Australian Labor and the Barcaldine tree of knowledge

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is now a national monument
The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is now a national monument

It was appropriate to drive through Blackall and Barcaldine a day after Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister. Rudd’s resurrection seems to confirm the death of difference between the two major parties in Australia. But there was a time when Labor was a labour party and Blackall and Barcaldine are crucial to that story. The western Queensland towns showed it wasn’t just the Australian economy that rode on the sheep’s back, so did the trade union movement.

It seems absurd to think conservative and remote rural Queensland might be key to labour politics. Blackall and Barcaldine have populations of no more than a couple of thousand each, are a thousand kilometres from Brisbane and are part of National Party (now Liberal National Party) heartland with two long-term members. Federally Bruce Scott holds the second safest seat in the country in Maranoa since 1990 while the state member for Gregory Vaughn Johnson has been there a year longer and holds a two party-preferred margin of 75-25.

Yet it wasn’t always this way in Gregory. The Country/Nationals first grabbed the seat after the long-term Queensland Labor government imploded in 1957. It had been a Labor stronghold since 1899 when trade unionist William Hamilton took the seat. Hamilton was a miner and a shearer in the shearing sheds at Clermont in 1891.

Australia was starting its worst ever depression that year due to a global financial crisis. A year earlier, the collapse of Baring’s finance house in London caused overseas investment to dry up in Australia with large-scale unemployment as public works programs scaled back. There was a run on overextended banks and building societies and several collapsed. In rural areas, the problem was worsened by a fall in the wool price.

Shearing was a demanding occupation and poorly paid. In 1890 the Australian Shearers Union prohibited members from working at non-union sheds. Blackall’s top shearer Jackie Howe (who two years later broke the world record for numbers of sheep shorn in one day) was instrumental in merging the local union with the Queensland union. Barcaldine was the focus of the trouble as the western railway line terminus. Howe brought a Blackall contingent to Barcaldine in 1891 for one of the world’s earliest May Day rallies commemorating the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair when anarchists bombed police after a riot.

Pastoralists hit back with anti-union contracts and the Australian Shearers Union called a national strike. It was the first serious confrontation between capital and labour in Australia. Shearers camped at the edge of town and plotted a course of “moral suasion” which their opponents called intimidation. The shearers burnt grass, set fire to woolsheds and attacked scab labourers. After four months, the state called in the army to break up the strike. Leaders were tried for conspiracy, rioting and sedition and sent to St Helena prison in Moreton Bay for three years.

While the strike was unsuccessful, it led to calls for a new political party. Legend has it they gathered under a well-known ghost gum called the Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine railway station. Historians Peter and Sheila Forrest debunked that theory in their book Bush Battleground saying it was the scene of angry confrontations as scab labourers arrived by train. The party was more likely developed in the camp sites but the tree grabbed the mythology.

The party grew after strike leaders emerged from prison. William Hamilton returned to western Queensland to take Gregory in 1899. Queensland Governor Samuel Griffith invited Labor leader Anderson Dawson to take office, becoming the first socialist government in the world. It was kicked out after six days, but Labor had arrived.

Several Labor governments followed with Blackall prominent in the strongest of them. In 1909 Jackie Howe was president of the local labour association and a friends of solicitor Thomas Joseph Ryan who dealt with union cases in the west. He invited Ryan to stand for the local seat of Barcoo which he won that year. By 1915, Ryan was Premier of Queensland with a large majority to institute sweeping change and the first Australian Labor government to rule without a coalition. Ryan’s government nationalised many industries and allowed women to stand for parliament. His opposition to Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s conscription campaign enraged Hughes and made Ryan a national figure. Elected to federal parliament in 1919, he was touted as a future leader but died of pneumonia in 1921.

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is also now dead, though the cause is less clear. It was mysteriously poisoned (the Forrests think it was done accidentally by railway workers) and died in 2006. It is tempting to draw a comparison with Kevin Rudd’s rise to Labor leader, also in 2006. But Labor’s industrial values had long died by then. From the time the Hawke-Keating Government floated the dollar and removed tariffs in the mid-1980s, Labor was no longer a party of labour, but of capital with a social democratic veneer. The veneer was disguised by the skill and towering egos of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. By the 21st century they were gone and like the tree in Barcaldine, Labor survives only by the decreasing force of its own mythmaking.

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2 thoughts on “Australian Labor and the Barcaldine tree of knowledge

  1. I enjoyed this. It’s interesting, I wrote about the shearers strike and the rise and fall of the ALP back in 2011 here – http://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/their-ghosts-may-be-heard-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-australian-labor-party/ – and just reread that article. Nothing much seems to have changed in the last 2 years, despite all the leadership dramas. George Megalogenis insists the problem is structural, and he’s probably right.

    I hadn’t heard that theory about what happened to the tree of knowledge – but how can you ‘accidentally’ kill a gum tree? It thought there were bore holes on it, where poison had been inserted.

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