Politics Opinion

Bushman Tommy Ryan, pioneer of the Labor Party

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Tommy Ryan, with 1901 Federal Labor MPs in the background (Image by Dan Jensen)

A new book chronicles the brief but significant political career of a shearer who was instrumental in the formation of the Australian Labor Party. Dr Lee Duffield reviews Tommy Ryan and the Birth of Labor.

WHO CARES if a bushman with a talent for leadership got into a state parliament last century, for 15 months, before losing the endorsement of his own party?

What matters most is that the event was a milestone for democratic government, as the man was Tommy Ryan, Queensland’s first Labor Party member.

Journey towards leadership

His story has been unearthed by Pat Comben, a former State Minister for the Environment and Education, in a short but thorough and resourceful biography.

With background himself as a farm labourer and stockman, Comben warms to the task of finding out what happened to the man of obscure origins, who would be reticent about telling his own story, and “disappeared” back into the bush after his brief period of fame.

Through assiduous research, Comben discovered Ryan being born on board a migrant ship off Madagascar in 1857 and raised in Perth before setting out to make a living across the north of the continent.

How they built the Labor Party

He ended up in outback Queensland as a leader in the celebrated shearers’ strike during the severe economic depression of 1890-91; in bitter conflict with a “bunyip elite” of squatters and merchants intent on suppressing it by any violent means. The “war” was a failure for the workers but forced two vital strategies that set up the new Labor Party as an enduring force:

The first was the idea of mobilising the large numbers of workers, especially agricultural workers on poor incomes, to get seats in parliament and so influence industrial laws and promote social justice. That would have to overcome many obstacles.

Comben shows how the then Premier, Sir Samuel Griffith, faced with four Labor members in the house, manoeuvred to block the trend; halving already-modest parliamentary salaries to keep out poorer candidates and bringing in a new Elections Act to make it difficult for voters, especially itinerant workers, to get on the roll.

The second strategy was to convert such mobilisation into the formation of a centralised, encompassing political party with binding policies and rules; to bring together the scattered strike movements and local “People’s Parliamentary Associations” that had sprung up across the land.

Quick demise

That move for consolidation gave birth to the ALP and also saw the quick demise of Tommy Ryan, a man with a strong local following in his bush electorate of Barcoo, but not liked by officials of the central body.

As a politician, Ryan got a lot done in his brief term, after winning a by-election in 1892; in speeches, he told the Parliament about the realities of life for the community he came from.

Says the author, after a full reading of the parliamentary debates (pps 107, 113):

‘Ryan invited other honourable members to visit the West, to see the unemployed camping on creek banks and relying on pastoral stations for rations to survive... He spoke passionately of the many men he knew with no permanent abode and no work...’

He supported, unsuccessfully, a land use scheme that might have helped the unemployed, one of his chief concerns; demanded the release of shearers’ leaders who’d been arrested and remained imprisoned after the protracted strike; in the “blackbirding” era, opposed continued importation of Melanesian labour from the South Pacific, as choking the labour market; and took up several local issues to do with buildings and services in his electorate.

Insight and analysis

Pat Comben gives an insightful and sensitive treatment of the character of Ryan and the way he came undone, not by the self-styled gentry, who would condemn him over blunders he made, not following parliamentary procedure, but by enemies on his own side (p 99):

‘Ryan would survive such challenges from his political opponents. A whispering campaign from his “friends” would deliver the lethal blows.’  

The central body of the time, the Australian Labor Federation, precursor of the ALP, had its first Labor-in-Politics convention in 1892 and wasted no time reigning in independent-minded members.

In the author’s analysis, Ryan offended by having his own following; he was seen as a drinker, where many of the most senior Labor leaders were teetotallers, scorning the depredations of alcohol on workers’ families; he would borrow money and be slow to pay it back, causing tall stories to circulate that he would be ejected from parliament as a bankrupt; he backed a man who won a local preselection contest against a centrally-endorsed candidate; and he was prone to periods of illness, seen as weakening his reliability.

A few attackers mentioned the parliamentary salary, which must have given rise to serious jealousy in the ranks; a prize to get for oneself or to confer on a loyal underlying. He would admit that the sudden exposure to a good life, after a life of nothing but hard times, was a distraction.

Friends too warm, whisky too strong, cushions too soft

‘The friends too warm, the whisky too strong, and the cushions too soft for Tommy Ryan. His place is out among the shearers on the billabongs,’ Comben said, quoted in the book (p 130).

Time and again, when challenged, the man would not turn up at an appointed moment to defend himself, or he would be heavily self-deprecating in a speech, surrendering, admitting to errors. He suffered from a urological disease that would cause him to drop engagements or put him in hospital.

Eventually, in this analysis, he showed signs of an abiding clinical depression, given as a reason for his urge to seek refuge back in the west and a reason for the obscurity of his latter days. There is no known time of death or place of burial.

Histories

For all of its focus on solidarity and discipline, it was characteristic of the early Labor Party that it would divide and split into hostile groups, as they struggled to lock in their priorities. As an aside, Comben recounts highly destructive ructions in the neighbouring New South Wales party, in the same period (p 131).

Evidence is given that the chief tormentor of Ryan was Matt Reid, an abstemious migrant from Scotland, known for some severe handling of others, a former carpenter and head of the Australian Labour Federation. Reid’s desire for a strongly organised party was not matched by commitment to its cause, becoming one of several early Labor leaders won over to the other side. After two terms as a Labor politician, he went independent, then became a long-term trusty on the conservative benches in Canberra, 1917-35.

Tommy Ryan had a rival for the title of first Queensland Labor MP in Thomas Glassey, who’d been elected in 1888, but as a self-described “independent Laborite”, lacking the formal endorsements obtained by Ryan. He does have a supplementary claim to being the first Labor MP in Australia, but left the party after 11 years and had an unsuccessful time campaigning on endorsements from non-Labor groups.

The Labor Party in Queensland formed the world’s first Labor government in 1899 and has had two long periods in office: 1915-1957 (in office 39 out of 42 years) and 1989-2023 (29 out of 34 years).

The Tommy Ryan story is highly readable and erudite work. It highlights the courage and determination of early leaders, who laid down the foundations of the labour movement and of Queensland. It also explains the interplay of risk and opportunity in political life as it would continue.  

'Tommy Ryan and the Birth of Labor' by Pat Comben is available from AndAlso Books for $25.00 RRP.

Amongst Dr Lee Duffield’s vast journalistic experience, he has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic and member of the editorial advisory board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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