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Andrew Fisher (1862–1928)

by D. J. Murphy

This article was published:

Andrew Fisher, by T. Humphrey & Co.

Andrew Fisher, by T. Humphrey & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23370783

Andrew Fisher (1862-1928), prime minister, was born on 29 August 1862 at Crosshouse, near Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, Scotland, second son of Robert Fisher, coalminer, and his wife Jane, née Garvin. Robert Fisher, a sober, temperate Presbyterian, was one of ten men who established a co-operative store in Crosshouse in 1863. The co-operative, later part of the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, developed a library and reading room which Andrew used. Despite a law prohibiting boys under twelve from working in the pits, Andrew seems to have begun work at about 10, his father having developed pneumoconiosis. Andrew's education was limited to the local public school, supplemented by evening classes at Kilmarnock.  

In 1879 Fisher was elected secretary of the Crosshouse district branch of the Ayrshire Miners' Union. Keir Hardie, whom Fisher admired, became secretary of the central body. A ten weeks strike in 1881 wiped out the union. Fisher again represented the local miners when it was reformed in 1884. But there were slim prospects at Crosshouse. With his younger brother James, he considered migrating to New Zealand or Australia, torn between his responsibilities at home, where his father's health had worsened, and his ambition to better himself. After long family discussions he was persuaded to go.

The brothers arrived in Queensland on 17 August 1885 in the New Guinea. Finding no work on the Ipswich coalfields they moved to the Burrum field, where Andrew obtained work with the Queensland Colliery Co. at Tornbanlea. Two months later he directed the sinking of a new mine for the company and then became a manager. In 1887 he was a shareholder in the Dudley Coal & Investment Co. Rejected as manager of a mine owned by Isis Investment Co. of Queensland, he left Burrum for the goldfields at Gympie. Here he worked at North Phoenix No.1 field until the end of 1890 when he went on strike and was dismissed. As in blacklistings in Scotland, Fisher's ability gained him work in other mines. Obtaining his engine driver's certificate, he went to work on the surface for the South Great Eastern Extended mine.

At Gympie Fisher was active in the Royal True Friendship Lodge of the Manchester United Independent Order of Oddfellows, a superintendent of the Presbyterian Church Sunday School, a shareholder in the Gympie Industrial Co-operative Society and for a period a member of the local unit of the Colonial Defence Force. He joined the Amalgamated Miners' Association which, with a general advance in Queensland unionism, began at Gympie in 1886. He became secretary and then president of the branch in 1890 and 1891, before its collapse towards the end of the latter year.

In June 1889 the Australian Labor Federation was formed in Brisbane; its Wide Bay and Burnett district council, centred on Maryborough and extending its influence to Gympie, was formed the following May. William Demaine, who was to become a lifelong friend of Fisher, was one of its organizers. Inter-city jealousy and the distance delegates had to travel caused the Gympie unions to break away in mid-1891 to form a Gympie Joint Labor Committee; George Ryland was president and Fisher secretary. Out of the A.L.F. came Workers' Political Organizations, local branches of the new Labor Party. In July 1891 a branch was formed at Gympie, with Fisher president. He was now one of the most significant members of the Gympie labour movement. Tall and well-built, with a long black moustache and sandy hair, he was confident and determined to succeed, but his manner was quiet and his approach conciliatory.

Fisher drafted the welcome to Thomas Glassey when the Labor leader visited Gympie in July 1891, and he represented Gympie at a Labor-in-Politics Convention in Brisbane in August next year. He topped the poll for Labor at Gympie in the 1893 Legislative Assembly elections. The first three years in parliament provided Fisher with valuable experience for the future. He witnessed the scandals associated with the collapse of the Queensland National Bank; his own ideas on a state bank, included in the Labor platform, were forming. He developed ideas on the role and ownership of state railways; Sir Thomas McIlwraith's scheme to finance a trans-colonial railway through land grants to the builders was opposed by Fisher and the other Labor members; they emphasized that railways should open up land and not be profit-making enterprises. In 1894, following the second long pastoral strike, the government introduced a peace preservation bill which the Labor members dubbed a 'Coercion Bill'. Fisher favoured a system of arbitration tribunals established by the state. His view during 1894 and 1895 was that Labor should co-operate with the Liberals in trying to defeat the government, but should retain its separate identity.

Fisher's political philosophy contained no concept of class warfare; nor was he attracted to William Lane's Utopian settlement in Paraguay. His ideas were based on his background in Ayrshire, his experiences as a miner and his habits of reading and study. In 1908 he was to identify society as having a labouring class 'and a speculating class'. His solution to this division was to provide parliamentary reforms in banking, industrial safety, workers' compensation, land and employment, and so elevate the living standard of the labourer. A graduated income tax, control of monopolies and state ownership of certain enterprises would conversely lessen the power of the speculating class.

