Is Australia socialist

Labor Relations and Socialism
in Australia

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Tom Mann

(April 1906)

Source: Socialist monthly bulletins, Year 1906, issue 4, April 1906, pp.140-145.
Transcription / HTML tagging:Einde O’Callaghan for that Marxists' Internet Archive.

SINCE I presented the situation of the Australian workers in this magazine two years ago [1], the growth of the workers' party in this part of the world has been considerable and should be of great interest to German comrades. Therefore I would like to briefly describe the development that has taken place here and try to assess it for its true value.

Readers must kindly remind themselves that the Australian Commonwealth includes six individual states, five on the continent and the island of Tasmania. Each of these six states has its own particular government, which consists of a UK government-approved governor and two houses of parliament: a legislative assembly (lower house) and a legislative council (upper house). Above the whole is the Federal Parliament, which also consists of two houses: the House of Representatives (Lower House) and the Senate (Upper House). This federal parliament was founded in 1900. The elections take place every three years. The second election fell in December 1903 and the Labor Party won a number of seats. The House of Representatives has 75 members. The number of representatives of each state is determined according to the number of inhabitants. The total number of Senate members is thirty-six, six for each state, regardless of the number of inhabitants. The right to vote for both houses is for all adults, i.e. all men and women who have been resident in Australia for one year and who have reached the age of 21 have it.

The following table shows the representatives for each individual state and the ratio of workers' representatives to general representatives. The members of the House of Representatives are distributed as follows:


Workers representative

General Representative

New South Wales






South Australia






Western Australia






a total of



According to this, the Labor Party has 25 out of 75 seats, i.e. exactly one third. In the Senate they have 14 members out of a total of 36; Queensland sent 5 workers MPs, Western Australia 4, South Australia 3, Victoria and Tasmania 1 each, and New South Wales none.

The program or the basic demands of the Labor Party with which it fought out the last election campaign were as follows:

  1. Maintaining a white Australia[2];
  2. Compulsory arbitration tribunals [3]);
  3. Old age insurance;
  4. Nationalization of monopolies;
  5. A National People's Army and its own Australian fleet;
  6. Restriction on the issuance of government bonds;
  7. Maritime laws to protect Australian shipping;
  8. A Bundesbank; federal life and fire insurance;
  9. A federal patent law;
  10. Uniform trade legislation for all countries.

The moderate character of this program is obvious: the most stringent requirements are included under 2 and 4. The capitalists were extremely hostile to the arbitration bill; but it penetrated nonetheless and is now law. However, it has not yet entered into force as the Court of Justice has not yet been appointed. The demand for the nationalization of the monopolies was interpreted differently by the various candidates, depending on their conception of socialism and their belief in socialism. About half of the candidates can be said to have understood the socialist principles well, the other half corresponds to the type of the previous English liberal workers 'representatives, who are now being replaced by the independent workers' party. During the debates on the arbitration bill in April 1904 - at the time when Alfred Deaken was Prime Minister - the then ministry was overthrown by the combined forces of the Labor Party and the Conservatives.

The Watson (Workers') Ministry came to the helm. It lasted until August 1904 and brought the Arbitration Act forward by several stages, but finally fell apart during the negotiations on this very proposal. From the standpoint of socialism, little importance is attached to the fact that for four months the seats of the Ministry were occupied by workers 'representatives, if not for the reason that among these workers' representatives there were men of respected positions, of knowledge and of mature life experience. Of the eight men who held ministerial seats under the Watson Ministry, not a single one was considered to represent all of the demands of Social Democracy; the most advanced among them barely went beyond a mild form of State Socialism, and during the past few months Watson has declared on several occasions that he is not a Social Democrat but a State Socialist. However, it should not be forgotten that until very recently there was very little socialist agitation in Australia, so that even four years ago almost all current workers' representatives were actually completely alien to the socialist teachings. In the two most densely populated states, New South Wales and Victoria, the election campaign revolved mainly around trade issues; New South Wales had declared itself in favor of free trade with a large majority, Victoria with a similar majority in favor of a protective tariff policy. The trade unionists were simply social reformers of a very mild character; hardly any of them had any idea of ​​what capitalist society actually was or is; Rather, they believed that an improvement in this society was anything that could be achieved through both union and political action.

