William Morris "Billy" Hughes, CH, QC (25 September 1862 – 28 October 1952) was a British-born Australian politician who was the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, from 1915 to 1923.
Born and raised in London, Hughes was the son of Welsh parents. At age 22, he immigrated to Australia and entered into politics. Over the course of his 51-year federal parliamentary career (and an additional seven years prior to that in a colonial parliament), Hughes changed parties five times: from Labor (1894–1916) to National Labor (1916–17) to Nationalist (1917–30) to Australian (1930–31) to United Australia (1931–44) to Liberal (1944–52). He was expelled from three parties, and represented four different electorates in two states.
Originally Prime Minister as leader of the Labor Party, his support of World War I conscription in Australia led him, along with 24 other pro-conscription members, to form National Labor. National Labor merged with the Commonwealth Liberal Party to form the Nationalist Party. His prime ministership came to an end when the Nationalist party was forced to form a coalition with the Country Party, who refused to serve under Hughes. He was the longest-serving prime minister up to that point, and the fifth longest serving over all. He would later lead the United Australia Party to the 1943 election, though Arthur Fadden served as Coalition leader.
He died in 1952 at age 90, while still serving in Parliament. He is the longest-serving member of the Australian Parliament, and one of the most colourful and controversial figures in Australian political history.
William Morris Hughes was born in Pimlico, London, on 25 September 1862 to Welsh parents. His father William Hughes was Welsh-speaking and, according to the 1881 census, born in Holyhead, Anglesey, North Wales in about 1825. 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 Llansantffraid, Montgomeryshire and had been in service in London. Jane Morris was thirty-seven when she married and William Morris Hughes was her only child. 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 also spoke Welsh. A plaque on a guest house in Abbey Road, Llandudno bears testament to his residency. When he was 14 he returned to London and worked as a pupil teacher. In 1881, when he was 19, William lived with his father and an aunt at 78 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London.
In October 1884, at the age of 22, he emigrated to Australia, working as a labourer, bush worker and cook. He arrived in Sydney in 1886 and lived in a boarding house in Moore Park and established a common law marriage with his landlady's daughter, Elizabeth Cutts.
In 1890 they moved to Balmain, where he worked for Lewy Pattinson's pharmacy before he opened a small mixed shop, where he sold political pamphlets, did odd jobs and mended umbrellas. He was Georgist a street-corner speaker, president of the Balmain Single Tax League, and joined the Socialist League. He was an organiser with the Australian Workers' Union and may have already joined the newly formed Labor Party.
Early political career
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. 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 and Georgism.
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. In 1903, he was admitted to the bar after several years part-time study. He became a King's Counsel (KC) in 1909. (The title changed to Queen's Council (QC) on the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.)
In 1911, he married Mary Campbell. He was Minister for External Affairs in Chris Watson's first Labor government. He was Attorney-General in Andrew Fisher's three Labor governments in 1908–09, 1910–13 and 1914–15.
His abrasive manner (his chronic dyspepsia was thought to contribute to his volatile temperament) made his colleagues reluctant to have him as Leader. His on-going feud with King O'Malley, a fellow Labor minister, was a prominent example of his combative style.
Hughes was also the club patron for the Glebe Rugby League team in the debut year of Rugby League in Australia, in 1908. Hughes was one of a number of prominent Labor politicians who were aligned with the Rugby League movement in Sydney in 1908. Rugby League was borne out of a player movement against the Metropolitan Rugby Union who refused to compensate players for downtime from their jobs due to injuries sustained playing Rugby Union. Labor politicians aligned themselves with the new code as it was seen as a strong social standpoint, politically, and it was an enthusiastic professional game, which made the politicians themselves appear in a similar vein, in their opinions anyway.
Labor Party Prime Minister, 1915–16
Following the 1914 election, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia, Andrew Fisher, found the strain of leadership during World War I taxing and faced increasing pressure from the ambitious Hughes who wanted Australia to be firmly recognised on the world stage. By 1915 Fisher's health was suffering and, in October, he resigned and was succeeded by Hughes. In social policy, Hughes introduced an institutional pension for pensioners in benevolent asylums, equal to the difference between the 'act of grace' payment to the institution and the rate of IP.
Hughes was a strong supporter of Australia's participation in World War I and, after the loss of 28,000 men as casualties (killed, wounded and missing) in July and August 1916, Generals Birdwood and White of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) persuaded Hughes that conscription was necessary if Australia was to sustain its contribution to the war effort.
