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Australian History: Andrew Fisher

Andrew FisherAndrew Fisher was a coalminer and having been a union activist from quite a young age, became union secretary at 17 years old and a thorn in the side of mine owners, who blacklisted him as a strike leader.  However, he was not a rabblerouser – all accounts portray him as modest and sincere.  He was self educated and developed a dedication to the underprivileged.  In Queensland he worked in the Gympie Mines and worked his way up to executive posts.  Between 1886 and 1900 Queensland unions struggled against an antagonistic government.  He worked on the creation of the Labor Party and in 1893 won the Gympie seat.  Fisher was largely responsible for Australia’s first Workmen’s Compensation Bill (though it did not reach the statue books) and a Factories and Shops Act.

Federation brought Fisher election to the first Commonwealth Parliament, to play his part in Labor's balancing act between Free Traders and Protectionists. He was a minister in Watson's government. When Watson resigned, he won the election for leader of the Parliamentary Party.

He first followed the original Labor tactics of supporting the Protectionists, in return for concessions to Labor demands. But Labor was eager for another taste of power and, in 1905, the party knocked out the props which supported Deakin. His collapse was a turning point in federal politics because it drew Free Traders and Protectionists into the alliance which was to become the Liberal Party.

Fisher's first government lasted only seven months but the picture changed again in the 1910 elections. Labor won a resounding victory and Fisher became the first Labor Prime Minister to be actually voted into power. In 1913 he lost it again, by the single seat which made Joseph Cook the first Liberal Prime Minister.

A little over a year later, Cook forced a double dissolution only to see Labor sweep the polls. Fisher became the only Labor Prime Minister to win a third term until the days of Bob Hawke. But he served just 13 months before failing health and Cabinet squabbles prompted him to resign.

Fisher's modest demeanor and low-key speeches did much to reassure Australians who still feared a ‘socialist’ government but he was still a dedicated party man, committed to Solidarity.  In his second term as Prime Minister he headed Australia's most reformist government until the 1940s. In three years, Labor put 113 new Acts on the statute books. Fisher's reforms included liberalisation of the age pension, introduction of a maternity allowance, workmen's compensation for Commonwealth employees, uniform postal charges throughout Australia, strengthening the defence forces, moves to break up land monopolies and proposals for stricter regulation of working hours, wages and employment conditions.