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Charlton, Matthew (1866–1948)

by Murray Perks

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Matthew Charlton (1866-1948), by Freeman & Co.

Matthew Charlton (1866-1948), by Freeman & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24079906

Matthew Charlton (1866-1948), Labor politician, was born on 15 March 1866 at Linton near Ballarat, Victoria, son of Matthew Charlton, a miner from Durham, England, and his wife Mabel, née Foard. In 1871 the family moved to Lambton, a mining village outside Newcastle, New South Wales, where the Scottish-Australian Co. had established coal-mining operations. Educated at Lambton Public School, young Charlton worked in the mines as a trapper, then at the coal-face. On 26 June 1889 at New Lambton he married Martha Rollings according to the forms of the Particular Baptist Church.

Becoming active in union politics, Charlton supported strike action in 1896 to resist wage reductions. When this failed, he followed many fellow miners to the goldfields near Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, and spent over two years there before returning to Lambton and employment in the Waratah pit. He rejoined the northern district Colliery Employees' Federation as a lodge official: in 1901-06 as treasurer he negotiated members' grievances with employers and prepared arbitration cases for the union in addition to normal duties. In November 1902 he represented the New South Wales miners at the first national trades union congress since 1891. There he moved for nationalization of the coal-mining industry, not because of ideological principle but with the practical aim of eliminating the cut-throat competition between owners that depressed miners' wages and conditions. After other delegates opposed this as too radical a demand, Charlton agreed to an amendment urging State governments to fill their needs from their own mines and affirming the ultimate desirability of full nationalization. A moderate in other matters, he supported extension of compulsory industrial arbitration, although warning of defects in current New South Wales legislation.

On 5 December 1903, after colleagues urged him to stand, Charlton won the Waratah by-election for the Legislative Assembly. Next year he transferred to Northumberland. In parliament he spoke principally on mining matters. During the coalminers' strike of 1909-10, marked by a clash between labour leaders over tactics, Charlton accepted the invitation of the Colliery Employees' Federation to represent it before a wages board strongly repudiated by the rank and file. With the strike collapsing, he performed the thankless task of negotiating a return to work under the old conditions in order to preserve the union, and personally urged coalfield meetings to accept the board's decision. Charlton's role, although unsuccessful in securing industrial improvements, failed to impair his stature. Immediately after the strike he won the Federal seat of Hunter from the sitting Liberal member at the general election in April 1910 and held it until retirement.

In 1913 Charlton was elected to the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party executive and became a temporary chairman of committees in the House. In Andrew Fisher's second government he was appointed chairman of the joint parliamentary committee of public accounts and attempted to secure increased powers for it. On 3 May 1915 he offered to resign as chairman in protest against government delay in meeting caucus support for him on this matter. However Fisher conciliated him and Charlton went on until 1922 to develop a useful role for the committee. On the outbreak of war he had supported Australian involvement and in 1916 voted for W. M. Hughes's conscription referendum bill. While conceding the sincerity of its adherents, Charlton personally believed conscription unnecessary and he campaigned against it in his constituency. However, he appeared willing to accept an affirmative result in the referendum and maintained loyalty to Hughes as leader. On 14 November when Hughes faced a motion of censure in caucus, Charlton attempted to avert a party split by moving an amendment to refer the controversy to a party federal conference. Hughes cut debate short by walking out and Charlton stayed to support F. G. Tudor. For the remainder of the war he encouraged voluntary recruiting. He publicly opposed a federal conference recommendation in 1918 to make further support of the war effort subject to certain conditions being met by the Australian and Allied governments.

During the immediate post-war years Labor faced a leadership crisis. The party respected Charlton, but preferred T. J. Ryan as successor-designate to the ailing Tudor. After Ryan's untimely death on 1 August 1921, Charlton succeeded him as deputy party leader in the House. When Tudor died in January 1922 Charlton became acting leader by common consent and was confirmed in the position at a party meeting on 16 May. Always a moderate, he regarded the Labor socialization objective as electorally embarrassing. As leader of the Opposition he offered at the 1922 elections policies of national development under a unified government with regional devolution of powers, tariff protection and limited immigration. Midway through the campaign he was hospitalized for a serious illness. Labor emerged as the strongest single party in parliament though unable to divide the government coalition.

Following its wartime experience, the Australian Labor Party opposed compulsory military training, and insisted that no commitments of Australian forces be made abroad without the clear consent of parliament and people. Charlton strenuously protested against Australian involvement in Britain's minor Imperial crises and urged maintenance of an independent foreign policy. He criticized Australian participation in the Singapore defence strategy and supported the creation of armed forces best suited technically for continental defence. In the belief that the League of Nations offered the only prospect for peace and disarmament he accepted a government invitation in 1924 to attend the assembly of the league at Geneva. At the opening session on 4 September Charlton urged positive action. Subsequent deliberations produced the Geneva Protocol, intended to make international disputes between members justiciable and to establish collective security with a view to eventual disarmament. Charlton and the leader of the Australian delegation, Sir Littleton Groom, joined at closed meetings of the British and Dominion delegates to oppose Japanese demands that certain domestic policies, such as immigration, be exempt from compulsory arbitration: they were eventually obliged to compromise.

After returning to Australia Charlton urged adoption of the Protocol; however the government agreed with British misgivings and the scheme lapsed. On the most vexatious political issue of the 1920s, industrial relations, Labor supported extension of Federal conciliation and arbitration but was embarrassed by militant union action. Charlton blamed the seamen's strike for his loss of the election in November 1925. He courageously backed part of the government's referendum proposals on increased industrial powers in 1926, despite deep disagreements within the labour movement on the matter.

Charlton was conscientious in his duties and 'grasped a good many nettles firmly'. Several times he lent assistance to attempts to resolve internal conflicts in the New South Wales branch of the party. This strengthened the party's federal structure but did not produce the desired unity. While universally admired and respected for his integrity and humanity, he failed to gain office in a period of eclipse for Federal Labor. His resignation as leader on 29 March 1928 and retirement from parliament was sudden but not unexpected. For some time James Scullin and E. G. Theodore had been shaping up for the inevitable succession. Charlton left with the full confidence and affection of his colleagues. Tall and distinguished-looking even in old age, in his later years he supported the party with advice and encouragement, adhering to the Federal (official) Labor Party against the State (Lang) party in the 1930s. He declined to stand for Federal Parliament in 1931 and 1934, but was an alderman on Lambton Council in 1934-38. He died on 8 December 1948 at Lambton, survived by his wife, son and daughter. His estate was valued for probate at £7671.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Makin, Federal Labour Leaders (Syd, 1961)
  • R. Wettenhall, ‘Federal Labor and the Public Corporation under Matthew Charlton’, Labour History, May 1964, no 6
  • Punch (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1925
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 27 Sept 1930
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1 Aug 1947
  • Canberra Times, 1 Feb 1966.

Citation details

Murray Perks, 'Charlton, Matthew (1866–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/charlton-matthew-5563/text9485, accessed 25 September 2017.

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