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The last man: the making of Andrew Fisher and the Australian Labor Party

Presented by Professor David Day
Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 25 October 2007

PETER STANLEY: Good evening, my name is Peter Stanley and it is my great privilege to head the National Museum’s Centre for Historical Research. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to know that the National Museum is committed to supporting scholarship in the field of Australian studies, and to that degree it has created a new award called the Director’s Fellowship to supplement its existing visiting fellowships. Each quarter the Museum awards a fellowship that will enable the foremost practitioners in disciplines across the Museum’s themes to visit Canberra to continue research, consultation with colleagues and to speak about their work.

My only regret tonight is that our director Craddock Morton, who has taken a very strong interest in the research work of the Museum and the Centre for Historical Research, is unable to be with us tonight because he is on his way to New York to be present at an exhibition opening. So it falls to me to tell you that the first of the Director’s Fellowships has been awarded to Professor David Day, who is a noted historian of Australia and who has occupied many academic positions in Australia and overseas. He has recently been Professor of Australian Studies at the Centre for Pacific and American Studies at the University of Tokyo.

But for me, one of the hallmarks of David’s career is that he has worked always as a freelancer rather than as a tenured historian. The Museum and the Centre is especially keen to support productive, independent scholars, and David is a very notable example of that genus. David has published many books in Australian history, and they have won prizes and gained wide recognition. His books include his analysis of Australian and Allied politics during the Second World War, Menzies and Churchill at War, Great Betrayal and Reluctant Nation. He has published biographies of John Curtin and Ben Chifley, a general history of Australia Claiming a Continent, and on an even broader scale he has published a book Conquest: A New History of the Modern World. His next book, the book after the one he will talk about tonight, is The Weather Watchers: A Centenary History of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and that will be published soon.

I don’t say I have always agreed with David but I greatly respect his gifts as an historian. I and the Museum are proud to be associated with such a productive scholar who has made contributions to our understanding of Australia’s past and its relationship to the world. We are very pleased to be able to be furthering that work. This evening we can look forward to hearing David speak about his current research project on Australia’s first Labor Party prime minister, the Queenslander Andrew Fisher - a subject though over 90 years old has strongly topical resonance for us today. I will invite David to come and speak about Andrew Fisher. Thanks, David.

DAVID DAY: Thank you very much, Peter, for that kind introduction. Andrew Fisher was the most handsome of our Australian prime ministers, even taking into account the present one. But for all that he’s been largely forgotten. If you asked somebody in the street, you’d be hard put to get them to say that they remembered or knew who Andrew Fisher was. Yet he was Prime Minister three times: from 1908 to 1909, from 1910 to 1913, and from 1914 to 1915. He was the Prime Minister, after all, who took Australia into the First World War, who took Australia to Gallipoli, and then went on to London as High Commissioner to sit on the Dardanelles Commission to investigate why the Dardanelles operation went so wrong.

Today I want to bring Fisher back to life, if that is possible, to try and understand why Fisher has been neglected by historians up until now, to look to some extent at the origins of his politics in Scotland and in Queensland, to assess to some extent his importance and his achievements, and to wonder why it was that he resigned in 1915 and let in Billy Hughes, with all the terrible things that came after under Hughes’s prime ministership. When people look back on the First World War they mostly think of Billy Hughes, who tore the party and the country apart over conscription - not once but twice. If they are particularly well informed they might also think of the first Labor prime minister, Chris Watson, and perhaps his successor Andrew Fisher.

If he is remembered at all, Fisher is best known for his commitment to Britain in the First World War, ‘to support Britain to the last man and the last shilling’ - hence the title of the talk. That is about it as far as public memory goes. Yet he was prime minister three times for a total period of just less than five years, making him the eighth longest serving prime minister in Australia out of 25. As far as Labor prime ministers go, he served longer than either Scullin, Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam or Keating, and served for about the same time as Deakin on the conservative side. It is Deakin though who is much more remembered, and indeed revered. Why has Fisher been overlooked? Partly it was because he was judged so harshly by his contemporaries. People look back at Fisher through the eyes of his contemporaries, through the eyes of Hughes and through the eyes of Deakin. Hughes was particularly critical of Fisher, describing the Labor Party’s choice of Fisher as leader of the Labor Party in 1907 as, ‘choosing the safe man rather than the brilliant man’. He, of course, was the brilliant man that was overlooked. That has been taken up by historians ever since.

