Chris Watson

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The Honourable
Chris Watson
ChrisWatsonSepia crop.jpg
3rd Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1903, 1906
In office
27 April 1904 – 18 August 1904
Monarch Edward VII
Governor-General Lord Northcote
Deputy Gregor McGregor
Preceded by Alfred Deakin
Succeeded by George Reid
Treasurer of Australia
In office
27 April 1904 – 17 August 1904
Prime Minister Chris Watson
Preceded by Sir George Turner
Succeeded by Sir George Turner
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
20 May 1901 – 30 October 1907
Deputy Gregor McGregor
Succeeded by Andrew Fisher
Leader of the Opposition
In office
18 August 1904 – 5 July 1905
Monarch Edward VII
Governor-General Lord Northcote
Prime Minister George Reid
Deputy Gregor McGregor
Preceded by George Reid
Succeeded by George Reid
Member of the Australian Parliament for South Sydney
In office
8 November 1906 – 13 April 1910
Preceded by George Edwards
Succeeded by Edward Riley
Member of the Australian Parliament for Bland
In office
30 March 1901 – 12 December 1906
Preceded by Constituency created
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Member of the
New South Wales Parliament
for Young
In office
17 July 1894 – 30 March 1901
Preceded by John Gough and
James Mackinnon
Succeeded by George Burgess
Personal details
Born John Christian Tanck
c. 9 April 1867
Valparaíso, Chile
Died 18 November 1941(1941-11-18) (aged 74)
Double Bay, New South Wales, Australia
Political party Nationalist (after 1917)
Other political
Labour (Labor) (until 1916)
National Labor (1916–1917)
Spouse(s) Ada Low
(m. 1889; wid. 1921)

Antonia Dowlan
(m. 1925; wid. 1941)
Children 1
Education Weston School
Occupation Petroleum company director
(Australian Motorists Petrol Co Ltd)
Trade union print media company director
(Labor Papers Ltd)
Trade union executive
(Sydney Trades and Labor Council)
Profession Trade Unionist
Religion Unitarianism

John Christian Watson (born John Christian Tanck; 9 April 1867 – 18 November 1941), commonly known as Chris Watson, was an Australian politician who served as the third Prime Minister of Australia. He was the first Prime Minister from the Australian Labour Party, and the world's first Labour Party government at a national level. He was born in Chile, making him the only Prime Minister not born in Australia or the UK to date, with German and New Zealander ancestry.

Previously serving in state parliament for seven years, Watson was elected to federal parliament at the inaugural 1901 election, where the state Labour parties received a combined 15.8% of the first past the post primary vote against two more dominant parties. The Caucus chose Watson as the inaugural parliamentary leader of the Labour Party on 8 May 1901, just in time for the first meeting of parliament. Labour led by Watson increased their vote to 31% at the 1903 election and 36.6% at the 1906 election. From the first election, Labour held the balance of power, giving support to Protectionist Party legislation in exchange for concessions to enact the Labour Party policy platform.

Watson's term as Prime Minister was brief – only four months, between 27 April and 18 August 1904. The Watson Government did pass a handful of bills, but more importantly it set a Labour Party Prime Minister precedent. He resigned as Labour leader in 1907 and from Parliament in 1910. Labour led by Andrew Fisher would go on to win the 1910 election with over 50% of the primary vote, representing a number of firsts: it was Australia's first elected federal majority government; Australia's first elected Senate majority; the world's first Labour Party majority government at a national level; after the 1904 Watson minority government- the world's second Labour Party government at a national level.[1]

According to Percival Serle, Watson "left a much greater impression on his time than this would suggest. He came at the right moment for his party, and nothing could have done it more good than the sincerity, courtesy and moderation which he always showed as a leader".[2] Alfred Deakin wrote of Watson: "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".[1]

Early life[edit]

