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stump oratory

George Prendergast

George Michael Prendergast (20 May 1854 - 28 August 1937), Australian politician, was the 28th Premier of Victoria. He was born in Adelaide, but he grew up in Stawell in the Wimmera district of Victoria. Known to his friends as "Mick," he was apprenticed as a printer, and worked as a compositor in Ballarat, Sydney and Narrandera before settling in Melbourne in 1887. A member of the Typographical Association, he represented that union at the Melbourne Trades Hall, of which he was President in 1893.

Prendergast was one of the first Labor members of the Victorian Legislative Assembly: he was elected for North Melbourne in 1894. He was defeated in 1897 by William Watt (another future Premier), but regained the seat in 1900. He then held it until it was abolished in 1927, when he shifted to Footscray, which he represented until his death. In all he was an MP for 40 years, but was noted more for his fiery stump oratory than any real ability: the historian Kate White calls him "mediocre." In 1904 be became the first leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party. He resigned this position through ill-health in 1913, allowing George Elmslie to become the first Labor Premier, and was Chief Secretary in Elmslie's 14-day government. He returned to the Labor leadership in 1918.

Victoria was Labor's weakest state throughout the 1920s, due to the gross over-representation of rural areas in the Legislative Assembly, the strength of the Country Party in rural areas and the Nationalist Party in middle-class Melbourne seats. Labor was confined to the industrial areas of Melbourne and a few provincial towns. There was little talent in the Parliamentary Labor Party and few regarded Prendergast as likely ever to win a state election.

In April 1924, however, the Country Party withdrew its support from the Nationalist government of Alexander Peacock when he tried to pass a bill reducing rural representation. Peacock called an election in June, at which Labor won 27 seats, the Nationalists 20 and the Country Party 13. Labor offered a series of policy concessions to the Country Party, and the party agreed to support a minority Labor government. Prendergast thus became Premier at the age of 70 - the oldest man ever to take the office for the first time. The only real talents in his government were Edmond Hogan as Minister for Agriculture and Railways and William Slater as Attorney-General. The young John Cain was an Assistant Minister.

Prendergast's government was the first Labor government in Victoria able actually to govern (Elmslie's government had had no chance to do anything before being defeated). With the support of the Country Party, he was able to pass several bills assisting farmers, but the Country Party would not support anything which benefitted Labor's urban working-class base. This was a frustrating situation for Labor ministers, and several urged Prendergast to call another election in the hope of improving their position. But Prendergast was too timid to run this risk. In November the Country Party patched up its differences with the Nationalists, and the two parties joined forces to defeat Prendergast in the Assembly. The Country Party leader, John Allan, succeeded him.

Prendergast resigned as Labor Leader in 1926 and was succeeded by Hogan. In Hogan's first minority government (1927-28) he was again Chief Secretary. He died in 1937, still an MP at 83.

References

  • Australian Dictionary of Biography (online edition)
  • Geoff Browne, A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1900-84, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1985
  • Don Garden, Victoria: A History, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1984
  • Kathleen Thompson and Geoffrey Serle, A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1856-1900, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1972
  • Kate White, John Cain and Victorian Labour 1917-1957, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1982
  • Raymond Wright, A People's Counsel. A History of the Parliament of Victoria, 1856-1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992

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