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Chris Watson

Chris Watson

John Christian Watson (April 9 1867 (exact date uncertain) - November 18 1941), Australian Labor politician and third Prime Minister of Australia, usually known as Chris Watson, was born in Valparaiso, Chile, probably on April 9 1867. In his lifetime he maintained that his father was a British seaman called George Watson. In fact his father was a Chilean citizen of German descent, Johan Cristian Tanck. His mother was a New Zealander, Martha Minchin, who had married Tanck in New Zealand and then gone to sea with him. In 1868 his parents separated, and in 1869 she married George Watson, whose name young Chris then took. None of these facts were known until after Watson's death.

Watson was raised in Oamaru, New Zealand, and at 13 was apprenticed as a printer. In 1888 he moved to New South Wales to better his prospects, He found work as a compositor, and through this proximity to newspapers, books and writers he furthered his education and developed an interest in politics. He was an active trade unionist, becoming Vice-President of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council. He was a founding member of the New South Wales Labour Party in 1891.

In 1894 Watson was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the country seat of Young. Labour at this time had a policy of "support in return for concessions," and Watson voted with his colleagues to keep the Free Trade Premier, George Reid, in office. Like most Labour members he was at best a luke-warm supporter of Federation, but once it was accomplished, he decided to stand for the new federal Parliament. In March 1901 he was elected MP for the rural seat of Bland.

Arriving in Melbourne, the temporary capital, in May, Watson was probably as surprised as anyone when his colleagues elected him, aged just 34, the first leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (usually known as the Caucus). The New South Wales Labor leader, James McGowan, had failed to gain election, and Billy Hughes, the other prominent New South Wales MP elected, had too many enemies. Watson, though a compromise choice, soon established his authority as leader.

In the federal Parliament, where Labor formed the smallest of the three parties, Watson pursued the same policy as Labor had done in the colonial parliaments. He kept the Protectionist governments of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin in office, in exchange for legislation enacting the Labor platform, particularly the enforcement of White Australia.

Watson, as a Labor moderate, genuinely admired Deakin and shared his liberal views on many subjects. Deakin reciprocated this sentiment. He wrote in one of his anonymous articles in a London newspaper: "The Labour section has much cause for gratitude to Mr Watson, the leader whose tact and judgement have enabled it to achieve many of its Parliamentary successes."

But in April 1904 Watson and Deakin fell out over the issue of extending the scope of the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill to cover state public servants. Watson would probably have found a compromise on the issue but he was being pushed by the trade unions. Deakin was tired of the being held to ransom by Labor, and resigned. Reid declined to take office, and Watson found himself Prime Minister. He was the first Labor Prime Minister, and also the youngest before or since.

Watson knew his government could not last long, and he knew he had no chance of passing any of the (mildly) socialist measures in the Labor platform, so he carried on with the legislative program that Deakin had abandoned. Since Labor had no suitable qualified lawyer in its ranks, he appointed the Victorian liberal H B Higgins as Attorney-General. But Deakin and Reid soon sank their differences, and in August defeated Watson's government in the House. When the Governor-General refused him a dissolution, Watson resigned his office, and Reid became Prime Minister.

Watson led the Labor Party into the 1906 federal election and improved its position again. But in October 1907, mainly due to concern over the health of his wife Ada, he resigned the Labor leadership in favour of Andrew Fisher. At the 1910 elections, at which Fisher beat Deakin comfortably, he retired from politics, aged only 42.

Out of the Parliamentary arena, Watson continued to work for Labor, becoming Director of Labor Papers Ltd, publishers of The Worker. He also pursued a business career. But in 1916 the Labor party split over the issue of conscription for World War I, and Watson sided with Hughes and the conscriptionists. He was expelled from the party he had helped found. He remained active in the affairs of Hughes's Nationalist Party until 1922, but after that he drifted out of politics altogether.

Watson devoted the rest of his life to business. He helped found the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) and remained its chairman until his death. He was also a founder of the Australian Motorists Petrol Co Ltd (AMPOL). His wife died in 1921, but he remarried in 1925, and lived quietly and largely forgotten in Sydney until his death on 18 November, 1941.

Further reading

Preceded by:
Alfred Deakin
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
George Reid

Preceded by:
(first leader)
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
Andrew Fisher