Dora B. Montefiore April 1911

A Labour Party in Power II

Source: Justice, April 22, 1911, p.15;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford


It was at the Annual Labour Conference of the State of New South Wales that I first met Mr. Fisher, the Commonwealth Prime Minister. He and the Labour Prime Minister of New South Wales, Mr. MacGowan, and the Labour Prime Minister of South Australia, Mr. Verran, had each in turn addressed the Conference as “Ladies and gentlemen,” and had told the delegates that they had met together to deliberate “how they could best improve the conditions of the workers.” A keen debate had then taken place on an amendment to the Objective of the Political Labour League, sent in to Conference by the Rockchoppers’ Union. My previous article gave the text of the Objective; but I will repeat it here, so as to give point to the amendment. Objective: “(1) The cultivation of an Australian sentiment, based upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community. 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.” Amendment: “The securing to the workers of the full result of their skill and industry by the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” There were three other amendments to the Objective, on much the same lines as that of the Rockchoppers, showing that there is a widespread feeling as to the vagueness of the existing formula; and the debate was close and keen, resulting eventually in the amendments being lost; for, by the constitution of the Conference, a two-thirds majority of those present was necessary in order to change any plank in the platform. It was after this debate, which he followed very closely and attentively, that Mr. Fisher rose, and came down into the body of the hall. He had previously promised me my interview about tea-time; so, at a sign from him, as he passed the reporters’ table, I rose and followed him out into the street, and we strolled across Hyde Park to the tea kiosk, where our talk was to take place.

Naturally, my first question was: “Well, Mr. Fisher, what is your feeling about the division just taken?”

“Personally,” he replied,” I consider it matters very little what the wording of the Objective is, for it is well known what are our ultimate aims, and mere forms of words are of little consequence.”

“That may be,” I replied, “But do you not feel sometimes that the movement is somewhat insular, and that it might gain in breadth by sending delegates to the triennial Socialist International Congresses? And with that object in view, might it not be better to bring the definite objective more in line with International Labour and Socialist thought?”

Mr. Fisher agreed that it would be good for the Australian Labour movement to be formally linked up with the movement in other countries. And we continued chatting on Labour problems of the hour till we reached the tea-rooms, and sat down with Dr. Jensen, of the Sydney University, and a Socialist, for an hour’s talk.

Mr. Fisher, who was at one time a miner in Queensland, is a spare, well-knit, white-haired man of about fifty, with dark, keen eyes. He gives one the impression of thoughtful doggedness. He would defend a position, I should say, better than he would attack, and his temperament is more complex than simple. He is patient and painstaking in explaining points, and though stating plainly that he had a rooted objection to interviews (and who has not?), yet, when under the inquisition, spoke openly and candidly of the immediate work and aims of the Party.

The burning question in Australian politics at the present moment is that of the Referenda, or series of questions to which voters are to answer “Yes” or “No,” and which are to be placed before the electors of the Commonwealth in April next. The object of this Referenda is to get an expression of opinion from the electors as to the transference of certain powers, now exercised by individual States (of which there are six in the Commonwealth) to the Federal Government. Among the Referenda questions is one which deals specially with the transference of powers in industrial matters from the States to the Central Government; and it is argued by some (among whom is Mr. McGowan, the Prime Minister for New South Wales) that the demands are too sweeping, and that any powers asked for should be more specifically defined.

I was, therefore, glad to have the opportunity of asking Mr. Fisher some questions on these points, for, so far, the political campaign on the subject of the Referenda proposals has not yet begun, and the Ministers do not take the field until the middle of February.

