Peter Bastian, Andrew Fisher: An Underestimated Man.
Edward W. Humphreys, Andrew Fisher: The Forgotten Man, Sports and Editorial Services Australia, Teesdale, Victoria, 2008. pp. 100. $25.00 paper.
Andrew Fisher was Australia's fifth Prime Minister and the first Labor leader to be elected with majorities in both houses of parliament in Australia or, for that matter, the world. Prime Minister on three separate occasions (1908-09, 1910-13 and 1914-15), the Scottish-born former child miner introduced a vast array of socially progressive, nation-building legislation. Fisher later guided Australia through the opening phases of World War I, including the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and, until Bob Hawke's reign, he was the ALP's longest serving Prime Minister. Yet, as the titles of these two accounts of his life suggest, he is very much the 'forgotten' or 'underestimated' man of Australian politics. This neglect was compounded by the untimely death of two potential biographers, D.J. Murphy and Clem Lloyd, and the fact that Fisher's papers remained in London until the 1960s. Fisher was also overshadowed by the reputations of his contemporaries--political behemoths such as liberal Alfred Deakin and Labor renegade Billy Hughes, whose biographers, moreover, painted Fisher in unfavourable terms. Occasioned by the hundred anniversary of his first prime ministership, the publication of Peter Bastian's Andrew Fisher: An Underestimated Man and Edward W. Humphreys' Andrew Fisher: The Forgotten Man, together with David Day's recent biography of Fisher (Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia, 2008), are a welcome, if belated, correction to the historical record.
Of the two titles, Edward Humphreys' story is the less ambitious and more narrowly focussed. Indeed it is does not purport to be a properly biographical study. Humphreys explores two critical events in Fisher's federal parliamentary career. Firstly, he examines the so-called Dreadnought affair which took place during the period of Fisher's first administration. Humphreys shows how Fisher refused to buckle under a sustained scare campaign by anti-Labor politicians, including, most notably, Alfred Deakin, in conjunction with a jingoistic conservative press, aimed at forcing his government to overturn its plans to develop an Australian navy in favour of gifting the British government with Dreadnought (to be funded by a loan). This was an important turning point in the movement towards the modern two-party political system. Shortly afterwards, Deakin formally coalesced with his hitherto enemies, the free-traders cum anti-socialists led by ex-Labor MP Joe Cook, forming the 'Fusion' party in May 1909 (later known as the first incarnation of the Liberal party).
After leading the ALP to its historic victory over the disorganised, divided fusionists at the April 1910 general election, Fisher's reformist administration was blocked by constitutional barriers. In 1911, Fisher responded by seeking to alter the constitution via a referendum to give the Commonwealth extra powers over monopolies, corporations, trade and industrial relations. Unlike the Dreadnought affair, on this occasion the combined forces of big business, a hostile press, and a more unified conservative side of politics, defeated the proposals. Humphreys, despite his clear admiration for Fisher, apportions Fisher a large share of the blame. Apart from being absent from the country for large parts of the campaign, Humphreys argues that Fisher failed to explain to voters why the change was necessary, assuming that the previous years' election victory guaranteed victory, a tactical mistake compounded by leaving its prosecution to then Attorney-General Hughes. Later, Fisher ill-advisedly timed the second referendum with the 1913 election. The ALP lost both ballots. A 'determined centralist for socialist reasons but also ... a nationalist', Fisher planned to put the referendum questions to the electorate for a third time after winning back power at the 1914 wartime election. Alas, Fisher resigned before the planned referendum and his successor Hughes abandoned the plan. Thus began an inexorable process by which Hughes would split the ALP on the issue of conscription. As Humphreys points out, Fisher's record as a consensus leader and able manager of caucus stands in stark contrast to the divisive and autocratic Hughes. Overall, this balanced, well-researched study is a valuable scholarly work.
In his more properly biographical study, Peter Bastian not only chronicles Fisher's journey from child miner to the highest elected official in his adopted country but challenges the stereotype of Fisher as a slow of mind, mediocre leader held captive by the Labor machine in and outside of parliament. As he shows, Fisher was not fated to become Prime Minister. Born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1862, Fisher followed his father into the mines aged 13. Fisher was a teetotal Presbyterian who valued Calvinist ideals of self-improvement and education (he loved the poetry of fellow Scot Robert Burns and attended night-classes). He later put these values into practice after immigrating to Queensland with his brother in 1885, eventually becoming a mine manager as well as involving himself in the life of community as a Sunday school teacher. Fisher was a committed unionist (he was blacklisted after supporting several strikes) and played an active role in the early Queensland Labor party, winning the seat of Gympie in 1893 (and winning it back in 1899 after defeat in 1896). From 1901 he was the federal member for Wide Bay, a seat he held until his retirement. A solid parliamentary performer and effective campaigner, in 1899 Fisher became railways minister in the world's first Labor government led by Andy Dawson.
Shortly afterwards he married Margaret Irving, with whom he raised six children and rapidly rose through the ranks of the newly established federal party. In 1904 he featured in the world's first national Labor government, this time as minister for customs and trade. Although luck and his Queensland background played a part, Fisher worked the Labor caucus assiduously: positioning himself as more radical than Chris Watson, the party's first leader, and a more consultative, safer choice than Hughes. After Watson's resignation in 1907, Fisher took the ALP down a more confrontational path with its political allies, the protectionist liberals gathered around Deakin. Whilst Labor was clearly the better organised and united party at the subsequent 1910 election, Fisher's moderate persona and trustworthiness were a major factor in its stunning victory. His reformist government subsequently expanded access to the old age pension and introduced a maternity allowance, established the Commonwealth Bank, oversaw the development of an Australian navy, founded Canberra as the national capital and built the transcontinental railway.
Fisher was not without his flaws. Like most in the ALP and wider labour movement he was a fervent supporter of White Australia. As both Humphreys and Bastian point out, he could be inordinately stubborn. Yet whilst his vision of social equality was fl awed, Fisher was a staunch egalitarian who not only sought to practical improvements to the lives of working men and women, but refused to be seduced by the trappings of wealth and power: he hated social distinctions such as titles and even as prime minister insisted upon being called 'Andy'. He was a shrewd pragmatist but idealistic at the same time. The Great War however proved not only the ALP's undoing but also Fisher's. With living standards sliding and a campaign for conscription underway, Fisher resigned to take up the position of High Commissioner in London. As Bastian points out, whilst Fisher, along with Edmund Barton and Robert Menzies, was able to choose the time of his departure, there is a sense in which he fl ed, badly letting down both his party and his country.
This is a well-written and highly readable book, if inhibited by its subject. A thoroughly decent man, Fisher was, to put it bluntly, rather dull. No great rhetorician nor rousing speechmaker, Fisher's sense of propriety, his teetotalism and firm religious conviction meant that scandal played no part in his personal or public life. Despite Fisher's humble origins, there is simply not the sense of romance found in the life story of later Labor leader and reformed alcoholic John Curtin. Still, this might well explain Fisher's achievements and political longevity. I had some quibbles with the structure of this book. For instance, the insights into Fisher 'the man' contained in the chapter, 'Portrait of a Prime Minister', would have been better interspersed throughout the book rather than in a rather odd stand-alone section. Nonetheless, following so closely on the heels of the accomplished biographer Day, this is a fine biography. Bastian has captured the essence of Fisher's life but never loses sight of the bigger story of the ALP's precocious early successes (and failures) and the party's contribution to shaping of Australia's democratic temper.
University of Sydney
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|Title Annotation:||Andrew Fisher: The Forgotten Man|
|Publication:||Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2009|
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