You are currently viewing a sub-site of the Parliamentary Education Office website

Extended interview

Part 2

Extended interview - Part 2


Price controls 00:00 Well, the federal government had comparatively little power, initially, to control the Australian economy and particularly the prices of essential commodities. And this rapidly became one of the key issues for the trade unions, in particular, the controlling prices, and the labour press used to, every month, publish the details of, you know, what was the price of bread, what was the price of butter.
  00:28 Well, prices of particularly of food and other commodities was a huge issue politically particularly for the trade unions and so the government of Andrew Fisher tried to address this question but it had comparatively limited powers, the federal government had limited powers.
  00:48 Prior to the war there had been two referendums to try and give the federal government greater powers over trade and business within Australia.
  00:57 Now in mid-1915 the Andrew Fisher government decided it would try to put the question of federal powers over the economy to the Australian public again in another referendum and that was scheduled to be held in December 1915.
  01:16 But in a very controversial decision, Hughes, who became Prime Minister in October 1915, decided not hold the referendum. His reasons for this have been debated but it appears he was worried that he might not win the referendum, that it would distract the Australian public from the bigger question of the conduct of the war and support for the war but most importantly when he met the premiers in November 1915, the state premiers promised him that if he did not proceed with the referendum they would transfer to the federal government the powers that it needed over trade and business for the duration of the war. And some of the state premiers were Labor leaders and so Hughes agreed with them that he would defer the referendum.
  02:15 This caused enormous anger amongst left-wing commentators, particularly the Labor press and they had good cause to be angry because what they thought was that the state governments would not deliver on their promises, particularly because in all states there were legislative councils or upper houses that were controlled by conservative interests. And these "charnel houses" as one left-wing paper called them were very unlikely to give up the powers were likely to give up the powers to the federal government even for the duration of the war. So as it happened there was not significant transfer of powers to the federal government
  02:55 So confronted with the problem and the anger that he had created by deferring the referendum, Hughes had to use some of the powers within the War Precautions Act to control prices. So there were some attempts through regulations and of the War Precautions Act to control prices but it remained a very controversial issue throughout the war.
  03:17 And as far as the left-wing press was concerned what was going on was that young men were being sent overseas to defend the country while their homes were being raided by the fat plutocrats. There were lots of cartoons of the fat businessman stealing food away from the starving family of the man that is fighting overseas.
The Peace Treaty 03:40 The Australian Parliament did approve the Treaty of Versailles, though of course it had absolutely no involvement in the negotiations in Paris that led to the signing of this treaty.
  03:53 The Paris Peace Conference was very significant in the development of Australia's role internationally because it was the first conference at which Australia and the other dominions in the British Empire had their own representation. Hughes was a reasonably, and in fact in some ways, very active member of the Paris Peace Conference. But he acted without much reference even to his own Cabinet let alone to the Australian Parliament.
  04:24 When he returned the Treaty of Versailles was brought to the Australian Parliament for approval and there was debate about the Treaty of Versailles and in many ways this was quite a radical development for the Australian Parliament to be so involved in discussing a major matter of foreign policy. And it was a very difficult, I imagine, initiation for the Australian Parliament because the Treaty of Versailles was an immensely complex document and covered issues of the most profound importance and complexity, including of course the creation of the first international institution that was intended to regulate peace and war, the League of Nations.
  05:07 It is interesting that Hughes presented the Treaty of Versailles to the Parliament in very negative terms because he had been profoundly angered by the way in which the British Government had agreed to end World War I and then to negotiate the terms of peace with Germany and the other Central Powers within the framework of the 14 Points of President Woodrow Wilson of the United States. Hughes had absolutely no time for the 14 points which represented a new way of seeing the world of what we would call the liberal internationalist world view. Hughes was very much a man who thought that international relations were decided by power and force. And when the British Government agreed to the armistice in 1918, within the framework of the 14 Points, Hughes felt deeply betrayed and so his speech to Parliament, when he returned to Australia in 1919, was one that really said that the peace that had been negotiated at Paris was not a good peace for Australia and I think the debate in Australia reflected his concern, his sense of disappointment with the terms of the peace and perhaps a lot of really, a lack of understanding about what were the implications of the creation of the League of Nations for Australia in the future.
Outcomes of Treaty 06:39 In hard pragmatic terms Australia actually didn't achieve much from the Treaty of Versailles. I mean I think we need to accept that Australians generally had supported the war because they felt that the victory, victory for the British Empire, was essential and of course they believed that that had been achieved, although it was a much weakened British Empire in 1919. But the specific terms of the Treaty of Versailles did not really give a great deal to Australia.
  07:11 Hughes was particularly disappointed that he had failed in Paris to get the full costs of the war to Australia repaid by Germany. And one of the main preoccupations of the Australia Parliament during the World War I was how to raise the money to cover the ever increasing costs of the war and Hughes had hoped he would be able to really, as the phrase of the time went, "squeeze Germany until the pips squeak" and get the costs of not just the conduct of the war but the pensions and all the medical care for the soldiers who had been wounded during the war, covered by the defeated Central Powers and as it happened he was not able to get anything like the reparations that he aimed for.