Watson said that his father was a British seaman called George Watson. Records dispute this, however, indicating that Watson's father was a Chilean national of German descent, Johan Cristian Tanck, and that Watson was born in Valparaíso, Chile.[1][3][4][5]

Records also show his mother was a New Zealander, Martha Minchin, who married Tanck in New Zealand and then travelled to sea with him. In 1868, his parents separated, and the following year in 1869, she married George Watson, and her son became known as Chris Watson. None of these facts became known until after Watson's death.[6] Watson went to school in Oamaru, New Zealand, and at thirteen years of age, was apprenticed as a printer. In 1886, he moved to Sydney to improve his prospects. He found employment as an editor for several newspapers. Through this proximity to newspapers, books and writers he furthered his education and developed an interest in politics.[1][5] In 1889, he married Ada Jane Low, an English-born Sydney seamstress. Nothing is known about her previous life and no photograph of her has ever been found.[7]

Union activities and colonial politics[edit]

Portrait of John Christian Watson

Watson was a founding member of the New South Wales Labor Party in 1891. He was an active trade unionist, and became Vice-President of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council in January 1892. In June 1892, he settled a dispute between the TLC and the Labor Party and as a result became the president of the council and chairman of the party. In 1893 and 1894, he worked hard to resolve the debate over the solidarity pledge and established the Labor Party's basic practices, including the sovereignty of the party conference, caucus solidarity, the pledge required of parliamentarians and the powerful role of the extra-parliamentary executive. In 1894 Watson was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the country seat of Young.[8]

Labor at this time had a policy of "support in return for concessions," and Watson voted with his colleagues to keep the Free Trade Premier, Sir George Reid, in office. After the 1898 election, Watson and Labor leader James McGowen decided to keep the Reid government in office so that it could complete the work of establishing Federation.[1]


Group photograph of all Federal Labour Party MPs elected at the inaugural 1901 election, including Watson, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes, and Frank Tudor.

Watson assisted to shape party policy regarding the movement for federation from 1895, and was one of ten Labour candidates nominated for the Australasian Federal Convention on 4 March 1897, however none were elected. The party, perforce, endorsed Federation, however they took a view of the draft Commonwealth constitution as undemocratic, believing the Senate as proposed was much too powerful, similar to the anti-reformist Colonial state upper houses, and the UK House of Lords. When the draft was submitted to a referendum on 3 June 1898, Labour opposed it, with Watson prominent in the campaign, and saw the referendum rejected.[1]

Watson was devoted to the idea of a referendum as an ideal feature of democracy. To ensure that Reid might finally bring New South Wales into national union on an amended draft constitution, Watson helped to negotiate a deal, involving the party executive, that included the nomination of four Labor men to the Legislative Council.[1]

At the March 1899 annual party conference, Billy Hughes and Holman moved to have those arrangements nullified and party policy on Federation changed, thus thwarting Reid's plans. Watson, for once, got angry; he 'jumped to his feet in a most excited manner and in heated tones … contended … that they should not interfere with the referendum'. The motion was lost. The four party men were nominated to the council on 4 April and the bill approving the second referendum, to be held on 20 June, was passed on 20 April.[1]

Labour, including Watson, opposed the final terms of the Commonwealth Constitution, however their voting status was not enough to stop it from proceeding, and unlike Holman and Hughes, he believed that it should be submitted to the people. Nevertheless, with all but two of the Labour parliamentarians, he campaigned against the 'Yes' vote at the referendum. When the Constitution was accepted, he agreed that 'the mandate of the majority will have to be obeyed'. He had made an essential contribution to that democratic decision.[1]

Watson successfully ran for the new federal Parliament at the inaugural 1901 federal election, in the House of Representatives rural seat of Bland.[9]

Arriving in May in the temporary seat of government, Melbourne, Watson was elected the first leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party (usually known as the Caucus) on 8 May 1901, the day before the opening of the parliament.[1][10] McGowen had failed to gain election, and the other prominent New South Wales MP elected, Hughes, had too many enemies.[citation needed] Watson, though a compromise choice,[citation needed] soon established his authority as leader.

