Monday, 6 October 2008

Should parliament sit on Fridays?

I found out a bit more about one of my grandfathers over the weekend - he who was a state MP for over two decades. I hope you find some of this as interesting as I did.

Born 1881, he left school at 12 because his dad had won a contract to cart sand to fill in a lagoon for the construction of a railway station. He spent the rest of his life complaining that he was uneducated, and was never seen to read a book. (Those of you who have seen the library that my parents have put together over the years would perhaps consider their work to be a slight over reaction to his devout un-learnedness).

He joined the railways after that, and was posted to Southern Cross in 1899. He spent some years doing the Kalgoorlie-Southern Cross run, taking a train up one day, and a train back the following day. He started as a Fireman, and ended as a Driver. He was a founding member of a railways union on the goldfields - at a time when being a union member was a sackable offense. It was essentially a secret society for many years, which I guess made him comfortable with becoming a Mason (which he did). They worked 50 hours a week for 50 shillings - when water on the goldfields cost 1 shilling a gallon (this was before the pipeline was built). They formed a union for obvious reasons - to better their predicament. They were seeking a reduction in the working week to 48 hours - 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. By the sound of it, life was bloody hard.

He was rejected for service in WWI, having varicose veins (which apparently meant he could not march). His older brother, who was 40, went instead - taking his 15 year old son with him to France in 1916 in the 11th Battalion. As I blogged last week, his brother was killed, and someone must have twigged to the age of his son and he was sent home. Good thing granddad didn't go, as dad was not born until some years after the war. Five of his cousins were killed as well - two of them have service numbers in the mid-800's. Yes, a three digit service number.

Grandfather was one of the 36 delegates from WA that attended the great All-Australian Trade Unions Congress in Brisbane in 1921. Plutocrats like me will be interested to know that it was at that Congress that the ALP adopted a socialist policy. Apparently granddad was not an ardent socialist - he was more concerned with improving the conditions of the working man. When he died, apparently he was the last of that delegation to the Congress.

He then stood for state parliament in 1921, losing by 5 votes. Voting was voluntary back then, and apparently 20 people approached him in church the next day and said, "If I had known it was going to be that close, I would have voted for you."

Interesting factoid - there were only around 2000 voters enrolled in that electorate for the entire time he was in parliament. That gives you some idea of how small the population of WA was before the mining boom in the 1960's.

At the next election in 1924, he won by about 50 votes. By the time he retired, his majority was something like 700 votes - and at that next election, the seat switched to the Liberal Party. Prior to granddad siezing the seat, it had always voted conservative. Many of his relatives were farmers and businessmen - people who would naturally vote against Labor, but they all voted for him.

Even the descendants of Sir John Forrest, who was its first MP, voted for granddad - Twiggy Forrest is descended from that line (I am vaguely related to him by marriage I guess, but then every family that has been in WA for 100 years is related to everyone else. You may start making strange, twanging banjo noises at this point if you feel the need). The Forrests were some of the richest people in the state, so that says something about the personal following that granddad had.

He originally made his way around the electorate on horseback or in a sulky, but he eventually bought a car - a Willys Overland of some sort. All the roads in the electorate were sand or gravel tracks, and any journey generally involved at least one puncture. The car had two spares - one mounted on each side above the running boards. Dad remembers granddad fixing a flat almost every other day. Getting bogged was a fact of life - you always carried an axe and some rope, and had to be ready to pull other motorists out if need be. Horses were also used to unbog cars.

(As an aside, I remember driving to Perth as a kid and part of the road was still gravel for a distance - it is now two lane freeway most of the way. I remember the gravel because we got into a slide one day and ended up off the side of the road in a ditch).

The electorate was quite large (for its time), and it could easily take 2 hours to drive to a meeting. Going to Perth by car was out of the question - the only way to go was by train, which took 5 hours. The train stopped every 15 miles to take on milk containers, so it was a bit of a slow trip.

That to me answered the question as to why parliaments usually never sit on a Friday, and only sit for around 30 weeks a year. In the old days, transport being what it was, you only sat for 4 days to give the MPs a chance to get back to their electorate for the weekend. Parliament also had long recesses to give the members a chance to actually get around their electorate in order to conduct whatever business they had to. I guess a lot of people didn't have phones, so meetings had to be face to face.

When he retired, he stood for Mayor and was elected. There aren't many politicians who are happy to step from state or federal parliament to local government, but he didn't mind doing it.

I am sure Dad told me some more, and I will post it as my memory returns.

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