Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Prendergast, George Michael (1854–1937)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

George Michael Prendergast (1854-1937), printer and premier, was born on 20 May 1854 in Adelaide, son of Luke Thomas Prendergast, goldminer, and his wife Mary, née Evans. His parents had migrated from Ireland the previous year and in 1856 moved to Stawell, Victoria, where his father opened up the Rose of Denmark claim. Michael attended local state schools until 1868 when he was apprenticed to the printer of the Pleasant Creek News. He was employed for several years on a Ballarat newspaper and married Mary Eliza Larrad there on 12 November 1876 with Free Church of England rites. He then worked in Sydney for five years on the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere. A unionist since 1874, he was secretary from 1881 of the New South Wales Typographical Society, then managed the Narrandera Argus, a 'glorious interlude' in his life.

Prendergast returned to Victoria in 1888 and was soon a delegate of the Melbourne Typographical Society to the Trades Hall Council of which he was president for a year from July 1893. He was prominent in recommending political organization of labour and became first secretary of the Progressive Political League in 1891. His own chief objective was a legal minimum wage on which he lectured widely, and eventually in the Legislative Assembly in 1895 moved and carried a vital amendment to the Factories Act which imposed the principle on the new wages boards. He had been elected for North Melbourne in 1894, lost the seat to W. A. Watt in 1897, won it again in 1900 and remained in the assembly, from 1927 as member for Footscray, until his death. He was mayor of North Melbourne in 1902-03.

In 1894-95 Prendergast was president of the Eight-Hours Committee, and remained a member of the Australian Natives' Association, the United Irish League and the Celtic Club. In 1897 he joined the Victorian Socialists' League, then its successor, the Social Democratic Party. Over the years, indignant at constant misrepresentation by newspapers, he worked to develop a Labor press: he was a founder of Commonweal and Workers' Advocate (1891-93), joint-owner of the short-lived weekly Boomerang (1894) and the originator and manager of Tocsin (1897-1906); from 1903 he was closely involved in efforts to establish a Labor daily and in 1912 was trying to found a monthly. In the 1890s and 1900s he produced 'Black and White Lists' indicating voting-records of politicians, and throughout his career wrote constantly for whatever Labor press there was.

The Labor Party in Victoria had made several false starts: organization was poor, ties with radical liberalism remained strong, the South African War and Federation were divisive issues, and several independent Labor societies diluted strength. From 1901 the Political Labor Council was more stable and at the June 1904 election, profiting from Tom Mann's organizing work, Labor won five more seats, including several outside Melbourne, in a smaller, reformed assembly. Prendergast succeeded F. H. Bromley as parliamentary leader for all but five of the next twenty-two years, in a period when few potential leaders emerged.

In 1907, despite increasing its vote, Labor lost seats, but in December 1908 won sufficient to make up almost one-third of the assembly. While not reaching the Labor Federal vote in Victoria, the State party by 1911 was attracting nearly all its possible supporters. That Victorian Labor was the last to form a State ministry was primarily due to the heavy weighting of the rural vote—there was no hope of gaining power. Prendergast had by no means failed in his first period of leadership. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston judged Labor 'as a team … incomparably the most efficient section of the House'. Prendergast was 'never a strong leader … But he was a tremendous worker'. However, his torrential style of speaking at inordinate length on any subject—he was sometimes affectionately called 'Windy Mick'—helped conservative organs like Punch to describe him as a 'violent demagogue'—fierce, vindictive, bitter. But he was a long-standing member of the committees on public accounts, standing orders and consolidation of the Statutes.

Prendergast had been especially outspoken on coercion during the railways strike, land reform and the need for free secondary education; he had also been particularly interested in the New Protection movement. In 1905 he had chaired the Federal Labor conference in Melbourne.

