Chris Watson, Australian Prime Minister, working-class champion of a White Australia

Chris WatsonChris Watson (1867-1941) was Australia’s third Prime Minister. He was the first Labor Party prime minister in the world. Watson was a staunch advocate of the rights of the working-class, and a campaigner for a White Australia policy.

Watson took the long hard road to get into politics. He left school at the age of ten and went to work in railway construction. He afterwards worked on the family farm; then, at the age of 13, he became an apprentice compositor. Watson worked as a compositor in New Zealand and (after migrating in 1886) in Australia. He became a union official for the Typographical Association and then fulfilled the role of delegate to the NSW Trades and Labor Council, where he later helped to found a trade union newspaper. He was a founding member of the Labor Electoral League (which later became the Political Labor League, and afterwards the Australian Labor Party). Watson was instrumental in shaping the Labor Party, with its emphasis on the primacy of conference rulings, caucus solidarity, and the pledge of members. In 1894 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, a position he held until 1901, when he was elected as a member in the newly-created federal parliament.1

The use of Kanaka labour (workers from the Pacific Islands), especially on the Queensland canefields, was a major issue in Australia at the time of federation. Watson took the view that using White labour was preferable, but if, for some reason, White labour could not be used, then he would rather lose the sugar industry than lose a White Australia. He believed that the future of the Australian people was more important that the bank balances of the sugar industry bosses. Speaking at an election meeting in his electorate of Bland, in 1901, he gave his opinion, which was reported in The Wagga Wagga Advertiser:

“Mr. Watson at considerable length gave his views on the other important questions, which would have to be dealt with by the Federal legislature. Chief amongst these was the exclusion of Asiatic and other colored labor from the continent. He did not believe in pandering to the interests of the Queensland sugar planters on that issue. The securing of a white Australia was the most vital consideration that could engage their attention and if that meant the sacrifice of the Queensland sugar industry he would be prepared to buy it at that price. He did not think, however, they might fear any such result, because experience had shown them that sugar could be cultivated as profitably with white labor as by the aid of kanakas or Asiatics.”2

Acting in common cause with the members of the Free Trade and Protectionist parties, Watson supported the formation of a White Australia policy.

Speaking in the Australian parliament on 6 September 1901, Watson gave his reasons for advocating a White Australia:

As far as I am concerned, the objection I have to the mixing of these coloured people with the white people of Australia — although I admit it is to a large extent tinged with considerations of an industrial nature — lies in the main in the possibility and probability of racial contamination. I think we should gauge this matter, not alone by the abstract possibilities of the case, but by those considerations which appeal to our ordinary human weaknesses and prejudices. The question is whether we would desire that our sisters or our brothers should be married into any of these races to which we object. If these people are not such as we can meet upon an equality, and not such as we can feel that it is no disgrace to intermarry with, and not such as we can expect to give us an infusion of blood that will tend to the raising of our standard of life, and to the improvement of the race, we should be foolish in the extreme if we did not exhaust every means of preventing them from coming to this land, which we have made our own. The racial aspect of the question, in my opinion, is the larger and more important one; but the industrial aspect also has to be considered.

. . . We know that a few years ago business men — speaking by and large — looked upon the Chinese or other coloured undesirables as men who could be very well tolerated, because they took the place of labourers, of men who might be unreliable, or not quite so cheap, but when it was found that these Orientals possessed all the cunning and acumen necessary to fit them for conducting business affairs, and that their cheapness of living was carried into business matters as well as into ordinary labouring work, a marked alteration of opinion took place among business men, so far as the competition of the “heathen Chinee” was concerned. At the present time in Sydney, we have whole streets which are practically given up to the businesses conducted by Chinese, Syrians, and other coloured aliens, and one cannot go to-day into more than five towns of any importance in the country districts of New South Wales without finding two, three, or perhaps half-a-dozen coloured storekeepers apparently doing a thriving business. In each and every avenue of life we find the competition of the coloured races insidiously creeping in, and if we are to maintain the standard of living we think necessary, in order that our people may be brought up with a degree of comfort, and with scholastic advantages which will conduce to the improvement and general advancement of the nation, some pause must be made in regard to the extension of the competition of the coloured aliens generally.

