10. Rural workers and the federal election of 1914

War was declared in Australia on the morning of 5 August 1914 in the course of a federal election. It was less than a week after both houses of federal parliament had been dissolved (30 July) and four weeks before the scheduled election date of 5 September. The brief background to this situation went back to May 1913 when the incoming Cook Government (Liberals) found itself with a majority of just one in the House of Representatives and in minority in the Senate. It then set about to engineer a double dissolution, under S 57 of the Constitution. It became the first national government to exercise this provision. The Cook Government hoped to convince the electorate that its decision to force the double dissolution was entirely justified as an attempt to break what it portrayed as the ALP’s stranglehold over its legislative agenda. After the declaration of war and pledges of Imperial loyalty, the Cook Government presumably believed that it would win further support from the electorate or, at least, reasoned that the electorate would be reluctant to change government at such a momentous time. But the results of the 1914 election proved it wrong: the ALP was returned with a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives (42:33), with a vote of 50.9%, which to this day still represents the highest level of support ever achieved by the party. In the Senate the ALP gained 31 of the 36 seats. This was before proportional representation in the Senate (1949).

The results of the September election clearly demonstrated the nation’s confidence in the ALP at the most critical time in the young Commonwealth’s existence. The political landscape looked back to the time of the first Fisher Government of 1910 -1913 when the ALP had a clear majority in both houses. This first Fisher Government had been the very first national government since Federation that had been able to govern in its own right. It was also recognised for the amount of progressive or radical legislation – depending on people’s political philosophy at the time – that it passed, including the critical legislation on national defence (the universal training scheme). At the start of WW1, the ALP had a record for strong, socially-progressive and nation-building government. It had emerged as the single, most powerful political party in the nation and its success had effectively forced the opposing political parties (Protectionists and Free Traders) to combine in a single political entity – the so-called ‘Fusion’ of 1909 – and even copy its strategies. However, the apparently monolithic power of the ALP as the driving force in Australian politics in the early years of Federation was to shatter in less than 2 years over the issue of conscription.

The ALP relied on the cities and major regional towns for its support, and both the rapid rise in manufacturing, particularly in Victoria, and urbanisation prior to WW1 had strengthened this demographic base. But rural Australia was a very different proposition, particularly where towns were small, the population dispersed and manufacturing and other secondary industry limited. Gippsland, and more particularly the Shire of Alberton, were definitely not in the ALP heartland. In fact, the ALP did not even put up a candidate for the relevant House of Representatives seat (Gippsland). However, it did at least work to build or, at least, retain its Senate support and in May 1914 – well before the double dissolution – ALP Senator Russell gave a public address to a large audience in the shire hall at Yarram. It was a long (two hours) and lively meeting and it was reported in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative ( 20 May 1914). Senator Russell obviously knew he was in a Liberal stronghold and attempted to counter the claims most commonly made against the ALP: it didn’t understand or care about the farmers and rural industry; it struggled with financial management; it favoured preference for unionists in the workplace etc. There was a lot of (Applause) and (Laughter) noted in the paper’s report of proceedings and Russell obviously put in a good performance. He touched on many issues. He argued that the co-operative ventures of the farmers, particularly the dairy farmers, were a form of socialism. He attacked price fixing by monopolies like the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in Queensland. He accepted the need to fine tune the universal training scheme because it was interfering with the young lads’ football and other sporting commitments. He claimed that PM Cook was engineering the grounds for a double dissolution, and there were many passing shots at the Fusionists, including the then current member (J Bennett). However, the most significant comment came towards the end of his address when he claimed that the ALP had lost the 1913 election because of the ‘Rural Workers’ log’. Russell continued with a spirited defence of the industrial rights of the rural working class:

The Fisher Government lost [the] last election because of the Rural Workers log. A rural worker is a young man reared in the country district. One painful fact is that he clears out to the city to better himself, because he sees less opportunity in the country districts. The poor chap who looks round the factories and can’t get a job goes to the country. The men farmers want are those born and bred in the country. By all means help them in the country, and don’t sweat them. The farmer who gives decent conditions has nothing to fear. As to the Arbitration Court, the farmer has an equal right to state his case. Farmers be men! Don’t ask for the right of the three, four or five per cent who sweat their men. men, whether labourers or employers, had a right to be treated as men. No power could stop the Rural Workers going on. If they are checked, when strong enough they will strike – and at a time when the crops are ripe.