In 1964 Hughes’s biographer described Fisher as, ‘a man of no great intellectual or oratorical gifts’, although adding that he radiated solidity and trustworthiness, which one might have thought were greater assets to a politician. The following year, the biographer of Alfred Deakin described Fisher as, ‘tall and unusually handsome but a slow thinker, shrewd in his own careful way, not without vanity, a man of integrity whose public reputation and place in his party depended on his rocklike lack of brilliance’. This tendency by historians to push Fisher into the shadows was also due to him slipping into the shadows himself. He spent the last 13 years of his life in London, five of them as High Commissioner, during which time he was effectively ignored by Hughes and robbed of any real responsibility. In many ways, Keith Murdoch played the part of High Commissioner much more than Fisher did.

The manner of Fisher’s mental decline and dying of dementia in 1928 has also perhaps affected the way historians have looked at his earlier life. Indeed, some have suggested he was suffering from the effects of dementia as early as 1914 in the wake of his election win. This is most unlikely, given the things that he did in 1915 and even in 1916 sitting on the Dardanelles Commission.

Fisher has not only been relatively neglected by historians but also tends to be under-rated. For one thing, he was not the first Labor Prime Minister. That honour went to Chris Watson, albeit his minority government only lasting a few months and achieving nothing. Despite this, it was Watson’s government, rather than Fisher’s, that was recently made the subject of a book by Labor historian Ross McMullin. It certainly helps to be the first. Fisher’s time in office also came after the immediate post-Federation years and before the big conscription crises of 1916 and 1917, and the political turmoil they introduced into Australian politics. They were years when you could be forgiven for thinking that not much happened, which may explain why biographers were slow to tackle a study of Fisher. Their lack of interest may also have been due to Fisher living for the last 13 years of his life in London, and his papers, most importantly, remaining in London until the 1960s when they were finally given by his family to the National Library of Australia. This, once they had been given to the National Library, finally removed a substantial hurdle that would have had to be surmounted by any potential biographer.

This explains then why there has been no major scholarly biography written about Fisher. It was not perhaps the 1970s, more than 50 years after Fisher’s retirement, that the Queenslander historian Denis Murphy began researching what would have been a major biography of Fisher. Tragically, that book never appeared after Murphy was diverted into politics when he was elected to the Queensland Parliament and was then tragically struck down by cancer in his late 40s in 1984. So all we have been left to go on with from Denis Murphy have been a few articles and the entry on Fisher in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Murphy’s notes in the Fryer Library in Brisbane show that we missed out on getting what would have been a well-researched and insightful study of Fisher, and my own work has benefited greatly from Murphy’s work.

Fifteen years after Murphy’s death, the task of writing Fisher’s biography was taken up by Clem Lloyd, who was granted funds for that purpose as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations. But that, too, ended tragically when Clem died suddenly, in the midst of completing the work, on New Year’s Eve in 2001. We are left with a brief 13-page chapter that Clem wrote for Michelle Grattan’s book Australian Prime Ministers. In that chapter Clem gives some sign of how he was planning to approach the biography, mounting a stout defence of Fisher against his detractors.

So here we are: next year it will be a centenary after Fisher’s first government in 1908, and all we have to go on are those few traces from these two attempted biographies and a slim book by John Murdoch, which was published in 1998 by what I just found out yesterday was a vanity publisher in the United Kingdom, which stretches to little more than 100 pages. It is almost impossible to get a copy of that book in Australia. There is apparently no copy in the National Library, although there is one in the Australian National University library. The book was based on a Master of Arts that John Murdoch did on Australian liberalism in the period 1906 to 1914 at the University of Western Australia. It does not do Fisher justice by a long way, either in the attention it accords him or the assessment that it makes of him. It is extraordinary that this is the most substantial work that we have on Fisher. Even hopeless American presidents have multiple biographies written about them. The more hopeless, the more biographies it seems to be.