His other supposed achievement at Paris was to secure control of that part of New Guinea which had been a German colony in 1914. One of the first thing that Australia forces did in 1914 after the declaration of war was to occupy the north-eastern part of New Guinea, which was a German colony, and Hughes was determined that Australia would not relinquish control of that, he felt it was absolutely essential to Australia's security after the war. But he was only able to gain control of that German New Guinea as a mandate of the League of Nations. He had hoped that it would be completely within Australia's control but Australia kept control of the New Guinea mandate through the League of the Nations in the inter-war years.

Apart from that really there wasn't a lot you could really say Australia had gained for the 60 000 or more dead that Hughes claimed to speak for at Paris.

  09:07 Preserving the White Australia Policy was something that every politician in Australia subscribed to, no matter what their political views. I mean, it was just a core value of Australia at the time and one which we find I think hard to identify with today in multicultural Australia. But no one had any shame about saying Australia should be white.
  09:27 At the Paris Peace Conference this came up, not directly but through an issue which the Japanese raised at Paris. Now one of the consequences of World War I was that the position of Japan in the international order had been significantly enhanced. It was an ally of Britain in World War I and hence Japan had a prominent place at the Paris Peace Conference and the Japanese delegation had argued that within the League of Nations there should be an explicit statement in its charter that there should be no discrimination on the grounds of racial character, the racial equality clause as it was called. They wanted to include in the charter of the League of Nations. Now for Hughes this was really a red rag to a bull. He was determined that there should not be an explicit statement about racial equality in the League of Nations charter because he felt that this would be the thin edge of the wedge; that if you started to say that all races were equal then it would be possible perhaps for the Japanese to start making claims that eroded the exclusive racial character of Australia's immigration policy. So Hughes came out very strongly against the racial equality clause in Paris, embarrassingly so. Some of his colleagues in Australia, within the Cabinet, felt that he was being far too offensive to the Japanese and this might have a negative impact on Australia's relations with Japan after the war but for Hughes there was just no way in which this clause would be included in the League of Nations charter. And he was successful in getting that excluded from the League of Nations charter, probably because, although President Woodrow Wilson of the United States did not want to admit it, it suited him not to have such a clause in the League of Nations charter because the same dislike of the Japanese that was manifest in Australia also existed in parts of the United States.
The Peace Treaty 11:45

The Treaty of Versailles really had to be approved by the Australian Parliament. It was one of those issues that you might debate but it was a done deal, fait accompli.

I think we need to understand that even though Australia did have independent representation in Paris during the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, we were a very small actor in a very big play. Quite remarkably there were 32 different nations represented at Paris and masses of committees debating all sorts of questions about the future of Europe and the future of the international order.

