthouses Act 1911 and Navigation Act 1913 covered shipping and maritime communications, while the Pacific Cable Act 1911 regulated the use of the Australian section of the submarine telegraph cable from Canada through the Pacific. This ‘Empire cable’ linking the western end of the British empire had been completed in 1902.
Welfare measures introduced by the Fisher government included the implementation of invalid pensions and old age pensions for women under the 1908 Act, and an increase in the pension in 1912. The Maternity Allowances Act 1912 granted European mothers five pounds on the birth of a child. The government also passed the Commonwealth Workmen’s Compensation Act 1912.
‘The last shilling’
In October 1910, six months after taking office, Andrew Fisher made a three-month official visit to South Africa for the ceremonial opening of the first parliament of the Union of South Africa. He returned to Australia at the end of November 1910.
Parliament was in recess for the first nine months of 1911 while a large Australian contingent, including the Fishers, travelled to London to attend the coronation of George V and Queen Mary, and the Imperial Conference. Fisher became a reluctant Privy Councillor under pressure from British colleagues, but he had Margaret Fisher remove the lace collar and cuffs from his uniform and turn it to more suitable use.
The Liberal Party coalition, led by Joseph Cook after Alfred Deakin’s retirement, won a majority of one in the lower House at the 31 May 1913 general election. Cook became Prime Minister of a new Liberal government, but Labor remained in control of the Senate. In June 1914 Cook was forced to seek a double dissolution and the election was called for 5 September.
On 31 July 1914, the day after the Governor-General received official advice that war was imminent, both Andrew Fisher and Joseph Cook pledged support to the Empire in their election campaigns. Fisher delivered his famous phrase, repeated in many speeches: ‘Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling’. Four days later, Britain declared war on Germany. For Australians, this meant their nation too was at war.
A month later, Labor was elected to govern once more and Andrew Fisher became Prime Minister for the third time.
Third term 1914–15
On 17 September 1914, four of the twelve members of the new ministry resumed the portfolios they had handed over the previous year. Andrew Fisher again took the offices of Treasurer and Prime Minister. The others were WM Hughes (Attorney-General), George Pearce (Minister for Defence) and Frank Tudor (Minister for Trade and Customs).
The three new ministers who served the third Fisher government were John Arthur (Minister for External Affairs), William Archibald (Minister for Home Affairs) and William Spence (Postmaster-General). Albert Gardiner was Vice-President of the Executive Council and three assistant ministers were Hugh Mahon, Jens Jensen and Edward Russell.
Caucus filled the position of deputy leader for the first time since Fisher had held it, electing WM Hughes who thus became Deputy Prime Minister.
Three months later Hugh Mahon succeeded John Arthur as Minister for External Affairs. When a separate Department of the Navy was established in July 1915, Jens Jensen became the first Minister for the Navy.
The government and the parliament were immediately occupied in urgent defence measures for planning and implementing Australia’s war effort. Hughes was Acting Prime Minister for two months while Fisher made a visit to New Zealand that was both official and a necessary rest.
Legislation from the peacetime Labor program continued, including the River Murray Waters Act 1915, the Freight Arrangements Act 1915, the Sugar Purchase Act 1915, the Estate Duty Assessment and the Estate Duty acts in 1914. The latter levied income taxes, with higher rates applied to income derived from property.
Wartime legislation in 1914 and 1915 included the War Precautions acts (giving the Governor-General power to make regulations for national security), a Trading with the Enemy Act, War Census acts, a Crimes Act, a Belgium Grant Act, and an Enemy Contracts Annulment Act.
The most critical event of the war, and indeed a key moment in Australian history, was the deployment of Australian troops at Gallipoli, Turkey. The first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) sailed from Australia on 1 November 1914. At the intervention of Australia’s High Commissioner, George Reid, the AIF were re-routed to a training camp in Egypt. From there under British command they were sent to Gallipoli, landing on 25 April 1915. The Australian government was advised by Britain of their deployment after the event.
‘The most trying time’
In September 1915, Fisher requested journalist Keith Murdoch, who was on his way to Gallipoli to report on inadequacies in mail services for the troops, to advise him secretly of the situation there. Murdoch reported to the Prime Minister that ‘Your fears have been justified’, the Dardanelles expedition was ‘a series of disastrous underestimations’ and ‘one of the most terrible chapters in our history’. Murdoch sent details of the serious plight of the troops facing the coming winter – their urgent need for adequate food, water, and warm clothes, as well as for munitions. His report concluded:
What I want to say to you now very seriously is that the continuous and ghastly bungling over the Dardanelles enterprise was to be expected from such a general staff as the British Army possesses ... the conceit and self complacency of the red feather men are equalled only by their incapacity.
Fisher received this devastating report in October, showing it to WM Hughes and to Defence Minister George Pearce. It led to the evacuation of the troops on 20 December, and to a royal commission on which Fisher served as Australia’s next High Commissioner in London.
After being absent without explanation from parliament for three sitting days, on 27 October 1915 Fisher resigned as Prime Minister and Treasurer, and also resigned his seat. Three days later Labor Caucus unanimously elected WM Hughes leader of the Federal Parliamentary Party.
Australia’s High Commissioner in London, George Reid, had been unsuccessfully attempting to have his term extended. But this post was to be Fisher’s compensation, as it had been Reid’s four years before.
Shortly before he left for London in December 1915, Fisher wrote to Hugh Mahon to thank him for his services as minister and for his support during the ‘most trying time in a public man’s career’. At his farewell, Fisher was presented with an album of portrait photographs of all the federal Labor members who had served with him since the first federal parliament, almost fifteen years before.
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Hughes, Colin, Mr Prime Minister: Australian Prime Ministers 1901–1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1976.
Lloyd, Clem, ‘Andrew Fisher’ in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 72–86.
Malkin, John, Andrew Fisher 1862–1928, Walker & Connell, Strathclyde, c1979.
McMullin, Ross, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991.
Sawer, Marian and Marian Simms, A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993.
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