Source: The Social-Democrat, Vol. XIII., No. 8., August, 1909, pp.337-343, (2,104 words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.
Readers of the “Social-Democrat” may find it interesting to learn of the development of affairs in Australia and New Zealand. I have been out here now seven and a half years, and all that time have been active in the movement, endeavouring to advance the cause by industrial organisation and Socialist propaganda. During this period I have not only visited but helped with organising work in every one of the States, including two considerable spells in New Zealand amounting to about a year, and three shorter organising runs to Tasmania, also Queensland, West Australia, South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales. I have been through each of them, and am now writing this at Broken Hill, N.S.W.
I propose describing the conditions as they actually obtain, as seen by me, and to indicate the probable development; First, to inform would-be immigrants to these parts as to what to expect on arrival; and, secondly, to show Australia’s position in the World Movement.
I know, of course, that Agents-General and other notable personages in London systematically endeavour to create the impression that the conditions surrounding working-class life out here are much superior to the conditions in Britain, and that poverty, as known and experienced by a large percentage of the working class in the large towns of the United Kingdom, is not to be found here.
In order to correctly deal with the matter, let me first declare that those mechanics who obtain in Britain a wage of 38s. to 42s. a week for, say, 52 hours work, would in Australia receive from 48s. to 60s. a week for 48 hours’ work, and this is a substantial improvement. Of course, the purchasing power is different, and the 15s. a week (about) extra received out here does not mean an improvement to anything like the extent the figures appear to indicate; at the most it would mean an improvement of one-half that amount, or about 7s. 6d. a week advance in wages.
But, lest it should be supposed that this higher standard generally prevails; it is necessary to say that, judging by all available methods, the actual standard of life of the workers as a whole is here in Australia as at home.
There is as large a proportion of handy men seeking employment and finding it rarely here as there, and the evidences of poverty are as apparent in each of the cities here as in the cities of corresponding size in Europe. Those who seek to magnify the prevalence of relatively good conditions here frequently do so by comparing a capital city here, like Sydney or Melbourne, with certain portions of London. Even a novice in social affairs should not require reminding that a city of 500,000 inhabitants should not be compared with the 500,000 of the lowest strata in a city fourteen times the size, if a true comparison is to be drawn. As a fact the poverty and degradation in the poorest quarters of Sydney and Melbourne are on a par with what I know to obtain in the worst portions of Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Rotherhithe, and Deptford.
In Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and other chief cities, there is as large a proportion out of work or subject to fearful irregularities as obtains in cities of the same size in Europe. At present in Melbourne the unemployed would equal fully five per cent. of the men, and as there are one hundred thousand men that gives five thousand as out of work, and when allowance is made for youths and females, it would nearly double that number.
The city next in size to Melbourne, in Victoria, is Ballarat, with a population of 48,000. It is a gold mining centre, and the wages are seven shillings and sixpence a day for working miners; surfacemen and truckers, etc., get less. But about one-half of the miners proper are not able to get day-work, their only chance is to work on tribute, i.e., they are entitled to nothing unless they get gold; then, after all charges are met, they get one-half of net result, which works out at less than a pound a week.
These conditions have obtained all the seven years I have been here, and they prevail now, with no prospect of a change for the better, and these men work six days a week, and for many weeks on end they go home without a shilling. It will strike some readers as, being impossible. I assert it to be absolutely true in what is called the “Golden City” of Ballarat, Victoria, and these men cannot turn anywhere and get better pay. It is no use saying, “Why do they not clear out and go to a better district?” If they knew where they could improve their position they would go quickly enough, but they don’t know, and, no one can tell them; the union cannot tell them, the politicians cannot tell them, the Government cannot tell them, although they can, and do, invite, others to come from Europe to share in the “abundance” of good things out here.
If it is asked, “Is any attempt made to get this state of affairs altered?” Then the reply is, the Western Division of Ballarat is represented by a Labour politician, and the adjacent division also by another politician belonging to the Labour Party, and the latter has ventilated the subject; but everybody is helpless, and so the capitalists get all the development work of the mine done for absolutely no wages at all, either in money or kind. If it be asked “Is there any redeeming feature in this that does not appear on the surface?” the reply is that about 10 per cent. of those on tribute just about make the equivalent of wages, and about 5 per cent. make a little more on the average than the day-wage of 7s. 6d., and about a quarter of 1 per cent. strike luck and may get a bit of a haul. This is the only stimulus, and when a party of tributors do strike good “ground” the owners at once take it over after the first pay and put the men on day wages. A most equitable system!
