The Labor movement has been a pervasive presence in Kandos for a century, even if a little less defined in recent years. Way back in February 1918 the Kandos branch of the Australian Labor Party was already active. Of course there were hundreds of workers in the town. But there were businessmen too, like my grandfather Walsh, local butcher, who were Labor supporters.
In December 1922 the Lithgow Mercury announced, ‘although in other centres Labor Day demonstrations seem to be declining, Kandos in the vigor of its youth, put forth its best effort on Saturday’. The annual Labor Day had been celebrated in Australia since the mid-nineteenth century when the eight-hour day was first introduced (it was not until 1948 that the five-day 40-hour working week was approved for all Australian workers).
Of course Labour Day (or May Day or Eight Hour Day) is still celebrated today in the form of a holiday long weekend (October in the case of NSW). It is doubtful though, as they motor away to their destinations, whether anyone much reflects on the efforts and struggles of early workers to ensure the working conditions we have today. And as far as I know there is no public honouring, as for example for Anzac Day and Australia Day.
Kandos held its first ‘Labor Day demonstration’ in late May 1920, beginning with a social on Friday night in the Angus Memorial Hall – good music provided by the Muller orchestra, refreshments at midnight and dancing into the small hours. At 10am on Saturday all were in place for the procession, headed by the mounted marshal Mr Hamilton Knight, followed by public school children waving flags and showing off their ‘fancy or grotesque costume’ for which there were prizes. Following them, were representatives of the Miners’ Federation, Grand United Oddfellows and the ALP, displaying a banner ‘Justice for All’.
‘After a dusty march of about 20 minutes’ they reached a ‘nice level area’ provided by the cement company, where they enjoyed picnic lunches and got into the sporting program of the day. That was made up of serious and novelty events, and included adults’ and children’s running races, horse racing, pole vaulting, throwing at a cricket stump, ladies’ nail-driving, tug-of-war, sheep weight-guessing competition and Aunt Sally (I gather you threw sticks at the dummy of an old woman’s head). No wonder that’s old hat. During the afternoon, special guest Mr Dunn, Minister for Agriculture, spoke of the changes that needed to happen now that Labor was in government.
Labor support in the town was probably partly due to the fact that the town’s representative in the Legislative Assembly of the NSW Parliament was William Fraser Dunn, ALP, from 1910 (when Labor first got elected in NSW) to 1950 (minus one three-year period). Raised on a wheat and sheep farm, ex-teacher and ex-soldier, he had the ability to garner both rural and industrial support in the seat of Mudgee. In November 1918 the ALP, Progress Association, Amalgamated Society of Engineers and other Kandos groups “co-operated” to welcome Dunn and his wife, to show them around the works and town.
It was an enthusiastic welcome, but nothing to match the big hurrah at his 1932 election visit, the time he lost his seat in support of Jack Lang. Imagine a huge arch of flowers over the Angus Memorial Hall entrance spelling ‘Welcome to Billy Dunn’, a dog approaching him, carrying the Labor Daily in its mouth and ‘Vote for Billy Dunn’ on its back, a child dressed in copies of the Labor Daily and others dressed in Labor colours (red and white I’m guessing!), a guard of honour of returned soldiers and a shower of confetti from their wives, and all the while cheers and refrains of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.
Talking of Jack Lang. Kandos people heard his special broadcast in September 1930, outside Mr Howard Coleman’s electrical store, where he had installed a loud speaker. Ladies were provided with seats, reception was clear and ‘the speech was followed with interest and was frequently applauded’.
The Labor vote in Kandos over the years seems to have been at least two thirds of the vote, while in 1934 the National Advocate gave it as seventy-five per cent. In 1927 a hopeful Country Party candidate stated ‘I’ll give Mr Dunn his 2000 votes at Kandos and if he can pull up the rest of the electorate he can have it.’ Which he did. In Rylstone, where some of the cement and mine workers came from, there was support, but never to the same extent. Though in 1929 the Rylstone and Globe Hotels offered to chair a meeting, and feed and accommodate the Federal Labor candidate. Were they Labor supporters or was it a business decision?
Why did the majority of Kandos voters support Labor? Simply because Kandos workers made up the majority of the population and others were attracted to its humanitarian ideals. The unions, which almost all workers belonged to, demonstrated that ordinary workers combining in industrial action against employers, could improve conditions and pay. The Labor party which arose from the union movement, its political arm so to speak, demonstrated that ordinary people working together could bring about change politically.
What were some of those changes? In 1931 Dunn pointed out Labor had brought in child endowment, the widows and invalid pension, the basic wage of £2/2/- for a 44-hour week and the State Lottery to pay for hospitals.
In June 1953, at a victory dinner for the Macquarie ALP, Senator McKenna, summed up ‘the three great principles on which the Labor movement rests’: to fight injustice, to help the less fortunate and to put Australia first. The Labor Party, it was emphasised, represented the working people of Australia.
And what is the strength of Labor in Kandos today? In an era when industry has folded, many workers have become contractors or small business owners and ‘me’ is more important than ‘us’? In the 2013 Federal election the Labor vote was 56% and National vote 25%. In 2016, after changed electoral boundaries, it was 47% with Nationals 31% (almost opposite to Rylstone). In the most recent state election, the Labor vote was 14 votes ahead of the Nationals.
For how long will Kandos remain a Labor town?
Below are some Kandosians who progressed the Labor Party at Kandos:
Walter McMahon – ‘a Labor Party stalwart’ (National Advocate 25/4/1951)
Walter B Murphy – secretary Kandos branch ALP (MG 1/12/1919)
T Parkinson – ‘a great worker in the Labor movement in this district’ (MG 23/7/1931)
W F Sparks – Secretary Kandos Miners’ Lodge (Labor Daily 14/7/1936)
T Walton – Secretary Kandos Branch Australian Workers’ Union (Australian Worker 31/5/1939)
Jack Williamson – secretary of the Kandos branch of the ALP (National Advocate 25/4/1951)
The featured image is an aerial photo of the cement works taken by Mike Oakey in 2018. The works closed in 2011.