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Watson, John Christian (Chris) (1867–1941)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

John Christian Watson (1867-1941), by Swiss Studios, c1904

John Christian Watson (1867-1941), by Swiss Studios, c1904

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12265803

John Christian (Chris) Watson (1867-1941), trade unionist, prime minister and company director, was born on 9 April 1867 at Valparaiso, Chile, son of Johan Christian Tanck and his wife Martha, née Minchin (or Skinner). Tanck was chief officer of the brig Julia which had arrived at Port Chalmers, New Zealand, from Talcahuano, Chile, on 24 December 1865; he married Martha at Port Chalmers on 19 January 1866; they departed in the Julia for Guam on 2 February. On 15 February 1869 at Waipori, New Zealand, Martha Tank [sic] married George Thomas Watson; her son Chris became part of her new family.

Chris Watson went to school at Cave Valley, leaving at 10 to become a nipper on railway construction works. After helping on his father's farm, at 13 he was apprenticed as a compositor to the North Otago Times. In 1882, described as a 'lanky, alert-looking, youth', he was with the Oamaru Mail and in 1886 was a member of the local typographers' union and of the New Zealand Land League. Losing his job in 1886, he migrated to Sydney where he took work as a stablehand at Government House. Briefly a compositor on the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald, he was influenced by William Traill to move in 1888 to the new protectionist paper, the Australian Star.

By then Watson was about 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with sapphire-blue eyes, dark brown hair, moustache and budding beard: his athletic appearance and strength complemented his good looks. A rower and Rugby footballer, he was a great card-player, good at billiards and enjoyed a glass of beer. On 27 November 1889 in the Unitarian Church, Liverpool Street, Sydney, he married English-born Ada Jane Low, a 30-year-old dressmaker. Watson had developed his debating and speaking skills by renewing his industrial work in the Typographical Association of New South Wales. His proficiency, dedication and gregariousness facilitated his rise in the union, and he became the father of the Star's chapel. In January 1890 he was elected a delegate to the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council at the time when Peter Brennan was intensifying his campaign for trade union support for the council's direct intervention in politics: Watson backed Brennan, and in May became leader of a sub-committee that sought to establish a newspaper to advance their political objectives.

He was a sympathetic observer of the preliminaries of the maritime strike, which began on 16 August, and of its defeat by November. Watson increased his involvement with the T.L.C.'s renewed drive for political action, taking part in the debates in March 1891 that produced a platform and organizational structure for the Labor Electoral League (Labor Party). On 14 April he became foundation secretary of its West Sydney branch, and was the chief organizer of the local campaign which captured the electorate's four seats in the Legislative Assembly for Labor at the general election on 17 June. He was defeated for the post of secretary of the T.L.C. on 16 July.

As well as trade unionists and other manual workers, the Labor Party attracted individuals and groups motivated variously by self-aggrandizement, shades of nebulous socialism, single-taxism and fiscalism.

Watson's ideal worker was a protectionist trade unionist—though he tolerated free traders—and he wanted as many as possible of them in the branches to maintain the laborism which he saw as the main source of the new party and the basis of its survival and growth. To him, trade unionism exemplified mateship, and was pragmatic, powerful and versatile enough to sustain Labor by adaptation to democratic pressures and changing circumstances. He noticed contemporary advanced social and economic doctrines, but was too practical minded to be unduly swayed by them, though he toyed with 'State socialism'.

Radiating friendliness and respect for others, Watson moved to the centre of Labor action, his authority assured by his rapport with individuals no less than by his exceptional courage and common sense. Elected vice-president of the T.L.C. in January 1892, he inspired the settlement in June of a dispute between the council and the executive of the Labor Party; in terms of that agreement, he became, at 25, both president of the council and chairman of the party. On 24 October 1893 he chaired a large public meeting, seeking relief for the 'thousands of unemployed'; in 1894 he was joint treasurer of a co-operative village settlement that aimed to reduce unemployment.

