Dora B. Montefiore April 1911

A Labour Party in Power III

Source: Justice, April 29, 1911, p.10;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


I have, in my two former articles, attempted to sketch in a background on which to paint an impressionist picture of this first Political Labour League Conference of the State of New South Wales, since Labour Ministries have been in power both in Federal and in two State Parliaments; but before referring to my notes on resolutions and their fate, I propose, in order to give human interest to the picture, to sketch in lightly pen portraits of some of those playing prominent platform parts. Mr. Minahan, small, wiry man with a chronically hoarse voice, presided; he is said to be an employer of labour; and somewhat of a capitalist. His task, as President, was not an easy one; for, although the tone of the debates was generally on an excellent level, there was at times much interruption and disorder; and the remark of one delegate during the second week of the Conference “Mr. President, I move that we adjourn this chaos,” was not without point. Most of the State Ministers were on the platform, and spoke at one time or another; and in the early days, of the Conference Senator Pearce (of Western Australia and Federal Minister for Defence), Mr. Verran, and Mr. Vaughan (Labour Premier and Treasurer for South Australia) were present during the debates; and spoke. Mr. Fisher (Federal Prime Minister) spoke on the opening day, and brought a welcome from the Labour Party of South Africa. Both he and Mr. Pearce are personally known to me, and are men, risen from the workers’ ranks, of whom the workers may be proud; for they have conquered, in spite of the difficulties which under capitalism hedge the worker around, both culture and intellectual thought and expression. Neither of them, I should say, are revolutionary Socialists in the sense that they desire, here and now, to replace the capitalist system by a Co-operative Commonwealth, but the work of political education which they are accomplishing among the workers is tending indirectly, to some extent, to hasten the evolutional revolution. Incidentally, I may here record my belief that the spirit of militarism at present being fostered by the Defence scheme of the Labour Party will side-track Socialism, and divert, for a time, the attention of the people from the attack on their common enemy, capitalism, to the attack on an artificially fostered enmity between themselves and the proletarians of other countries. Among the Ministers of the State of N.S.W. Mr. Holman is perhaps the most striking personality. He was a furniture polisher by trade, and after studying for the Bar, and fifteen Years of Parliamentary life, he now holds the portfolio of Labour Attorney General and Minister for Justice, and will be acting Premier during Mr. McGowen’s forthcoming flutter at the Coronation. Mr. McGowen is a dark bearded man about 45, by trade a boilermaker. He impresses one as having an honest, if somewhat crude, personality. Mr. Trefle, Minister for Agriculture, was a journalist. Mr. Nielson and Mr. Griffiths, Ministers for Lands and for Public Works, are persons of somewhat ordinary ability. Mr. Beeby, Minister for Education and Industry, who, in the distance, with his spectacles and heavy crop of rather shock hair, is an extraordinary double of Mr. H.G Wells, is a man of different calibre. He has both enthusiasm and culture; and in his speech last December, at the Annual Conference of State School Teachers, he, after giving a practical outline of the Government educational policy, struck a vibrating chord in reminding the assembled teachers that the object of education was to give as complete expression as possible to every human being who came under its influence.

The General Secretary of the N.S.W. Political Labour League is Mr. Grant, who has as assistant secretary Miss Pollard, a fine, interesting girl of 20, who describes herself its an ardent Socialist” and who proves herself a good trade unionist by serving on the Executive of the Clerks Union. Among the 500 delegates, representing over 120,000 workers, are about 40 women, several of them clear and able speakers; only one, Mrs. Dwyer, has been elected on the new Executive. In fact, this Labour Conference has shown that the Labour Party is not sound on the position of woman as it has refused to place on their fighting programme “full political rights for women,” which means eligibility to the State Parliaments and to municipal bodies. Mr. Christopher Watson is one of the most trusted of the Labour leaders; he was at one time Commonwealth Premier, but resigned because of ill health. He is now, however, once more in the active political field, and in the whirligig of Politics may before long be taking office again. One of the most baffling personalities in Australian politics is Mr. Hughes, the Federal Attorney-General. I have not yet met him; but everyone has some scrap of information or gossip to offer about this “villain in the play.” What emerges as fact is that he began an eventful life as a mender of tin cans and umbrellas. He saved money, studied, passed his examinations for the Bar, and is now the “power behind the throne” in the Federal Labour Ministry. He is described as unscrupulous, and somewhat, in his all-round ideas of morality, of a Nietzsche man. The ambition and love of power of this small, sandy-haired personality appear to be limitless.

Practically both the diffused and concentrated interest of the Conference has centred round the Referendum, proposals, and the side issues involved. Each time the Conference has gone into Committee it has been on those issues; and the most momentous debate which took place was that when on February 2 (the capitalist Press being excluded) a resolution was brought forward by Senator Rae, who moved: “That in the opinion of this Conference the decision arrived at by the N.S.W. Political Labour League last week to support the Referendum proposals requires members of the State Labour Parliamentary. Party to fall into line, and withdraw their opposition, or else resign from the Labour movement.” Before giving the result of the debate, at which I was present, and found from first to last of thrilling interest, I will give the wording of the referendum ballot papers to be submitted to electors on April 26: –

(1) Do you approve of the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution, entitled “Constitutional alteration (Legislative Powers), 1910"?

