Billy Hughes and the 1916 Labor Party conscription split

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Brad Webb writes that when reviewing the history of the Australian Labor Party, the month of November has seen monumental changes in the party’s fortunes. With the crisis of November 11, 1975 foremost in the minds of many Labor supporters, 59 years earlier on November 14 1916, the Party was subject to its first major political upheaval — a national split over the issue of conscription.
“Splits refer to the break-up of a political party, usually of the Australian Labor Party because its discipline is so strict that a group defiance of it leads to an unhealable breach.”[1]

WHEN WAR was declared, in August 1914, a Federal election had just begun. The past year had seen Joseph Cook and the Liberal Party hold office with the slimmest of majorities in the House of Representatives. Cook decided to call a double-dissolution to break a Senate deadlock over the issue of preferences to unionists in government work.

With Europe at war, the union issue faded into the background. While Cook rushed to organise the first volunteer contingent of Australian troops, his governments’ fortunes changed dramatically. The born again Liberals transformed themselves into commanders of a nation at war. Andrew Fisher declared his Labor Party to be one hundred percent committed to the war effort.

Andrew Fisher

Fisher’s only memorable comment ‘our last man and our last shilling’ was actually fed to him by William Morris Hughes, Labor’s deputy leader. Hughes believed the best way to win the election was to have no campaign at all. While the Liberals positioned themselves as Australia’s statesmen, Hughes, tapping into the mood of the electorate, led the patriotic call to abandon politics in the face of the great enterprise of war.

When it became clear the Liberals did not intend to abandon their campaign, Hughes switched tactics. He wrote a new election manifesto for Fisher to endorse. In it, the Labor Party regretted the Liberals stance and promised to back Cook, if they won the election. However, Labor expected the same of Cook’s Liberals and felt it had a more legitimate claim to running a war nation, as it was Labor, against the wishes of the Liberal Party, who introduced compulsory military training and created the first Australian navy.

The Opposition’s claims threw the Liberals off balance. While they searched records to refute Labor’s allegations, Fisher and Hughes captured the public’s interest. The election result was an outstanding success for Labor. Fisher was now in charge of an overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament, with his Senators filling thirty-one of the thirty-six seats. Two years later, this same Senate would thwart Hughes plans for conscription.

Of all the nations and empires that were at war at the end of 1914, only Australia had a workers’ government. Prior to entering politics, the leader of the Labor Party, Andrew Fisher, had been a miner. His deputy, Billy Hughes, had taken any job he could get, including a stint as a bottle washer. While other countries had drafted representatives of the workers into their governments to bolster the war effort, in Australia the workers composed the government and ran the war.

Many in the Labor Party, including some of its successful candidates, were appalled at the dirty tricks campaign waged during the election. Regarded as a thoroughly honest man, Fisher was a man who governed his party through force of character not by rhetoric or intellect. Many were surprised with Fishers’ endorsement of Hughes’ proposals. Hughes tactics were seen as unscrupulous and calculating. Liberal opponents said Fisher was such an honest man he must have signed Hughes’ manifesto without reading it.

The antithesis of Fisher, Hughes was a Labor enigma. Standing at only 165 centimetres tall, he was a man who believed in war. He saw the world of politics was in turmoil and the only way for empires and nations to survive was through a war of attrition. Yet many in the Labor ranks wanted to fight a class war between employee and employer. They believed that the economic system which exploited workers, capitalism, was itself the cause of war. War occurred because of trade rivalries between nations and was then used by munitions-makers, financiers, and capitalists to make money.

Meanwhile, workingmen of different nations who had no dispute with each other were being sent to the slaughter. To join the war in Europe was not simply to postpone the execution of Labor’s domestic reforms, it was becoming part of the dragon they wished to slay. These views appeared in the Labor press during the election campaign while Fisher was repeating his promise to defend Britain to the detriment of Australia’s population and economy.

Opposition to the war from inside the Fisher Government became complex. While some in the Party were of the opinion that it did not matter who won, since capitalism would still prevail, many were keen to see the Allies triumph. A war promoted by capitalists was one which socialists wanted no part in. Party members adopted a highly critical outlook. They legitimised their complaints about the war’s effects and searched for limitations on Australia’s involvement, in the vain hope that peace without victory was possible.

