John Abel McPherson (28 January 1860 – 13 December 1897) was the first leader of the South Australian branch of the Australian Labor Party, then United Labor Party. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and migrated with his wife to Adelaide in 1882, joining the South Australian Typographical Society and working as a printer.
McPherson played a big part in the building and management of the South Australian Trades Hall, home of the United Trades and Labor Council (UTLC) of which he became an honorary secretary in 1890. A pioneer in the Australian labour movement, he was an effective conciliator in disputes between employers and butchers, drivers, tanners and carriers, and maritime workers over shorter hours and wage regulation.
A UTLC meeting with the purpose of creating an elections committee was convened on 12 December 1890, and held on 7 January 1891. The elections committee was formed, officially named the United Labor Party of South Australia with McPherson the founding secretary. On 23 January 1892, McPherson won the East Adelaide by-election, becoming the first Labor member of the South Australian House of Assembly, and the first parliamentary Labor leader of South Australia, at the age of 32. McPherson held the seat of East Adelaide until his death.
His maiden speech deplored non-European immigration in conjunction with noting the many unemployed people in both city and country, and advocated opening up the land to smallholders and a progressive land tax. He sat on the shops and factories commission which advocated consolidation and simplification of the Health Act and new laws to cover factories and working conditions. He was also an advocate for eight-hour working days and women's voting rights. McPherson was a frequent contributor in the House on Federation, giving characteristically cautious support - from the point of view of democracy, he was fearful of the power of the Senate.
Prior to the April 1893 election, all MPs were classed as independents regardless of their ideological leaning. As such, majority government did not exist, and frequent changes of Premier occurred. It was the first general election Labor would stand at, resulting in conservative and liberal leaning MPs breaking in two, as well as unidentified groupings and independents. The voluntary turnout rate increased from 53 to 67 percent, with Labor on 19 percent of the vote, and 10 Labor candidates including McPherson were elected to the 54-member House of Assembly which gave Labor the balance of power. The liberal government of Charles Kingston was formed with the support of Labor, ousting the conservative government of John Downer. Kingston at times was accused by McPherson of conservatism. On occasion McPherson threatened to withdraw support from Kingston's cabinet, hoping to get a better deal from the opposition. Labor gained a 5.5 percent swing and another two seats at the April 1896 election.
Kingston served as Premier for a then-record of six and a half years, usually implementing legislation with Labor support. McPherson, diagnosed with cancer in August 1897, died the following December, aged only 37 years. James Hutchison retained the seat for Labor at the subsequent by-election. His funeral was attended by 1,000 mourners, who followed his coffin to West Terrace Cemetery. An oil portrait by Mrs E. Anson was presented to the Trades Hall, and an inscription from Robert Browning was carved on his tombstone:
One who never turned his back but marched breast forward...
- Sound of Trumpets: History of the Labour Movement in South Australia - By Jim Moss
- Why did a 'labour movement' emerge in South Australia in the 1880s? - By Nicholas Klar
|Party political offices|
|New political party||Leader of the Australian Labor Party
1891 – 1897