The Rural Workers’ Log was a set of claims drawn up by the Australian Wokers’ Union to cover pay and conditions for rural workers. The set of claims was an ambit one and the AWU could only put it up if there was an interstate dispute. Moreover, it would have proved very difficult to unionise the widely dispersed rural workforce in a district such as the Shire of Alberton. However, despite these qualifications, the very existence of such a log of claims was seen by farmers, and represented by anti-ALP forces, as an all-out attempt to unionise the rural work force. To the farmer, particularly the small farmer, and even more particularly the dairy farmer, the idea of a unionised workforce was anathema. Farming was based on family labour, supplemented by small-scale, casualised and itinerant labour. It was also looking to mechanisation to reduce its dependence on labour. Labour demands were driven by seasonal, climatic and a whole range of other variables. Unlike the factory, the farm did not see the absolute separation of home and work place. Nor was there any simple division of time and, for the individual worker, the range of work, and the skills involved, were more varied than in any factory setting. In short, Russell’s claim that the Rural Workers’ Log had cost the ALP the 1913 election would have rung true with his audience at Yarram.

Without even realising it, Russell was also being prescient because the Rural Workers Log was again put forward as the key issue in the 1914 election in the Shire of Alberton. As there was no ALP candidate even standing for the House of Representatives seat of Gippsland, the anti-ALP forces in the district needed both to limit the ALP vote in the Senate and ensure the victory of the ‘right’ anti-ALP candidate in the lower house. In this case, the right candidate was the then sitting member Bennett, a member of the Cook Fusion Government, as opposed to G H Wise who was standing as Independent Liberal. The basic strategy adopted was to talk up, again, the threat of the Rural Workers Log and thereby portray the ALP as anti-farmer and, at the same time, portray Wise as a tacit supporter of the Rural Workers Log. To see how this strategy played out it is necessary to look closely at the role played by the editor (A J Rossiter) of the local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

As future posts will show, Rossiter became one of the key players in the district to provide the narrative both of and for the War. He used his paper to push a particular line which, in brief, was unequivocally both pro-Empire and pro-conscription. At this point, September 1914, he had no qualms about pushing a very direct pro-Liberal and anti-ALP line for the federal election. On Friday 4 September 1914, the day before the election, he featured in his paper a how-to-vote card under the heading Federal Elections. The Liberal Vote. It stated, All true Liberals should vote thus and directed readers to vote first for Bennett in the House of Representatives and then for the six named Liberals in the Senate. Similarly, in the editorial on Wednesday 2 September, in the week leading to the election, Rossiter backed the six Liberal candidates for the Senate and expressed his ‘utmost confidence’ in them. He also backed Bennett and claimed with confidence that he would be returned. At the same time, his endorsement of Bennett was not overwhelming, noting that:

Mr Bennett has done nothing to forfeit the confidence of the electors. As a speaker he has vastly improved, and during his brief term as Gippsland’s representative no man could have worked harder for the good of the province. He has passed through two most trying sessions, which might have been productive of good but for obstruction by the Labor Party.