Fisher lost at the 1896 elections, because of the strong opposition of the Gympie Times and a weak campaign by Labor. He obtained work as an engine driver and, for a time, as auditor to the municipal council. To counter the anti-Labor influence of the Gympie Times, Fisher and other leading Laborites in Gympie established the Gympie Truth. A company with 5000 shares at 5s. was floated on 15 April 1896. Fisher, who was chairman and treasurer, Ryland and the editor, Henry Boote, largely wrote and produced the paper which first appeared in July. Following an attack of typhoid in 1897, Fisher concentrated on the financial management of the company.

In June 1898 Fisher represented Gympie at the Labor Party convention in Brisbane but declined election to the Central Political Executive. Although Labor was able to mount a better campaign in 1899, there remained problems with Glassey's leadership and disharmony had emerged between the A.L.F. and sections of the parliamentary party. Fisher did not seek formal endorsement by the executive, but chose to fight the election locally in Gympie. Both he and Ryland were elected. His three years absence had lost Fisher some seniority; Anderson Dawson replaced Glassey as leader. But Fisher was trusted and remained one of the caucus leaders. In 1899 he introduced the first workmen's compensation bill and, when debate was abandoned by the government, he reintroduced it in 1900, again without success. He was one of the negotiators in the formation of the minority Dawson Labor government on 1 December 1899, Fisher insisted that, in any coalition with the Liberals Labor should have a majority, otherwise a minority Labor government should be formed. He was appointed secretary for railways and for public works, but as the government lasted only six days he had little opportunity to demonstrate any ministerial capacity.

Fisher opposed sending Australian troops to the South African War, but supported and campaigned for the new Commonwealth, against the anti-Federation campaign of Boote in the Gympie Truth. In the referendum of 1899 Gympie strongly supported Federation. Fisher was endorsed as the Federal Labor candidate for Wide Bay, and won with 55 per cent of the votes. In May 1901 he met with the other Labor parliamentarians to form the Commonwealth Labor Party. It was a year of mixed personal fortunes. In July his brother John, chief constable at Grimsley, was killed; James had been killed in a mining accident in India in 1893 and another brother, Robert, in a railway accident in Canada in 1895. The year ended on a happier note on 31 December when Fisher married the 27-year-old Margaret Jane Irvine, his Gympie landlady's daughter.

The new party had few precedents to assist it in determining its role. There was no agreement on the fiscal question, or on a possible alliance with the Liberal Protectionists. John Christian Watson favoured a formal alliance with Alfred Deakin, whereas Fisher, and eventually the Labor Party itself, was against political alliances, though Fisher was prepared to support Deakin where the government's programme agreed with broad Labor policy. In April 1904, in the debate on the conciliation and arbitration bill Fisher moved an amendment, unacceptable to Deakin, to include State employees In the bill. The amendment was carried, Deakin resigned, the caucus rejected a proposal to form a coalition with Deakin, and Watson formed the first Federal Labor government. Fisher was allotted trade and customs and listed fifth in the ministry after Watson, Billy Hughes, Henry Bournes Higgins and Egerton Batchelor.

The Watson government fell in August on the same conciliation and arbitration bill. Much of its time was taken up on debate about an alliance with the Liberal Party and with granting electoral immunity to some sympathetic Liberals. Fisher accepted the caucus majority view supporting an alliance, while insisting that the Labor Party remain independent. When the Inter-State (Federal) Conference was held in July 1905 Fisher and Watson were on opposite sides. Fisher said he opposed alliances generally; he also opposed electoral immunities but raised no objection to the caucus electing the ministry. The conference decided that the Labor Party should enter no alliance which would last beyond the life of the parliament, and recommended that caucus elect the ministry. Watson submitted his resignation ostensibly on health grounds, but was persuaded to withdraw. The caucus, on 9 August, elected Fisher deputy leader to ease Watson's work-load. Fisher's promotion from fifth to second reflected not only his ability but also the trust in which he was held. He attended the 1907 Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention to support Boote and Albert Hinchcliffe in their contention that Queensland Labor, also, should reject any coalition promise.

