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I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I pay my respects to elders past and present.
We’re here tonight to remember the first Labor Caucus and the first Labor Government.
We’re also here because of the first Labor Government. Literally, it was the Watson Government who passed the legislation selecting Canberra as the site for the Federal capital.
But also because of what that first Labor Government proved – to themselves, to our movement, to Australia and the world.
The people whose names are recorded in these pages proved that workers’ parties could govern.
The first Labor Government – short-lived though it was – proved that there could, and should, be a second and many more.
It encouraged men like Andrew Fisher – a Minister under Watson – to pursue the success he achieved as a nation-building Prime Minister.
It showed the Australian Labor Party was, from its earliest days, more than a collection of disoriented cross-benchers.
More than a splinter group or a protest movement – it was a party intent on governing, on doing the big things, writing the country large.
And it’s wonderful to see that decision, the determination to be a party of government, recorded for all time in this book and now preserved for posterity in the National Library of Australia.
Thank you to the Chifley Centre for making this possible.
Soon after Watson had seized the chance for the Prime Ministership, John Forrest – the first Premier of Western Australia, a fierce Conservative warrior in the new Commonwealth parliament - stormed into the House of Representatives to see if the terrible rumour he’d heard was true.
Aghast, he witnessed the new Labor Ministry settling on the front bench - and he bellowed to his colleagues:
“What are those men doing in our places?”
It was a reaction typical of the time.
The idea of a Labor party was offensive enough.
But a Labor government was a fresh hell for the political establishment and vested interests.
And it’s appropriate that we’re here in the Caucus room to remember what the other parties and the press feared and loathed most about the Australian Labor Party – the promise of solidarity.
It’s true that The Daily Telegraph slammed Watson’s government for being ‘bereft of experience’.
A curious charge, given the Federation was barely three years old.
But it saved its harshest criticisms for Labor’s:“secret Caucus which avowedly holds the interest of one section of the people over those of all the other sections”
That ‘section’ the Tele railed against was – of course – working Australians.
In a parliament that Deakin famously compared to the chaos of a three-sided cricket match, the Labor focus on unity, on collective decision-making, on being bound to a shared position – gave it a unique influence.
A power put to work in the “social laboratory” of the new Australia.
Embracing those radical notions of:
- A decent wage
- An age pension
- Fair compensation for injuries at work
- Support for new mothers
- And the vote for women – not just land-holding men
And then the war came.
The Conscription split, Billy Hughes’ betrayal, the first of too many Labor stints in the political wilderness.
What was true then is true now – when Labor is in Opposition, the pace of progress slows.
As Paul Keating put it, the fire in the national crucible goes out.
That’s why people are counting on us, the next Labor Government.
Tonight we celebrate a message in a bottle, a snapshot of a world first.
But we recognise that there is no point seeking policy inspiration in these pages.
These were men entirely of their time and White Australia loomed large in their thinking.
115 years later we are a more open, more confident, more reconciled and more equal nation than that distant generation could have possibly conceived.
But we can take inspiration from the fact that the Labor name endures.
The rivals of these men have long gone, the names of their parties forgotten, their causes and complaints a footnote in history.
But Labor remains.
We honour our history – but it’s the future we care about.
We haven’t fought against the big changes, we’ve driven them.
Australia has changed because of us, it is better because of us.
And while other pressure groups come and go, while imitators and protest movements flare and fade.
We look around this room and know the truth.
Solidarity, truly is forever.