Another aspect of the question is that in the northern parts of Australia, both on the east and on the west coast, we find that coloured people have gained more than a footing — they have practically secured control. In the northern parts of Western Australia the pearl fisheries are being run with coloured divers, and large numbers of these men — Malays and other coloured aliens — are still being imported under contract to work as divers upon the pearl-shelling grounds.”3

However, there was one bone of contention. The members of the federal Protectionist government, having been part of several colonial Australian governments, were well aware that the British government had the power to disallow any Australian legislation which was not considered to be in the best interests of the British Empire. Previous colonial legislation to stop immigration on the basis of race had been disallowed, so as not to offend the Empire’s non-White subjects or its non-White allies. Therefore, the new federal government sought to overcome the problem by incorporating a dictation test in its Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901, to be used to stop non-White immigration.

As Watson had concerns that educated Asians would be able to get around a dictation test, he wanted the legislation include a straight-out ban on non-White immigration. Therefore, in the Australian parliament on 25 September 1901, Watson attempted to amend the Immigration Restriction Bill (the basis of the White Australia policy) so that, rather than rely on a dictation test to exclude non-Whites, the law would bar their immigration clearly and openly; but his amendment was defeated by those who took a more pragmatic approach to the issue.4

In moving his amendment to the legislation, Watson said:

the labour party, I claim, had throughout the various States, a great deal to do with the popularizing of this emphatic cry for a white Australia

. . . What we have claimed is that all citizens should have equal opportunities. We never say that “all men are equal.” No sensible set of men would ever say so. But we say that every man should be equal with every other man in the eyes of the law, and that equal opportunities should be afforded so far as the law can allow to every citizen. And we reserve the right to say who shall be citizens. We ask that they shall be on a moral and physical level with ourselves and that they shall be such as we can fraternize with and welcome as brother citizens of what we hope will some day be a great nation.

. . . if 100 years ago the people of America had had legislation of this character, with reference particularly to the immigration of slaves to that country, and any man had lifted up his voice against that immigration, he would to-day have been hailed as a statesman by the people of America. The man who could have foreseen all the dangers, and the troubles, and the dire distress, that have followed in the footsteps of the introduction of black labour into America — the man who could have foreseen and even attempted to prevent that evil in those days — would to-day have been honored as one who should have had the whole nation behind him in the work he tried to do.

True statesmanship, to my mind, consists, not in putting forward a number of plausible platitudes and philosophical meanderings in this Chamber, but in looking ahead, and seeing what is likely to be in any way a menace to the people of our country in the future. We, who support this policy, do so in the interests of those who succeed us, and for whom we have a trust in our hands to see that any action we take is such as will, as far as possible, prevent the likelihood of the occurrence of those dangers which we foresee.

. . . I move —

That the following new paragraph be added, after the word “namely,” line 5: — (a) “Any person who is an aboriginal native of Asia, Africa, or of the islands thereof.”

That will leave the question of Pacific immigration to be dealt with as the Government propose in the Bill relating to kanakas. I did not intend to put the amendment in this shape originally, but I think it is necessary to make some reference to the islands of Asia and Africa, in order to prevent the Act being evaded.”5

After losing the vote on the amendment, Watson took the larger view and voted to pass the legislation, so as to enable a White Australia. In parliament on 3 October 1901 he said.

“From the point of view of the honorable and learned member, I can quite understand the desirability of making this test of the character he suggests; but so far as subterfuge and equivocation are concerned, of which he speaks, he deliberately, with the assistance of his vote, committed himself to that course. A number of us thought that we should take only the straight-out course of declaring the desire, intention, and fixed determination of Australia on this point . . . although the Government have not seen fit to take the straight method — the straight method in our opinion, anyhow — those of us who desire to see coloured people kept out must leave a weapon in the hands of the Government of the day that will allow them to bar any person who may have qualified in one particular language, but who, nevertheless, is a most undesirable immigrant. If we make the alteration suggested by the honorable and learned member for Parkes, it will be quite possible that the millions of coloured people about whom he spoke the other evening as being well educated and, therefore, able to pass a test in some European language, may gain admission; and while he may look with equanimity on such a possibility, I for one cannot do so. Having no desire to let those people in, although they can pass in some European language they might select, I intended to support the alteration proposed by the Government.”6