Although Labor won twenty-six seats at the 1906 Federal elections to Deakin's seventeen, it continued to support Deakin in office as the best means of achieving the Labor priorities of aged pensions, anti-trust laws and New Protection. When Watson resigned in October 1907, Fisher defeated Hughes and William Spence for the leadership. More competent than Hughes in economic matters and in handling caucus, Fisher was closer to the extra-parliamentary organizations, and a better judge of rank and file Labor opinion. He did not share the passion of Hughes for free trade or that of Watson and Hughes for defence.

While some contemporaries claimed to see a certain vanity in Fisher, his most notable characteristic was an innate modesty. In political terms he was a radical, on the left of his party, with a strong sense of Labor's part in British working-class history.

At the 1908 Federal Conference he argued for the place of women in the Australian parliament: 'I trust that not another Federal election will take place without their (sic) being a woman endorsed as a Labour candidate for the Senate'. Not a brilliant orator, he nevertheless projected a sense of security to the electorate and, to his colleagues, an assurance that he would not deviate from Labor policy. Due to the entry of Labor into politics, socialism, he said, had moved from

being tabooed, sneered at and scouted [and had been] brought to a first place in public discussion … We are all Socialists now and indeed the only qualification you hear from anybody is probably that he is “not an extreme socialist". I do not think that the ideas of the originators have altered one jot.

By early 1908 the Labor caucus had become restive about continuing to sustain the Deakin government. With his ministry in jeopardy, Deakin talked to Fisher and Watson about a possible coalition and, following their report, the caucus agreed to a coalition providing that Labor had a majority in cabinet, that there was immediate legislation for old-age pensions, that New Protection was carried and that at the following election the government would promise a progressive land tax.

Although no coalition was formed, Labor pressure on Deakin was productive: the government agreed to hold a royal commission into the post office, old-age pensions were to be provided from the surplus revenue fund and £250,000 set aside for ships for an Australian navy. New Protection was declared invalid by the High Court in June; Fisher found the tariff proposals of Deakin unsatisfactory; caucus was also dissatisfied with the old-age pension proposals. Without Labor support the Deakin government fell on 10 November.

Fisher became both prime minister and treasurer in the second minority Labor government, whose ministers were elected by caucus. There was little possibility of Labor introducing its more important legislation, but Fisher felt that it was important for Labor to be seen as a party government. Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie wrote to congratulate him. The new government amended the Seat of Government Act (1904) to provide that the new Federal capital should be in the Yass-Canberra area. It also passed the Manufacturers' Encouragement Act to provide bounties for iron and steel manufacturers who paid fair and reasonable wages. It accepted responsibility for local naval defence and placed the Australian Navy at the disposal of the Royal Navy in wartime. In February 1909 three torpedo boat destroyers were ordered. In March Fisher proposed a military defence scheme involving compulsory military training for youths up to age 20.

Fisher was now confident that Labor could govern in its own right. At Gympie on 30 March 1909 he committed Labor to amending the Constitution for more Commonwealth power in labour, wages and prices, to expanding the naval forces and providing compulsory military training for males up to 21, to increased Commonwealth expenditure on pensions, to a land tax, a transcontinental railway, a Commonwealth note issue and to protection of the sugar industry. Although he had jumped ahead of caucus where some members wanted such policy speeches approved first, he was in command. It was clear that the days of Liberal-Labor alliances were over.

On 27 May the new Fusion Party of Deakin and (Sir) Joseph Cook defeated Fisher's government in parliament. He failed to obtain a dissolution and went back into Opposition. In the following nine months, he welded the parliamentary party into an effective Opposition working through specialist committees. Fisher's area was finance and he sought per capita grants to the States but wanted this incorporated in Commonwealth legislation, not in a Constitutional amendment.

Labor went into the 1910 election with confidence and Fisher gave the appearance of trust, competence and stability and reflected the values implicit in widespread national hopes. On 13 April it won forty-three of the seventy-five House of Representative seats and all eighteen Senate seats, giving it twenty-three of the thirty-six Senate positions. At the first meeting of the new caucus Fisher was re-elected leader unopposed. The Fisher government of 1910-13 represented the culmination of Labor's involvement in politics; it was a period of reform unmatched in the Commonwealth until the 1940s. Fisher was not responsible for all the legislation, but whether it was preference to unionists, construction of the Kalgoorlie (Western Australia) to Port Augusta (South Australia) railway, lowering the criteria for pensions, establishment of the Commonwealth Clothing Factory, or the Commonwealth Bank, he had a fine understanding of what caucus and the electorate wanted. His royal commission into the sugar industry provided the basis for later legislation by the Thomas Ryan government in Queensland, which stabilized and expanded the most important tropical agricultural industry. His judgement proved sound in the Brisbane general strike of 1912 when he refused a request by the Queensland premier, Digby Denham, to use Commonwealth troops against the strikers.