In the federal Parliament, where Labour was the smallest of the three parties, but held the balance of power, Watson pursued the same policy as Labour 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 Labour platform.[1][10]

Watson, as a Labour 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."[1]

Prime Minister in 1904[edit]

Watson in the House of Representatives in 1902.

Labour under Watson more than doubled their vote at the 1903 federal election and continued to hold the balance of power. In April 1904, however, Watson and Deakin fell out over the issue of extending the scope of industrial relations laws concerning the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill to cover state public servants, the fallout causing Deakin to resign. Free Trade leader George Reid declined to take office, which saw Watson become the first Labour Prime Minister of Australia, and the world's first Labour head of government at a national level (Anderson Dawson had led a short-lived Labour government in Queensland in December 1899). He was aged only 37, and is still the youngest Prime Minister in Australia's history.[1]

Billy Hughes later recalled the first meeting of the Labour Cabinet with characteristic sharp wit:[11]

Mr Watson, the new Prime Minister entered the room, and seated himself at the head of the table. All eyes were riveted on him; he was worth going miles to see. He had dressed for the part; his Vandyke beard was exquisitely groomed, his abundant brown hair smoothly brushed. His morning coat and vest, set off by dark striped trousers, beautifully creased and shyly revealing the kind of socks that young men dream about; and shoes to match. He was the perfect picture of the statesman, the leader.

Despite the apparent fitness of the new Prime Minister for his role, the government hung on the fine thread of Deakin's promise of 'fair play'. The triumph of the historic first Australian Labor government was a qualified one – Labour did not have the numbers to implement key policies. The 'three elevens' – the lack of a definite majority in the parliament after the second federal election – dogged Watson just as it had Deakin.[11]

Six bills were enacted during Watson's brief government. All but one – an amended Acts Interpretation Act 1904 – were supply bills. The most significant legislative achievement of the Watson government was the advancement of the troublesome Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, which was eventually passed by the Reid Government in December 1904.[12] Another accomplishment was the appointing of a Royal Commission on a Bill related to Navigation and Shipping, whose report (presented a couple of years later) led to “major redrafting of the Navigation Act”[13] and improvements in conditions for Australian seamen.[14] Once he became the Prime Minister Watson recognized the limitations of his position in the Labour caucus and endorsed the concept of a deputy leader. Andrew Fisher won the position by one vote over the more dynamic Billy Hughes.[15]

Although Watson sought a dissolution of parliament so that an election could be held, the Governor-General Lord Northcote refused. Unable to command a majority in the House of Representatives, Watson resigned the premiership less than four months after taking office, his term ending on 18 August 1904 (Deakin was later defeated on a similar bill).[16] Free Trade leader George Reid became Prime Minister. The Conciliation and Arbitration Act was assented to by the end of the year,[1][17] and it extended to state public servants, as Watson had proposed.

Deakin again became Prime Minister after Reid lost confidence of the parliament in 1905. Watson led the Labour Party into the 1906 federal election and improved its position again. At this election the seat of Bland was abolished, so he shifted to the seat of South Sydney. But in October 1907, mainly due to concern over the health of his wife Ada, he resigned the Labour leadership in favour of Andrew Fisher. He retired from politics, aged only 42, prior to the 1910 federal election, at which Labor won with 50 percent of the primary vote. It was the first time a party had been elected to majority government in the House of Representatives, it was also the first time a party won a Senate majority, and it was the world's first Labour Party majority government at a national level. The ALP vote had risen rapidly, going from 15 percent against two larger and more established parties in 1901, to 50 percent in 1910, after a majority of the Protectionist Party merged with the Anti-Socialist Party, creating the Commonwealth Liberal Party which received 45 percent.[1]

Later life[edit]

Watson in 1908 aged 41

Out of the Parliamentary arena, Watson continued to work for Labor, becoming Director of Labor Papers Ltd, publishers of The Worker, the Australian Workers' Union paper. He also pursued a business career and was also a parliamentary lobbyist.

