John Abel McPherson was born on the 28th January 1860 in Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of domestic servant Ann McPherson. He was educated at St. Paul’s Street School and the Mechanics’ Institute and at the age of fourteen he became an apprentice typographer.
In 1881 he married Mary Ann Wight and the following year they emigrated to South Australia, where McPherson worked on the composing staff of the South Australian Register. He left in 1889 as a consequence of his involvement in a strike over the right of workers to join unions and was unemployed for some time. As a result of this incident, he became convinced that the labour movement needed its own newspaper and in 1894 he was on the managing committee of the Weekly Herald.
McPherson became very active in the union movement. Before emigrating he had been a member of the Scottish Typographical Association and soon after his arrival in the colony he joined the South Australian Typographical Society, of which he was President from 1893 to 1895. In 1890 he was Honorary Secretary to the United Trades and Labour Council and for his services during the maritime strike of that year the U.T.L.C. gave him an honorarium.
His approach to industrial issues was not confrontational. He was an effective conciliator in disputes between employers and a number of trades (including butchers, drivers, and tanners) over shorter hours and wage regulation. When conciliation failed he became convinced of the need to use political power to achieve the union movement’s objectives. He was the founding Secretary of the United Labor Party in 1891 and in a by-election in February 1892 he became the first Labor member in the South Australian House of Assembly, representing East Adelaide.
McPherson was neither a socialist nor a revolutionary. He was, however, opposed to conservatism that stood in the way of vital social reforms. Re-elected in 1893, he became the leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party, a position he held until his death. The U.L.P.’s moderation was shown in its platform, which aimed simply at creating a fairer society for all. Indeed, the Advertiser on the 17th April 1893 portrayed McPherson as a man who avoided extremes in thought and speech, who spoke calmly and logically, and could find virtue even in a millionaire. He was actively involved in the building and management of the Trades Hall, which opened in 1896.
McPherson was deeply concerned about the impact of unemployment during the 1890s and in 1894 urged the Kingston governrnent to relieve the plight of the poor by providing workingmen’s blocks to make them more self-sufficient. As leader of the U.L.P., McPherson also pushed hard for factory reforms, especially on issues relating to health and safety. As one of the first secretaries of the Working Women’s Trades Union, he fought for the franchise for women in 1894 and on the issue of temperance, to curb the social evil of excessive drinking, he sided with the women’s movement. He was particularly disturbed by the continuing practice of ‘sweating’ in industries where women were employed. He gave cautious support to the idea of Federation, his main reservation being that women might lose the right to vote.
McPherson was admired for his honest, broad-minded yet principled approach to politics. As the first Parliamentary Labor leader, he helped lay the foundations of the Australian Labor Party in South Australia and set a tone of moderation that has largely characterized the Party since.
He died on the 13th December 1897 and a thousand mourners followed his coffin to West Terrace Cemetery. An oil painting of him by Mrs. Emily Anson was presented to the Trades Hall and a memorial fund of £600 was collected to assist his wife and four children. An inscription from Robert Browning was engraved on his tombstone: ‘One who never turned his back but marched breast forward.’
Moss, J.L., Sound of trumpets: History of the labour movement in South Australia (Cowandilla: Wakefield Press, 1985).
Murphy, D.L. (ed.), Labor in politics: The state labor parties in Australia, 1880-1920 (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1975).