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Parliament and the war

Unlawful Associations Act 1916

It is becoming clearer every day that we dare not countenance any form of agitation that tends to paralyse or divide us in the face of the enemy.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 1916, p6

The Unlawful Associations Act 1916 aimed to remove the internal threat of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies). The Act allowed deportation from Australia of IWW members found guilty of encouraging or carrying out sabotage. It was believed that crushing this small association was required due to the dangerous nature of its ideas and those of the foreigners that led it.

In 1915 the IWW had only 2 000 members, mostly in NSW and Queensland. It was a 'workers' union not a trade union; it represented all working people not just those employed in a particular trade. They supported strikes and 'go slows' but there is no evidence the leadership was involved in sabotage. The IWW was opposed to the war and conscription, as they believed the war was a class war in which the workers of the world would only lose. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) did not support such 'socialist' ideas and, after receiving assurances the revised Unlawful Associations Act 1917 would not be used to target their trade union support base, supported the legislation.

The IWW was a well organised association. It offered a world view that was in opposition to mainstream Australian society and the trade union movement. It is thought that it was targeted to make an example to all the other organisations that campaigned against the war and, particularly, conscription. When the IWW leadership was jailed and then deported, there was little outcry.