However, the direct public endorsement of the Liberal candidates was only part of the political game plan that Rossiter pursued. He also actively promoted the fear about the Rural Workers’ Log. Just two weeks after Senator Russell had claimed, at the public meeting at Yarram, that the Rural Workers Log had cost the ALP victory at the 1913 election, Rossiter published a detailed overview of the log of claims, on 3 July 1914. The headline he provided stated that the log was to operate from 1 October 1914 which implied that its implementation was imminent. The same article appeared in the paper on a regular basis throughout July and, as reported in the paper, the log of claims would have raised serious concerns. For example, dairy farmers would have been most concerned about the rigid approach to hours of work and the related provision for overtime:

… 48 hours shall constitute a week’s work, such hours to be worked as follows: – Half-past 7 a.m. to 20 minutes to six on five days of the week, with one hour for dinner; and five minutes past 7 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturdays, with two “smoke-ohs” of 15 minutes each, one in the forenoon and one in the afternoon. Overtime is put down as time and a half.

The basic strategy Rossiter employed was to highlight the threat of the Rural Workers’ Log and its impending introduction – to reduce the ALP vote in the Senate – and at the same time emphasise Bennett’s strong opposition to it, as opposed to what he represented as Wise’s lack of concern or ambivalence. For example, in an editorial on 24 July 1914 Rossiter began by highlighting the ‘grim ogre’ of the Rural Workers’ Log with its ‘preposterous demands’ that was hanging over and threatening all farmers. He accepted that its introduction might not be as imminent as some – including himself! – claimed, but he did urge farmers to be prepared to combine together quickly and contribute funds to a shared pool to fight the claim in the Arbitration Court. Against this effective ‘call to arms’, in the same editorial Rossiter featured comments made by Wise to the effect that it would be very difficult for the AWU even to get its log of claims before arbitration and that, in any case, by its very nature the log was exorbitant and it would never succeed in its present form. Wise was being portrayed as unconcerned or sceptical. Then, on 19 August, there was a detailed account of a speech at Alberton on 15 August by Bennett. The headline was ‘Rural Workers’ Log’. In the article Bennett challenged Wise’s claim that he, Bennett, had deliberately inflated the threat of the log and was employing it as a ‘scare’. In the article Bennett railed against what he claimed was the dire threat posed:

The Rural Workers’ Log is no scare. It is a far reaching piece of realism and if persisted in it will absolutely destroy primary industries, and the day you destroy agricultural progress that day you will hand the development of Australia over to some foreign nation which has more sense than to force the Agricultural Industry into or under an award of an Arbitration Court. To fix the hours of employment and the rate of wage for the farmers is an impossibility until you can fix the rainfall and the sunshine.

He continued in the same vein to argue that the arbitration system itself was set against the farmers and reinforced the claim that Australia’s agricultural future was threatened by the Rural Workers’ Log.

Wise also gave an election speech in the district at the same time – 14 August, at Yarram – which was also reported in detail in the paper (19 August). The thrust of Wise’s argument was that Cook’s Fusion Government had been a failure: rather than attempt to pass legislation it had contrived to bring on a double dissolution for political purposes. He even claimed that the ‘Fusionists’ exercised stricter discipline than the ALP, implying that they were not genuinely ‘liberal’. He did talk about the Rural Workers’ Log but he minimised the threat it posed. He claimed that the Fusion Party had used the threat of the log very effectively in the last (1913) election: At [the] last election one successful lie was told – the most successful and effective lie that was ever told at an election – and it won every country seat in the Commonwealth for the Fusion, that was the lie about [the] Rural Workers’ Log.

There was also a series of letters published in the paper at this time with claim and counter claim as to the real danger posed by the log and the extent to which talk of it was being used to scare people and influence voting. Overall, Rossiter managed to keep the issue of the Rural Workers’ Log as the key local issue for the election and he definitely tried to discredit Wise by suggesting that he tried to downplay the threat because he was sympathetic to the ALP. Wise was also alleged to favour preference for unionists in the workplace. In the last editorial he wrote before the election – Friday 4 September – Rossiter left no one in any doubt about his views on Wise:

As, therefore, Mr Wise, be he described as Independent or what not, has in the past so assisted the Socialistic Labor party in directions inimical to the interests of farmers, whom he seeks to represent, they should rise as one united band tomorrow and say with the overwhelming voice of an undivided poll, “we will have none of him.”

