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Parliament and the war

Price fixing

I do not think that the continuance of the War Precautions Act will benefit the community so far as price fixing is concerned. Nothing done under that Act has been more absurd or ineffective.

James Fowler MP, House of Representatives debate, 11 December 1918

The price of basic food items – wheat, butter, meat – was a major and highly emotive issue for the whole of the World War I period. Before the outbreak of war Australia was enduring a severe drought. When this was combined with the disruption to trade brought about by the war, continued high unemployment and increased inflation, prices shot up. Within a year, the price of some items had doubled.

Labour organisations strongly campaigned for the fixing of prices. They blamed the 'war profiteers' or 'fat plutocrats' for price pressures. To them, capitalists were price gougers, taking the opportunity to increase prices in order to make huge profits while workers suffered.

Referendums giving the Australian Parliament the power to make laws fixing prices had been defeated in 1911 and 1913. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) government committed to try again in 1915 but when William (Billy) Hughes became Prime Minister he abandoned the referendum. Instead, some states undertook their own price fixing measures, with limited results. The Australian Government later used the defence powers of the Australian Constitution (Section 51 (vi)) to make regulations fixing the prices of some basic foodstuffs and animal feed under the War Precautions Act 1916. These regulations did lower prices, although the lower prices hurt farmers.