The final paragraph in the Australian Dictionary of Biography’s account of Billy Hughes really sums him up: To some a great patriot, to others a renegade and mountebank. He aroused extremes of admiration or hatred, but never indifference. Abrasive and ruthless, he could also be charming and amusing. Often mean, he could sometimes be very generous. He would fly into violent rages, which would soon be forgotten. A gift to cartoonists, he became in old age a figure of fun to those who knew nothing of his prime. Flexible as to means, his broad objectives were remarkably consistent. These were ‘to fight for the under-dog’ and to defend the right of Australia to develop its own form of democratic society, combining the best of British traditions and institutions with the maximum of freedom and equality. His old opponent Lord Bruce said of him after his death: ‘he had two qualities which are very rare and very important in a politician: ‘he had imagination and he had courage’. With all his faults, his place in Australian history is secure, no less for his contribution to the early labour movement than for his achievements as a national wartime leader and on the world stage.
The postcard is mint and thus not postal history, but it speaks volumes as an example of Social Philately. The photo on the card is of a younger more handsome man, and not that of his later beaked-nosed wrinkled figure in numerous political cartoons (Figure 1).
On the card’s reverse, Hughes quotes the virtues of the U.A.P. (United Australia Party): Raised £38,000,000 for relief works; put 200,000 of the unemployed back into industrial jobs; reduced taxation, thus encouraged industry, commerce and finance; preserved pensions and social services, wages and salaries from default and inflation, which would have robbed people. [What has changed?!] (Figure 2).
What follows is a bare outline of his early life and his prolonged political life. William Morris Hughes was born in London on 25 September 1862, the son of William and his wife Jane, nee Morris. He began working as a teacher and moved to Australia in October 1884. Hughes had many jobs as a ship’s cook, seaman, drover, swagman, boundary rider, factory hand, umbrella mender and railway fettler. In 1890, he was working in Sydney, where he married Elizabeth Cutts, and opened a small mixed business. In 1894 he was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly.
He was elected to the first Commonwealth Government in 1901, and in 1904 he was Minister for External Affairs in the Watson Government. He held other positions as Deputy Leader and Attorney General. From 1910 to 1915 Hughes was Deputy Prime Minister and from 1915 to 1923, he was Prime Minister. During World War I, he advocated conscription for overseas service. However, a Labor majority would not accept conscription. The Labor Party split and he survived as Prime Minister with the support of others to form the National Labor Party, then the Nationalist Party. In May 1917, he led the Nationalist Party to electoral victory and he put another conscription referendum to the public and the ‘no vote’ won again.
In late 1922, he made the new party even stronger at another election. After the election he was defeated by Stanley Bruce who became Prime Minister. Hughes remained in Parliament until his death joining the United Australia Party, and then the Liberal Party. He had been a member of 5 political parties when he died on 28 October1952 of pneumonia at his Lindfield, Sydney home, and was buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by 6 children of his first wife, and by his second wife, Dame Mary Ethel (Campbell) Hughes.
Billy Hughes was Australia’s longest serving Federal politician from 1901 until his death in 1952, and his small stature and wrinkled face were frequently captured by cartoonists. This one was in relation to his support of conscription in WW I (Figure 3).