Lost Australian history: our little digger

More than 100 years ago, Australia had its own controversial Donald Trump-style leader as Prime Minister. With his colourful personality, fervent speeches, and a career spanning several decades, Billy Hughes was kicked out of his own political party but went on to represent 4 different parties in his long carrer in politics.

Lost Australian history

Prime Minister Billy Hughes was a big-eared man nicknamed ‘Little Digger’ who controversially backed conscripting Australians into the war.

On November 14 1916 Hughes's controversial stance to force Australian men to serve in the war overseas triggered a division within the Labor ranks - and they kicked him out.

As wartime leader Hughes divided opinion and was often viewed as an opportunistic warmonger, especially amongst Australian women who didn't want to send their sons overseas to fight a war.

During his long, stormy career he chopped and changed his political ties, representing 4 different parties, 3 of which expelled him. Hughes was also known as one of the fastest political wits in the history of the parliament.

Hughes holds the Australian record for the longest-running continuous service to parliament, spending 58 years in state and federal politics.

Hughes was a member of federal parliament from 1901 until 1952 and had already spent 7 years in the NSW Parliament. He was Prime Minister for 7 years.

After being expelled from the Australian Labor Party, Hughes formed the National Labor Party, which later merged with the Liberals to form the Nationalist Party. His government was re-elected with substantial majorities in the 1917 and 1919 elections.

During the war, Hughes played a pivotal role in establishing the precursors to the Australian Federal Police and the CSIRO. He also founded numerous state-owned enterprises to aid the post-war economy.

Notably, at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Hughes secured Australian control of the former German New Guinea, leaving a significant impression on world leaders.

He aroused extremes of admiration or hatred, but never indifference. Hughes was a gifted speaker and also a gift to cartoonists. He was slightly built, 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with a large head and long hands and looked a little like a gnome. He had severe deafness (probably from working in factories).

Hughes kept a house on Sydney's north shore and a farm at Sassafras, Victoria. He died at his north shore home on 28 October 1952 and was given a large state funeral where the Sydney Morning Herald reported an estimated crowd of 450,000 lined the streets to pay tribute to him.

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