How did a man who began as a coalminer in Scotland become one of what I would call great nation-building prime ministers of Australia? The usual approach with Fisher is to fit him in to the ‘log cabin to White House’ genre, with Fisher being the son of a coalminer who is sent down to the mines at the age of nine when his father is stricken with the coalminers’ curse, black lung disease. Forced to support his family Fisher then becomes involved in the union, is blacklisted for his militancy and is forced to emigrate to Australia. Landing in Queensland in 1885 he again becomes involved with the labour movement, is again blacklisted but nevertheless rises within 23 years to become Prime Minister of Australia.

There is a certain amount of truth in this brief outline of his life. He certainly was the second son of a coalminer and he did work down the mines at a young age. Just exactly what the age was still remains a matter of some dispute. Writers put it anywhere between the age of nine and the age of 13. He was born in the mining village of Crosshouse in Ayrshire, west of Kilmarnock. I have not been able to settle even in my own mind when he began work. Fisher though seems to confirm that it may have been at the age of 13. There was an interview that he did in 1910 that he had a chance to correct after it was written up. The interviewer had listed him going down the mines at 13 and Fisher made no alteration to that, although he did alter various other facts. But at other times he seems to give different ages, so it is very difficult to know.

It is possible, as a Scottish historian pointed out to me, that he may have gone down the mine at nine and then, when the Education Act came in in 1872 which required him to be at school until the age of 12, he was forced to leave the mine and go back to school. He may also have talked about going down the mine at the age of nine in the sense that he took his brother’s or his father’s lunch down the mine, because mines in Ayrshire were not the sort of mines that we usually think of. They were quite small with perhaps only 20 workers and not very deep. It is quite feasible for a child to go half a kilometre or so from the village with food or whatever for their family.

As for his father, if he was suffering from a terminal disease in the early 1870s - as most writers have it - which supposedly forced Fisher down the mines, his father was still alive in 1885 when Fisher emigrated to Australia and did not die until 1887 - perhaps 15 years after leaving the mines. Moreover, rather than being a chronic invalid incapable of work, Fisher’s father joined with other miners to form a local cooperative, acted as its secretary and served in its store. He also apparently kept bees as an additional source of income and shortly before Fisher’s emigration did work on a farm as a contractor with his son. He was a man with ambitions for himself, his children and his fellow miners.

Respectability, honour and duty were all important for the Fisher family. The Fisher family believed that hard, honest work should be rewarded and that there was no shame in enjoying those rewards. They were working class who aspired to something better. In the parlance of today they were aspirational and, like so many of their fellow Scots, they would try to achieve their aspirations through education.

For Andrew Fisher it meant attending two or three different village schools during his childhood where he received a fair education for the times, and once he began work as a coalminer he supplemented this education with night classes in Kilmarnock. These classes were mainly of a practical nature to allow him to take on supervisory jobs in the mines. After he moved to Queensland he not only kept up his own education and self-improvement but also sent money back to Scotland to finance the education of his younger brother.

It was also the education from his parents that was important in forming the world view of young Andrew Fisher. Informed by their stories he believed he was not just any Scot but a descendant of the Scottish rebel William Wallace, whose first deeds of resistance were performed near Fisher’s birthplace. Fisher took inspiration from Wallace and also from Scotland’s poet Robert Burns. When Fisher went to Aberdeen later in 1911, he took his son with him and transcribed a notation from a statue of Wallace inspiring people to stand up for their independence.

Fisher was also inspired by the work of Robert Burns, whose first book was published in Kilmarnock in 1786. Not long before Fisher left for Queensland, Kilmarnock saw its biggest ever demonstration when a statue and commemorative museum and tower was unveiled in Burns’s honour. It was the radicalism as much as the Scottish nationalism that Fisher took from the works of Burns, and he memorised much of Burns’s poetry. He was particularly fond of citing Burns’s idealistic song which looked forward to a time, ‘when men the world over will brothers be’.

