Following the 1914 election, the Federal Parliament comprised members of the governing Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Commonwealth Liberal Party (CLP) in Opposition, and one Independent Member of Parliament (MP). Although both major parties generally supported Australia’s participation in the First World War, only the CLP came to demonstrate unanimous advocacy for the conscription of Australian troops for overseas service. In contrast, the ALP became heavily divided over conscription and eventually split, resulting in the creation of the Nationalist Party—made up of breakaway ALP conscriptionists and the CLP.
This paper provides a narrative history of the major political parties’ attitudes to conscription. Significant focus is given to the ALP, due to the major internal division which conscription caused across all elements of the party. This is also the story of the Nationalist Party and its irrepressible leader (and avid conscriptionist) William ‘Billy’ Hughes, whose seven and a half years as Prime Minister commenced with a tumultuous 13 months leading the ALP, the party he had first joined as an organiser in 1893. The turbulent Commonwealth-state relations of the period are also addressed in this paper, as the conscription debates demonstrated the stark differences across the various states and their local communities, as well as the divergent views between parliamentarians and their constituents.