Labor would have preferred the enemy to be Japanese. A race war against Japan would have given the Party the chance to defend its White Australia policy. Fears of Asia storming Australian shores was the reason why Labor had founded the Australian navy and had managed to cast aside its opposition to militarism by introducing compulsory military training. Contrary to Australian military planners, Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies, thanks to the continuation of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. Australia’s war involvement with Japan consisted of Japanese warships escorting Australian troopships across the Indian Ocean and of Japanese warships patrolling Australian waters.

In 1915, under the strain of keeping his Party committed to the war effort, Andrew Fisher retired. William Morris Hughes became leader of the Australian Labor Party, and Prime Minister. Hughes remained convinced that given the right opportunity Japan would swap sides and attack Australia. This belief took him to London in 1916. Here Hughes became aware of demands Japan was making on Britain, to ensure their continuation in the war on the side of the Allies. It was the deals Britain was making with Japan that caused the greatest concern for Hughes. Under pressure from Britain, Australia had ceded Germany’s Pacific islands north of the equator to Japan.

While in London Hughes was presented with a wish-list from the Japanese ambassador. Included in the document was a desire for a commercial treaty. While Hughes favoured opening up trade negotiations, he refused to consider their other request. Japan urged for an easing in Australia’s immigration laws which would allow Japanese traders and their families to become Australian residents. This was in direct violation to Hughes’ and Australia’s whites only policy. William Morris Hughes returned home convinced that Australia needed to bolster it’s defences to thwart any Japanese demand and any British support for them. Hughes was unequivocal, Japan had designs on his country. This belief became one of the driving forces behind his call for conscription.
“The AIF was a volunteer army, unlike the legions of Europe. Britain and New Zealand had introduced conscription and in August 1916 Hughes insisted it was Australia’s turn. A leader of the Waterside Workers Federation and member of the first Commonwealth Parliament, Hughes was a born war leader. He said that war was like a strike – one man had to take charge.”[2]

William Morris 'Billy' Hughes

Hughes aim was to bolster the presence of the Australian military currently fighting in France. His primary objective was not the success of the British campaign, although it was a top priority. What Hughes wanted was Australia to have a stronger voice when peace was declared. Hughes reasoned that a greater sacrifice from Australia would guarantee a stronger voice and ensure Australian interests be foremost in the minds of the men on the worlds political stage.

His own Party strongly rejected any form of overseas conscription. While compulsory military training had been evoked in 1910, the thought of forcing men to fight and die overseas was repugnant to many Labor socialists.
“The most remarkable fact about the expulsion of Hughes and his associates was that they had not, in pressing for Conscription for overseas service, contravened anything written in the Federal Platform of the day.”[3]

Although the Party platform was silent on the issue, the organisation had made it quite clear that it opposed Hughes’ policy. While he was still overseas, state Labor conferences and trade unionists had declared against conscription. Ignoring his Party’s wishes, Hughes turned to the Australian electorate for the support he required. A ‘Yes’ vote would have forced the Labor held Senate to pass the conscription bill.

Labor leaders inside the Party did not wish to see Hughes use popular endorsement to beat their political machine. In the House of Representatives thirteen Labor men opposed the issue being put to the people. In the Senate, nine opposed the referendum. Their reasoning was that no authority should make a man fight if he did not wish to. Here was the first public airing of the dispute which eventually led the Labor Party to oppose conscription in all situations.
“The date of the Referendum was fixed at 28th October, 1916, and Hughes opened his “Yes” campaign on 18th September. The fight was bitter in the extreme. The question which the Australian people were asked to decide was: “Are you in favour of the Government having, in this great emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service for the term of the war, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?”[4]

In the offices of Australia’s largest union, the AWU, conferences were held by members of a newly formed group, the industrialists. This was the moment union militants took control of Labor. Each new member had to sign a letter of resignation which would come into effect if he failed to perform his duties suitably. When voting for party positions, each industrialist had to show his paper to two comrades to ensure he had voted for the industrialist ticket. Through the containment of individual freedom an extremist party bent on social transformation would emerge. The party of the organised working class now processed thousands of votes which guaranteed the disenfranchisement of country and suburban branches cultivated by Labor parliamentarians.