The influence of the Free Presbyterian Church was also important in forming Fisher’s political views. The church had been the traditional site of protest within Scottish society with its instances of martyrdom being a source of continuing inspiration to those confronted by oppression. The democratic government of the church was also an inspiration to those who wanted an extension of such democracy to the political sphere. For Fisher, democracy became an end in itself. He believed that the universal adult franchise would open the door to socialism and that once workers could vote, their numbers would ensure control of Parliament and the gradual implementation - not in his lifetime but eventually in the fullness of time - of socialist measures and of socialism itself.

Fisher’s politics was also influenced by his experience with the trade union movement in Scotland and later in Queensland. As a local official of the Ayrshire Miners Union he stood beside Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the British Labour Party, and became secretary of the union’s Crosshouse branch. But the prolonged strike in which he became involved saw the miners suffer great hardship for little reward. The union was smashed and Fisher was twice blacklisted. The Australian strikes of the 1890s ended similarly. It made Fisher cautious about using the strike weapon and committed him instead to the parliamentary path.

Like most British workers in the 1880s Fisher looked to Gladstone’s Liberal Party to advance the political interests of the workers with social reforms, industrial legislation and, most importantly, an extension of the franchise. In Crosshouse in 1884, it was Fisher who led the local campaign to support Gladstone’s plan to broaden the franchise in the face of staunch opposition from the House of Lords. He wrote to Gladstone afterwards telling him of the support in Crosshouse and the surrounding area for an extension of the franchise.

With the British Labour Party many years from being formed, Fisher’s politics then came from Scottish liberalism and didn’t owe much, if anything, to socialist tracks. It was imbued with these ideas that Fisher left Scotland for Queensland in 1885 with his father’s parting wish, wishing him every success in honest industry. For Fisher, he saw Queensland as a new land with new opportunities. He found work on the Burrum coalfield near Hervey Bay and was soon promoted to manage one of the small coalmines. He bought land and built himself a cottage, something that would have been inconceivable in Scotland. Just two years after landing in Queensland he had become a man of property. It truly was a land of opportunity in which honest industry would receive its just reward.

But then his life soured when he failed to get a job as mine manager, and a lesser qualified man was appointed in his place. Getting that job may well have seen Fisher not being drawn into politics - he may have become instead a local identity around Hervey Bay. Instead, he shifted from the Burrum field to the much larger Gympie goldfield, and this became his political base for the next 25 years.

There was much to draw Fisher into politics. Queensland was a colony with a franchise that was as restricted as that in Scotland and was notorious among the Australian colonies for the rorts that kept many Queensland workers from voting. For instance, shearers and miners, people on the move, were unable to vote because they were not resident in the one place for months before an election. Moreover, it was a colony which was divided between those wanting it to be the exclusive preserve of white people and those who believed that tropical Australia could only be developed with the use of indentured labour from Asia.

So Gympie becomes Fisher’s base. Gympie was likened by some of its residents to Rome because it was supposedly set on seven hills. One of the hills was Red Hill, which was the centre of Presbyterian Gympie. The Presbyterian Church became one of the centres of Fisher’s life in Gympie. Fisher later noted that he had left the Burrum field because it was mentally impoverishing. It was a small community with very little of the civilised amenities of life - such as libraries, learned societies, debating societies and such forth - that he was used to in Kilmarnock that were not there in Burrum but were there in Gympie. Fisher himself did much to promote those societies. He quickly became involved in many of the town’s institutions, from the Presbyterian Church, becoming a Sunday school teacher, to the debating society, the chess club, the local cooperative, the Friendly Society, the School of Arts, the miners union and the forerunner of the Labor Party. He even joined the local volunteer force but gave it up when, on the first outing, it ended up in unbridled drinking. Fisher was a committed teetotaller throughout his life.

Although Gympie was a town seemingly divided along ethnic and religious lines - there was the Presbyterian hill, the Methodist hill, the Catholic hill and the Anglican hill with a church on each of them - nevertheless there was great mixing between those religious and ethnic groups. For instance, if the Catholic church had an event on, everybody went. It wasn’t just the Catholics going to the local Catholic church, everybody went along and contributed. Fisher later noted when he went to England: ‘There was no racism in Australia. We all got on together, the Welsh, Irish and the Scots and the English.’