Resulting from the Australian Labor Party split of 1916, some MPs were expelled from the party for supporting World War I conscription in Australia. Watson sided with ex-Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the conscriptionists and had his party membership terminated as a result. Watson remained active in the affairs of Hughes' Nationalist Party until 1922, but after that he drifted out of politics altogether.[18]

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 Ada died in 1921.[18]

On 30 October 1925 Watson married Antonia Mary Gladys Dowlan in the same church in which he had married Ada 36 years previously. His second wife was a 23-year-old waitress from Western Australia whom he had met when she served his table at the Commercial Travellers' Club he frequented when in Sydney.[citation needed] He and Antonia had one daughter, Jacqueline. Watson died at his home in the Sydney suburb of Double Bay.[1] He was cremated at Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney.[19]


Bust of Chris Watson by sculptor Wallace Anderson located in the Prime Ministers Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens

In April 2004 the Labor Party marked the centenary of the Watson Government with a series of public events in Canberra and Melbourne, attended by then party leader Mark Latham and former ALP Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Watson's daughter, Jacqueline Dunn, 77, was guest of honour at these functions. The Canberra suburb Watson and the federal electorate of Watson are named after him. In 1969 he was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.[20]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Nairn, Bede (1990). "Watson, John Christian (1867–1941)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  2. ^ Serle, Percival (1949). "Watson, John Christian". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  3. ^ "Watson, John Christian (Chris)". Biographical entry. Australian Trade Union Archives. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  4. ^ "Guide to the Papers of John Christian Watson – MS 451". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  5. ^ a b "Chris Watson, Early years". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  6. ^ Hearn, Mark. "John Christian Watson and 'the instinct of self-preservation'". Working Lives. University of Sydney. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  7. ^ "Chris Watson, Ada Watson". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  8. ^ "Mr (Chris) John Christian Watson (1867–1941)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  9. ^ "Chris Watson, Elections". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  10. ^ a b "Chris Watson, Federal Labor leader 1901". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  11. ^ a b "Chris Watson, The first national Labor government". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 10 February 2010. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Julian Fitzgerald On Message: Political Communications of Australian Prime Ministers 1901–2014 Clareville Press 2014 p 54
  16. ^ "Chris Watson, In office". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 10 February 2010. 
  17. ^ "Chris Watson, The fall of the Watson government". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 10 February 2010. 
  18. ^ a b "Chris Watson, After office". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 10 February 2010. 
  19. ^ find-a-grave; Retrieved 7 August 2013
  20. ^ "Stamp". Australian Stamp and Coin Company. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 


  • Al Grassby and Silvia Ordonez, The Man Time Forgot: The Life and Times of John Christian Watson, Australia's First Labor Prime Minister, Pluto Press 1999
  • Ross McMullin, So Monstrous a Travesty: Chris Watson and the World's First National Labour Government, Scribe Press 2004

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The last page of a secret despatch from Australia's Governor-General to Britain's Colonial Secretary 23 April 1904, detailing circumstances that created the first Labor Prime Minister in the British Empire (and the world).
Parliament of New South Wales
Preceded by
John Gough
James Mackinnon
Member for Young
Succeeded by
George Burgess
Parliament of Australia
New division Member for Bland
Division abolished
Preceded by
George Edwards
Member for South Sydney
Succeeded by
Edward Riley
Party political offices
New political party Leader of the Australian Labor Party
Succeeded by
Andrew Fisher
Political offices
Preceded by
Alfred Deakin
Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by
George Reid
Preceded by
Sir George Turner
Treasurer of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir George Turner
Preceded by
George Reid
Leader of the Opposition of Australia
Succeeded by
George Reid