The following year, campaigning on this platform, Fisher regained his Gympie seat and Labor won 25 of the 72 lower House seats. A firm federationist, Fisher supported the union of the Australian colonies and campaigned for the ‘Yes’ vote in Queensland’s 1899 referendum. With Federation a fact, he stood for the Wide Bay electorate at the first federal elections in March 1901. On 9 May he was among the 111 brand-new parliamentarians sworn in at the opening of the first Commonwealth parliament in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building.
He was instrumental in the creation of the Labor Party in Queensland, and subsequently the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. He served as Minister for Trade and Customs in the short-lived Watson Labor government of April–August 1904. Following the resignation of party leader John Christian Watson in 1907, Fisher was elected Leader of the Opposition. When a lack of Labor support prompted the fall of the Deakin government in 1908, Fisher became Prime Minister.
The day before, in their rather cramped meeting room in the Spring Street Parliament House, the nineteen Labor senators and their fifteen House of Representatives colleagues founded the first federal parliamentary Labor Caucus. They elected JC Watson their leader and adopted as their platform a ‘white’ Australia, votes for women on the same basis as men, old age pensions, a citizen army, and the principle of compulsory arbitration in disputes between employers and employees.
In September 1903 Fisher moved Labor’s attempted amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, the most contentious bill of the first two parliaments. The December 1903 federal election – the first where women in all states could vote on the same basis as men – increased Labor’s numbers at the expense of Alfred Deakin’s Protectionists.
Deakin’s government needed the support of the Labor Caucus to hold a majority against George Reid’s Free Trade Opposition. When parliament resumed, Fisher again moved an amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. Unable to command a majority of votes to defeat the motion, Deakin resigned and advised the Governor-General to ask Labor leader JC Watson, not Reid, to form a government. Andrew Fisher was Minister for Trade and Customs in the brief Watson government from 27 April 1904. Watson also failed to gain a majority of votes on the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. On 18 August 1904 his government fell, as had Deakin’s four months earlier.
This was George Reid’s opportunity for office – he gained enough Protectionist support to form a ministry and govern from August 1904 to 5 July 1905. For this term Watson became Leader of the Opposition. It was the first time Labor formed the Opposition in the federal parliament.
Alfred Deakin formed his second government when Reid’s government fell in July 1905. The next month, after Watson sought to resign the leadership, the Labor Caucus elected Fisher as assistant leader of the Federal Parliamentary Party. When Watson resigned in October 1907, Fisher was elected leader. On 19 November he delivered his first parliamentary speech as leader, supporting the nationalisation of the iron and steel industry.In June 1908, the Customs Tariff and Excise Tariff bills linking industrial relations to industry protection, were finally enacted.
Fisher presided over the federal Labor conference in July 1908, where a resolution was passed that neither electoral nor parliamentary alliances with other parties would continue. Protection, especially in Deakin's liberal vision, had been the essential bond. In Labor's view that bond had dissolved when the use of the tariff to protect workers as well as employers was ruled invalid. On other issues where Labor shared common ground with Deakin, gains had already been made, such as the Invalid and Old Age Pensions Act 1908 and its enabling Surplus Revenue Act 1908.Fisher became Prime Minister on 13 November 1908 when commissioned to form a government following the resignation of the second Deakin government. He lost office on 2 June 1909 after Deakin's and Joseph Cook's Fusion group defeated his government in parliament. Fisher sought dissolution of parliament and resigned when the Governor-General (Lord Dudley) refused it.Fisher became Prime Minister for the second time following Labor's success at the fourth federal general election in 13 April 1910. At the general election on 13 April 1910 Labor won 43 of the 75 House of Representatives' seats. It gained a clear majority in the Senate as well (with 23 of 36 seats). Labor held office for a full term of parliament, and engaged in an active legislative program. When Fisher was Prime Minister a number of important projects were undertaken:
The Royal Australian Navy was established,
The Commonwealth Bank was set up,
The Northern Territory of South Australia was transferred to the Commonwealth,
The federal capital of Canberra was founded,
Construction of the trans-Australian railway line linking Perth with the other capitals started
Introducing maternity allowances
Workers' compensation for Commonwealth employees,
Liberalisation of invalid and old age pensions,
The decision to establish a federal capital at Canberra.
Point Of Interest:
The Royal Warrant for the new Coat of Arms did not, however, cover other embellishments such as the sprays of wattle that continue to grace Australia's Coat of Arms.
He became leader of the Opposition after losing office to Joseph Cook's Liberals at the fifth federal general election in June 1913. He retained the position until returning to office as Prime Minister on 17 September 1914. The government and the parliament were immediately occupied in urgent defence measures for planning and implementing Australia's war effort. Hughes was Acting Prime Minister for two months while Fisher made a visit to New Zealand that was both official and a necessary rest.
The most critical event of the war, and indeed a key moment in Australian history, was the deployment of Australian troops at Gallipoli, Turkey. The first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) sailed from Australia on 1 November 1914. At the intervention of Australia's High Commissioner, George Reid, the AIF were re-routed to a training camp in Egypt. From there under British command they were sent to Gallipoli, landing on 25 April 1915. The Australian government was not pleased by this because they had been advised by Britain of their deployment after the event.
In September 1915, Fisher requested journalist Keith Murdoch, who was on his way to Gallipoli to report on inadequacies in mail services for the troops, to advise him secretly of the situation there. Murdoch reported to the Prime Minister that 'Your fears have been justified', the Dardanelles expedition was "a series of disastrous underestimations" and "one of the most terrible chapters in our history".
His report concluded: "What I want to say to you now very seriously is that the continuous and ghastly bungling over the Dardanelles enterprise was to be expected from such a general staff as the British Army possesses ... the conceit and self complacency of the red feather men are equalled only by their incapacity."
Fisher received this devastating report in October, showing it to WM Hughes and to Defence Minister George Pearce. It led to the evacuation of the troops on 20 December, and to a royal commission on which Fisher served as Australia's next High Commissioner in London.
After being absent without explanation from parliament for three sitting days, on 27 October 1915 Fisher resigned as Prime Minister and Treasurer, and also resigned his seat. After resigning the Prime Ministership, Fisher was appointed High Commissioner to UK, succeeding G.H. Reid in January 1916. At his farewell, Fisher was presented with an album of portrait photographs of all the federal Labor members who had served with him since the first federal parliament, almost fifteen years before.
He retained the position for five years until retiring in January 1921. While High Commissioner he served as a member of the Dardanelles Commission, and during the conscription controversy of 1916 he refused Hughes' request to sign a public statement supporting compulsory military service.
After his return to Australia in 1921 supporters tried to secure him a seat in federal parliament and to return him to Labor leadership, but he was not interested. He returned to London in 1922 and unsuccessfully sought Labour pre-selection for a Scottish seat in the House of Commons. Fisher lived in retirement in London until his death there in 1928.Andrew Fisher died at his home in South Hill Park, London on 22 October 1928, aged 66.
On 7 February 1930, Britain's first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald unveiled a memorial to Fisher in Hampstead Cemetery. Fifty years after his death, a memorial garden was dedicated at Crosshouse, Fisher's Ayrshire birthplace.