The economic divisions were also not as deep as they might have seemed. Many of the miners were shareholders and sometimes even directors of the mines in which they worked. Fisher himself soon removed himself from the dangers of the mine shaft and found employment on the surface as an engine driver; in other words, operating the stationary engine that sent the miners down the shaft and brought the ore up. He also bought shares in some of the mines, although it is difficult to know from his papers in the National Library exactly how successful he was with his investments. One suspects that he was not all that successful. He was certainly very conservative in his later investments once he had become prime minister. There were no mining shares at all in his later investments, all government bonds and sewerage works.

Rather than concealing his shareholdings - it wasn’t a matter of shame to Fisher, despite being a member of the labour movement, to have shares - this was a common thing. He celebrated the fact that he was a shareholder and made much of this in his election campaigns. What he was doing was telling them the investment he had in Gympie, that he had more than £100 invested in the success of the Gympie mines and therefore he deserved to be their local member. At one stage he was even criticised by a conservative opponent for overstating his shareholdings - somebody who had audited the local mines’ shareholdings and said he had not come across Fisher’s name all that often and disputed whether Fisher had as many shares as he claimed to have.

Similarly when Fisher established a labour newspaper in Gympie in 1896, although there were occasional mentions of Karl Marx - at least one that I saw - two pages of the newspaper every week were devoted to mining news; that is how much gold was dug up and how much the shares were worth on the local stock exchange in Gympie. Not surprisingly then, Fisher’s socialism as a result of both his experience in Scotland and of the particular experience of Gympie was of the most moderate kind - as was that of most of his Labor colleagues elected to the Queensland Parliament, along with Fisher, in 1893. There was little to distinguish their platform from that of their radical liberal opponents. But Fisher was adamant that they should not join with these radical liberals in any suggested coalition but maintain their separate identity and build up the Labor Party as a separate organisation.

The main way of distinguishing Labor from the Liberals was on the question of white Australia and the use of indentured labour from the Pacific islands in the sugar industry. In a letter to electors in 1899, Fisher talked of workers’ compensation schemes, old age pensions and low interest government loans, but he particularly promised to secure the exclusion of inferior races from Queensland. Of the 14 reasons that he listed for voting against the government, five concerned the government’s support for non-European labour, with Fisher’s letter claiming that the government was threatening the very existence of the white race. It was the Japanese that particularly concerned Fisher, who claimed: ‘The Japs are swarming into Queensland, entering into competition with white workers and establishing their filthy dens of immorality in all our towns.’ Fisher’s view of the Japanese was probably coloured by the manner of his arrival in Australia. He came on a new shipping line that was designed to bring immigrants particularly to Queensland. So it came by way of the Torres Strait. Its first landing spot was Thursday Island, which had a particularly strong population of Japanese working in the pearl fishery. His first sight of Australia would be Thursday Island, which I think at that time had a majority of Japanese people living there.

Fisher’s appeals to racial fears were a repeated vote winner both for him and for the Labor Party, helping to deflect conservative allegations about Labor being in the grip of the trade unions - which has a familiar ring to it somehow. When Labor MPs sat down in 1901 to draw up their fighting platform just five issues were listed: white Australia, adult suffrage, old age pensions, a citizen army and compulsory arbitration. It was after all a party of pragmatic reformists. They looked forward to a better world but they were content to achieve it gradually, step by step and were committed to confine its benefits just to white Australians.

Fisher’s fear of Japan was heightened after the stunning Japanese naval victory over Russia in 1905 and the effective admission by Britain with its Anglo-Japanese alliance that the British fleet could no longer defend Australia. Fisher realised that Australia would have to do more to defend itself. Many of his polices as prime minister were directed towards that purpose. Whether it was creating an Australian navy, imposing a land tax to encourage the settlement of the interior, introducing a maternity allowance to cut the infant death rate or constructing a railway to connect Western Australia to the eastern states - it was all about securing the effective possession of the continent before it was contested by the Japanese.