We had been talking about the growing power of Trusts and Combines, which are one of the causes of the increase of the cost of living all over the world, and Mr. Fisher explained that it was in order to gain power to deal with these Trusts and Monopolies that they were asking for unification of industrial authority in the hands of the Federal Government. Australia, new though the country is, is already riddled with the wire worm of rings and combines. There are jam, fruit and fish rings, and serious threat of two great meat rings being formed, which would immediately run up in price the only cheap commodity of which Australia can boast. Mr. Fisher contends that a central authority, with fuller powers, can deal with these problems better than can a local authority. The P.L.L., by caucus agreement, are inclined to support him and his Ministry in their demands; and Mr. Watson, a late Labour Premier, has since this interview with Mr. Fisher was taken down, stated to the delegates in Conference that “any Member of the Party who voted in the negative was stabbing the movement in the back.” Mr. Fisher’s statement to me on the subject was: “We desire to get powers through a Referendum of the people which will enable us to destroy in the bud those full-blown blossoms of monopolies and combines which in the United States have grown to such large proportions.”

I then questioned him about the issue of the Treasury Bills by the Federal Government – an issue which has been severely criticised in many quarters, and which I had heard attacked by financial experts at the recent Science Congress in the Sydney University. I told him I considered at the time there was a lack of sincerity about “the expert’s attack as they condemned the issue in principle; but added that the present issue was not of much consequence, as it involved a matter of only seven millions. He laughed heartily at this, and explained further that these Treasury notes just issued could be used freely in exchange among all dwelt in the Commonwealth; but when presented to the Treasurer at the Federal seat of Government, THEY MUST BE PAID IN GOLD. This arrangement would obviate the danger of any sudden rush for gold, as some time must elapse before getting the notes from distant parts of the Commonwealth to the seat of Government.

Some delegates to the Conference having stated that there was likely to be a split before long in the ranks of the Labour Party; between Industrial Unionists and those for whom political action had too many charms. I questioned Mr. Fisher as to his views on this subject; and he begged me not to pay too much attention to what he looked upon as more or less irresponsible utterances of delegates; and assured me that in a day or two they would settle down to steady work, and there would be more discipline and self-restraint in the remarks of delegates.

I then asked him about the cost of living in Sydney, which, as a practical housekeeper, I found almost double that in England, He replied that he and Mrs. Fisher had been home to England, had lived in a furnished house, and that Mrs. Fisher claimed living was dearer in England than out here. I explained that what I wanted to get at was, whether any increase in wages to the worker out here was of much real benefit to him given the iron law of Wages, which made their rise or fall depend on the cost of living? He contended that the worker all round was better off here than in England; and I quite agreed with him that one does not see the mass of misery here that one does in the Old Country; but I continued to press the point that if immigration were encouraged to a large extent, exactly the same problems and miseries would arise here, as long as the State was capitalistic and competitive, instead of co-operative, and with socialised industries. He replied that it was impossible to go faster than the majority of the Party would allow, and instanced the fact that there was no unanimity even on the question of Land Nationalisation. He felt convinced that if matters were pushed on too rapidly disaster would ensue: an emotional Conservative wave might sweep the country, and throw things further back than they were now. (The subsequent debate in the Conference on Land Nationalisation has proved there is an overwhelming majority in favour of it; and that the only argument used against it was that “having it on the Fighting Platform might lose elections.”)

Altogether the impression left of my mind after this long and really interesting talk with the man who represents the political democratic aspirations of the people of Australia was that perhaps even he did not gauge the strength of the industrial revolutionary forces, which, now that Labour, as well as Capital, has an international basis, are ranging themselves all over the world for the final struggle, which will only end when the dragon of capitalism is overthrown and industry stands on its feet – free. Mr. Fisher, I believe, will be true to the ideals of “improving the conditions of Labour,” which are the ideals for which Mr. Gompers, Mr. Shack Mr. Roosevelt, and Mr. Lloyd George stand; but would he lead when Labour demands, as it must soon demand, THE FULL REWARD OF INDUSTRY, which rewards can only be obtained under a Socialist order of society? The ideals of that new order can surely have nothing to say to those who join in Coronation festivities, or who fail to point out to the worker that in his cause, which is, in effect, the cause of the humanity of the future: Fellowship among workers all over the world is life, and the lack of Fellowship is Death.