In 1913, in poor health, helped by a gift of £500 from trade unions, he made an overseas trip. On his return he retired as leader in favour of George Elmslie who for a fortnight in December led an 'accidental' ministry in which Prendergast was chief secretary. After Elmslie's death in May 1918, he became leader again, and in August, after earlier staunch anti-conscriptionist campaigning, called for negotiations to end the war. One of his sons had been wounded serving in the Australian Imperial Force. Unlike militant colleagues, Prendergast was more concerned with the prospects of forming a State government than with the socialist objective. The Herald in 1922 described him as a 'tolerably able, thoroughly well-meaning conservative patriot', who showed a certain weariness when 'talking a little Bolshevism'.

From 1920 the Victorian Farmers' Union (Country Party) held the balance of power in the assembly. A Nationalist-Country Party coalition broke down early in 1924 and at the June election Labor emerged for the first time as the largest party, only six seats short of a majority. On 16 July Prendergast's no confidence motion in the Peacock ministry was carried with Country Party support and, to his considerable surprise, Prendergast found himself premier and treasurer at the age of 70, still fairly vigorous.

The government's long-term survival was unlikely and no radical legislation would pass the Legislative Council: Prendergast's purpose was to demonstrate that Labor could govern capably. Their first administrative action was to house the unemployed overnight; they established royal commissions on the price of bread and flour and on the reasons for the police strike late in 1923, made financial concessions to soldier settlers and announced their intention to abolish capital punishment. Serious attempts were made to meet the requirements of the Country Party, but the council rejected a bill to establish a compulsory wheat pool. The legislative programme was moderate but the government's refusal to proclaim Anzac Day a holiday or to provide financial support for the proposed Shrine of Remembrance, and an attempt to eliminate any hint of militarism from school-texts roused hostility. With the writing on the wall, Prendergast's budget was uncompromising in its proposed increase of taxation of the wealthy and reductions for the poor—'class taxation!' shrilled the press. The Nationalists and the Country Party remarried, a no confidence motion was carried on 11 November and the governor refused a dissolution. The labour movement had broadly approved the premier's tactics: not many Labor governments, in office without power, did much better.

Prendergast unexpectedly resigned the leadership in March 1926, despite caucus protests. In the 1927-28 Hogan ministry he was chief secretary but was not a contender for the second Hogan ministry of 1929-32.

A. A. Calwell's judgement that Prendergast was as much a 'Wren man' as were Hogan, Tunnecliffe and Dunstan seems unlikely given his 'almost religious' faith in the movement and his overwhelming reputation for integrity; Crown Solicitor F. G. Menzies believed him to be 'as honest as the day's light'. Prendergast was entirely trusted by his caucus as dependable, unselfish and always a cheery optimist. He obviously was skilled at balancing the interests of caucus, central executive and Trades Hall. He regularly marched with the printers on May Day.

Prendergast had many friends in all parties. He was a skilled raconteur (who in old age attempted some anecdotal reminiscences) and a practical joker. Since 1912 he had been a councillor of the Zoological Gardens and from 1921 a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery; he had a modest collection of pottery and porcelain and works by, among others, Penleigh Boyd and Lionel Lindsay.

Survived by a son and a daughter, wife of Group Captain Eric Harrison, Prendergast died on 28 August 1937 and, after his state funeral procession passed the Trades Hall, was cremated. His old colleague Tunnecliffe gave a moving oration and Sir Stanley Argyle commented on the 'extraordinarily beautiful traits in his character'. A bust of him is in the Trades Hall, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • R. H. Croll, I Recall (Melb, 1939)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • J. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1979)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 15 Dec 1894, 20 Feb 1902
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1907
  • Australian Worker, 4 Feb 1904, 31 Mar 1926
  • Punch (Melbourne), 25 Sept 1913
  • Herald (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1922
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Aug 1937
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Aug 1937
  • Labor Call, 2 Sept, 23 Dec 1937
  • P. J. Deery, Labor Interlude in Victorian Politics: The Prendergast Government, 1924 (B.A. Hons thesis, La Trobe University, 1972).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Prendergast, George Michael (1854–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prendergast-george-michael-8103/text14145, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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