  12:28 And many of the most important decisions were made by a very small group, a group of four leaders, really the key powers and so although we in Australia and certainly in the Parliament is was acknowledged that Hughes has played as dominant role as he could. He was really not able to influence many of the decisions, in fact any of the major decisions taken in Paris, they were made in the Council of Four as it was called. And so for the Parliament it was an opportunity to reflect on what the significance of this treaty was, particularly to speculate what the implications of the creation of the League of Nations might be for Australian and British security in the future. But there was no option but to accept and approve the Treaty for all its limitations.
Australia's place in the world 13:31 It's surprising really I think how little Australia's position in the world had changed in 1919 compared to 1914. The war did generate considerable concern amongst the prime ministers of the dominions – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa particularly – about the relationship between them and the British Government. This concern of course was fed by the fact the dominion forces paid a huge price in terms of the number men killed, particularly on the Western Front, and by 1917 the Canadian Prime Minister particularly was saying, look you know, we've got to review the relationship between the dominion governments and the central government in London.
  14:30 It is worth noting, of course, that Hughes, because he was struggling to keep control of the political situation in Australia after the defeat of conscription in late 1916, and the Labor Party split that accompanied that, was not able to go to London to the Imperial War Conference of 1917, so he didn't have any contribution to that debate in 1917. He did join the debate in 1918 when the situation worse, appeared to be even worse than 1917 because the German's had broken through on the Western Front. So the dominions are saying look, we've got to look at the situation, we cannot have the same kind of sequence of events that occurred in 1914, we can't have constant loss of life without the dominion's having a greater say in the deployment of the troops. The whole question about the constitutional relationship between the dominions and Britain was thought to be too big to be discussed during the war so that was deferred until post-war discussions.
  15:36 The major change that occurred in 1918 was the way in which the dominion governments communicated with the London government was adjusted. Remarkably for much of the war if the Australian Prime Minister had wanted to talk to the British Prime Minister, he didn't contact him direct, he had to send the message through the Governor-General, who in turn sent that message to the Colonial Office in London, which then decided how the message should be treated in London. This was obviously a very long, winding path for the Prime Minister to have to follow and Hughes insisted in 1918 that he have direct access to the British Prime Minister on matters of Cabinet importance. But it's not until 1926 and then 1931 when we get the Statute of Westminster passed that there are serious changes, constitutional changes in the relationship between Australia and Britain.
  16:42 Now that effects the relationship between the Australian Parliament and the British Parliament, that was the core issue and it took some time for that to be addressed and Australia indeed does not ratify the Statute of Westminster until during World War II.
  17:00 The major change that really occurred in Australia's status internationally was that it became a member of the League of Nations and Australia did play an active role in the League of Nations.

In wider terms, particularly in terms of Australia's defence, despite all the anger about the loss of Australian life during the war and all the concerns about the way Britain may have conducted the war, Australia continued to plan its defence within the framework of the British Empire throughout the inter-war years.

Remarkably when World War II broke out, within a matter of hours the Australian Prime Minister had gone on radio to say that Britain was at war and therefore Australia was at war. It probably wasn't constitutionally the case any longer but it was a very similar response in 1939 to that of 1914.

