William Morris (Billy) Hughes (1862-1952) was one of the most polarising and influential politicians in Australian history. He was Prime Minister from 1915-1923 and played an active role in federal politics until his death.

After immigrating to Australia from Wales in 1884, Hughes worked in a range of insecure and unskilled occupations. He became a pioneering member of the labour movement in Australia, organising in the Shearer’s Union and as a member of the Socialist League. In 1894, as a candidate for the Labor Party, he won a seat in the New South Wales Parliament.

After federation in 1901, Hughes was elected into the federal house of representatives, where he was to remain until his death in 1952. Hughes was a cabinet member of the early federal Labor governments of Chris Watson and Andrew Fisher, serving as Attorney-General in the latter. In this early stage of his parliamentary career, Hughes was involved in organising the Waterside Workers’ Federation in Melbourne, the Wharf Labourer’s Union in Sydney and the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union. A key leader of a mass strike in 1909 in New South Wales, Hughes championed a moderate strategy that rested on state-based arbitration of disputes which saw him clash with militants among the coal miners.

With the Labor Party committed to the first World War “to the last man and the last shilling” by their leader Andrew Fisher, the party went on to win the September 1914 federal election. Hughes became Prime Minister, while remaining Attorney-General, after Fisher resigned in late 1915. A loyalist to the British Empire, Hughes was deeply committed to the success of the war.

The War Precautions Act passed through parliament during the early stages of the war with no opposition and little discussion but would soon become under Hughes the primary tool of wartime government. In the judgment of prominent historian Peter Stanley, Australia effectively became a “war-time police state”. Censorship rendered the press a propaganda appendage of the state; critics of the war and conscription were hounded, kept under surveillance, and often jailed; and people of foreign background or descent were treated with xenophobic suspicion.

The peak of war-time authoritarianism was the large-scale internment of Germans. Nearly 7,000 “enemy aliens” were interned during the war, including 700 naturalised Australian, while German place-names were changed to eradicate their presence on the Australian landscape. After the war, most of these people were deported, along with prominent foreign-born radicals such as Tom Barker.

 As the war dragged on interminably and the full scale of the losses suffered during the Gallipoli Campaign in mid-1915 became apparent, the Labor government began to contemplate bolstering recruitment for the war effort by implementing conscription.

Opposition to conscription for overseas service, rather than homeland defence, had long been a principle of the Labor Party and the broader labour movement. The momentum towards conscription put Hughes’s government on a collision course with the movement that had elevated him to the highest office in the land, and which was to make him a figure reviled as the lowest form of traitor.

In September 1915, the Commonwealth War Census showed 600,000 “eligible” men across Australia had yet to sign up for military service. The federal government approached those who had not volunteered to ask them if they would enlist immediately, or otherwise to “name the date” they would do so. If the men approached refused to answer both questions, they were asked “to state the reasons why.” Despite this moral pressure, 300,000 of the “eligibles” either refused to nominate a date to enlist or to return the questionnaire at all. These methods were decried by many within the labour movement as a step towards compelling people to fight.

Returning from a lengthy trip to the United Kingdom on 31 July 1916, Hughes rapidly set upon the path of implementing conscription. His chosen method was a plebiscite of the people, anticipating that a majority in favour of conscription would mollify the opposition of his own party members in parliament. Setting the plebiscite date for 28 October, Hughes opened the most polarising debate in Australian history.

Leading the “Yes” side that argued in favour of conscription, Hughes mobilised state resources in a blatantly partisan manner against the anti-conscriptionists, or “antis”. War-time censorship was extended to any vehement criticism of conscription. In Brisbane, a congress of over 50 unions that met in August 1916 had its call for a general strike banned, and references to the congress removed from newspapers. Hughes smeared the “antis” as “disloyalists” who worked in collaboration with German “enemy aliens,” spitting vituperation at the radical left anti-war group, the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), who he accused of being “foul parasites”:

There is between syndicalism- for that is its name- and unionism and labor, as we know it here, a gulf as wide as hell. These men who speak as the lovers of liberty, if the world’s liberty depended on their strength of arms, would be in chains today… These men have no nationality, no religion. In the name of unionism and of the Labor movement I cast them out like devils out of swine. (Daily Standard, 14 Jan 1916, p. 5)

Hughes’ verbal aggression against his opponents was matched with the intensity of feeling aroused during the public debate. Returned soldiers attacked public meetings and rallies of anti-conscriptionists. In Brisbane, a military policeman who was guarding an anti-conscription rally held on October 8 was shot and killed when returned soldiers attacked the demonstration. In response, a vigilante Labour Volunteer Army formed from the ranks of unionists, pledging to defend anti-conscription meetings.

With the narrow but decisive defeat of conscription in the first plebiscite, Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party. This ended his association with the labour movement and pushed him into the arms of conservatives, where he would remain for the rest of his life. His ostracism from the labour movement led him to conclude that the Labor Party had been captured by “disloyalists” hostile to the Empire. He immediately went on the offensive against his perceived enemies, passing the Unlawful Associations Act in December 1916 to break up the I.W.W., jailing dozens of people.  

His new National Party, campaigning as the party to “win the war”, won the May 1917 election, giving him the confidence to re-open the conscription debate with another plebiscite for December 20, 1917. This campaign reopened wounds from the previous year’s debate and was, if anything, more vicious. Despite it all, most Australians voted against conscription, by a greater margin than the first vote.

Hughes’ defeat during the conscription debates was a defining period of his life and career, as well as the broader labour movement. The split in the Labor Party set back that party’s electoral fortunes on a federal level significantly, leaving them out of government for all but three years from 1916 until 1941. Despite the repeal of most of the sweeping powers granted under the War Precautions Act in 1920, the ethnic cleansing of Germans had a lasting impact on Australia, and much of the centralisation of federal government power established during the War remains to the present day.

 Further Reading

Beaumont, Joan. Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War 1914-1918. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2013

Evans, Raymond. Loyalty and Disloyalty: Social Conflict on the Queensland Homefront, 1914-1918. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1987