However a two-thirds majority of his party, which included Roman Catholics and union representatives as well as the Industrialists (Socialists) such as Frank Anstey, 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 a national plebiscite for conscription, but it was narrowly defeated. Melbourne's Roman Catholic archbishop, Daniel Mannix, was his main opponent on the conscription issue. The enabling legislation was the Military Service Referendum Act 1916 and the outcome was advisory only. The narrow defeat (1,087,557 Yes and 1,160,033 No), however, did not deter Hughes, who continued to argue vigorously in favour of conscription. This revealed the deep and bitter split within the Australian community that had existed since before Federation, as well as within the members of his own party.
Conscription had been in place since the 1910 Defence Act, but only in the defence of the nation. Hughes was seeking via a referendum to change the wording in the act to include "overseas". A referendum was not necessary but Hughes felt that in light of the seriousness of the situation, a vote of "Yes" from the people would give him a mandate to bypass the Senate. The Lloyd George Government of Britain did favour Hughes but only came to power in 1916, several months after the first referendum. The predecessor Asquith government greatly disliked Hughes considering him to be "a guest, rather than the representative of Australia".
On 15 September 1916 the NSW executive of the Political Labour League, Frank Tudor (the Labor Party organisation at the time) expelled Hughes from the Labor Party, after Hughes and 24 others had already walked out to the sound of Hughes's finest political cry "Let those who think like me, follow me." Hughes took with him almost all of the Parliamentary talent, leaving behind the Industrialists and Unionists, thus marking the end of the first era in Labor's history. Years later, Hughes said, "I did not leave the Labor Party, The party left me." The timing of Hughes's expulsion from the Labor Party meant that he became the first Labor leader who never led the party to an election.
Nationalist Party Prime Minister 1916–23
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. Hughes was forced to conclude a confidence and supply agreement with the opposition Commonwealth Liberal Party to stay in office.
A few months later, the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, persuaded Hughes and Liberal Party leader Joseph Cook (himself a former Labor man) to turn their wartime coalition into a formal party. This was the Nationalist Party of Australia, which was formally launched in February. Although the Liberals were the larger partner in the merger, Hughes emerged as the new party's leader, with Cook as his deputy. The presence of a working-class man like Hughes leading what was basically an upper- and middle-class party allowed the Nationalists to convey an image of national unity. At the same time, he became and remains a traitor in Labor histories.
At the May 1917 federal election Hughes and the Nationalists won a huge electoral victory. At this election Hughes gave up his working-class Sydney seat and was elected for Bendigo, Victoria, becoming the first of only a handful of people who have represented more than one state or territory in the Parliament. Hughes had promised to resign if his Government did not win the power to conscript. 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 no confidence in his leadership by his party, resigned as Prime Minister. However, there were no credible alternative candidates. For this reason, Munro-Ferguson used his reserve power to immediately re-commission Hughes, thus allowing him to remain as Prime Minister while keeping his promise to resign.
Introduction of preferential voting for federal elections
The government replaced the first-past-the-post electoral system applying to both houses of the Federal Parliament under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1903 with a preferential system for the House of Representatives in 1918. That preferential system has essentially applied ever since. A multiple majority-preferential system was introduced at the 1919 federal election for the Senate, and that remained in force until it was changed to a quota-preferential system of proportional representation in 1948. Those changes were considered to be a response to the emergence of the Country Party, so that the non-Labor vote would not be split, as it would have been under the previous first-past-the-post system.
Hughes attends Paris peace conference
In 1919, Hughes and former Prime Minister Joseph Cook travelled to Paris to attend the Versailles peace conference. He remained away for 16 months, and signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Australia – the first time Australia had signed an international treaty. At Versailles, Hughes claimed; "I speak for 60 000 [Australian] dead". He went on to ask of Woodrow Wilson; "How many do you speak for?" when the United States President failed to acknowledge his demands. Hughes, unlike Wilson or South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, demanded heavy reparations from Germany suggesting a staggering sum of £24,000,000,000 of which Australia would claim many millions, to off-set its own war debt. Hughes frequently clashed with President Wilson, who described him as a "pestiferous varmint".
Hughes demanded that Australia have independent representation within the newly formed League of Nations. Despite the rejection of his conscription policy, Hughes retained his popularity, and in December 1919 his government was comfortably re-elected. At the Treaty negotiations, Hughes was the most prominent opponent of the inclusion of the Japanese racial equality proposal, which as a result of lobbying by him and others was not included in the final Treaty. His position on this issue reflected the mindset of 'racial categories' during this time. Japan was notably offended by Hughes's position on the issue.