(2) Do you approve of the Proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution: entitled “Constitutional alteration (Monopolies), 1910"?

A cross must be put against the words; “Yes” or “No” on the ballot paper. For the instruction of the public there will be placed in all post offices, public schools, polling booths, and in various public buildings a statement of each of the proposed laws, setting forth the terms and indicating the alteration in the Constitution Act which will result if the proposals are carried. The first ballot paper relates to four separate alterations in Section 51 of the Constitution Act. Paragraph I. Of Section 51 will, if amended, read: “The Parliament shall subject to this Constitution, bare power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth in respect to trade and commerce.” The second amendment gives the Federal Parliament power to make laws for the regulation and control of trading, financial, manufacturing, and mining companies operating in any one State. The third amendment relates to the settlement of industrial disputes, and the fourth amendment gives the Commonwealth power to legislate in the matter of trade monopolies and combines. The second ballot paper asks the elector if he, or she, is in favour of giving the Federal Parliament power to say what a monopoly is. Given the acknowledged inter-State jealousies and minor frictions, it is not difficult to imagine a small rift being created temporarily between the Labour administrators and legislators of the various States. Any disturbance of existing authorities and change in distribution of powers would be sure to evoke dispute and eager debate; whilst false friends would do their best to extend the rift, and make the Labour solidarity music mute. As I mentioned in my interview with Mr. Fisher, some of the members of the N.S,W. Labour Ministry had made public statements to the effect that the were opposed to advising their constituents to voting in the affirmative to the Referendum proposals. As the P.L.L. throughout the Commonwealth is solidly in the affirmative, the resolution quoted above was framed with the desire to forcibly bring any recalcitrants into line. It certainly gave little loophole for conciliation; and the following amendment, framed on more diplomatic lines, was, after a really fine debate, eventually carried: “That this Conference having, by an overwhelming majority, decided to support the Referendum proposals, trusts to the loyalty of the State Labour Party to respect the decision of Conference.” Several members of the N.S.W. Ministry, including the Premier, were on the platform during the debate, but none spoke (though challenged to do so) until the result of the division on the amendment was declared. Then Mr. Holman advanced to the front of the platform and, in voice which betrayed the strain under which he was speaking, thanked the delegates for the generosity displayed on both sides in the debate, and declared that in proportion as he and colleagues had found the P.L.L. generous, so they would find the Ministry loyal to the expressed desires of the majority. Deafening applause met his statement and at the end of his speech three cheers were given for Solidarity.

The “Sydney Morning Herald” (known out here) as “Grannie”) though its reporters were excluded from the debate, came out the next morning with a fairly full account of the proceedings, headed, “HUMILIATION. MINISTRY’s SURRENDER”; and its leading article of February 4, attacking Mr. Holman, comments thus on the situation now created “He (Mr. Holman) crumpled up before the call of solidarity. ... Ministers were cowed into silence.... The Constitution is not only to be amended out of existence and the States destroyed, but the High Court is to go.... If it is the people’s will that the Commonwealth is to be supreme, and is to develop upon the mere shred of a Constitution, there can be nothing more to say. But it is perfectly clear to thoughtful minds that the end of it all must be anarchy and civil war. These are dire words to write, but they are written in grim earnest, and we believe they represent the truth.” This, as will be seen from the foregoing, is a most interesting situation, and one that should make Socialist history. A majority of the Australian people are so far solid in their demands that the Federal Government should have power to deal, in the interests of the democracy, with growing and enterprising monopolies and trusts. The capitalists, through their organ, remark “If that is the peoples will, there is nothing to more to say;” and then they immediately start screaming in the shrill tones of those who have been found out, “Anarchy and Civil War!” We Socialists know that Trusts and monopolies are a more scientific and better organised system of production than is the system of the small trader and distributor; but our cry is “Let the people own the Trusts!” Our concern, therefore, is “How far is the Federal Labour Government inclined to go in that direction?” According to the “International Socialist,” edited by Harry Holland in Sydney, they won’t go very far; for, in an article in the issue of February 4, he remarks “The Labour Party’s Nationalisation doesn’t get beyond State capitalism at any time.” and further on he writes: “The Conference has emphasised the fact that there can only be war between the anti-working class Labour Party and the revolutionary Socialists.” That a wedge is being driven between the left and right wings of the N.S.W Labour Party there is very little doubt. Socialism and Industrial Unionism are working on revolutionary lines, while reactionary place seekers are nervously hunting for safe shelter from the threatening convulsion. Between these two grinding forces is a mass of more or less undeveloped “Labourites” feeling just at present that they have been led into a blind alley and that the wall of solidarity is not so stable as they thought it was. The bourgeois papers of this date (February 6) have come out with large headlines, “Split in the Labour ranks.” The wish is evidently father to the thought. But the world moves; and even in Australia it is moving towards Socialism.