During the Broken Hill miners' strike, on 15 September 1892 Watson (on horseback) had led a procession, headed by a T.L.C. deputation, to Parliament House to encourage the thirty-five disunited Labor parliamentarians to support a censure motion against Sir George Dibbs's government. He backed James Toomey's plans to reunite the members of the Legislative Assembly and to reform the role of country Labor branches, and he oversaw the organizing of a special unity conference that met on 9-11 November 1893 at Millers Point. Looking and sounding like a born leader, Watson chaired the turbulent gathering with confidence: the parliamentarians' solidarity pledge was reworded, firm direction given that the divisive fiscal question had to be 'sunk', and four backsliding M.L.A.s were expelled. At the annual party conference in March 1894, which confirmed the decisions of November 1893, Watson vacated the chair to ensure that the T.L.C. retained its representation on the Labor Party executive.

In the ensuing acrimonious debate with the parliamentarians about solidarity and the wording of the pledge, Watson took a decisive lead: he stressed the primacy of conference rulings as he balanced the conflicting demands exerted by the party branches and executive, and the T.L.C. whose power was being undermined by an economic depression. More than any other individual, including William Holman and Billy Hughes, Watson influenced events to reconstruct the Labor Party. By the July 1894 general election, it had set the seal on its basic institutional forms of the sovereignty of conference, caucus solidarity with accepted pledge, and the potent role of the executive. With Toomey's help, Watson won the south-western seat of Young at the 1894 election. The fifteen 'solidarity' M.L.A.s elected James McGowen as their leader: they held a virtual balance of power and backed the government of (Sir) George Reid, a free trader with whom Watson found some common ground.

Having resigned his T.L.C. and party positions, Watson joined the Australian Workers' Union and led moves to readjust country branches to the new circumstances of the Labor Party, following the temporary demise of the T.L.C. Opposing the separatist tendencies of William Guthrie Spence, general secretary of the A.W.U., Watson became president of the provincial council of the Australian Labor Federation, which was dominated by the A.W.U.; at the 1895 Labor Party conference he argued for a compromise that would recognize the importance of the country branches. At meetings of the L.E.L. and the A.L.F. on 23-24 May a new constitution was adopted, reflecting Watson's vision of a harmonious amalgamation of city and country interests. The party's official name became the Political Labor League; Watson was a member of its executive.

With McGowen and Hughes, Watson completed the formidable trio who led the Labor parliamentarians. Reid was not dominated by them, but his new liberalism was responsive to their pressure for increased social and economic action by the state, especially after the 1895 election when his majority was reduced and eighteen Labor members were returned. Watson mastered the forms and procedures of the Legislative Assembly. He polished his speaking skills, reaching a high standard of direct and cogent argument, the more effective because of his unfailing courtesy, tact and good temper; but he was no orator. He was loyal to McGowen, frequently negotiating on his behalf with the premier and ministers. He also nursed his electorate and at the 1898 election, with Federation the main issue, withstood a strong challenge from Richard O'Connor. By then Watson was an accomplished and diligent parliamentarian, accepted as a distinguished Labor man, with some intercolonial repute. He regarded the party as the best for employees, but counselled them that 'you can't revolutionize society in four or five years'.

Federation increasingly overrode politics in 1895-99, and Labor had to adapt to it. Watson was active in shaping party policy on the great national movement. He was one of ten Labor candidates nominated for the Australasian Federal Convention on 4 March 1897: none was elected. The party, perforce, endorsed Federation, but regarded the draft Commonwealth constitution as undemocratic; when it was submitted to a referendum on 3 June 1898, they opposed it, with Watson prominent in the campaign. The referendum failed, and a general election was held on 27 July, essentially to determine the fine details of a constitution acceptable to New South Wales. Nineteen Labor M.L.A.s were returned, including Holman. Of necessity, Federation remained Reid's first priority, but his hold on government was now precarious; he was opposed by a motley group of protectionists, individualists and disaffected free traders who, while mostly ostensible Federationists, would not have been able to transpose their discordant provincialism into firm constitutional proposals for another referendum. Labor, with Watson backing McGowen, kept Reid in office against the objections of Holman and Hughes whose first priority was not Federation.

