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Extended interview

Part 1

 

Extended interview - Part 1

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Political situation – August 1914 00:00 In July-August 1914, Australia was in a rather unusual situation in that it was having a federal election, and it was having an election for both houses of parliament – a 'double dissolution'. So, when the news from Europe started to become particularly serious, towards the end of July, Parliament had just been prorogued and the politicians had scattered throughout the country on election campaigning. And, at that time, the government had been a Liberal government, under the leadership of Joseph Cook, and the Labor Party was in opposition. Now the problem that confronted the parliamentarians at that stage was that it was very difficult, and indeed for many of them impossible, to get back to Melbourne, where parliament was sitting because Canberra had not yet been built, to discuss the very important question of what was happening in Europe. So, as this most serious of diplomatic crises developed, parliament was not sitting.
    At that time the Governor-General indeed was very significant, much more significant than he or she might be today, in the Australian political system and so the Governor-General played a role in prompting the 'caretaker cabinet' as it would have been called at that stage, under Joseph Cook, to convene and to discuss what Australia's response would be to the situation developing in Europe. The Cabinet was small, there were only five able to meet on the 3rd August 1914, because the other five were so far scattered around Australia. For example, the treasurer, a well-known Western Australian politician, Sir John Forrest, was in Western Australia and it was impossible for him to get to Melbourne in time to discuss the question of Australia's response to the war. There wasn't even a railway between Perth and the east of Australia at that stage so he would have had to travel by ship and of course there was no air travel either at that stage. And, apart from Cook and Forrest, there was a very significant politician, Sir William Irvine, who was Attorney-General and very much in favour of Australia supporting Britain during the war. The Labor Party was led by Andrew Fisher, but a very significant man in the Labor Party was W.M. (always known as "Billy") Hughes who would become Prime Minister in 1915.
Parliament and the decision to go to war 2:38 The Australian Parliament had no role in Australia's decision to go to war, not only was it not sitting or in operation at the time that the war broke out in Europe, Australia actually had no formal role in the decision to go to war. This may seem extremely strange today, but at that time Australia was what was called a 'dominion' – it was a white, self-governing unit of the British Empire. And, although it had powers over many of the matters to do with internal governance in Australia, and had those powers since federation in 1901, it had been agreed or it was understood that the conduct of foreign policy remained with the British government in London. So, when the British Government declared war on Germany on the 4th August 1914, it did so on behalf of the whole of the British Empire. So, really the decision that confronted the Australian politicians in early August 1914, was not whether they'd go to war, but rather what support they would give to Britain.
Parliamentary debate 3:50 So when Parliament actually met after the election, in October 1914, Australia was already committed to the war and their debate was much more about, well, what do we do now that we are at war, rather than whether we should go to war. And, of course, it is worth remembering that even today Parliament does not discuss the question of whether Australia should commit defence forces to a conflict overseas, that decision still remains with the executive branch of government.
Parliamentary support for the war 4:21 There was not really much serious reservation about Australia's decision to support Britain in the war and to support Britain very generously. There were one or two politicians who expressed some concerns, particularly Frank Anstey the Labor politician, but the sense in Australia of identification with Britain's interests was so strong, on both sides of politics, that there was no major opposition to the decision to support Britain. Now that decision had been taken by the Cabinet on the 3rd August and it was a decision that had been shaped by all previous discussions about Australia's defence. I think it is important to realise that the decision to, first of all, send the Royal Navy, sorry, the Royal Australian Navy to be part of the Royal Navy's operations and to offer Britain a force of 20,000 men, and those were the decisions that were made on the 3rd August, these were very much part of agreed defence policies. They had been debated for the decade before 1914; they had been discussed at the Imperial Conference of 1911, so it wasn't as if the cabinet was doing something that was really radically different from what people would have expected in the circumstances.
  5:44 It is hard for us to know exactly what the Australian population did think because this was the age before public opinion polls, and phone opinion polls, and people thrusting microphones in the front of people as they leave election booths. So far as we can tell there was considerable support within the Australian population for the decision to support Britain in the war. This was an election time and both of the leaders of the political parties came out with very strong statements in support of Britain. Indeed, the Labor leader, the leader of the Opposition, coined that very famous phrase that Australia would support Britain, "to the last man and the last shilling". And it's reasonable, I think, to assume that he would not, Andrew Fisher would not, have said that had he not thought that that resonated with the mood of the electorate. And it would seem that there was something of a competition between the two political leaders to be, prove themselves the more loyal in their support of Britain. Probably Andrew Fisher felt that if he didn't come out with a very strong statement of support for the war, he might have been painted by the other side, by his opponents, as being soft on defence. And so, I think, in the election campaign it seems that support for Britain was a very popular position. We know that at the meetings where both political party leaders gave their strong support to Britain there were great cheers of "hoorah" from the crowds.