But with less than five million people occupying the continent Australians had little hope of defending the place by themselves, hence the attachment by Fisher to the idea of imperial defence despite his doubts about England’s capacity to make good on its promises. It was this fear of Japan that prompted Fisher and his colleagues in 1911 to pledge support for Britain in the coming European war and for Fisher to repeat that pledge three years later with his memorable commitment, ‘to support Britain to the last man and the last shilling’ - a pledge that would set the stage for conscription, despite Fisher’s personal opposition to compulsion.

It is clear from the work that I have done (I am about two-thirds the way through writing the book and thanks to the Museum have now had a chance to finish off the research) as well as from the work of Clem Lloyd and Denis Murphy that Andrew Fisher was denigrated unfairly by some of his influential contemporaries and has, as a consequence, been under-rated by historians. When considering Fisher several things need to be remembered: firstly, he was prime minister far longer than either Edmund Barton or George Reid. Although Deakin and Fisher were prime ministers for about the same length of time, Fisher achieved so much more. His government passed 113 pieces of legislation from his first three years in power from 1910 to 1913, during which time he also spent several months in South Africa in 1910 and Britain in 1911. Fisher was not only important to Australian history but to international history. He was a minister in the Anderson Dawson Labor government in Queensland in 1899, which has been claimed as the world’s first socialist government, even though it was the government of a colony and lasted just six days and obviously did nothing in that time.

He went on to be a minister in Watson’s Labor government in 1904, which was the first time that a professedly socialist government had taken charge of a nation, although again it lasted only a few months and was unable to implement any of its socialist polices. He was then prime minister of a minority government in 1908 to 1909 before becoming leader of the world’s first government in which a socialist party had control of both houses of parliament - we have seen over the last few years what you can do with control of both houses of parliament. It allowed the possibility of socialism by legislation and the world watched, partly with horror on the part of some and partly with admiration on the part of others.

Fisher was not only prime minister but also served each time as treasurer - a feat that was later repeated by Ben Chifley. With his handsome demeanour and palpable honesty, Fisher did much to make the Labor Party respectable and make it difficult for conservatives to portray the party as a bunch of dangerous revolutionaries. This is one of Fisher’s main achievements during this time. He was in the parlance of today a fiscal conservative. He opposed borrowing for unproductive purposes. When Deakin tried to get a loan to pay for the Australian navy, Fisher came in as prime minister soon after, cancelled the loan and paid for the navy out of government revenue.

Some of his major initiatives as prime minister were the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank, the Australian navy, the Australian Capital Territory, the takeover and attempted development of the Northern Territory, the building of the transcontinental railway, a land tax to promote more intensive development of the interior, universal military training, the officer school at Duntroon, government munition factories, old age and invalid pensions and maternity allowances, the Australian note issue and many more. It was all about securing the continent for the nation, for the white Australian nation.

Whereas Watson had trouble keeping the caucus together and Hughes split the party in the country, Fisher managed, by the quiet force of his personality and his astute handling of political allies, to maintain good relations and a fair degree of control over such difficult colleagues as Billy Hughes and King O’Malley. Whereas Deakin led his Liberals to a state of terminal decline, finally smothering the party when he embraced his more conservative opponents in the fusion government of 1909, Fisher led the Labor Party to one of its greatest electoral victories in 1915, presiding over Australia’s first majority government. He did what Deakin, Barton and Reid had all aspired to do; he actually had a majority in the parliament and was able to rule in his own right - and remember this was 35 years before the Labour Party managed to do likewise in Britain. Fisher did it not only once but repeated the feat in 1914, this time doing it against the backdrop of the First World War when the conservatives had been confident of winning power.

While he was not a great speaker, being partially deaf and having a thick Ayrshire accent which became thicker as he got more excited in debate, he was nevertheless an effective parliamentary debater and on the hustings managed to overcome his deficiencies by teaming up with the witty and almost completely blind senator Gregor McGregor from South Australia, who was also important as leader of the Labor Party in the Senate in keeping the caucus loyal to Fisher.

