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Australian Labor Party

The trade union movement began in the Australian colonies in the 1860s to get a better deal for workers. But after repeated defeats by employers, colonial governments and courts, it became apparent that political power through direct, parliamentary representation was necessary to implement reforms.

The turning point was the maritime and shearers' strikes in 1890. The harsh suppression of the strikes demonstrated the limitations of industrial action and the imperative of political representation. The first branch meeting of the ALP is said to have been held by striking shearers under the gum tree now known as the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, Queensland, in 1891. In the same year, NSW Trades and Labor Council set up 45 Labor Electoral Leagues, the first being in Balmain. The emerging movement produced the ALP's first Platform.

Separate labour parties had been established in the colonies during the 1890s. These parties were sponsored by the trade union movement to help get sympathetic politicians elected to colonial parliaments. They contested elections in New South Wales from 1891, in Queensland and South Australia from 1893, and later in the other colonies (States). In Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, however, there were no strong and coherent labour parties until after federation.

In the 1890s, the parliaments of the colonies were dominated by free-traders and protectionists - they constituted the opposing forces at the polls and on the floor of the House. Until the Labor Party was in a position to form government, it therefore chose to adopt the strategy of providing support in return for concessions - perhaps in much the same way as third parties do today.

In a breakthrough in 1899, Anderson Dawson formed a minority Labor government in Queensland, the first in the world, which lasted one week before the non-Labor forces regrouped. One plank of an early Labor Platform was achieved with the enactment of the 1893 Electoral Act in NSW which enshrined the principle of "one man, one vote". And it really was a reference to men only in NSW, although women got the vote South Australia in 1893, in Western Australia in 1899, and throughout Australia for federal elections in 1902.

Labor's success in Australia had no parallel in the world to that time. The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (the Caucus) first met on 8 May 1901 at Parliament House, Melbourne, following the first federal election for the Commonwealth of Australia. The Party enjoyed rapid growth and success in its early years, forming a minority government for four months in 1904 when Chris Watson became the world's first Labor Prime Minister.

Andrew Fisher came next in 1910, when Labor enjoyed a clean sweep of both houses of parliament in the election that year. This was the first stable Labor government in the world and the first stable federal government in Australia. It came in during times of good fortune and a buoyant economy. At the 1910 federal election, Labor won Australia's (and the world's) first federal majority Labor government and Australia's first Senate majority. Such remarkable success eluded equivalent social democratic and labour parties in other countries for many years.

Policy debates in the Labor Party have historically been loud, brash and engaging. In this party we love nothing more than to thrash out policy, at local level through branches and at higher party forums. It's one of the things that differentiates us from our conservative opponents. To say that these have sometimes been the focus of intense debate would be an understatement. The battles in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly over uranium and privatisation, were legendary.

A common query from new members relates to the spelling of the word 'Labor'. The records indicates that, in the early days, the ALP was known as both 'Labor' and 'Labour'. The report of the party's federal conference in 1902 was spelled 'Labor'; in 1905 and 1908 'Labour' and from 1912 'Labor'. This final change is thought to have reflected the influence of the then powerful United States labor movement, and especially the influence of Labor's prominent American-born member King O'Malley. The change also happened to make it easier to distinguish references to the Party from the labour movement in general.

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