With the federal parliament divided between the Free Trade, Labor, and Protectionist parties, Watson became more adept in the art of pragmatism and compromise, so as to negotiate into existence various Labor policies. The 1903 elections created a situation of a federal parliament with three competing parties of similar strength, which made for a fluid situation, and so, when the Protectionist government fell, the Labor party was able to pick up the reigns, and Chris Watson became Prime Minister on 27 April 1904, thus becoming the first Labor prime minister in the world. Even though the Labor party was only in government for just under four months, they acquitted themselves well, and set an important precedent for the labour movement worldwide.7

Speaking at a meeting of the Australian Immigration League in 1905, Watson outlined the importance of the right kind of immigration for the defence and development of the country:

“unless we were prepared to do something to people Australia and rescue the waste places from their loneliness, reasonably, quickly, and tangibly, we would not be fulfilling our duty either to ourselves or to those whom we hoped to see filling Australia later on. . . . notwithstanding all the immense wealth that we in Australia possessed, notwithstanding the large areas of land well suited for agriculture which remained to-day untouched, notwithstanding that in several of the States there was land eminently suitable for every kind of settlement, still the fact remained that we were hardly increasing our population so far as immigration was concerned. . . . it must appeal to every patriotic citizen as something requiring earnest attention that we had these waste places and only a mere handful of people to defend them against outside aggression.

. . . we are here but a few people, who have decided upon a policy that is bound to lead to some little dissatisfaction — to say the least of it — among a vast number of the world’s population, who are but a short distance from us. And surely it should be our endeavour to so arrange matters as to prevent any difficulty of the kind arising; but if, unfortunately, such a difficulty should arise, we should work with a view of placing ourselves in such a position as would put beyond all doubt our capacity for holding to the policy that we had laid down in regard to the racial purity of Australia. (Applause.) He sympathised most heartily with what had been said as to the meanness of spirit that was evinced by the idea that we must always hide under the protection of the mother country in regard to our own affairs here. (Applause.) He said that while we should be prepared to lend every assistance to the mother country in every legitimate enterprise, our aim should be to relieve her of all anxiety. (Applause.) The first thing to be done in regard to this country, in the interests of those who were here now and of their children, was to see that it was populated. (Applause.)

. . . All over the old world there was social unrest, and dissatisfaction with existing conditions among the poorer classes, who were attracted to Canada and the United States by the conviction that in those countries they had a chance of making a better living for themselves and their families than they could in their own countries. It would be in the highest degree a wise policy for us to so arrange our affairs that we should got a portion of that tide of immigration, and that it would be of such a character that the people coming would mingle freely with our own people, and do their best to uphold the standard that we had raised for ourselves, and so merge themselves in fact into the community as to form actually part and parcel of it. (Applause.) That was the ideal at which we should aim.”8

When, in 1905, the Labor Party added the “racial purity” clause to its national objectives, it was Chris Watson, as national leader of the party, who moved the motion for its adoption at the federal conference. He was on the committee which had been tasked to draw up the party’s federal objectives. The wording of the first clause was:

“The cultivation of an Australian sentiment, based upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.”9

Being the national leader of a federal party could be a strain upon anyone’s life, and Watson eventually resigned as Labor leader in 1907, and did not run for parliament in the 1910 elections. However, he continued to work for both the Labor party and the Australian Workers’ Union.10

In an article published in 1914, Chris Watson wrote about the reasons for a White Australia policy:

“It will be seen that the original objection to coloured immigrants was a purely economic one, but as experience was gained of their habits and standards of living, it was realised that they could not be absorbed into the community without risk of serious deterioration socially. The abhorrence of racial admixture added force to the original objection, and to-day we find practically a unanimous demand for a “White Australia.” . . . Asiatic settlement in our Northern Territory (which is sometimes advocated by would-be exploiters) would, as no “Dixie’s Line” could be maintained, involve a steady drift to the South, and with free ingress the preliminary trickle would soon become a resistless tide. The people are determined, to the utmost of their resources, to preserve Australia as a heritage for the white races. The aboriginal natives are numerically a negligible quantity, so there is every opportunity for the building up of a great white democracy if the community can maintain possession against the natural desire of the brown and yellow races to participate in the good things to be found in the Commonwealth. That the Asiatic will for ever tamely submit to be excluded from a country which, while presenting golden opportunities, is yet comparatively unpeopled, can hardly be expected. Therefore Australians are realising that to maintain their ideals they must fill their waste spaces and prepare for effective defence.11

In the same article, Watson explained that the Labor Party had taken on board the idea of compulsory military training, as a means of defending Australia as a “white outpost of the Pacific”.

“The adoption of compulsory military training as a definite plank of the Labour Party’s programme in 1908 marked a distinct departure from the traditional policy of Labour and Radical parties elsewhere. It is true that this change of view was partly brought about by the peculiarly isolated position of Australia as the “white outpost of the Pacific,” but it was also recognised that in Australia more than elsewhere the working man had something to defend. His individual property might not amount to much, but his hard-won rights and glorious opportunities were worth some sacrifice to retain.”12

With the advent of the First World War, the majority of the labour movement supported Australia’s participation in the conflict; however, the idea of conscripting men for the war was a highly divisive issue, and it led to a split in the Labor Party. Watson, along with Billy Hughes, was expelled from the party in 1916 over the issue of conscription. Hughes, with the support of 24 of the 67 federal Labor MPs, formed the National Labor Party, and Watson gave him his support as well. However, by themselves, the National Labor parliamentarians lacked the numbers to govern, and so they joined with conservative MPs to form a Nationalist government. Watson worked for the Hughes party in the 1917 federal and NSW state elections, and maintained links with it for several years thereafter.13

He continued to work tirelessly for the community, becoming president of the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA), as well as president of the Australian Industries Protection League in NSW. Watson passed away in 1941.14

Chris Watson was an ardent advocate of the rights of the working class, a principled patriot, and a staunch supporter of a White Australia.

See also:
Chris Watson speaks in support of White Australia, 6 September 1901

Chris Watson seeks to strengthen the White Australia policy, 25 September 1901

“White Australia”, 1914

1. Bede Nairn, “Watson, John Christian (Chris) (1867–1941)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
Chris Watson: Before office”, National Archives of Australia
John Christian Watson: Prime minister of Australia” Encyclopaedia Britannica

2. “The Bland federal contest: Address by Mr. Watson, M.L.A.”, The Wagga Wagga Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW), 19 February 1901, p. 2

3. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, Second Reading, 6 September 1901

4. “Federal political notes”, The West Australian (Perth, WA), 5 October 1901, p. 9

5. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, 25 September 1901

6. Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Immigration Restriction Bill, 3 October 1901

7. Bede Nairn, op. cit.
Chris Watson: Elections”, National Archives of Australia
Chris Watson: In office”, National Archives of Australia

8. “Immigration: Establishing a league: Meeting at the Lyceum Theatre”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 16 October 1905, p. 7-8 (see p. 8)

9. “Labor in council: Some notes of the league conference”, Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 4 February 1905, p. 4
Parliament of Labor: Continuation of the conference: Many important matters discussed, including Labor’s objective”, The Worker (Wagga, NSW), 11 February 1905, p. 5-6

10. Bede Nairn, op. cit.

11. J. C. Watson, “The labour movement”, in: Handbook for New South Wales, Sydney: British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1914, pp. 128-138 (see pp. 133-134)

12. J. C. Watson, “The labour movement”, op. cit., pp. 136-137

13. Bede Nairn, op. cit.
L. F. Fitzhardinge, “Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862–1952)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
William Morris Hughes: In office”, National Archives of Australia
Chris Watson: After office”, National Archives of Australia

14. Bede Nairn, op. cit.
Chris Watson: After office”, National Archives of Australia

[For further reading, see the Wikipedia entries: “Chris Watson”, “National Labor Party”]