The Australian Labor Party is the oldest political party in Australia, and among the oldest continuous Labour parties in the world. It is the great ‘party of initiative’ in Australian life.
In 1904, Chris Watson become Australia’s first Labor Prime Minister, as well as the first national Labour head of government anywhere in the world, though his was a minority government that lasted for just four months. Watson was only 37 years old, and remains the youngest Prime Minister in Australian political history. Watson was succeeded in the party leadership by Andrew Fisher, who was returned as Prime Minister in the 1910 federal election, leading Australia’s first elected federal majority government. In 1914, as Australia entered the First World War, Fisher and the Labor Party were again elected, this time with decisive majorities in both houses - another world-first for Labor.
Lasting reforms of this early period of Labor leadership include maternity allowance, the foundation of a Commonwealth Bank, workers’ compensation for Commonwealth workers, establishment of the principle of the minimum wage, and expansion of the age pension.
In 1929, just two weeks before the crash of the New York Stock Exchange, Labor swept to victory under the Party’s first Australian-born leader, James Scullin. Unfortunately, the Scullin Government’s legislative program – designed to alleviate the economic crisis that followed – was severely stymied by the Opposition-controlled Senate, who declined to prioritise the national interest ahead of other considerations.
From 1941-49, the Curtin and Chifley governments confidently steered Australia through most of the Second World War and the transition to peace. Under Curtin (1941-1945), Labor led Australia through the Pacific War years, which were instrumental in establishing the sturdy alliance with the United States that persists to this day. Another of Curtin’s legacies was the significant expansion of social services. Regarded as a strong and successful leader through a period of great conflict, Curtin led Labor to a landslide victory in the 1943 election but died in office in 1945 just before the end of the War. He was succeeded in office by Ben Chifley, who led Labor to re-election in 1946. Over the following four years, the Chifley Labor Government (1945-1949) instituted an ambitious program of social reforms and nation building, including expanding the welfare state and a large-scale immigration program.
Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’ speech, delivered at the NSW Labor Party conference in 1949, is held by many to exemplify an ethos at the heart of both the Party and the labour movement: “We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind,” he said, adding that “[Labor would] bring something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people.”
Labor were defeated that same year by the Robert Menzies’ Liberal-National Coalition, and commenced a 23-year period in opposition, before Gough Whitlam led the Party to victory at the 1972 election, ushering in a great era of modernisation in Australian politics.
Read more here about the achievements of Labor leadership in the early 20th Century.