Watson was devoted to the idea of a referendum as an ideal feature of democracy. To ensure that Reid might finally bring New South Wales into national union on an amended draft constitution, Watson helped to negotiate a deal, involving the party executive, that included the nomination of four Labor men to the Legislative Council. At the March 1899 annual party conference, Hughes and Holman moved to have those arrangements nullified and party policy on Federation changed, thus thwarting Reid's plans. Watson, for once, got angry; he 'jumped to his feet in a most excited manner and in heated tones … contended … that they should not interfere with the referendum'. The motion was lost. The four party men were nominated to the council on 4 April and the bill approving the second referendum, to be held on 20 June, was passed on 20 April.

These events revealed that Watson's will matched his clear political thinking. Like all the Laborites, he opposed the final terms of the Commonwealth Constitution, but knew that the party could do nothing about it, and, unlike Holman and Hughes, he believed that it should be submitted to the people. Nevertheless, with all but two of the Labor parliamentarians, he campaigned against the 'Yes' vote at the referendum. When the Constitution was accepted, he agreed that 'the mandate of the majority will have to be obeyed'. He had made an essential contribution to that democratic decision.

With Federation adopted by New South Wales, Reid's control of parliament deteriorated. His related loss of reforming zeal caused Labor to lean to Hughes's and Holman's view that the party should seek further concessions from (Sir) William Lyne who replaced (Sir) Edmund Barton as leader of the Opposition on 23 August 1899. Eventually, Watson and a majority of caucus, excluding McGowen, were persuaded that they should transfer their support to Lyne. On 7 September Labor's nineteen votes were decisive in removing Reid.

By 1900 Watson's beard had flowered into an elegant Vandyck. Looking 'like a Viking', he was conspicuous at the intercolonial conference of Labor delegates that met in Sydney on 24 January 1900 under the auspices of the New South Wales executive; a Federal party and a short platform were approved. On 26 January the New South Wales conference recommended a draft pledge, based on the local form, to the 'Interstate Labor Parties'. These events were the formal beginnings of the Federal branch of the Australian Labor Party: many had assisted its birth, but none more than Watson.

He decided to enter Federal politics and in March 1901 won the House of Representatives seat of Bland which included his State electorate. The twenty-two Labor members who had been returned met in Melbourne on 7 and 8 May, and Watson became chairman of the party; soon after parliament assembled on 9 May, he was accepted as Federal Labor's first leader.

Watson headed a new party infected with residual colonial loyalties, free trade and protectionist doctrines, and diffused collectivism. And it operated in a national parliament divided by tenacious fiscalism and governed by a minority Protectionist ministry. Watson had little regard for Barton, the first prime minister, but respected Alfred Deakin, the attorney-general and a liberal Protectionist. Fiscalism masked the conservatism and liberalism that was mixed uneasily in both non-Labor parties: Reid led the Free Trade Opposition which harboured a majority conservative wing. Watson mastered this complex situation, reaffirming the pragmatism which anchored the Labor Party and which was inherent in the political forms of laborism derived from time-honoured trade unionism. He and the party concluded that the chance of any potential reform legislation approaching Labor's platform lay with the Protectionists, especially Deakin; holding the balance of power, Labor backed the government.

So Watson had to display the utmost political finesse throughout his pioneering leadership. Without precedents, and with only fitful help from fragmented and sometimes embryonic State branches, he was caught in the mercurial initial stages of the consolidation of Labor and the realignment of minority parties in the new parliament. His immediate task was to flesh out the unity of Labor and to show that, though novel and apparently sectional, it was as relevant to Australian politics as the old, eclectic, fiscal parties which were stacked with established colonial politicians. He began this strategy in 1901 in the debate on the immigration restriction bill which had unanimous parliamentary and electoral support for its principle of the exclusion of non-White peoples. His speeches projected contemporary rhetoric, but their basic and enduring theme emphasized that the Labor Party was a distinct and original entity in the mainstream of national life.