In October 1910 Fisher went to South Africa for the inauguration of the Union. In May next year he proceeded to London for the Imperial Conference and the coronation of George V. Visiting Kilmarnock and Crosshouse he was given a hero's welcome and returned to his birthplace after the conference to be made a freeman of the burgh. At the conference, Fisher, as the only Labor prime minister, was an object of some curiosity. He followed Deakin's 1907 arguments in trying to have the British government consult the Dominions on matters of relevant foreign policy, and supported unsuccessfully the establishment of a standing committee to consider matters arising out of the conference. Despite his assessment that 'many important subjects were dealt with in a satisfactory manner' Fisher had been overwhelmed by the British officials. Britain had conceded nothing to the Dominions. Fisher returned to Australia in August a reluctant privy councillor, having accepted the office only in order to avoid an open breach with the new king. He did not like decorations of any kind and adhered to this view throughout his life.

During the 1910 session of parliament, Labor's legislation fell into two parts: that of a distinctively reformist nature and that of continuing the development of a national government. In the former were amendments to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act (1904) to provide greater authority for the court president, and a Land Tax Act to tax unimproved land values in excess of £5000 with the intention of breaking up big estates into farms for 'small men'. In the latter were the Surplus Revenue Act providing an annual per capita grant of £1 5s. to the States and the Commonwealth acquisition of the Northern Territory from South Australia.

One of Labor's major goals had long been the establishment of a state bank. At the 1908 Federal Conference a 'Commonwealth Bank' had been written into the fighting platform. During the 1910 session Fisher passed an Australian Notes Act to provide for a Commonwealth note issue and to exclude private banks' notes. At the first meeting of the 1911 session he outlined the government proposals for a 'National Bank'. Legend later ascribed a key role in the creation of the Commonwealth Bank to King O'Malley, but it is clear that it was Fisher, as treasurer carefully implementing a cabinet recommendation and an important Labor policy, who was responsible.

During the 1911 session the Conciliation and Arbitration Act was again amended to allow for Commonwealth employees' industrial unions, registered with the Arbitration Court; compulsory enrolment was provided for Commonwealth elections, and Labor attempted to amend the Constitution to give the Commonwealth the same power as the States over labour laws, to regulate monopolies and to nationalize industries. To Fisher the restrictions of the Constitution, shown by the High Court's rejection of New Protection, nullified 'the people's will'. He wanted additional Commonwealth power for national health and welfare, and for broader bases of fixing wages and working conditions. These referendum proposals were defeated, but he told the 1912 Federal Labor conference that they would be reintroduced.

In the final session of the 1910-13 parliament, Fisher retained overall control of legislation. Maternity allowances and a Workers' Compensation Act for Commonwealth employees were provided; the Inter-State Commission was established; invalid and old-age pensions were liberalized, the recommendations of the sugar royal commission were implemented, and the High Court was increased from five to seven judges. Six proposals were put to the electorate at the 1913 referendum held with the elections. All were lost by narrow margins and Labor lost government by one seat. Following the loss Fisher defeated challenges to his leadership from Hughes and William Higgs.

Fisher had moved permanently to Melbourne by 1906 and, as a successful investor, was able to purchase Oakleigh Hall, East St Kilda, in 1912, a mansion compared with his Crosshouse and Gympie residences. Following the 1913 election he gave the first indication that he was feeling the strain of being the father of six children, all under twelve, and leading a Labor Party, jealous of its own collective decisions, through the formative period of the Commonwealth. The 1913-14 session of parliament was among the most hectic of his career. Both government and Opposition sought a double dissolution issue. In October 1913 the government chose the postal voting restoration bill and the government preference prohibition bill as their grounds. After visiting several electorates during March and April 1914, Fisher sensed a return of support for Labor and concluded that his party should use its power in the Senate to force an election. On 5 June the governor-general granted a double dissolution. Fisher and Hughes were delegated the writing of the party manifesto for the election on 5 September.

Fisher delivered his policy speech in Bundaberg on 6 July: it was largely a restatement of what he had said in 1913. The tenor of the campaign changed towards the end of July when the likelihood of a European war increased. At Ballarat, Victoria, on 31 July Cook pledged the resources of Australia to the Empire if war broke out. On the same night at Colac, Fisher made an equally unqualified promise. His 'last man and last shilling' pledge was to become the core of the conscriptionists' arguments two years later. It did not receive great prominence in 1914 and was essentially political rhetoric, though Fisher's support to Britain was never lacking. He saw no advantage in the war to Australia; concepts of martial glory were totally absent from his character. His immediate commitment to Britain, however, and to co-operation with Cook on war plans removed any possibility of the war becoming an election issue. Hughes, whose enthusiasm for the war outran his political judgement, frantically urged the cancellation of the election, but Fisher along with Cook rejected this and Labor, in a resounding personal victory for Fisher, routed the government.

