Reform in Government: The Fisher Years | 1903 - 1914

Organisational Changes

With this new confidence came some organisational stiffening. Important decisions of the third Federal Conference in July 1905 amended the Fighting and General Platforms, and passed a number of resolutions aimed at directing Federal MPs, notably that future Ministries should be elected by Caucus. The creation of a Federal Executive was foreshadowed, but the details of how it might be constituted were left to the Queensland Executive (convenors of the next Federal Conference planned for 1908) to propose. Conference also agreed with the resolve of Watson and Caucus that the Labor Party should not form a coalition government with any other party, and that promised support for other parties in government should not be negotiated beyond a single parliamentary term. Parliamentary leader Watson was unhappy with some of these decisions, which contributed to his decision to stand down as leader. Andrew Fisher was elected to succeed him in October 1907. Fisher, from a background in mining, was rather more radical than Watson, with a special interest in restraining the influence of 'money power' in the economy, but otherwise prepared to let more populist figures in his caucus, like Billy Hughes or King O'Malley, make the running.

One of the major social reforms of this period was achieved outside the parliamentary arena, but promoted strongly by the Labor Party. The 'Harvester Judgment' was delivered by Justice Higgins in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, which had been established on the initiative of the Labor Party in 1904 (when Higgins was Attorney-General in Watson's administration). The judgment established the principle of a minimum or 'basic' wage for all workers. Even though the High Court later declared that important parts of the judgment were unconstitutional, the principle survived in Federal and State industrial tribunals throughout the next century.

One of the decisions of the 1905 Conference was to approve a socialist objective that could express the aims of the labour movement yet not become an electoral handicap. The phrasing preferred by Watson was accepted, and committed the party to: 'The securing of the full results of their industry to all producers by the collective ownership of monopolies and the extension of the industrial and economic functions of the State and Municipality'. More would be heard of this in years to come.

Other topics in The Fisher Years

The 1903 Election

Within a year after the first Federal election the Labor Party had settled in to national politics as an equal partner with the two fiscal parties. The game of party politics seemed the same as before Federation, with no party capable of winning an absolute…

The Watson Labor Government

The answer was revealed within months. In the debate on the Government's Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, Deakin refused to accept a Labor amendment, and treated the ensuing vote (which was defeated by the combined votes of Free Trade and Labor) as a vote of confidence.…

The Minority Fisher Labor Government

On the other side of politics the first Labor Party tenure of office had accelerated the pressures on the conservative parties to form some kind of fusion. The fiscal issue was not enough to form the basis for a modern political party, especially as not…

Majority Government

At the Federal election in April 1910 the fundamental issue was the reputation of both sides and a judgement about which was more likely to govern responsibly. Labor Party policy was presented as the unfinished business of the short-lived first Fisher administration, especially the resolve…