Two of the Liberal candidates for the Senate gave election speeches in Yarram. Senator McColl addressed 150 electors on 5 August (reported 7 August) and Mr McLean addressed a large number of people on 1 September (reported 2 September). Rossiter’s two newspaper reports on their speeches were extensive and the speeches covered the full range of claimed ALP failings – the evils of the caucus system, the poor financial management of the ALP in government, union bids to restrict immigration to keep wages high, preference for unionists in the workplace, the ALP’s abolition of postal voting, the ALP’s use of the Senate to thwart the power of the House of Representatives, socialism Vs liberalism and so on. They further touched on topical issues such as the East-West railway, the funding for the new national capital, old age pensions and national insurance, and the White Australia Policy. There was even a question from the floor on Home Rule. Tellingly, as reported, there was not a single reference to the Rural Workers’ Log; and, presumably, if either speaker had raised it as an issue Rossiter would certainly have reported it.

Rossiter’s campaign against both the ALP in the Senate and Wise in the House of Representatives would have to be judged successful. As far as the Senate was concerned, roughly 60% of Gippsland votes went to the Liberals. The outcome in the House of Representatives was less clear cut. In fact, it was Wise who won the seat – by some 600 votes – but, more locally, in the Shire of Alberton, Bennett outpolled Wise by 200 votes. It is interesting to speculate why, outside the Shire of Alberton at least, Wise was successful. In part, Wise was obviously a strong local candidate. In fact, he had won the seat in 1910 with a majority of some 4,000 votes but then lost it to Bennett in 1913 by 2,400 votes. Once Wise regained the seat in 1914 he held it until 1922. As well, the fact that Wise had not joined the Fusionists probably helped him. Certainly he was able to portray himself as someone who had remained true to his principles: someone prepared to stand as an ‘Independent Liberal’ rather than compromise his beliefs. In a farming community that saw unionism a form of coercion, was naturally wary of government, in any form, and valued individual effort above everything else, it was not surprising that the independent candidate, as a professed liberal, would attract support.

It was hardly understood at the time (September 1914) but the intense opposition to the proposed log of claims for rural workers, with its implied unionisation of the rural work force, would have a parallel manifestation in 1916 when Hughes tried to introduce conscription. Just as unionism was opposed because it threatened traditional farming arrangements, with the focus on family labour, so too would the push for conscription be seen as an attempt to ride roughshod over the individual farming family’s right to balance the tension between retaining the farm and serving the Empire. Both instances threatened to undermine the independence of the farming family and the viability of the family farm.

Finally, it was somewhat ironic that the pay arrangements being then determined for the the newly formed AIF – 6/- per day, including 1/- deferred pay – posed at least the equivalent threat to the supply of itinerant and casualised labour in rural areas as the much-hyped and over-stated Rural Workers’ Log.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

‘The Labor Party. Senator Russell At Yarram. A Stirring Address’ 20 May 1914, p.2
‘Federal Elections. The Liberal Vote.’ 4 September 1914, p.2
Editorial, 2 September 1914, p.2
‘Rural Workers’ Log. To Operate On Oct. 1st.’ 3 July 1914,  p.2 (Also 10, 15, 17 July 1914.)
‘Rural Workers’Log. Mr Bennett At Alberton’ 19 August 1914, p.4
‘Federal Elections. Mr G.H. Wise At Yarram’ 19 August 1914, p.4
‘Original Correspondence’ 2 September 1914, p.3 and 4 September 1914 p.2
Editorial 4 September 1914, p.2
‘Senator McColl at Yarram’ 7 August 1914, pp. 3-4
‘Federal Elections. Mr. McLean At Yarram’ 2 September 1914, p.2

Note: details on election results appeared in the edition of 9 September 1914, p.3

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