Fall of the Deakin government and forming of the Watson government

These two cablegrams form part of correspondence from the governor-general's office reporting the fall of the Deakin government to the British secretary of state for the colonies on 22 and 23 April 1904. The first cablegram refers to an amendment and is signed by Governor-General Lord Northcote. The second document begins with a coded message which was transmitted via cablegram. A translation of the coded message appears at the foot of the page.

Educational value

  • These documents refer to events that led to the first federal Labor government in Australia and the first national labour government in the world just four years after Federation. Following the resignation of the Deakin government, Chris Watson (1867–1941) was sworn in as Prime Minister, leading a minority government that had the informal support of a group of Protectionists.

  • Votes against a government Bill such as the one central to this cablegram message do not necessarily lead to a government's resignation. Labor had forced the vote to achieve an amendment to the Conciliation and Arbitration Bill so that it would apply to state public servants. Deakin had opposed the amendment and declared it to be a matter of confidence–that is, he would not continue to govern if the amendment was carried. Watson was unprepared for leadership and had no immediate chance of effecting a legislative program.

  • The documents reveal that the governor-general acted as the communication conduit between the governments of Australia and Britain through the office of the secretary of state for the colonies. Appointed on the advice of the British Government, governors-general were British civil servants as well as the Queen's representative in Australia. This changed after 1926 when the British dominions were declared to be fully self-governing.

  • In his role as Governor-General, Henry Stafford Northcote (1846–1911), played an active part in the events he reports in these documents. In the first decade after Federation, federal politics was an unstable affair with no party having a majority in either house. In commissioning Chris Watson to be the new leader rather than dissolving parliament, Northcote followed Prime Minister Deakin's advice and took a path to try to achieve some stability in the new Federation.

  • The record of the cablegram sent to the Colonial Office contains the words sent and a translation of those words. This refers to the common practice of government cablegram communications using code as a way of protecting the secrecy of the messages sent. All cable messages had to be retransmitted through many successive stations, with each retransmission adding to the risk of error and security breaches.

  • Having followed Deakin's advice by commissioning Watson to form government, Northcote later refused Prime Minister Watson's advice to dissolve the parliament to allow for a federal election following the Labor government's defeat in a vote in the House of Representatives. This was the first of the four occasions in Australia's history when the governor-general has used his reserve powers. Watson resigned and George Reid, the leader of the Free Traders, became Prime Minister.