While Deakin has been rightly described as ‘the father of Federation’, Fisher was just as passionate about federation and as prime minister probably did more than Deakin to break down state loyalties and imbue the former colonists with a sense of being Australian. He did it against considerable resistance from the state premiers. In the last week or so in the National Library, I was looking in his papers and there was a Christmas card from the Queensland premier - nothing remarkable about that you might think, but you should see this Christmas card. It is leather bound with a huge photograph in the middle of the Queensland ministry. On one side in great scrolling writing it says, ‘to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth’ and on the other side, ‘from the Prime Minister of Queensland’. So Fisher did what he could to break down those alternative loyalties and to put these premiers or putative prime ministers in their place.

The great tragedy of Fisher’s political life was to have his work as a nation building prime minister culminate in the gullies of Gallipoli and then to see the party he had done so much to build up be torn apart within a year of his resignation. Turning then to that decision by Fisher to resign in October 1915 and hand the prime ministership to Billy Hughes from whom so much flowed. It is usually said that he resigned for health reasons, and there is probably something in that. It is said that he went off to New Zealand at the end of 1914 because he simply could not cope with the strain of the war. But in fact if you look in his papers he did not have a holiday in New Zealand; he had a huge and continual round of meetings, public meetings and official meetings with the New Zealand government, trying to get the New Zealand government to bring its navy into line with the Australian navy. It was anything but a holiday.

There were other reasons that were impelling Fisher to resign at this time. For one thing he feared that he might be forced, like Churchill had been in Britain, to pay the political cost of Gallipoli. It is quite extraordinary that no politician in Australia paid the political cost - paid any cost - for Gallipoli. But there was mounting criticism. Gallipoli was coming to a crisis: it was either going to be overrun by the Turks in the winter of 1915; or there was going to be a disastrous withdrawal from Gallipoli. Nobody predicted that the withdrawal would be successful. The British government was calculating on about a third or so of casualties, a third being killed in the attempt to withdraw from Gallipoli.

So by not only resigning but also swapping jobs by taking on the high commissionership in London, Fisher would avoid paying the price at Gallipoli. He would also avoid having to deal with the conscription issue. There was growing pressure in Australia from the conservative side of politics, but also from the Labor side, to introduce conscription in order to keep up the numbers for the front which had expanded considerably in the wake of Gallipoli but were now beginning to trail off. Fisher’s promise to support Britain ‘to the last man and the last shilling’ committed Australia morally to help Britain and if people did not come voluntarily then to introduce conscription to ensure that that promise was upheld. Fisher though in principle was opposed to conscription. By resigning when he did he would avoid having to deal with this and avoid the problem of trying to hold the Labor Party together, because most of them also sided with him rather than with Hughes and the pro-conscription lobby.

There are also other reasons including financial reasons. Just after Fisher became Labor leader he bought land in Melbourne and built the house himself. I went through the house a couple of weeks ago. It’s quite a substantial and valuable house in Albert Park, just a couple of blocks from the beach. It has three bedrooms, a living room, dining room and a very small back yard. In that house were Fisher, six children, his mother-in-law and either two or three sisters-in-law. Looking at it I still do not see how they managed to fit in there.

Fisher then moved up, buying a huge mansion in East St Kilda - a mansion that was so big that when Billy Hughes visited he gave Fisher a compass to find his way around the house after locking up the windows and doors at night, so he could find his way back to the bedroom. Fisher not only bought the house but an acre of or so of land around it that was going to be sold separately. Instead, he had it tossed in and bought the lot and then had a cow shipped down from Queensland which he put out the back and that his wife and sisters-in-law used to milk.

So suddenly he was burdened with these huge debts. He retained the Albert Park house and borrowed money to buy this huge mansion. Had he lost his job as prime minister he would have been ruined; he would have been forced to sell the house and perhaps squash himself back into the much smaller Albert Park abode. So resigning and going to London on a salary that was 50 per cent higher than that of the prime minister ensured that, at least for the next five years, he would have security. When going to London he also tried to rent out this house to the defence department as a hospital for wounded soldiers, but unfortunately for Fisher they declined to take it on because they had already had so many offers of other large houses. So instead his sister-in-laws remained living in the house.

Fisher would also have been mindful in resigning that he would be postponing his death from overwork. He had lost three cabinet ministers to sudden death. Three cabinet ministers from 1910 had died by 1915. More importantly, he had lost Gregor McGregor who died on 13 August 1914. He no longer had McGregor to stand alongside him on political platforms and, perhaps more importantly, guard his back from scheming caucus members.

