Served Australia as Prime Minister and as
the leader of three different parties. From Labor beginnings, he later
joined the United Australia Party, then the Liberal Party, but never the
Country Party-"I had to draw the line somewhere," he quipped.
Probably best known for his gallant war
efforts, earning him the nickname "the little digger," Billy
Hughes was born in London on September 25, 1862 of working class Welsh
parents. He qualified as a teacher, emigrated to Australia and worked as
a stockman, a factory hand, a stone breaker, an actor, a ship's cook, a
railway fettler, a bookseller and in 1890, became the organiser for the
Australian Workers Union. He was involved in various union activities
before winning a seat in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in
1894. He opposed Federation but entered federal politics and became a
founding member of the Commonwealth Labour Party under the leadership of
He married Elizabeth Cutts in 1886, who
gave birth to six children and died in 1906. In 1911 he married Mary
Campbell, who was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British
Empire in 1922 in recognition of her services during World War I.
Deputy leader of the Labor Party under
Fisher, Hughes held the influential Attorney-General portfolio. In
October 1915 he became prime minister on Fisher's resignation and threw
himself wholeheartedly into the war effort. In January 1916, he set out
to Britain to argue for more Australian participation in deciding the
conduct of the war, and whilst there purchased, without reference to
Cabinet, a fleet of 25 ships to form the basis of the government-owned
shipping line (sold off in 1928). Then Hughes toured the western front,
where the Australian Infantry Force welcomed him with open arms and
nicknamed him "the little digger."
Hughes believed it was Australia's
patriotic duty to send more troops to help Britain, which could only be
achieved through compulsory conscription. The country was divided. Even
though the Labor party was anti-conscription, Hughes persuaded Cabinet
to hold a referendum. In the midst of heavy losses on the Somme, the
first referendum on compulsory conscription was rejected by the people.
With this rebuff and the resignation of five ministers, Hughes walked
out of the party room and formed the National Labor Party with the
support of Cook's Liberals.
Pressure to form a wartime national
coalition failed because the Labor Party refused to serve under Hughes.
In February 1917, the National Labor Party and the Liberals merged to
form the National Party. Hughes held another referendum on conscription
in December 1917, which was also defeated. Hughes resigned, but as there
was no one else who could take over he remained the prime minster.
In April 1918, Hughes and Cook travelled
to London to attend the Imperial War Conference and to see the war at
first hand. He was in London when the armistice was declared and
insisted on an Australian seat at the Versailles Peace Conference. He
clashed with Woodrow Wilson and with the Japanese prime minister, who
suggested that the principle of racial equality should form part of the
League of Nations Covenant.
Hughes was triumphantly re-elected in
December 1919. The next three years were made difficult by conflicts
between Hughes and the Country Party. In 1923, after seven years as
prime minister, he was forced to resign and retire to the backbenches.
Hughes did not go quietly. In 1929 he forced the resignation of Bruce.
During the Depression he attempted but failed to gain support for a new
political grouping, the Australia Party. In the '30s, he joined the
United Australia Party and held several political posts under Lyons,
whom he criticised for not recognising the need to prepare for war.
Hughes became leader of the United Australia Party in 1941, and worked
with Labor on the 1941-45 Advisory War Council.
Hughes remained a member of Parliament
until his death in 1952, having completed 51 years as a federal
politician and being the last member of the original 1901 Parliament to
occupy a seat.