Getting to know Billy better

The Hughes clan is too big. Billy Hughes: Prime Minister and Controversial Founding Father of the Australian Labor Party is written by Aneurin Hughes: not a close relation, I believe. He is a former British and European Community diplomat, who has spent a number of years in Canberra. His well-researched and nicely written book has added a new dimension to the understanding of Billy Hughes, giving us a better picture of a man, ‘much more complex and perhaps more interesting than the rather stilted and cardboard caricature often described’.

Historian Geoffrey Bolton, in an essay on Billy Hughes, tells of a committee appointed to advise the Bicentennial Authority on the names of 200 Australians who’d made a distinct contribution to our history. In the first list of names Billy was omitted. Later a wise public servant pointed out that his old adversary Archbishop Mannix had been added to the list and that Billy would therefore have to be included. And so he was.

Why was Billy a late entry? After all, at the time of his death he’d been Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, and an apparently successful minister in several other governments. He’d punched above Australia’s weight in international negotiations, been remarkably prescient about the future role of Japan in the Pacific, and stood up to US President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference. And for the troops who served in France he’d become an iconic figure, popularly known as ‘the little digger’.

Billy Hughes was quick-witted, and a forceful orator. He read widely and qualified as a barrister. Dr Evatt thought him a man of ‘matchless courage’. His political skills were widely acclaimed. But nobody seemed to like him very much. At the peak of his career he was a brave mascot, at the end an irascible eccentric.

The problem was that he was seen as a divisive character. He’d split the Labor Party—and, indeed, the nation—over conscription for service in World War I. In his long parliamentary career he’d changed allegiances a number of times and been a member of five different political parties.

There have been several biographies of Billy Hughes, mainly concentrating on his political career. They are generally fair if incomplete accounts of his life. About Billy they use adjectives such as secretive, slippery, authoritarian, volatile, stubborn, bullying, ruthless, shrewd, artful and distrusted. He’s rarely accused of kindness, fairness, honesty or generosity of spirit. It makes for an unusual imbalance, a seemingly lopsided picture.

Referring to these earlier biographies Geoffrey Bolton concludes that Billy Hughes ‘continues to defy definition’. So Aneurin Hughes’s book is timely and enlightening. It deals with the political highlights of Billy’s career and then fills in some of the gaps. And there are gaps and errors of fact, often papered over by the great man. Aneurin writes that Billy’s records and his reminiscences ‘suggest conscious weeding and selectivity’. To Donald Horne Billy was an ‘illusionist’, determined to establish his own myths about his ‘Welshness’, his age, his early years in Australia and his first ‘marriage’. ‘We may,’ Horne wrote, ‘not know what is true, but what is important about him is the myth.’

Historians are, for example, at odds as to whether in about 1886 Billy actually married his landlord’s daughter, Elizabeth Cutts. Aneurin thinks there was no marriage and notes that the birth dates of the six children seem to have been unregistered. Billy gave no help on this issue. In his meticulously kept records and in his writings he reveals nothing.

Whatever the truth, this first family was never ‘The First Family’. When Elizabeth died in 1906 Billy put the eldest child Ethel in charge. From then on his relationship with them seems to have been largely aloof, and less than generous.

In 1911 Billy married Mary Campbell, a nurse, who seems to have suited him, although he was given to disparaging remarks about her intellect. Their daughter Helen became ‘the apple of his eye’. Their relationship provides the only evidence that he was capable of love. Her death in childbirth at age 22 was the great tragedy of Billy’s life.

Andrew Hughes quotes a newspaper columnist saying, ‘Mr Hughes, despite his radicalism, is fundamentally a British imperialist.’ It was these two elements, radicalism and imperialism, which seem to have provided the impetus of Billy’s political life. He remained a radical.

Aneurin writes of ‘his persistent radicalism, which remained undimmed throughout the years’. It sometimes led to his crossing the floor to vote with the Labor Party. Dr Evatt shared this view: ‘He was not a reactionary, quite the contrary.’

It was his imperialist enthusiasms that brought Billy undone with the Labor Party. As a £5 ‘Pom’ migrant he was susceptible to the blandishments he received about the war in Britain, but he underestimated the strength of the Irish influence in Australian politics and misjudged the mood of the Labor movement on conscription.

What of the ‘Labor rat’? Gough Whitlam is quoted as saying that Billy dealt three blows to Labor: he split the party, left a legacy of factionalism that became an addiction, and undermined the party’s trust in leadership. Should he be blamed for all these things that appear to be endemic in the Labor Party? Through the mists of retrospect it seems a tough call.

Aneurin Hughes has written a thought-provoking account of an extraordinary figure about whom we now know a great deal more than before. It should be in every collection of Australian political history. 

Billy Hughes: Prime Minister and Controversial Founding Father of the Labor Party
Aneurin Hughes. John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2005. isbn 1 740 31136 1, rrp $29.95

John Button was a minister and senator in the Hawke and Keating governments.



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