CHAPTER XXVIII. THE COMMONWEALTH (a) PARTIES AND PERSONALITIES
The three parties - The Barton Ministry - Reid and the Opposition - Watson and the Labour Party - The White Australia policy - Kanaka labour - C. C. Kingston - Conciliation and Arbitration Bill - First Deakin Government - Watson Government - The Reid-McLean Government - Second Deakin Government - Retirement of Watson - Fisher leader of Labour Party - First Fisher Government - The 'Fusion' (Deakin-Cook) Government - Second Fisher Government - Cook Government - A ride for a fall - Dead-lock - Third Fisher Government - Hughes Government - The great European War.
Historical events, like mountain ranges, can best be surveyed as a whole by an observer who is placed at a good distance from them. Out of the welter of acrimony, stratagem, ambition, generous impulses, lofty aspirations, meanness, selfishness, patriotism, and all the other motive forces amid which the work of the world gets itself done, emerge at length clear to the view certain shining personalities, certain determinations fluent in consequences, which are the stuff of which history is made. Many people who made such noise while they strutted their hour become happily forgotten, and many events which were responsible for large headings in newspapers are seen to be of no particular importance. The student of the history of the first quarter of a century of the Commonwealth who enters upon his task a century hence will see things in different proportion from him who makes the attempt at closer range.
But there are things which we can be sure were not merely ephemeral, because they had to do with the laying down of main lines of policy. Where those lines will run, how they will be deflected, whether they will conduce ultimately to good or ill results, is beyond prediction. But they are important because they are main lines.
In the First Federal Parliament (1901-3) there were three political parties: the supporters of the Barton Government, which was protectionist; the official opposition led by G. H. Reid, which contended for a tariff for revenue-raising purposes only; and the Labour Party led by J. 0. Watson. The Ministry comprised five men who had been Premiers of their States before federation - Messrs. Forrest, Kingston, Turner, Lyne, and Fysh; in addition to Alfred Deakin, the most brilliant orator then engaged in politics, and one whose broad culture and personal charm won him influence beyond the political sphere. It was in experience and intellect a strong administration with which to commence operations under a new constitution, though it contained too many leaders to give promise of endurance. It was an army of generals, an orchestra of conductors; and that Edmund Barton did succeed in inducing them all to play the same tune, or fight on the same plan of campaign, during nearly two sessions, was a remarkable achievement in leadership.
The leader of the Opposition, Reid, whom nature designed in a mood of kindness to political caricaturists, was, since the death of Parkes, the most familiar figure in Australian affairs. His fund of humour was not the least of his endowments; and it was employed to give liveliness to a rare gift of dignified and impassioned eloquence, and to a quick-witted skill in debate - which would seize upon a chance word as it flew and return it as a weapon barbed.
The Labour Party counted twenty-four members in the two Houses of Parliament. Generally they supported the Barton Ministry, but they were an independent party, with aggressive aims and a clear if not as yet proclaimed intention to impose their own policy by the work of a Government of their own choice upon the Commonwealth. Their selected leader, Watson, had been a Labour member of Parliament in New South Wales, but had not secured there opportunities for distinction such as he soon showed his capacity for winning in Commonwealth politics. A man of good presence and urbane manners, he was a clear and incisive public speaker, and an astute and tactful parliamentarian.
Although a Labour Government did not come into office till 1904, the Labour Party held the key to the Australian political situation from the very commencement of the Commonwealth. On a few issues the opinions of its members were divided. Before the first Tariff was passed and protection had become the assured fiscal policy of the country, some of them, especially those from New South Wales, were strong free traders. But whenever the party was united, its compact cluster of votes was sufficient to ensure that what it insisted upon in legislation would become law. The only way of negativing the party's influence would have been for the Opposition to support the Government when the Labour Party did not concur in a ministerial proposal; but, as the main business of the Opposition was to try to turn out the Government, such support was not likely to be accorded often. The Labour Party held the key because on most important issues it assisted the Barton Government, which could not have carried its measures without Labour support. Moreover, the Labour Party had developed methods of party organization to a pitch not hitherto known in Australian politics. On issues which it declared to be essential to the carrying out of its political programme its members were pledged to vote as the majority of its members determined; on other issues they were free to vote according to their personal disposition. This system of party discipline gave to it a solid coherency which increased its strength.