The attainment of a truly protectionist tariff was a complementary major objective for Watson who linked it with the 'New Protection' which had its beginnings in Victoria in the late 1890s. This important part of policy reinforced Watson's personal relations with Deakin who became prime minister in September 1903 with Labor support. But Watson had to proceed with caution, for there were several Labor free traders, not least Hughes and (Sir) George Pearce. The 1902 tariff was a compromise, and at the 1903 election Watson stressed that the Labor Party had no ties with either fiscal party. Labor took 23 House of Representatives seats, the Protectionists 26 and the Free Traders 25: Labor also gained 10 of the 19 Senate seats it contested. Watson's style and methods had received popular approval. He was the confirmed captain of one of the 'three elevens' now in the field.

Deakin said that only a coalition could govern and, in general terms, he was right. Yet, the degree and form of the partnership posed a particular problem for Watson who wanted Labor's platform enacted, but could not afford to allow the party to lose its identity. The new Federal parliamentary situation resembled that of 1895-99 in New South Wales. Remaining independent, the Federal Laborites again supported Deakin; when he refused to bring State public servants under the conciliation and arbitration bill, they voted against him. Watson became prime minister on 27 April 1904, with fickle Protectionist support.

Caucus agreed that Watson should select the first Labor ministry and allocate portfolios. His judicious balancing act had been justified, but he had committed his party to a complex system, with virtually no immediate chance of effecting a legislative programme based on the Labor platform: the party's aspirations were distorted and its developing Federal structure strained. This quandary, which in various forms would continue to harass doctrinaire Laborites, held other problems for Watson. As prime minister he felt keenly the inherent personal conflicts of a reformist government which was responsible to the nation through parliament, and at the same time answerable to non-parliamentary segments that he had done so much to create. His predicament was illustrated by his need to appoint Henry Higgins, from the radical wing of the Protectionist Party, as attorney-general.

Administratively, Watson's minority government performed with credit; its short term in office was essentially part of the process of the formation of a two-party parliamentary system. With caucus approval, on 26 May Watson sounded out Deakin on a temporary accord. It was in vain: many Protectionists opposed Labor, and Deakin objected to the party's institutional checks. The government fell on 12 August over the conciliation and arbitration bill, defeated by a combination of Reid's Free Traders and conservative Protectionists. Reid became prime minister.

Now leader of the Opposition, Watson pursued his plans for a protectionist tariff; in September Labor formed a joint platform with the radical Protectionists, headed by Lyne and (Sir) Isaac Isaacs, hoping to remove Reid who in 1905 began an 'anti-socialist' campaign. On 26 June Watson wrote to Deakin, assuring him of Labor's support if he moved against Reid. Deakin again became prime minister on 5 July. But that month the Inter-State (Federal) Labor Conference ruled that no coalition should be formed with any other party, that the existing alliance with the Protectionists should be restricted to the current parliament, that caucus should elect ministries and that no immunity should be given to any Protectionists at the next election.

Watson had mixed feelings about those binding decisions. Immersed in the minutiae of making parliament work, he had attempted to integrate the Labor Party into its proceedings while seeking as much reformist legislation as possible. His period as prime minister had confirmed his position as a major politican, adept at requisite compromise and attached (as nearly all members were) to the clubbable atmosphere of parliament. His immediate reaction was that he had been let down and that conference had no sympathy with his vexatious parliamentary mission. Again he got angry.

Nevertheless, his resentment was more than balanced by his loyalty to the Labor Party. Watson had continued to take a prominent part in State and interstate (Federal) conferences; in 1902 he had had placed on the Federal platform a plank, for a competitive national (Commonwealth) bank; he maintained his close, friendly links with innumerable country and city Laborites—these were increased in 1905 when Cardinal Patrick Moran declared that Labor's 'socialism' was not incompatible with Catholicism. On 27 July 1905 Watson eased his dilemma by composing a letter of resignation as party leader in which he explained his side of the contretemps; but, having second thoughts and responding to the entreaties of his colleagues who knew his worth, he withdrew the letter on 2 August.