The 1916 conscription referendum divided the country and the Australian Labor Party.  Labor members fought on both sides of the debate which saw the ‘Yes’ vote narrowly defeated, 1,087,557 to 1,160,033. The breach led by Hughes had caused irreparable damage to the Party’s infrastructure. As soon as caucus assembled on 14 November 1916, a movement of no confidence in Hughes was presented.

Arguments ranged for hours from his adversaries and his followers. However, before the Party had the chance to dismiss their leader, Hughes said, ‘Enough of this. Let those who think with me follow me.’ He then strode out of the meeting taking twenty-five of Labor’s Federal parliamentarians with him. Hughes had left the party without the humiliation of defeat. Within hours he had chosen a new ministry from the men gathered around him.
“In the event it was the failure of the State executives to swing to Hughes which was decisive. His attempt to go over their heads (in the face of their opposition to his policy) to the Australian people as a whole was contrary to the principles on which Party policy was determined and applied. It was an attempt of a Parliamentarian to coerce the Movement and as such was bound to lead to his expulsion, even at the price of a split.”[5]

Hughes then went to the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, an important ally, who believed only Hughes had the capacity to lead Australia through the war. Hughes presented his resignation knowing full well the Governor-General would not accept. Hughes then presented himself and his ministers as the new Government which the Governor-General swore in that same night. The Governor-General did not consider the Cook led Liberal Party, now the major party in the Commonwealth Parliament, fit to lead in such perilous times. Hughes had assured the Governor-General that the Liberals would support his new Party, the National Labor government. On the day he removed himself from the Australian Labor Party, Hughes had performed the sharpest piece of work in his political life.
“According to Labor lore, he turned to conscription because he succumbed to the blandishments of the metropolis during his visit to Britain in 1916, when he became briefly a power in British politics through his advocacy of a more ruthless conduct of the war, an attack on Germany’s economic power, and the creation after the war of an economically integrated empire. His speeches were widely reported and created immense enthusiasm. Hughes was fêted in establishment circles. This, according to Labor legend, turned his head and, forgetting his party and his country, he decided to conscript Australian men for imperial purposes.”[6]

In the midst of its extraordinary early success as a national workers’ party, the Australian Labor Party collapsed under the strain of war. Never again was it to appear as an overwhelming force for social change and economic reform. William Morris Hughes, a founding father, in the end was best remembered inside the Party as its arch betrayer, or in Labor terms, its greatest rat.

If this were true, why did Hughes continue to seek favour with Labor once opposition to conscription became apparent? Why didn’t he defect? Hughes hoped to perform a balancing act that would see popular endorsement of his conscription proposals. Ultimately this would bring disgruntled Labor members back to his way of thinking, once they realised he had the backing of the electorate. Of course this did not happen.
“The Labor members gave no thought to whether a National Labor government deserved their support except on the issue which divided them – conscription. They were bent on vengeance against Hughes: they wanted to demonstrate that those who broke solidarity would be destroyed, and persuaded themselves that everyone outside the ranks of official Labor was a pawn of the capitalists.”[7]

Archbishop Daniel Mannix

Hughes greatly underestimated his party’s resolve. He overestimated his ability to convince his fellow members that he was backing the right cause. Hughes also didn’t expect a rhetorical battle from one of the largest community leaders outside the parliamentary sphere. Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix who spoke out on the issue of conscription, became one of the driving forces behind the ‘No’ campaign. While the majority of church, community and business leaders were in support of conscription, Mannix became the thorn in Hughes side. In contrast to Hughes’ outbursts, Mannix’s speeches were calm, witty and penetrating.