Like Jan Smuts of South Africa, Hughes was concerned by the rise of Japan. Within months of the declaration of the European War in 1914; Japan, Australia and New Zealand seized all German possessions in the South West Pacific. Though Japan occupied German possessions with the blessings of the British, Hughes was alarmed by this policy. In 1919 at the Peace Conference the Dominion leaders, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia argued their case to keep their occupied German possessions of German Samoa, German South West Africa, and German New Guinea; these territories were given a "Class C Mandates" to the respective Dominions. In a same-same deal Japan obtained control over its occupied German possessions, north of the equator.
Of Hughes's actions at the Peace Conference, the historian Seth Tillman described him as "a noisesome demagogue", the "bete noir [sic] of Anglo-American relations." Unlike Smuts, Hughes was totally opposed to the concept of the League of Nations, as in it he saw the flawed idealism of 'collective security'.
After 1920 Hughes's political position declined. Many of the more conservative elements of his own party never trusted him because they thought he was still a socialist at heart, citing his interest in retaining government ownership of the Commonwealth Shipping Line and the Australian Wireless Company. However, they continued to support him for some time after the war, if only to keep Labor out of power.
A new party, the Country Party (now the National Party), was formed, representing farmers who were discontented with the Nationalists' rural policies, in particular Hughes's acceptance of a much higher level of tariff protection for Australian industries (that had expanded during the war) and his support for price controls on rural produce. In the New Year's Day Honours of 1922, his wife Mary was appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE).
At the 1922 federal election, Hughes gave up Bendigo and transferred to the upper-class seat of North Sydney, thus giving up one of the last symbolic links to his working-class roots. The Nationalists lost their outright majority at the election. The Country Party, despite its opposition to Hughes's farm policy, was the Nationalists' only realistic coalition partner. However, party leader Earle Page let it be known that he and his party would not serve under Hughes. Under pressure from his party's right wing, Hughes resigned in February 1923 and was succeeded by his Treasurer, Stanley Bruce. Hughes was the longest-serving Prime Minister, until his term was surpassed by Robert Menzies (in 1957).
Hughes was furious at being ousted by his own party and nursed his grievance on the back-benches until 1929, when he led a group of back-bench rebels who crossed the floor of the Parliament to bring down the Bruce government. Hughes was expelled from the Nationalist Party, and formed his own party, the Australian Party. After the Nationalists were heavily defeated in the ensuing election, Hughes initially supported the Labor government of James Scullin. He had a falling-out with Scullin over financial matters, however. In 1931 he buried the hatchet with his former colleagues and joined the Nationalists and several right-wing Labor dissidents under Joseph Lyons in forming the United Australia Party (UAP), under Lyons' leadership. He voted with the rest of the UAP to bring the Scullin government down.
The UAP won a sweeping victory at the 1931 election. Lyons sent Hughes to represent Australia at the 1932 League of Nations Assembly in Geneva and in 1934 Hughes became Minister for Health and Repatriation in the Lyons government. Later Lyons appointed him Minister for External Affairs, but Hughes was forced to resign in 1935 after his book Australia and the War Today exposed a lack of preparation in Australia for what Hughes correctly supposed to be a coming war. Soon after, the Lyons government tripled the defence budget.
Hughes was brought back to Australia by Lyons as Minister for External Affairs in 1937. By the time of Lyons' death in 1939, Hughes was also serving as Attorney-General and Minister for Industry. He also served as Minister for the Navy, Minister for Industry and Attorney-General at various times under Lyons' successor, Robert Menzies.
Defence issues became increasingly dominant in public affairs with the rise of Fascism in Europe and militant Japan in Asia. From 1938, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons had Hughes head a recruitment drive for the Australian Defence Force. On 7 April 1939, Lyons died in office. The United Australia Party selected Robert Menzies as his successor to lead a minority government on the eve of World War Two. Australia entered the Second World War on 3 September 1939 and a special War Cabinet was created after war was declared – initially composed of Prime Minister Menzies and five senior ministers including Hughes.
Labor opposition leader John Curtin declined to join and Menzies lost his majority at the 1940 Election. With the Allies suffering a series of defeats and the threat of war growing in the Pacific, the Menzies Government (1939-1941) relied on two independents, Arthur Coles and Alex Wilson for its parliamentary majority.