  7:27 When war actually broke out there were crowds in the street of enthusiastic men waiting to volunteer to go and serve in the war and there were crowds, similar crowds, in Europe and these are generally taken as being indicative of the support of the population for the war. But then of course we don't really know why people were in those crowds, we probably don't really know how many were in those crowds either, they might have just been out there gathering in the streets to get the news. Perhaps the most reliable indication of support for the war was how many men volunteered in the first weeks of the war. The cabinet promised the British government 20,000 men, even before the war had broken out, and those 20,000 men volunteered within a matter of weeks and, by Christmas time, some 52,000 men had volunteered. So that's an indication, at least, there was considerable support for the war at this stage.
  8:34 There were a number of reasons why the Australian government, and the Australian population, really had very little hesitation in supporting Britain. And the first, and perhaps most important, was that it was taken as axiomatic, as given at that time, that Australia could not defend itself. It had to rely on a broad, global system of imperial defence for its support. So, if the Royal Navy were not dominant in the world, Australians feared that they would be vulnerable to whoever might want to attack them in the Asia-Pacific region. So, there was a very strong sense that Australia's interests and Britain's interests were not necessarily identical, but very closely aligned. And the other major reason was that the majority of the Australian population in 1914, and let's remember there were only four and half million of them, the majority of that population had either emigrated from Britain or who had parents or grandparents who had. So it was essentially an Anglo-Celtic population, radically different from the population of today. And hence, for them, Britain was what they called 'home' or the 'mother country' and they had an almost instinctive emotional and cultural identification with Great Britain. So Britain's war was really seen as Australia's war.
War Precautions Act 10:07 Well, the Australian Parliament met in October 1914, after the election which had been held on the 5th September, and almost immediately started to consider, not really the question of where Australian troops would go and fight, that was left to the British Government to decide, but how they would manage the war at home. And they introduced an Act (the Labor government introduced an Act) called the War Precautions Act. Now this had a huge influence on Australia during World War I because, in summary, it really gave the power to manage many aspects of Australian life to the executive branch of government. And Parliament really surrendered to the Cabinet and the Governor-General the right to regulate, particularly the treatment of Australians who had either been born in enemy countries – what were called 'enemy aliens' – or whose ancestors had been born in enemy countries. This was one of the major elements of the War Precautions Act in 1914.
  11:15 The War Precautions Act was amended at various points during the war, but it was so significant because it gave the government, the executive branch of government, the power to introduce regulations to govern issues to do with what was called 'public safety and the defence of the Commonwealth'.
  11:36 So, over the four years of war, more than a hundred regulations under the War Precautions Act were introduced and these were very restrictive, ultimately, in the way in which Australians could speak about and campaign about issues associated with the war. They became particularly important during the conscription debates of 1916 and 17 when the Hughes government would use the regulations of the War Precautions Act to search people's premises, to particularly to censor newspapers, to silence opposition and criticism of the conduct of the war.
  12:23 Given that the War Precautions Act became so significant and was ultimately used to, really, to restrict many people's civil liberties, it is surprising how little debate there was about it in October 1914. Hughes, who was then Attorney-General, gave assurances that the government would use the War Precautions powers as little as possible and, of course, they were considered to be in place only for quote "the duration of the war". But even allowing for that, it's surprising that so few parliamentarians could see how much scope and power the War Precautions Act was giving to the executive branch of government.
  13:08 There were some people who expressed some reservations. The Liberal leader, Cook, for example, wondered whether this would lead to Australia being under Martial Law – that is under the control of the military – and one or two of the more radical Labor parliamentarians, even though their party was in government, expressed concerns about the powers of the War Precautions Act. But really it got through Parliament with very little dissent and it was only really in retrospect that people realised what significant powers parliament had surrendered.
Enemy Aliens 13:48

