News National Egg on face and the AFP: From Hughes’ conscription to Turnbull’s raids

Egg on face and the AFP: From Hughes’ conscription to Turnbull’s raids

billy hughes
Billy Hughes failed to legislate conscription, but succeeded at creating a federal police force. Photo: ABC
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

Do you know how the Australian Federal Police was founded? Answer: an egg thrown at Nationalist prime minister Billy Hughes during a November 1917 rally in Warwick in south east Queensland.

Hitherto a Labor prime minister, Hughes was expelled from his party the previous year owing to his support of military conscription in World War One, a proposal that was voted down by the Australian people during a rowdy, violent three-month plebiscite campaign that led to a devastating ALP split.

Hughes subsequently joined with anti-Labor forces to establish the Nationalist Party, which easily won the May 1917 election.

During that election, Hughes promised not to reopen the conscription issue, except in the case of a national emergency. By November this need seemingly arose and Hughes called another referendum for 20 December.

If anything the second ballot was more heated and controversial, punctuated by the ‘Warwick’ incident in which Hughes was struck by an egg thrown by an anti-conscription protestor at the local railway station on 29 November.

Consumed by a belief that Queensland police would not arrest the alleged offenders, Hughes set about drafting legislation to create the Commonwealth Police Force (CPF). Thus, while the AFP began operations in October 1979, it was an egg which hatched federal policing.

For those who say the AFP has and is not subject to political interference, typically by the hand of Coalition governments, I’m presently taking offers to sell Melbourne’s Bolte Bridge. In the event, the second conscription referendum was lost by an even larger majority of votes.

Which brings us to the extraordinary raids by 32 AFP officers on Australian Workers Union offices in Melbourne and Sydney in pursuit of documents relating to an 11-year-old disclosed donation made by the union to Get Up! under the stewardship of Labor leader and then AWU national secretary Bill Shorten.

It is fanciful to believe the raids are devoid of political intent. The body which instructed the AFP, the Registered Organisations Commission, is a creation of the Turnbull government. The matter was referred to ROC by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. The ROC commenced its investigation last Friday and until Tuesday had not bothered to ask the AWU for any documents.

The media were tipped-off about the raids, arriving prior to their commencement. Senator Cash claims she didn’t know about the raids until she saw them on the TV, a claim repeated five times in senate estimates, before revealing that one of her senior staffers had resigned over informing journalists.

It beggars belief that Senator Cash was not fully aware of her office’s role prior to last night’s dramatic events.

This political stunt is a disaster for Turnbull’s government. If it is proven Senator Cash misled the Senate, it must cost him a minister.

The Cash affair also exposes the muddle-headed priorities of Turnbull’s government. $80 million of taxpayer monies was wasted on the trade union royal commission and the government continues to wage warfare on organised labour through the ROC. Yet how many police raids have been conducted into rampant wage theft in our workplaces, or the 129 Australian workers, as of 16 October, killed at work this year?

This is to say nothing of double-standards the government applies to countless cases of corporate malfeasance.

We have been here before. Hughes’s over-reaction was no isolated incident. His behaviour as prime minister during the war had grown ever more erratic and his enemies subject to state-sanctioned bullying. Hughes, despite bearing the title of a Labor PM, alleged his mostly trade union opponents were German sympathisers, revolutionary socialists or supporters of the Irish republican group, Sinn Féin.

Wild accusations of unpatriotic behaviour were levelled at Irish Catholics, in view of the violent 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Melbourne’s Trades Hall was raided on the orders of defence minister, George Pearce. AWU figures received special attention.

Ex-AWU official and ‘No’ case leader John Curtin, a future Labor prime minister, was sentenced to three months’ jail (but released after three days) when he avoided a government call-up of eligible men for military training in preparation for their despatch overseas after the expected ‘Yes’ vote.

The editor of the AWU’s weekly newspaper The Australian Worker, Henry Boote, was prosecuted under the War Precautions Act and fined over a stinging editorial he wrote called ‘The Lottery of Death’ denouncing the attempt to reduce “citizens to the level of cannibals drawing lots for an obscene feast”.

Like the actions of the blustering, egoistical Billy Hughes, Turnbull has form. He is prone to overreach and vituperative behaviour towards opponents, stretching back to the 1999 republic referendum, his handling as opposition leader of the 2009 Godwin Grech affair, and belligerent reaction to the 2016 election result.

In Question Time on Monday, Turnbull’s government accused the Opposition of supporting paedophiles, rapists, bikies and people smugglers. Oh, and hating police.

This is a floundering government unable or unwilling to tackle the issues of most concern to everyday Australians: sluggish real wages growth, mass-casualisation, inequality not seen since the 1940s, and a dysfunctional housing market that has locked out a generation of Australians from the dream of owning their own home.

The parallels don’t end there. Hughes was a former AWU official who became a bitter enemy of the organisation. His bellicose actions were a direct result of his weak political position and reversal of life-long beliefs. Turnbull once harboured dreams of becoming the AWU’s national secretary, a stepping stone, presumably, to the nation’s top job.

The latter escaped Turnbull’s ambitious grasp, the former is presently his, albeit at the cost of surrendering his longstanding progressive policy positions. And it is highly likely that the events of the past 48 hours will see Turnbull join an exclusive club of prime ministers with egg on their face.

Nick Dyrenfurth is the Executive Director of the John Curtin Research Centre.

View Comments