Australian history

Andrew Dawson, the "bushie" defence minister, and the British Major-General

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The current clash between the federal Minister for Defence and the Australian Defence Force leadership is not a unique event in Australian history. In 1904, Labor’s Federal Minister for Defence, Andrew Dawson, the orphaned republican journalist who had initially opposed the dispatch of Queensland’s first contingent to the Boer War, was at loggerheads with the outspoken British General Officer Commanding Australia’s armed forces, Major-General Hutton, who had a privileged background, a pronounced imperial outlook and a dearth of tact, writes IA Australian history editor Glenn Davies.

Senator Andrew Dawson, one of Australia's first defence ministers.

ANDREW (ANDERSON) DAWSON, commonly known as Andy Dawson, was born on 16 July 1863 at Rockhampton, Queensland, the son of Anderson Dawson, miner and his wife Jane, nee Smith. Shortly after his birth, Dawson’s parents died and he was placed in a Brisbane orphanage, where he lived until he was nine. Then he moved to Gympie with an uncle, attended school until he was twelve; moving on to Charters Towers, where he worked as a miner, bullock-driver and newspaper ‘runner’ on Thadeus O’Kane’s radical Northern Miner. By the time he was nineteen, Dawson had achieved a responsible position as ‘amalgamator’ of one of the gold batteries in Charters Towers. In the mid-1880s, he ‘pushed his parcel’ and followed the gold rush to the Kimberleys in Western Australia, but failure brought him back to Charters Towers, where on 21 December 1887 he married the widow Caroline Ryan, nee Quinn.

Dawson was originally attracted to politics by the Irish Home Rule question and in 1890 emerged as a political pamphleteer when he published The Case Stated, an able plea for the creation of an Australian republic. The pamphlet was freely available in Charters Towers at John Dunsford’s newsagency, a republican stronghold. Throughout 1890, Dawson, was closely involved in the running of the Australasian Republican Association (ARA) and in February 1891 was elected the ARA’s second president. Dawson was also president, and later organiser, of the district council of the Australian Labor Federation (ALF). During the Queensland shearers’ strike, he was appointed chairman of the Queensland provincial council of the ALF and was public in his support of socialism. Like many unionists interested in politics, Andrew Dawson used the press as a forum for disseminating his political ideas. During 1892, he wrote for the Northern Miner and on 18 February 1893 became the first editor of the radical Charters Towers Eagle, a Labor journal which he owned until 1900 with John Dunsford.

At the 1893 Queensland election, at which Labor set out for the first time to win government, Dawson was elected as one of two members for Charters Towers. By 1899, Dawson was in a position to form “the first Labor government in the world”. In more realistic terms, it was a six-day ministry, which survived only four hours on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. At the highpoint of his political career in 1900, Dawson was viewed as a politician with great promise: “an able, consistent, and considerate debater, a progressive thinker, and a generous rival”.

A staunch supporter of Federation, in 1901 Andrew Dawson was elected to the new Senate as a Senator for Queensland. The Worker described him on his election to the first Senate as “long in limb, narrow in girth, with a strong inclination to baldness. Good tempered and exceptionally good hearted”. Indeed, that chronicler of Queensland politics, Bernays, described him as “a man of wonderfully kind disposition”. Two days before the opening of the new federal parliament in Melbourne, nine of the twenty-four elected Labor members met under the chairmanship of Dawson to discuss the formation of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. This culminated on 8 May 1901 in the creation of the Labor Caucus.

Major-General Edward Hutton: " the biggest bounder that had ever commanded the forces in Australia".

On 27 April 1904, the federal Labor leader Chris Watson formed the first federal Labor government after Alfred Deakin resigned as Prime Minister. Andrew Dawson was appointed Minister for Defence from 27 April to 17 August 1904. He was in favour of a citizen soldiery and school cadet training for boys and girls. The previous year Dawson had called for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the retrenchment of a certain Major Carroll. Now he was to be instrumental in forwarding the establishment of a Select Committee into the affair. These activities foreshadowed a conflict between Dawson and the autocratic Major-General Edward Hutton.

Major-General Hutton had been appointed in 1901 as British General Officer Commanding (GOC) Australia’s armed forces. His position was to command and organise the Australian land forces. During a debate on defence regulations in 1904, Dawson was concerned with the conflict of interest for members of Parliament who were also officers on the active list and thus subservient to Hutton. The previous year, he had stated that he considered the defence department “a very autocratic system, which has gone a long way towards disintegrating the whole force”. Now, he referred to several items in a report by Hutton, which he thought not “quite proper”.

When the GOC sought reimbursement for the cost of a secret cable he had sent to London in code, Dawson asked to see the cable. The GOC said it was none of Dawson’s business. The row escalated and became public. The GOC was summoned for talks with Dawson and Prime Minister Watson and backed down. An inquiry into the leaking of the details to the press was predictably inconclusive.

Meanwhile, another dispute had arisen when the GOC submitted a claim for the manufacture of a special pistol. Dawson queried its necessity. The GOC hit the roof, contending that this was an area where he had special expertise and Dawson had none. Dawson’s firm reply objected to the GOC’s “studiously discourteous” minutes. The GOC, having convinced himself that Dawson’s limited education had left the minister virtually illiterate, refused to accept that Dawson was writing his own minutes. The GOC contemptuously scorned his minister as “one Senator Dawson who can barely sign his own name”.  This hardly endeared the GOC to the minister either.

Andy Dawson: "long in limb, narrow in girth, with a strong inclination to baldness"

Andrew Dawson and the British General Officer Commanding Australia’s armed forces, Major-General Hutton, were also in dispute about Dawson’s plans to overhaul the administration of Australia’s defence forces. Dawson wanted to implement a new structure that would see the GOC’s position abolished. The GOC objected, asserting that there was no officer in Australia capable of overseeing the new structure. Dawson got his way. The new structure was implemented, and the GOC returned to England.

Afterwards Andrew Dawson admitted that the most satisfying facet of his stint as defence minister was that he had “pulled down from his pedestal the biggest bounder that had ever commanded the forces in Australia”. The boy from Charters Towers, who became federal Minister for Defence, had stood up to the aristocratic British chief of Australia’s armed forces and won.  
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