​A forgotten PM's ideas still resonate

Andrew Fisher is a good choice for a political hero by Kevin Rudd.

DURING the election campaign, Kevin Rudd nominated Andrew Fisher as one of his political heroes. Although the name would have meant little to many Australians, it was a good choice, and not just because Fisher was a Labor prime minister who came from south-east Queensland. More to the point, he was prime minister three times and served for longer than Gough Whitlam, John Curtin, Ben Chifley or Paul Keating. Moreover, he left a remarkable legacy.

Next year will mark the centenary of Fisher's first accession to the prime ministership in November 1908. It was a minority government that lasted only six months, and as a consequence his first term achieved little in the way of legislation. But Fisher's moderate leadership and fiscal conservatism, together with his plans for Australia's development and defence, reassured Australian voters that the Labor Party could be trusted with the levers of power. There were bigger things to come.

In April 1910, after Alfred Deakin's dwindling band of small-l liberals were swamped by conservatives in the Liberal Party government, Fisher's Labor opposition swept back into power in a landslide of historic proportions. Like Kevin Rudd, Fisher had captured the political centre that his opponents had effectively deserted. It was the first time in Australia that any party had achieved a majority in both houses of parliament, and it was the first time in the world that a socialist party had been elected to government.

Just as Labor's present success owes much to the personality and character of Kevin Rudd, so Labor's success then owed much to the personality and character of Andrew Fisher. Fisher had risen from the coal mines of Ayrshire, in south-west Scotland, where he had begun work as a boy before emigrating to Queensland in pursuit of the economic and political freedoms that were denied to men of his class in Britain. He found plenty of opportunities in colonial Queensland, where he worked as a goldminer and served as a Sunday school teacher. He was soon elected to the Brisbane Parliament as one of its first Labor MPs before joining the first Federal Parliament in 1901.

From less than 20% of the vote in 1901, Fisher had done much to increase Labor's share to a massive 50% by 1910, with a swing of 13% from the previous election. After his win, Fisher launched into a great nation-building program that was designed to boost the wealth and population of the country. He ditched some old Labor shibboleths, such as its opposition to immigration, and oversaw a substantial increase to Australia's population after some years of stagnation under his predecessors.

As part of this program, he introduced a tax on unimproved land to force large land owners and pastoral companies to break up the millions of hectares on which they were squatting and turn them over to small farmers. And he established a Commonwealth Bank to loosen the financial fetters of the City of London and harness Australian savings for the development of the nation.

After Deakin had been dithering over the establishment of Canberra, it was Fisher who decided its site, laid its foundation stone and gave the capital its Aboriginal name. Similarly, he took over the Northern Territory from South Australia, which had left the north dangerously undeveloped and largely unpopulated. Among his many other achievements was the establishment of the railway that would connect the west and east coasts.

Fisher also asserted the supremacy of the federal government over the parochialism of state premiers, who sometimes liked to put themselves on a par with Fisher by styling themselves as "prime minister" of their particular states. He did more than his predecessors in establishing a unifying national identity in the minds of Australians, drawing on a mixture of symbolic gestures and practical measures - whether it was giving Australia its own currency and making the wattle Australia's national flower, or replacing Australia's traditional reliance on Britain's navy with the establishment of its own.

After narrowly losing office in 1913, Fisher was swept back into power in 1914 and would have added to his achievements but for the intervention of the First World War. He famously committed Australia to "the last man and the last shilling", not realising the horror of what lay ahead. As the dire implications of that commitment unfolded in the gullies of Gallipoli, and the war demanded more and more of Australia's limited manpower, Fisher resigned in October 1915 to become high commissioner in London.

Unlike John Howard, Fisher left politics at a time of his own choosing, but there was little sense of triumph on his departure. His earlier, nation-building achievements were overshadowed by the developing disaster on the Gallipoli peninsula. Fisher would remain in London, where he gradually slipped into a twilight world of dementia, from which he died in 1928. Forgetful himself at the end, he has been largely forgotten by Australians ever since. Yet, a century on, the challenges and parallels of his time at the top remain relevant to modern political leaders.

The Age, 10 December 2007