During the three years of my residency here, I have visited each of the six states; I have lectured for Social Democracy in all the capitals and most other major squares, and everywhere I am of eminent representatives of the Australian press as one European agitator who has no knowledge of the needs of Australia and who preaches policies that are of absolutely no use, exactly the same follies that are so well known to us from the bourgeois press of all countries. However, this only confirms our assertion that as recently as four years ago the Australians neither knew nor sympathized with the aspirations of socialism; but although much will have to be done before a general understanding of class antagonisms will break out there, it can be said with certainty and without exaggeration that the current direction of things in the ranks of the working class points clearly towards socialism. In Europe it may be difficult for the cosmopolitan thinker to understand why the Australian workforce is so strict about maintaining one white Australia is being held. But it is less difficult to understand when you are there and have the opportunity to observe the effects of the employment of colored people. There are Chinese, Hindus, Assyrians, Kanaks, and Japanese in Australia, and in some urban industries the coloreds are the predominant factor. This is also the case with Queensland's banana cultivation, which is exclusively in the hands of the Chinese. The work in the sugar cane plantations was mainly in the hands of Kanaks, who were brought over from their home islands under conditions that, while allowing them nominal freedom, actually enslaved them. The Kanaks must undertake to work for their employer (in truth slave owners) for three years. As wages they receive food, accommodation and 2 Mark 50 Pfennig a week in cash, as well as two sets of clothes - one set consists of a pair of very coarse trousers, a rough shirt and a hat - per year. Whites could do this work just as well in every detail, but they would ask six times as much for it. I have personally examined the conditions under which these Kanaks operate and observed how they are treated and I declare that it is positively slavery. I saw what was brought in for breakfast for eighty men before they went to work for five hours. The diet consisted of pounds of dry white bread; neither meat, nor butter, nor syrup, nor anything else except bread, except for a cup of tea as a drink. About ¼ pound of meat is given at lunchtime and in the evening, but under appalling circumstances. The dark-skinned people crouch down; neither plates, nor knives, nor forks, nor spoons are brought to them, and very rarely a table or seat. These men, separated from their wives, work and eat together for weeks; occasionally at the end of the week they go to the cities. The innkeepers are prohibited from selling them any spirituous beverages; but other colored people, such as the Chinese and Japanese, can receive and generously supply spirits; the consequences are then often brutality of the worst kind. The Kanaks must not be engaged in any kind of work; so it is currently forbidden to let them work in the sugar mills; nevertheless employers always use them for every conceivable occupation, often enough in defiance of the law. In this way they try to keep the white worker dependent, in order to be able to continue to bring out the master's position, which then happens in the most ruthless manner. As a result of a very precise personal investigation, it has emerged for me that the effects of the colored work in Queensland in the banana and sugar plantations are ominous in every respect and influence the standard of living of the white workers in the most pernicious way.

Europeans work in the sugar factories where the sugar cane is crushed; but they all have a twelve-hour shift. The factories are in operation day and night with only one shift change. The wages for this long work are not correspondingly high, since they averaged only around 25 marks a week, in addition to food and accommodation in barracks. Worst of all, the work only takes about six months a year. Then 90% of the workers are laid off to resume the arduous wandering and trot across the country without finding anything other than occasional rough work before the next working season. The people are not unionized and only poorly organized politically; but a large part of them will vote for the workers' candidate in the elections. It is difficult to say why they were not actually unionized; but one of the reasons is certainly this changing character of their occupation. Of course, that's not an excuse; but wherever there is only periodic work, the organization tends to remain weak. The miners in Queensland are just as unorganized, although they have an eight-hour day and the wages are considered good: 50 marks a week. Even so, the trade union movement is very weak, much weaker than it was before 1890, when the labor political movement began. It is precisely now that the harmful consequences of neglecting economic organization are particularly noticeable. Charters Towers in North Queensland is currently Queensland's premier mining town and, next to the state's capital, Brisbane, the largest city in the world. The population of Charters Towers is 21,000. Around 5,500 of these men are employed in the gold mining industry. Of these, fewer than 200 were unionized when I was there six months ago, and no greater number belonged to that Political Labor Union at. Despite all this, both members of the state parliament belonged to the Labor Party. One of them recently died and the Labor Party was defeated in the by-election; the plutocrats won by a majority of 450. The main cause of this defeat was the lack of interest in economic organization. It may very well be that in the very near future the power of capitalism will triumph over labor on various other points as well; but this will by no means lead to a demoralization of the working class, but rather stimulate more serious and extensive efforts to educate and consolidate the party. In Western Australia, especially in recent events, the somewhat superficial character of the movement has become apparent. For a year the Labor Party held power in the state parliament. The Prime Minister Daglish had often declared that he was a socialist; he had presided over a socialist meeting at which I spoke a few weeks before he became prime minister. Nevertheless, he was a defender of the prevailing social system, which only aimed to improve the living conditions of the working class. After he had held office for a year, the Labor Party resigned and another ministry was appointed without a new election. In South Australia we currently have a workers representative named Tom Price as prime minister, and the department there is very tactful and judicious in administrative matters; on the other hand, exciting things are unlikely to happen in the legislation. These attempts to take on the legislative responsibility are for the time being to be regarded only as small outpost battles and not as a really serious struggle of the workers against the overwhelming power of the plutocratic social order.

An extremely fierce battle broke out in the federal parliament as a result of the motion of the workers 'representatives that the trade unions' control marks should be officially registered as trademarks in accordance with the law on trademarks. The opposition of the Australian workers to the proposal of the Generals Booth from the Salvation Army Reason to send a few thousand people from England to Australia. The local workers object that throughout Australia in every city there are comparatively as many unemployed people as in European and American cities. If one wanted to send even more people out here without at the same time making an attempt to reshape the system in which the causes of unemployment lie, the struggles for those living here would have to become even more difficult. Competent and careful observers estimate that there are a full 4,000 unemployed in Melbourne alone, as many. maybe even more, in Sydney and correspondingly many across Australia.

As for the economic outlook, signs point to a significant upturn. Since the great drought came to an end, we have had two good harvests here and the prospects for the coming year are very good. In Victoria, dairy products are gaining in an increasingly extensive market in London, where butter competes with Danish butter and is readily sold, albeit at a slightly lower price than Danish butter.

Australia only needs another five years of spreading socialist propaganda and developing organization; then in all probability it will not lag behind any country in Europe or America in the struggle for socialism. The readers of the Socialist monthly bulletins may just keep in mind the fact that the systematic propaganda of genuinely social democratic ideas has only recently taken root here. It is very likely that several Australian delegates will be present at the next international socialist congress in Stuttgart in 1907.


1. Comp. my article Something about the situation of the working class in Australia in the Socialist monthly bulletins, 1903, II. Vol., Pag. 917ff.

2. That means the exclusion of Asians and Africans from Australia.

3. That means a federal law concerning compulsory arbitration tribunals to settle commercial disputes and to decide on strikes and lockouts.

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