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William Morris 'Billy' Hughes, CH, KC (25 September 1862 – 28 October 1952), Australian politician, was the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, the longest-serving member of the Australian Parliament, and one of the most colourful figures in Australian political history. Over the course of his 51 year federal parliamentary career (and an additional 7 prior to that in a colonial parliament), Hughes changed parties five times: from Labor to National Labor to Nationalist to Australian to United Australia to Liberal, was expelled from two, and represented four different electorates in two states. Read Full Bio >>
William Morris "Billy" Hughes was born in Pimlico, London on 25 September 1862 of 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 Llansaintffraid, 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 picked up some fluency in 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 his father's elder sister Mary Hughes at 78 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London.
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 established a common law marriage with his landlady's daughter, Elizabeth Cutts. In 1890 they moved to Balmain where he opened a small mixed shop, where he sold political pamphlets, did odd jobs and mended umbrellas. He joined the Socialist League in 1892 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.
Group photograph of all Federal Labour Party MPs elected at the inaugural 1901 election, including Chris Watson, Andrew Fisher, Hughes, and Frank Tudor.
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.
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. His wife died in 1906, and his 17-year-old daughter raised his other five children in Sydney. 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. 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 Leader. His on-going feud with King O'Malley, a fellow Labor minister, was a prominent example of his combative style.
Following the 1914 election, 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 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 World War I, 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 a plebiscite 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. (Although the enabling legislation, the Military Service Referendum Act 1916, referred to it as a referendum that is incorrect as, unlike a referendum, the outcome was advisory only, and was not legally binding). 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 14 November 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. Years later, Hughes said, "I did not leave the Labor Party. The party left me."
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. At the 1917 federal election Hughes and the Nationalists won a huge electoral victory. At this election Hughes gave up his working-class seat and was elected for Bendigo in Victoria. 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 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.
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.
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 dead". Hughes, unlike US President Wilson or Smuts of South Africa demanded heavy reparations from Germany suggesting a staggering sum of (Pounds) 24,000 Million, of which Australia would claim many millions, to off-set its own war debt. Hughes frequently clashed with President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, 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 modal thought of 'racial categories' during this time. Japan was notably offended by Hughes' 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 Domonion 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' actions at the Peace Conference, the historian Seth Tillman described him as 'a noisesome demagogue", the 'bete noir 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 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. 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' 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. At the 1922 federal election, Hughes switched from the rural seat of Bendigo to North Sydney, but the Nationalists lost their outright majority. The Country Party, running in its first election as a united party, held the balance of power, leaving party leader Earle Page theoretically able to choose the next Prime Minister. Eventually, Page decided to go into coalition with the Nationalists, but 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 furious at this betrayal by his 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. In 1931 he buried the hatchet with his former colleagues and joined the new United Australia Party (UAP), under the leadership of Joseph Lyons.
His term as Australian Prime Minister was a record until overtaken by Robert Menzies. He remained Australia's second-longest serving Prime Minister until overtaken by Malcolm Fraser in late February 1983.
In 1934 he became Minister for Health and Repatriation in the Lyons government. He was also Minister for the Navy, Minister for Industry and Attorney-General at various times under Lyons and his successor, Robert Menzies, between 1934 and 1941. However, he remained a controversial figure. After 1936 he was a vocal opponent of the British policy of appeasement at a time when this policy enjoyed bi-partisan support. In 1937 he was forced to resign from the government after publishing a book attacking Britain's policies with regard to German rearmament and Japanese actions in China. After the UAP nearly lost the 1940 federal election, Menzies was forced to resign by his colleagues, and in October 1941 Labor came to power under John Curtin. Menzies then resigned as UAP leader, and Hughes, aged 79 and very frail, was elected party leader.
Billy Hughes, John Curtin, and the Governor-General of Australia Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester in Canberra, 1945
Billy Hughes in 1945 aged 83, seven years before his death
Hughes led the UAP into the 1943 election largely by refusing to hold any party meetings and by agreeing to let Arthur Fadden (Country Party leader) lead the Opposition as a whole, but was defeated, and resigned in favour of Menzies. In February 1944 the UAP withdrew its members from the Advisory War Council in protest against the Labor government of John Curtin. Hughes, however, rejoined the council, and for that he was expelled from the UAP.
In 1944 Menzies formed a new party, the Liberal Party, and Hughes became a member. His final change of seat was to the new electorate of Bradfield in 1949. He remained a member of Parliament until his death in October 1952. He had been a member of the House of Representatives for 51 years and seven months, and including his service in the New South Wales colonial Parliament before that had spent a total of 58 years as a member of parliament. His period of service remains a record in Australia. He was the last member of the original Australian Parliament elected in 1901 still in the Parliament when he died. He was not however, the last member of that first Parliament to die—this was King O'Malley, who outlived Hughes by fourteen months. At age 90 years and one month at the time of his death, he was the oldest person ever to have been a member of the Australian parliament. He was also the last Australian Prime Minister born in Britain.
Hughes died in his home in the Sydney suburb of Lindfield, survived by the six children of his first marriage and by his second wife Dame Mary Hughes; his daughter had died in 1937. His state funeral in Sydney was one of the largest Australia has seen: some 450,000 spectators lined the streets.
Hughes, a tiny, wiry man with a wizened face and a raspy voice, 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'. Sir Arthur Fadden interjected: 'Not the Country Party!' 'No,' said Hughes, still able to hear when he wanted, 'I had to draw the line somewhere.', potentially due to the fact it was the Country Party who was responsible for bringing his Prime Ministership down in 1923.
Bust of Billy Hughes by sculptor Wallace Anderson located in the Prime Minister's Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens
The electoral division of Hughes and the Canberra suburb of Hughes are named after him. In addition, he took his second wife on a long drive in 1911 because he did not have time for a honeymoon and crashed where the Sydney-Melbourne road crossed the Sydney-Melbourne railway north of Albury, leading to the crossing being named after Billy Hughes; it was later replaced by the Billy Hughes Bridge. << Less Bio