From the standpoint of political enfranchisement the Federal Act entitles both sexes to full political rights, and last year the women of Victoria were successful in their demand for enfranchisement. But; it must not be supposed that a greater freedom obtains out here than in the old country, either industrially or socially. Thus a short time ago no less than 18 of us were gaoled in Melbourne for endeavouring to exercise the right of holding meetings in the streets; four of these were women. They did not occupy the box used as a platform two minutes, and claimed the right other bodies had exercised. I did five weeks in gaol over this matter; since then we hold meetings in that suburb. But, will it be believed? it is an offence in Victoria to give away a leaflet, a paper, a tract or any printed document on a Sunday! We tested it again to the extent of getting fined and gaoled, and the Act is upheld which says: “No printed document may be sold or disposed of on Sundays,” and to stop Socialist advocacy for two years past the police have upheld this and the courts enforced it.
Only last Saturday, comrade McDonell, of Melbourne, returning from the Socialist Conference at Broken Hill, on his way stayed at Adelaide, where he was advertised to address a public meeting at a suitable spot in the open-air. The police said they “had instructions not to allow any Socialist meeting to be held,” and by force forbade the meeting. Such then is the freedom that obtains here.
During the past five or six years the various Labour Parties of Australia have shown but little disposition to travel in a Socialist direction. They still think and act in the terms and ideas of the bourgeoisie; they still attach importance to getting “more trade”; and so attach importance to fiscalism; they still look to, Parliament as the chief, if not the sole, agency through, which changes favourable to democracy will be brought about, and so to an increasing extent they aim at being plutocratically respectable and ever constitutional. I fancy you have a few of this type in England also!
As readers will know there has been a Labour Government in power for some six months or so until a month ago, but they dared not attempt anything out of the ordinary humdrum rut, and no one could have told that there was any difference, except by reading that different persons filled Cabinet positions.
Neither from Andrew Fisher, the ex-Labour Prime Minister, with his orthodox Statesman’s ponderosity, or from Josiah Thomas, the ex-P.M.G., with his “all things to all men,” or from Frank Tudor, ex-Customs Minister, whose economics are confined to the grandeurs of “Protection,” or from Hughes, the ex-Attorney-General, with his mental astuteness and superficial pomposity, can anything of a revolutionary character ever be expected, they are each wallowing in the maelstrom of political hogwash, with neither disposition nor power to grapple with the giant problem in any effective fashion.
These and similar important personages take part in the various Eight-hour Celebration Days, and, political devotees as they are, they have never been, able to secure a legalised eight-hours day in any State as yet. In Victoria and New South Wales there have been Eight-hour Celebration Days for fifty years on end, but it applies only to certain sections, and never yet has an Act been passed or a serious attempt made to make the eight hours universal in any State.
The Labour Parties pinned their faith to Arbitration Acts and Wages Boards, and so various States tried them, and, ultimately, the Federal Government carried a measure to deal with disputes extending over more than one State. I have had good opportunities of watching the progress of events, and after being for a time favourably disposed towards them, I have been compelled to definitely declare that such measures are a most serious impediment to working-class solidarity; a powerful agency for hypnotising the workers into somnolence, that makes them strangers to the CLASS WAR, and unfits them for virile action; that destroys their unions whilst pretending to recognise them; that gives the capitalist judiciary complete control of the men in the workshops, mines, mills, and factories; that places the lawyer, ever imbued with bourgeois notions, in front of the real industrial expert, and hands the workers over—handcuffed and ankle-chained—to the capitalist bosses, so that verily their last state is worse than the first.
I am not judging lightly or without opportunity. On leaving England I made direct for New Zealand where an Arbitration Act was in operation. After nine months there, during which time I made careful observations, I came to Australia. Later on West Australia adopted an Arbitration Act; later still New South Wales followed suit. Meantime Victoria was content with Wages Boards as a State, but many wished to see an Arbitration Act for the Commonwealth; this too, came off.
Last year I went to New Zealand again and covered the whole country, making inquiries into the working of the Act with the improvements added by experience. I found the best of the workers in revolt against it. I was at Blackball, on the west coast of South Island, where the colliers had a dispute, and whilst I was there the sheriff was also in the mining township watching his opportunity to get his foot inside the doors of miners’ houses to prevent the housewife slamming it in his face, and when he succeeded he would seize a bicycle or sewing machine, etc., till he got enough for a public sale to get the cost of the fines imposed by the Arbitration Court.
Here in Australia, the Federal Arbitration Act, modelled on all the previous State Acts and expressly stating that it is “An Act for the prevention of industrial disputes,” when resorted to in Broken Hill, not only did not prevent a dispute, but prolonged the struggle until twenty weeks had elapsed before the struggle closed; and then the court had no power to enforce the award.
As one well familiar with industrial disputes I seriously contend that the men without the court could and would have obtained more in one month than they did get with the court in a five months fight.
(To be continued)