It now became Fisher's responsibility to dispatch the first Australian troops overseas and to provide the foundations for financing the war. Since there were reports of German cruisers in the Pacific and Indian oceans, he refused to allow the convoy to sail until it was fully assembled and protected, over-riding the protests of Major General (Sir) William Bridges. Fisher informed the British government that Australia would meet the cost of its own troops. Initially he hoped to raise the money by increasing Commonwealth land tax and providing succession duties, but this was not possible. He negotiated an £18 million loan from Britain and insisted that all State borrowing during the war, limited to a total of £10 million, had to be through the Commonwealth. Early in 1915 he passed legislation enabling the Commonwealth to raise war loans in Australia.

The Australian soldiers were better paid than their British counterparts and, as the first wounded men returned from Gallipoli, Fisher instituted preference to returned soldiers in the public service irrespective of whether they were unionists or not. His 'last man and last shilling' promise, however, did not extend to conscription. The humanitarianism that lay behind his political philosophy prevented his taking that step. Moreover, unlike Hughes, he was not carried away by the emotional demand for troops but retained his cooler judgements about conscription. The decision to have Australian forces participate in the Gallipoli landing had not been Fisher's. It was the first example of a continuing problem about the British use of Australian forces. Fisher knew that the Australian Imperial Force had been moved from Egypt but was ignorant of the actual operation until after the landing, although it is doubtful that he would have opposed it.

Although Fisher should have been at the height of his political career after the 1914 election, the strains of leading a restive parliamentary party led to further decline in his health and a desire to resign as leader. In October a grant of £100,000 to assist the Belgians brought an attack on the government by some of its own supporters. After a torrid budget session Fisher retreated to New Zealand, ostensibly for war talks, but really to regain his health. Throughout 1915 he faced Labor pressure for the control of prices and the reintroduction of the constitutional referenda. He was criticized over the War Precautions and War Census Acts and after Gallipoli he was burdened with demands for conscription. The exclusion of Australia from policy-making on the war worried him. In April 1915 he sent Watson to England to report on operations. Although aware of his personal strain, Watson thought that Fisher should remain prime minister and press for a conference of the Dominions. However, on 27 October he resigned. While Hughes had increasingly accepted extra work, it had been Fisher who had borne the final responsibility: the stress had finally become unbearable. He succeeded Reid as high commissioner in London, and prior to leaving for England made Oakleigh Hall available as a convalescent home for soldiers.

As high commissioner Fisher became a member of the Dardanelles Commission; he visited the Australian troops in France and established a good relationship with General William Birdwood; he handled Australian representations in London but on matters of high policy Hughes made the decisions himself. When Fisher refused Hughes's request to sign a public statement supporting conscription, (Sir) Keith Murdoch, rather than Fisher, became the trusted source for Hughes's British intelligence. For his service on the Dardanelles Commission and in recognition of Australia's part in the war the French government awarded him the Légion d'honneur, which he declined.

In 1921 Fisher returned to Australia. There were attempts to secure him a seat in the Federal parliament and to have him lead the Labor Party once more. His heart, however, was no longer in active politics though he attempted to obtain Labour selection for a Scottish seat in the House of Commons. He returned to London in 1922 where he lived a quiet life in declining health until his death on 22 October 1928 at South Hill Park. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and four sons.

Fisher was one of the most successful Australian politicians even though his career was overshadowed by the war, the turbulent prime ministership of Hughes and the split in the Labor Party over conscription. His contemporaries saw him as honest and trustworthy, but surpassed by Hughes in wit, oratory and brilliance. Fisher's record however reveals a legacy of reforms and national development which lasted beyond the divisions that Hughes left in the Labor Party and in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • R. Gollan, The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Canb, 1968)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • P. M. Weller (ed), Caucus Minutes, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1975)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1964, 1979)
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, May 1963
  • G. Marginson, Andrew Fisher. The Colonial Experience, 1885-1901 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1967)
  • Andrew Fisher papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Fisher, Andrew (1862–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Andrew Fisher, by T. Humphrey & Co.

Andrew Fisher, by T. Humphrey & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23370783

Life Summary [details]


29 August, 1862
Crosshouse, Ayrshire, Scotland


22 October, 1928 (aged 66)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

heart disease

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