And lastly perhaps he was sensing the first signs of dementia, the dementia that he would have recognised in his political opponent Alfred Deakin - creeping up on Deakin from about 1909 and which had forced Deakin to resign in 1913. It was the dementia that would slowly rob Fisher of his mental faculties and eventually of his life.

Could he have held the party together and withstood the clamour for conscription? It is doubtful. After all, it was a clamour that he would have found hard to resist and had to some extent unintentionally inspired, having committed Australia to support Britain to the last man. For a myriad of reasons it would have seemed better to Fisher that he should leave the political scene when he did, even if his passing should usher in Hughes and all that meant for the Labor Party and the nation.

Like Hughes, Fisher’s prime ministership has been seen through the prism of the war, as if his last man commitment effectively summed up his time at the top. As I have tried to explain, his importance went much further than that. Internationally, the example of his success and his political moderation was important in encouraging the leaders of the British Labour Party as well as democratic socialists in other countries - much to the chagrin of Lenin who famously dismissed Fisher’s government in 1913 as ‘being of no relevance to European socialists’. When Fisher though went to Europe two years earlier, he was greeted in Paris by French socialists and met in London by Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and other leading Labour figures, with Keir Hardie accompanying Fisher to Ayrshire and then taking him on a tour of the Welsh coalfields.

In Australia he should be regarded as more of a nation builder, I would argue, than Deakin. What Deakin mainly talked about or recoiled from doing, Fisher did. Although his contribution was not always positive, a reassessment of his place in Australia’s early history is long overdue. Thank you.

PETER STANLEY: David, successful biographers have to like their subjects. I think you have given us a strong case for why we should think better of Andrew Fisher. There is after all no Fisher university, but there is Deakin. I think you are a brave man given the fate of Denis Murphy and Clem Lloyd to not fear the curse of Andrew Fisher.

DAVID DAY: That’s why I am working so fast.

PETER STANLEY: I should say too that tonight’s talk will not just be available to the privileged few who have heard it here but it will be available in due course on the Museum’s website. If I can invite you to ask questions of David?

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.

QUESTION: Deakin too?

DAVID DAY: Deakin as well, yes.

QUESTION: What drew you personally to the subject of Fisher?

DAVID DAY: It partly flowed on from the biographies of Curtin and Chifley. It was a bit ironic. I took it on without realising that Clem Lloyd had already done so. He had begun work on it either the same year or perhaps a year earlier and I had not realised. So that could have been interesting. We might have suddenly had two biographies of Fisher instead of one.

It is partly that I have always been fascinated by that period in Australian history, particularly why Australia was so gung-ho about its entry into the First World War. As a history undergraduate student at Melbourne University I had done work on the labour movement in Victoria. I had looked at the very strong anti-war feelings in the labour movement and how that simply was swept away in August 1914, even though some people held true to their ideals. People like John Cain and John Curtin were anti-war right through, but most of the other people in the labour movement in the socialist party tended to put those views aside and fall in with Britain. So I was interested in looking at the period and doing it by way of a biography because a history of the period, perhaps 10 people will read, whereas a biography of Fisher perhaps 10,000 people will read.

PETER STANLEY: David, thank you for giving so generously of your time not just tonight but in the work you have done to make this biography a reality. When it appears next August published by HarperCollins there will be 10,000 copies in bookshops all over Australia and people will read it. We know that because they have a capacity to sell books. But also people will listen to your talk on the Museum’s website, and that will enlighten us in a much more concise way.

Speaking as somebody who, to be honest, always found pre-First World War Australian politics a bit on the dull side, there was never a dull moment in your account of it so I must have been reading the wrong books. Thank you very much for being associated with the National Museum. We look forward to further warm collaboration. Thanks particularly to Elise Murphy for organising tonight’s talk and our technical friends from media operations. Thank you very much for coming to the Museum tonight on a rather dreary but welcomely wet night. We will see you at another talk organised by the Museum.

Find out more about Andrew Fisher from the National Archives of Australia prime ministers website

Date published: 12 March 2008