The question of enemy aliens was a very divisive one in Australia and yet, I think, in really restricting the civil liberties of these Australians, the government had the support of the majority of the population. Nearly 7,000 Australians of enemy extraction – enemy aliens as they were called – were interned during the war and many were deported after the war, but the people who supported them were relatively few in number. In the Parliament, there was some concern expressed by those parliamentarians, and there weren't many of them, whose electorates were German, or had large numbers of German speaking Australians within them. The Barossa Valley, for example, in South Australia was a very strongly German area and the Member of Parliament for that electorate was concerned, as well he might have been, at the implications of the War Precautions Act and the attacks on enemy aliens. But then, I think, you have to realise that what happens in war-time is that opposition, hostility, hatred against groups like the German-Australians or the Austrian-Australians took time to build up. There was a lot of suspicion of them, rather hysterical suspicion of people spying and engaging in conduct that might damage the war effort in the early months of the war, but the real hostility to the German-Australians and the enemy aliens really builds up in 1915 on.

So what you see happen later in the war is that German schools are closed, German newspapers are prohibited and so on, but like many significant pieces of legislation people probably didn't realise its full implications when it was passed.

Opposition to the war 15:50 The main opposition to the war came from those elements of what we might call the labour movement – because you have the Australian Labor Party in power at the federal level and you have Labor governments at the start of the war in a number of the states – but in addition to the political party there was a wide labour movement which had its base in the trade unions and that really underpinned the political party. Now within the wider labour movement there was a radical element that, from the start, opposed the war. Rather than seeing the war as being in defence of British and Australian interests, it thought the real war was between capital – the forces of capitalism – and the working man or the labour movement. Those elements of the labour movement used to talk about 'money power' and they had this view that the people who were benefitting from the war were the fat plutocrats – the men who ran the businesses. And so, from the start, these people said, look, let's not lose sight of the fact that the real struggle is between capital and labour and class warfare. But they were very much in a minority. That voice is not strongly represented in Parliament at the beginning of the war. It does become a much stronger voice as the war goes on and, ultimately, the labour movement says it's time – this is in 1918 – says it's time to negotiate an end to the war.
  17:27 But the most important thing, I think, is that the opposition to conscription, which many in the labour movement strongly expressed, was not the same as opposition to the war. A lot of Australians, even radical Australians, were opposed to conscription but still thought that the cause of the war was worth fighting. So, really, the opposition to conscription, which was very wide-spread, was not the same as the opposition to the war.
Unlawful Associations Act 18:02 One of the organisations that, at least the Labor government under Hughes, and then when Hughes became leader of the National government, and the National government, opposed very strongly was one called the 'Industrial Workers of the World' – the IWW or, as they were commonly known, the 'Wobblies'. Now Hughes, both as Attorney-General and then as Prime Minister, had a particular dislike of this organisation, partly because they represented a very radical element within the trade union movement. Hughes, himself, had risen to power through the trade union movement, and within the labour movement there was this division between those who thought, well, the way to bring about change was by negotiation, compromise, incremental change, and the more radical elements who were in favour of very strong industrial action against the business movement, against the employers, against the government. And so Hughes had already developed a dislike for the radical element of the trade union movement and, when he is in power, he comes to see the IWW as the embodiment of everything that's threatening the war. He sees them as traitors, disloyal, and a force that must be crushed.
  19:21 Ultimately, he introduces legislation into the Australian parliament called the 'Unlawful Associations Act'. This is just after the first conscription referendum has been defeated and it's an interesting Act because it very specifically identifies the IWW as a potential threat to Australian security. And that Act aimed to limit and to, indeed, ban the activities of the IWW. It's then amended in the middle of 1917 – in a quite radical way – to mean that it wasn't just the organisation that was illegal, being a member, even if a person was a member of the organisation, they could be deemed to be guilty of an offence. Originally, you could only be found guilty of an offence if you were taking actions that were likely to damage the war effort but, finally in 1917, just being a member of an 'unlawful association' – as it was called – could attract a fine or, at worse, a prison sentence. And in 1916 and 1917, the whole leadership of the IWW is arrested and put in gaol and some of them are actually deported to South America. So that is one of the organisations that Prime Minister Hughes had a particular obsession with. Of course, during the conscription debates he became particularly concerned also about the role of the Catholic Church, but that was a much bigger organisation and he couldn't ban the Catholic Church – that was even beyond Hughes' powers!
The economy 21:13 The Australian economy was extraordinarily depended upon international trade so, almost immediately after the war began, there started to be very severe repercussions – prices started to rise, particularly prices for food, and unemployment rose quite significantly in the last months of 1914. So, the Australian government was confronted quite quickly with the problem of how to regulate prices and how to manage the negative impact of the war on the Australian economy. And one of the arguments that came up constantly in the political debate was about 'equality of sacrifice' – was everybody making the same contribution to the war, were some groups suffering more than others, were some groups, of course, volunteering at a higher rate than others? So, it was a very important political issue to try and regulate the economy.
Trading with the enemy 22:09 One of the first things the Labor government did was to introduce a bill that restricted trade with enemy countries, called the 'Trading with the Enemy Act', because during war time, of course, you're not allowed to continue to trade with countries that have become enemy powers. And yet Australia was trading with Germany, it was trading with countries like Belgium – that were occupied – so the Australian government moved to ban trade with Germany. But then it had to work out ways to compensate businesses and primary producers for the loss of trade and much of the time that Billy Hughes spent in London, during the war, was devoted to trying to ensure that Australian trade in primary products continued.
  22:59 But Hughes also saw opportunities in the disruption of trade for Australia, and he was particularly intent on capturing for Australian businesses those economic interests which had previously been dominated by German companies, particularly in the area of metals – base metals. And so, in addition to the Trading with the Enemy Act, in 1915, the Parliament passed an act which annulled – wiped out – contracts with enemy powers because businesses had said , 'well, yes, we may be at war, but we have a contract with a company that is foreign and we can't renege on that contract'. But the Parliament passed the Act that enabled those contracts that had existed before the war to be invalid, if they were with enemy powers. And so, Hughes then spends quite a deal of time building up the metals industry in Australia, creating, for example, a refinery for zinc in Tasmania.