Watson's country seat was abolished at a redistribution for the December 1906 election at which he won South Sydney. The new parliament had a majority of Protectionists. Labor had twenty-six seats. Deakin remained prime minister. Watson informed him that Labor did not want office unless its policy, including land taxation, could be implemented, but argued that protection could now be effected. To ensure that the Labor free traders would agree on that, Watson stressed the danger of Reid's 'anti-socialism' and the advantages of 'New Protection'. Firm protectionist tariffs, with Imperial preferences, were in sight by October 1907, and were formally enacted next year.

Recognizing that his arduous foundational work for the parliamentary Federal Labor Party had been completed, Watson resigned as leader on 24 October 1907 and was replaced by Andrew Fisher. Additional reasons for Watson's decision were his physical and mental fatigue, together with his wife's ill health and her objections to his frequent absences from home. Moreover, he possessed little money and had concluded that his managerial skills might be put to some lucrative use. He did not contest South Sydney at the 13 April 1910 election which Labor won outright. By then the fiscal parties had fused as the conservative Liberal Party under Deakin. The two-party contest had begun. Watson's wisdom and tolerance had facilitated that historic political rationalization. Labor could now build on his sure-footed pioneering.

With the prestige of an ex-prime minister added to his popularity, Watson continued to work for the Labor Party. He also had to make a living. On behalf of a syndicate hoping to find gold, he had visited South Africa in December 1908, but that enterprise failed, as did his speculation in land at Sutherland, Sydney. Association with A. R. Tewksbury and Fred Hughes, in which he used his wide range of contacts and organizing ability, netted him some income. By 1920 Watson was a director of F. W. Hughes Pty Ltd, a leading wool and textile business, and his protectionism and friendship with Prime Minister Hughes had helped the company during World War I. But in 1910-16 Watson's main work was with the A.W.U. He assisted in the publication of the Worker; through his directorship of Labor Papers Ltd, he promoted the union's plans to produce a daily newspaper to be called the World: the war ended that project, but in 1914 Macdonell House in Pitt Street was acquired by the A.W.U. and Watson had an office there until 1916. In February 1915, with Ada, he had left on a trip to England; having returned through the United States of America in August, he reported to Prime Minister Fisher on the war situation.

Continuing to attend Labor Party conferences, both State and Federal, Watson was not always a delegate, but was persistently influential: his prudently modified 'socialist' objective had been adopted as early as the 1905 Federal conference. He campaigned prominently at elections and belonged to the New South Wales executive in 1910-11 and 1913-15. In 1913, with Kate Dwyer and others, he revised the fighting platform. Claims were made in Labor circles and the press that he 'bossed' the party: they were not correct, but the complaints pointed to his authority as he complemented the power of the A.W.U. His objective of strengthening the Federal branch against the State organizations led him to consider seriously national unification in place of Federation. In 1911, when backing the referendum to increase Commonwealth powers, he clashed with Holman and broke with (Sir) George Beeby who said that Watson was 'disgruntled'. Watson replied, 'The Labor movement has always treated me generously, I have nothing to be disgruntled about'. After Labor's win in the 1913 State election, he remarked: 'The Labor Party has continued to grow because of the intrinsic justice of its cause'.

Like Hughes and many other Laborites, Watson had interpreted Labor's traditional anti-militarism as being compatible with a national policy that accepted compulsory military training for home defence. With Hughes, who was prime minister, in 1916 Watson perceived Britain as so endangered as to justify the extension of that policy to the conscription of Australians for overseas service in World War I. Although explicable in terms of the devotion many Australians felt towards the mother country as the corner-stone of the Empire, this judgement led inexorably to the expulsion from the Labor Party of Watson, Hughes, Holman and many more in September-November 1916. Watson's vast capacity for compromise failed this agonizing test.