Unable to convince Curtin to join in a War Cabinet and facing growing pressure within his own party, Menzies resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the UAP on 29 August 1941. Although the UAP had been in government for a decade, it was so bereft of leadership that it was forced to elect Hughes as its leader. In the normal course of events, this should have made Hughes Prime Minister for the second time. However, Hughes was only a month shy of 79 and had been in declining health for some time. For this reason, he was deemed too old and frail to be a wartime Prime Minister, and gave up the leadership of the UAP-Country Coalition—and the Prime Ministership—to Country Party leader Arthur Fadden. He remained as the #2-man in the Fadden government, serving as Attorney-General and Minister for the Navy. A month later, Coles and Wilson joined with the Labor opposition to defeat the budget and bring down the government. The independents, under prodding from Governor-General Lord Gowrie, then threw their support to Opposition Leader John Curtin, who was sworn in as Prime Minister on 7 October 1941. Eight weeks later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Hughes led the UAP into the 1943 election largely by refusing to hold any party meetings and by agreeing to let Fadden lead the Opposition as a whole. The Coalition was severely defeated, winning only 19 seats. Hughes himself was nearly defeated in North Sydney on a swing of over 14 percent, seeing his majority dwindle from a comfortably safe 67 percent to a marginal 53 percent. After the election, Hughes—who had widely been reckoned as a stopgap leader—yielded the leadership of the UAP back to Menzies. In February 1944 the UAP withdrew its members from the Advisory War Council in protest against the Curtin government. Hughes rejoined the council, and was expelled from the UAP.
In 1944 Menzies formed a new party, the Liberal Party, and Hughes became a member. In 1949, much of the northern portion of North Sydney was redistributed to the new seat of Bradfield; Hughes transferred there and won easily. He remained a member of Parliament until his death in October 1952, sparking a Bradfield by-election. He had been a member of the House of Representatives for 51 years and seven months. Including his service in the New South Wales colonial Parliament before that, Hughes had spent a total of 58 years as an MP, and had never lost an election. His period of service remains a record in Australia. He was the last member of the original Australian Parliament elected in 1901 still serving in Parliament when he died. Hughes was the penultimate member of the First Parliament to die; King O'Malley outlived him by fourteen months. Hughes was also the last surviving member of the Watson Cabinet, as well as the first and third Cabinets of Andrew Fisher.
At the age of 90 years, one month and three days, Hughes is the oldest person ever to have been a member of the Australian parliament.
Hughes died on 28 October 1952, aged 90, at his home in Lindfield. His state funeral was held at St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney and was one of the largest Australia has seen: some 450,000 spectators lined the streets. He was later buried at Northern Suburbs Anglican Cemetery.
He was survived by the six children of his first (common law) marriage and by his wife Mary. Their daughter Helen had died in childbirth in 1937 in London, aged 21 from septicaemia. Their grandson now lives in Sydney under another name. This was not generally known until 2004, when the ABC screened a program about those events. It was presented by the actor Martin Vaughan, who had played Billy Hughes in the 1975 film Billy and Percy and whose continuing interest in him led to the unearthing of Helen's fate.
His widow, Dame Mary Hughes, died in 1958.
Hughes, a tiny, wiry man, with a raspy voice and an increasingly wizened face, was an unlikely national leader, but during the First World War he acquired a reputation as a war leader—the troops called him the "Little Digger"—that sustained him for the rest of his life. He is remembered for his outstanding political and diplomatic skills, for his many witty sayings, and for his irrepressible optimism and patriotism.
At the 50th jubilee dinner of the Commonwealth Parliament, a speaker paid tribute to him as a man "who sat in every Parliament since Federation – and every party too". Arthur Fadden interjected: "Not the Country Party!" "No," said Hughes, still able to hear when he wanted, "I had to draw the line somewhere."
In the New Year's Honours of 1941, Hughes was named a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH), in recognition of his service as Prime Minister 1915–23.
The electoral division of Hughes and the Canberra suburb of Hughes are named after him.
In 1972, he was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.
After marrying his wife Mary in 1911, the couple went on a long drive, because he did not have time for a honeymoon. Their car crashed where the Sydney–Melbourne road crosses the Sydney–Melbourne railway north of Albury, New South Wales, leading to the level crossing there being named after him; it was later replaced by the Billy Hughes Bridge.
- Crusts and Crusades: tales of bygone days (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1947).
- Policies and Potentates (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1950).