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Going to war

Remember that when the [British] Empire is at war, so is Australia at war ... I want to make it quite clear that all our resources in Australia are in the Empire and for the Empire, and for the preservation and the security of the Empire.

Joseph Cook, Prime Minister, The Argus, 3 August 1914, p14

Going to war

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In July 1914 the Australian Government and Australian people followed the news from Europe with growing anxiety. Would there be war? What would Australia's contribution be?

When the Governor-General, Sir Munro Ferguson, called the caretaker Prime Minister and Cabinet to the seat of government, Melbourne, on 3 August 1914, ministers were travelling around the country campaigning for the forthcoming federal election. Only five ministers and the Prime Minister were able to attend the meeting which decided Australia would place the Australian Navy under the control of the Royal (British) Navy and raise an expeditionary force of 20 000, matching the commitments of New Zealand and Canada.

In the face of such a national emergency, William (Billy) Hughes MP declared the election should be cancelled to better focus on the now declared war. However, the Australian Constitution does not allow for the Australian Parliament to be recalled after it has been dissolved. The caretaker Liberal Party government and Labor Party opposition both pledged to fight 'to our last man and our last shilling', making the commitment of Australia to the war a non-election issue.

The Australian Parliament took charge of, and spent much of the war, debating the recruitment and welfare of soldiers. However, neither the Australian Parliament nor Australian Government had any role in decisions about their deployment. In 1914 Australia, like New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, was a dominion of the British Empire. This meant that although Australia had a constitution which gave the Australian Parliament the power to make laws for Australia, Britain still controlled Australia's foreign affairs and the power to declare war rested with the King. Neither the Australian Government nor the Australia Parliament made the decision to go to war in 1914.

 Fact sheet: Going to war [PDF 1.39Mb, 2 pages]

Note: the Liberal Party which contested the 1914 election is not the same party as the current Liberal Party of Australia. The Liberal Party merged with expelled members of the Labor Party of Australia to form the Nationalist Party of Australia in 1917. The current Liberal Party of Australia was formed in 1944.