‘His vision of the Department and its operation is a cross between that of a Peeping Tom and a hostile spy; and his spirit and attitude are a compound of a retail grocer and a resurrectionist.’
Comment by a Queensland Education Department bureaucrat.
Anthony St Ledger subscribed to a mix of Catholic and left wing politics at a time when federation provided opportunities for increased political representation by working people. Long before teacher unions became part of our political landscape, St Ledger was a pioneer unionist devoted to educational reform. He was one of the first activists to realise the potential influence of teacher unions. Yet later in his career he was elected to the Senate as a vehement Catholic critic of the Labor Party’s rising influence in federal politics.
He was born in Yorkshire the son of a sawyer who migrated to Queensland in 1861. An outstanding teacher, he joined the Queensland Education Department in 1874 and taught at a Roman Catholic School for four years. He set about forming regional teacher unions, finally becoming secretary of the Queensland Teachers Union. He also edited the Queensland Education Journal, was a strong critic of the conservative Education Department, but eventually quit to practice law.
Federation in 1901 provided organised labour with the opportunity to influence national government, as it was one of the few political forces with a nationwide network. Labor leaders had turned to the ballot box after industrial setbacks during the depression of the 1890s. During the depression employers tried to cut costs by lowering wages and offering work to non-unionists. Strikes soon spread from the crews of coastal ships to wharf labourers, shearers and coal and silver workers. Strikers clashed with police, troops and ‘scabs’ recruited from the thousands of unemployed. The great strikes were crushed, leaders gaoled and union funds confiscated. Unions responded by forming labor parties in each colony that eventually united to form the Australian Labor Party. In 1910 the party achieved Government when it broadened its focus to adopt the nation building agenda of its predecessor Alfred Deakin.
This labour movement provoked fears in the religious community. St Ledger’s Catholicism triumphed over his union pedigree. He saw the rise of labour as the importing of ‘Godless continental socialism.’ A prominent Brisbane Catholic, he was elected to the Federal senate in 1906 as an anti-socialist candidate. He denounced trade unionism, State and Commonwealth enterprises, compulsory and public service arbitration and the encouragement of trade unions. In works published in 1909 and 1910, he condemned the Labor government for undermining the federalist principles of the Constitution.
Defeated by Labor in the 1913 election St Ledger retired to Melbourne to practice law and died at Armadale in 1929.