Australia's Prime Ministers
William Morris Hughes, 1915–23
When the First World War began, Australia was in the midst of a federal election campaign. Labor won the election under the leadership of Andrew Fisher, but his attorney general, William Morris Hughes, was the most active and vocal member of the ministry. When Fisher resigned as prime minister in October 1915, Hughes was unanimously chosen as his successor. A man who had as many bitter enemies as admirers, Hughes was strongly committed to the war, he devoted his prime ministership to ensuring that Australias voice would be heard in England and was an ardent supporter of the AIF.
Hughes travelled to England in early 1916, ostensibly for discussions on the intentions of Japan in the Pacific, but while there he urged the application of greater economic pressure on Germany and more cooperation between England and her dominions. His speeches were given wide publicity and some believed that Hughes might be a potential Prime Minister of England. Hughes made sure that he met those responsible for prosecuting the war, partly in an attempt to find out how best to make Australias voice heard. He also became involved in negotiations on the sale of Australian products.
In June 1916 Hughes travelled to Paris with the British delegation to a conference on postwar economic policies towards Germany, but he went with the right to speak independently on behalf of Australia. This was Australias first participation at an international conference and it proved to be an important precedent for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Hughes also visited the front, where he met Australian troops on the eve of the terrible battles at Fromelles and Pozires. He returned to Australia in July 1916 with a strong desire to support the troops, and, in view of the high casualties on the Somme, he sought to introduce conscription. The subsequent referendum was defeated and his advocacy of compulsory military service led to Hughes expulsion from the Labor Party.
Hughes was able to form a new cabinet with those who followed him out of the Labor Party, and he hoped that this group could form the basis of a new party. When this failed to happen, he was forced into a merger with the opposition to form a coalition government. An election was called for 5 May 1917 and Hughes won easily in both houses. During the 1917 campaign, he promised not to revisit the conscription issue unless Germany looked like prevailing in the war. By November 1917 this seemed possible and he announced a second referendum. This one was defeated by a larger majority than the first, and Hughes, having promised not to govern without conscription, resigned. However, in the absence of anyone else who could command a majority, the Governor General recommissioned Hughes, with the same cabinet as before.
In 1918 Hughes made a second wartime visit to London, this time to attend the Imperial War Cabinet. He reached England in June and the meetings, alternating with sessions of the Imperial War Conference, lasted until August. Hughes attended both forums and chaired a committee on reparations. With the meetings concluded, he remained in England to negotiate the sale of Australian primary products.
He was still there when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, and he represented Australia in its own right at the Paris Peace Conference. He concentrated on the questions most relevant to Australia. He was active on the issue of reparations as well as on questions concerning the Pacific, including the status of German New Guinea. Of particular concern was a proposed Japanese covenant that would guarantee the "equality of nations and of equal treatment of their nationals", which appeared to him to be a threat to white Australia. Hughes, having been successful on those points he believed vital to Australia's interest, arrived home to a heroes' welcome; however, the end of the war saw his popularity wane, and he was defeated in the 1922 election.
William Morris Hughes in the Memorial's Collection
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[Official History, 1914–1918 War: Records of Charles E W Bean, Official Historian:] Papers, n.d.; extracts regarding W M Hughes and working notes
AWM38, 3DRL 6673/86
[Official History, 1914–18 War: Records of Charles E W Bean, Official Historian:] Typescripts, n.d.; consist of draft accounts by Bean of the visits of W M Hughes to the western front in 1916 and 1918
AWM38, 3DRL 6673/219
[Official History, 1914–18 War: Records of Charles E W Bean, Official Historian:] Diary, Sept-Dec 1918; covers fighting of September–October 1918, breaking up of battalions, W M Hughes in England and France, the armistice and Bean in England. [Original – 1st set]
AWM38, 3DRL 606/117/1
Inspections, Visits and Reviews. Visit of the Right Hon W M Hughes, Prime Minister of Australian and Party, to France, 1918–1919
[Special Orders and Complimentary Communications:] Manifesto to Australian soldiers from Mr W M Hughes, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, 1916
Keywords: Hughes, William Hughes, W M Hughes, Billy Hughes
Location: Australian War Memorial
Reference numbers: AWM38, AWM25, AWM27
Companion site to Australia's Prime Ministers maintained by the National Archives of Australia