  17:59 The Australian Government was very concerned that it would never again be committed to war without the British Government consulting it beforehand. But remarkably, within a matter of years the British had responded to a crisis that occurred with the Turks around the issue of Chanak, without consulting the Australian Government and it looked as if Australia may again be committed to a conflict without having any say. And Hughes, who was still Prime Minister, was very angry at that fact that despite everything that had happened during the war it appeared the British were still willing to commit the whole Empire to a conflict without, what Australia thought, was appropriate consultation and discussion.
  18:45 Well, during World War I the phrase that we now hear very often, that the war was 'the birth of the Australian nation' did become a popular one. Many people felt that, particularly at Gallipoli but also on the Western Front and in Palestine, Australians had proved themselves worthy sons of Empire; that proved that they were as good in fighting as any other army engaged in World War I. And so this undoubtedly fed a sense of new pride, a sense that Australians although part of the British Empire were distinctive, they had their own character, they had their own qualities that differentiated them from, and of course in the Australian mythology, made them better than the British, But I think we have to see a difference between that sense of national pride and what actually the status of Australia as a nation was. The whole question of Australia's constitutional relationship with Britain didn't change during the war. And so you have this rather unusual situation where Australian's do have a sense of what we might call national pride but they still see themselves as Imperial citizens. And just as they had in 1914, many Australians didn't see any problem with being Australians, and very proud of that, but also being very loyal to Britain. It is what we might call a dual sense of nationalism. Which in some ways isn't that much different from what we see today. Many Australians who've been immigrants to Australian society have a sense that they are proud to be Australian but also keep strong cultural and emotional links to the country from which they immigrated.
  20:30 I think Australia was profoundly divided by the experience of fighting World War I. That was really manifest in the conscription debates, which tore both the nation and local communities apart. The major effect of the conscription debates was to split the Labor Party, that had long term effects on federal politics, really a generation before Labor came back to power with any confidence at the federal level, and of course the conscription debates didn't cause but inflamed a very bitter divide in Australia between Catholics and Protestants, that was one of the more poisonous legacies of the conscription debates. So, I think you have to argue that Australia was deeply harmed in terms of its political culture and its social fabric by World War I, as well as of course the harm caused by the loss of so many young men's lives, and the wounding of so many other men.
Lasting impact of the War 21:38 The most obvious impact of the war on the Parliamentary system, while the war was actually being waged, was the transfer of day-to-day power from the Parliament to the Executive, particularly through the War Precautions Act. So you find a lot of the most important issues, what we would think of the most important issues of the war, are not being decided by Parliament, they are being decided either by the Cabinet or by Hughes, or in the case of where Australians fought, by the British High Command and the British Government.
  22:15 The War Precautions Act was repealed in 1920 but I think the major legacy of the war, in relation to the War Precautions Act, was that we were left with some of the security organisations, the intelligence organisations that the war gave birth to. So not all of that control over the Australian citizens was revoked. And the other major change was the restructure of the political party system. When the ALP split in late 1916 on the issue of conscription, Hughes himself didn't go. He formed a new government with 24 of his colleagues in the Labor Party who supported conscription and a new political party emerged from that called the National Party. Now it was a bit of a hybrid party because it was made up of people who had previously been on the other side of the house but in various forms that party continued to dominate federal parliament until the Second World War. Labor was only in power for a short period during the Great Depression at the federal level. That's not true at the state level but at the federal level I think you can argue that there was a major shift to the right of politics as a result of the split of the ALP which was a direct consequence, I think, of the conscription debates.
  23:47 Yes, there had been some shift towards the federal government, particularly in the areas of regulating the economy and in financial management of the war. One of the issues that people don't really consider much today is how the war was to be paid for and in World War I, and indeed after World War I, Australian governments at the federal and state level looked to borrow significant amounts of money from either the London money market or the American money market. And one of the things that happened during the war was the federal government took a much stronger role in that area of public loans really because the London authorities said, "look, we don't want to deal with six or seven governments we really need to deal with one" and also in London there was very little willingness to lend money to Australia for purposes other than waging the war. Now the federal government of Andrew Fisher in particular and the state governments wanted to keep some of the projects they were already committed to, like for example building the railway across the Nullarbor, keep them going during wartime, they didn't want to suspend their agenda of capital works development and social welfare because that's really what their votes depended on but it was very difficult to persuade the British authorities to allow them to borrow money for purposes which the British thought were irrelevant to the main game of fighting the war.

One of the other major changes as a result of the war was the enhanced power of the Parliament and the executive branch of government to interfere with people's civil liberties.

Like we see today there was a great debate about what was the right balance between government power and the rights of individuals during wartime and during the crises of national security and certainly through the War Precautions Act and the growth of intelligence organisations during the war, the Unlawful Associations Acts you see a level of government intervention in people's rights which was unprecedented until that time.

  26:10 As a result of the Unlawful Associations Act, the War Precautions Act and the growth of intelligence organisations you see a level of intervention into people's rights which was much greater than what had previously existed. And after the war the War Precautions Act's powers were used to deport people who had been interned during the war. So I think you can see a level of intrusion in people's liberties that was more significant than before.