In 1915 he had joined the Universal Service League to help recruit volunteers; in December 1916 he played a leading part in the formation of the Australian Democratic Labor League to provide a political organization for 'National' governments formed by Hughes and, in New South Wales, Holman. By January 1917 the new party, with majority non-Labor elements, was discreetly called the National Federation and Watson was promoting it in Melbourne: it soon became known as the National Party. Watson had campaigned for Hughes at the conscription referendum in October 1916; he worked for the National Party at the March 1917 election in New South Wales, won by Holman, and at the May 1917 Federal election, won by Hughes; he also spoke for conscription at the second referendum in November. Watson's interest in the new party waned when Holman lost in 1920, but he had links with it until the 1922 Federal election when he helped Hughes and his old A.W.U. friend, Hector Lamond, and denounced 'extremists in the Labor Party and the Country Party'.

From August 1915, as honorary organizer of the scheme to provide employment for returned soldiers, Watson had pioneered the placing of ex-servicemen on the land. In 1915 he published the pamphlet, Returned Soldiers. Employment and Settlement; his article, The Labour Movement, had appeared the year before.

By 1920 Watson had shaved off his moustache and beard as his hair greyed. The depilation sapped his striking appearance: he looked kinder and more amiable; but his iron will surfaced on the rare occasions when gentle persuasion seemed likely to fail. He joined the council of the newly established National Roads Association on 22 March 1920 and on 16 August became its president, a position he held until his death. His leadership and administrative capacity turned the N.R.A. into the National Roads and Motorists' Association in December 1923. Appreciating that motoring would become a mass activity, for twenty years he publicized the association's policies and discussed them with governments, helping to make the N.R.M.A. Australia's leading motoring organization. On 2 April 1928, as chairman of the Traffic Advisory Committee, he submitted a valuable report on Sydney's traffic problems.

Ada died, childless, on 19 April 1921. On 30 October 1925 Watson married a 23-year-old Western Australian, Antonia Mary Gladys Dowlan, in the same church as his first wedding. Having visited the United States of America on business in 1922, he expanded his commercial interests in the 1920s: associated with George McDonald in Brisbane Metal Quarries Ltd, he became a director of another of F. W. Hughes's companies, Alexandria Spinning Mills Ltd, and in 1927 of Yellow Cabs of Australia Ltd, with Tewksbury.

Remaining an ardent protectionist, Watson congratulated James Scullin on Labor's win at the 1929 Federal election and welcomed his government's increased tariffs; in 1931, as president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Industries Protection League, he gave evidence to a select committee of the Legislative Council and criticized Jack Lang's arbitration bill. Watson disliked Lang and supported the 1931 Premiers' Plan to alleviate the Depression. He remained fond of a bet on the horses, and in the 1930s was a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground. His support was decisive in (Sir) William Walkley's plans to establish the Australian Motorists Petrol Co. Ltd (Ampol) and Watson became its first chairman of directors in 1936. He revisited New Zealand several times.

Watson remained friends with his fellow Labor Party pioneers of 1890-1910 and formed associations with later ones, among them John Curtin and (Sir) William McKell. He was a pallbearer at Holman's funeral in 1934. Survived by his wife and daughter, Watson died at his Double Bay home on 18 November 1941. His estate was sworn for probate at £3573. He was cremated after a state funeral from St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral: among the pallbearers were Sir Joseph Cook, Albert Gardiner, Curtin and McKell. Making an exception for a party expellee, the Federal Labor caucus passed a motion of condolence and regret. W. M. Hughes said, 'I am overwhelmed by the blow his death has given me'.

Watson's portrait (1913) by Julian Ashton is in the Prime Minister's Lodge, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

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  • B. Nairn, ‘J. C. Watson in New South Wales politics, 1890-1894’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Association, 48, no 2, 1962
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  • John Watson papers (National Library of Australia)
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Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Watson, John Christian (Chris) (1867–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-john-christian-chris-9003/text15849, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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