Mannix built up a strong following, although many of his anti-British views were not shared by his followers. Catholics did not believe that it was a disgrace to put on the King’s uniform. Until the end of the war they enlisted in the same proportion as other denominations. But although the ‘No’ campaign was stifled by restrictive censors and threats of criminal proceedings it did manage to get its message out. Its major argument being that the state had no right in any circumstances to compel a man to fight and take a life. This was the same argument the Labor parliamentarians used in their attempt to prevent the referendum originally taking place. Hughes continued to defy his Party by ordering men to be compulsory called up for military training under the power to conscript for local defence. While these men could not be sent overseas, Hughes figured once the referendum was successfully completed they could be shipped out sooner, having already completed their training.
“The Labor organisers were angry at the government jumping the gun and many men defied the call up… On the eve of the poll the government was breaking up. Hughes withdrew the regulation and denied (falsely) that it had been issued; the resignations stood. These tricks confirmed for Labor men their view of Hughes as a dictator and tyranny, a threat to their party and democracy.”[8]

While Hughes looked for the advantage at every turn during the closing weeks of the referendum his opponents were quick to capitalise on any issue that would diminish his campaign. What incensed Hughes the most was the statement that conscription would remove white labour from our shores, forcing Australia to accept a yellow workforce. Yet it was the continuation of White Australia that moved Hughes to propose conscription from the outset. The personal attacks aimed at opposing members of the conscription debate all inevitably contributed to the split in the Labor Party.

While the formalisation of the split occurred on 14 November 1916, as far as the organisation was concerned the crack occurred the moment Hughes placed himself outside the Party by holding the referendum. Hughes believed in what he was doing was right for Australia. He saw that conscription was a way of guaranteeing Australia’s position in the new world order that would eventuate after Germany’s capitulation. What Hughes failed to see was that Australia had already sacrificed more than enough. Hughes misread his party members, he and his political supporters rather hoped that some way could be found to heal the breach. But as a founding father of the Australian Labor movement he should have known better.

For twenty years he defied the non-Labor versus Labor structure. Yet this was part of the standard operating procedure for Hughes. He had persuaded Labor to endorse compulsory military training and accept with great enthusiasm Australia’s involvement in an imperial war. Later when he sought out the help of non-Labor opponents to prop up his fledgling National Labor Party, Hughes maintained Labor’s protection of working conditions, public ownership  and strong central government. Although Hughes became one of Australia’s great political figures, he was never strong on party allegiances. For a vast majority of Hughes career he preferred to run a one man race, yet his guiding principles were grounded in Labor ideologies. Unfortunately for Labor in 1916, these ideologies became hopelessly distorted.
“Hughes had been a divisive leader but Labor had failed the nation during war. Australian politics now became alarmingly polarised. A shattered and diminished Labor Party cherished its conscription victories, embraced isolationism, turned to a more radical socialism and lost its prewar electoral strength.”[9]


  • Peter Browne, Democracy and Nation, Deakin University, Melbourne, 1999

    • L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party, 1901-1951

      • Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, London, 1955

        • Davison, Hirst & Macintyre, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford Press, Melbourne, 1999

          • George Healey, A.L.P.: The Story of The Labor Party, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1955

            • David Horne, Billy Hughes, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 2000

              • Robert Manne, The Australian Century, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999

                • William Morris Hughes, Crusts and Crusades – Tales of Bygone Days, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1947

                  • Paul Kelly, 100 Years: The Australian Story, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001

                    • John Ross, Chronicle of Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 2000

                    • [1] Davison, Hirst & Macintyre, The Oxford Companion to Australian History(Oxford Press, Melbourne, 1999) p602.

                      [2] Paul Kelly, 100 Years: The Australian Story (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001) p12.

                      [3] L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party 1901-1951, (Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, London, 1955) p135.

                      [4] George Healey, A.L.P.: The Story of The Labor Party (Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1955) p63.

                      [5] L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party 1901-1951 (Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, London, 1955) p136.

                      [6] Davison, Hirst & Macintyre, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, (Oxford Press, Melbourne, 1999) p330.

                      [7] Robert Manne, The Australian Century (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999) p74.

                      [8] Robert Manne, The Australian Century (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999) p69.

                      [9] Paul Kelly, 100 Years: The Australian Story (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001) p14.  
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