Billy Hughes

From Kaiserreich

William Morris "Billy" Hughes (born in London on September 25 1862) is an Australian politician and the current Prime Minister of the Australasian Confederation.



Early Life

William Morris "Billy" Hughes was born in Pimlico, London, on September 25 1862 of Welsh parents. His father William Hughes was Welsh speaking and he was a deacon of the Particular Baptist Church and by profession a joiner and a carpenter at the House of Lords. His mother was a farmer's daughter from Llansaintffraid, Montgomeryshire, and had been in service in London. After his mother's death when he was seven William Hughes lived with his father's sister in Llandudno, Wales, also spending time with his mother's relatives in rural Montgomeryshire, where he picked up some fluency in Welsh. When he was 14 he returned to London to live with his father and worked as a pupil teacher.

In October 1884 he migrated to Australia and worked as a labourer, bush worker and cook. He arrived in Sydney in 1886 and lived in a boarding house in Moore Park and in 1890 he moved to Balmain where he opened a small mixed shop, where he sold political pamphlets, did odd jobs and mended umbrellas.

Political Career

In 1892 Hughes joined the Socialist League and became a street-corner speaker for the Balmain Single Tax League and an organiser with the Australian Workers' Union and may have already joined the newly formed Labor Party. In 1894, Hughes spent eight months in central New South Wales organising for the Amalgamated Shearers' Union and then won the Legislative Assembly seat of Sydney-Lang by 105 votes. While in Parliament he became secretary of the Wharf Labourer's Union and in 1900 he founded and became first national president of the Waterside Workers' Union. During this period Hughes studied law and was admitted as a barrister in 1903. Unlike most Labor men, he was a strong supporter of Federation.

In 1901 Hughes was elected to the first federal Parliament as Labor MP for West Sydney. He opposed the Barton government's proposals for a small professional army and instead advocated compulsory universal training. He was Minister for External Affairs in Chris Watson's first Labor government and Attorney-General in Andrew Fisher's three Labor governments in 1908-09, 1910-13 and 1914-15. He was the real political brain of these governments and it was clear that he wanted to be leader of the Labor Party, but his abrasive manner (his chronic dyspepsia was thought to contribute to his volatile temperament) made his colleagues reluctant to have him as their leader.

Labor Party Prime Minister in 1915-16

Following the 1914 election, Labor Prime Minister of Australia Andrew Fisher found the strain of leadership during the Weltkrieg taxing and faced increasing pressure from the ambitious Hughes, who wanted to introduce conscription, which Fisher opposed. By 1915 his health was suffering and in October he resigned and was succeeded by Hughes. He was a strong supporter of Australia's participation in the Weltkrieg and after a visit to Britain in 1916 he became convinced that conscription was necessary if Australia was to sustain its contribution to the war effort. The vast majority of his party, which included Roman Catholics and Union representatives, were bitterly opposed to this, especially in the wake of what was regarded by many Irish-Australians (most of whom were Roman Catholics) as Britain's excessive response to the Easter Rising of 1916.

In October Hughes held an advisory plebiscite (whose outcome was not legally binding) to try to gain approval for conscription, but the plebiscite was narrowly defeated by the Australian voters. Melbourne's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Daniel Mannix, was his main opponent on the conscription issue. The defeat, however, did not deter Hughes, who continued to vigorously argue in favour of conscription: this produced a deep and bitter split within the Australian community, as well as within the members of his own party.

On September 15 1916 the NSW executive of the Political Labour League (the Labor Party organisation at the time) expelled Hughes from the Labor Party. When the Federal Parliamentary Labor caucus met on November 14 1916, lengthy discussions ensued until Hughes walked out with 24 other Labor members and the remaining 43 members of Caucus then passed their motion of no confidence in the leadership, effectively expelling Hughes and the other members.

Nationalist Party Prime Minister 1916-24

Hughes and his followers, which included many of Labor's early leaders, called themselves the National Labor Party and began laying the groundwork for forming a party that they felt would be both avowedly nationalist as well as socially radical. However, Hughes was forced to conclude a confidence and supply agreement with the opposition Commonwealth Liberal Party in order to stay in office.

A few months later, Hughes and Liberal Party leader Joseph Cook (himself a former Labor man) decided to turn their wartime coalition into a new party, the Nationalist Party of Australia. Although the Liberals were the larger partner in the merger, Hughes emerged as the new party's leader and at the 1917 federal election Hughes and the Nationalists won a huge electoral victory. Hughes had promised to resign if his Government did not win the power to conscript and a second plebiscite on conscription was held in December 1917, but was again defeated, this time by a wider margin. Hughes, after receiving a vote of confidence in his leadership by his party, resigned as Prime Minister but, as there were no alternative candidates, the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, immediately re-commissioned him, thus allowing him to remain as Prime Minister while keeping his promise to resign.

Despite the rejection of his conscription policy, Hughes retained his popularity, and in December 1919 his government was comfortably re-elected. However, after 1920 Hughes's political position declined: many elements of his own party never trusted him because they thought he was still a socialist at bottom, citing his interest in retaining government ownership of the Commonwealth Shipping Line and the Australian Wireless Company. In 1921 Hughes signed the Peace with Honour on behalf of Australia - the first time Australia had signed an international treaty.

When the Emergency Protocols act of 1922 cancelled the elections scheduled for December 16 in Australia, King George V pressed Hughes for appointing Stanley Bruce as Attorney-General. Even if Bruce was a staunch supporter of conscription, Hughes didn't like him and the relationship between them was cold. However, when working together they proved to be a formidable team: Hughes had better political and diplomatic skills whereas Bruce was better in administring the country.

Role in the Australasian Confederation

With the Consolidation of Resources Act the new Australasian Confederation was established on December 11 1924 and Bruce was appointed as Governor-General by King George V. This decision greatly embittered Hughes who refused to accept the position of Minister for External Affairs offered to him by the King and was therefore left out of the government. However in 1929, following a political crisis prompted by a general strike, Hughes accepted the request of the King to be appointed as Minister for Trade and Customs. This move appeased both the strikers who trusted Hughes for his socialist past and the monarchy who trusted Hughes for his loyalty, but was not liked by Stanley Bruce who still didn't trust Hughes. However, Hughes proved to be loyal and efficient and he was able to bring an end to the crisis and help Bruce in his policy of industrialization. Having proved to Bruce his competence and loyalty to the country, Hughes was appointed without oppositions as Prime Minister of Australasia in November 1931 by King George V.

Personal Life

Hughes established in 1886 a common law marriage with Elizabeth Cutts, the daughter of the landlady of the boarding house where he lived in Sydney. She died on September 1 1906 from the heart disease she had suffered for some years and they had three sons and three daughter:

  • Ethel, born in 1889
  • William, born in 1891 and died in 1892
  • Lily, born in 1893
  • Dolly, born in 1895
  • Ernest, born in 1897
  • Charles, born in 1899

On 26 June 1911 at Christ Church, Melbourne, with Anglican rites and without the knowledge of colleagues or press, Hughes married Mary Ethel Campbell. She had trained as a nurse and she was subsequently made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in 1922 for her services during the Weltkrieg for the Australian Red Cross Society. By her social gifts, tact and management she gave Hughes the domestic background he had always lacked and provided precisely the feather-bedding that his restless activity and frail physique required. They had only one daughter, Helen, born in 1915.

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