Nationalist Party of Australia

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Nationalist Party of Australia
Leader Billy Hughes, Stanley Bruce, John Latham
Founded 1917
Dissolved 1931
Preceded by Commonwealth Liberal Party
National Labor Party
Succeeded by United Australia Party
Ideology Conservatism
Political position Centre-right
Politics of Australia
Political parties
Billy Hughes, Nationalist Prime Minister of Australia 1915–1923
Stanley Bruce, Nationalist Prime Minister of Australia 1923–1929

The Nationalist Party of Australia was an Australian political party. It was formed on 17 February 1917 from a merger between the conservative Commonwealth Liberal Party and the National Labor Party, the name given to the pro-conscription defectors from the Australian Labor Party led by Prime Minister Billy Hughes. The Nationalist Party held government (at times in coalition) until 1929. From then it was the major opposition to the Labor party until it merged with pro-Joseph Lyons Labor defectors to form the United Australia Party in 1931, which was the predecessor to the 1944 foundation of the Liberal Party of Australia.


In October 1915 Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher retired and Hughes was chosen unanimously by the Labor caucus to succeed him. He was a strong supporter of Australia's participation in World War I, and after a visit to Britain in 1916 he became convinced that conscription was necessary if Australia was to sustain its contribution to the war effort. The majority of his party, most notably Roman Catholics and trade union representatives, was bitterly opposed to this, especially in the wake of the British government's reprisals against the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916. In October Hughes held a plebiscite to try to gain approval for conscription, but the plebiscite was narrowly defeated. Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop, Daniel Mannix, was his main opponent on the conscription issue. The defeat, however, did not deter Hughes, who continued to vigorously argue in favour of conscription. This produced a deep and bitter split within the Australian community, as well as within the members of his own party. The extent to which he engineered this has been hotly debated ever since, and was even at the time regarded as ironic by many in the Labor movement given Hughes' violent hostility to earlier Labor "rats" like Joseph Cook.

On 15 September 1916 the NSW executive of the Political Labour League (the Labor Party organisation at the time) expelled Hughes from the Labor Party. When the Federal Parliamentary Labor caucus met on 14 November 1916, lengthy discussions ensued until Hughes walked out with 24 other Labor members. The remaining 43 members of Caucus then passed their motion of no confidence in the leadership, effectively expelling Hughes and the other members.

Hughes and his followers formed a minority Government (briefly using the title "National Labor"), with support from Cook and his Commonwealth Liberal Party. As the war dragged on, Hughes began negotiations with Cook to turn their confidence-and-supply agreement into a formal party. That February, under prodding from the Governor-General, Sir Robert Munro Ferguson, the two groups formally merged to form the Nationalist Party, with Hughes as leader and Cook as deputy leader. The new party was dominated by former Liberals, and as such was basically an upper- and middle-class party. However, the presence of many former Labor men—many of whom had been among early leaders in that party—allowed the Nationalists to project an image of national unity.

In May 1917 the Nationalists won a huge electoral victory--at the time, the biggest majority government since Federation. The size of the landslide was magnified by the large number of Labor MPs who followed Hughes into the Nationalists. At this election Hughes abandoned his working-class seat of West Sydney, and was elected for Bendigo in Victoria. Hughes had promised to resign if his Government did not win the power to conscript. A second plebiscite on conscription was held in December 1917, but was again defeated, this time by a wider margin. Hughes, after receiving a vote of confidence in his leadership by his party, resigned as Prime Minister. However, there were no alternative candidates available. Ferguson used his reserve power to immediately re-commission Hughes as Prime Minister, thus allowing Hughes to remain as Prime Minister while keeping his promise to resign.

Hughes and the Nationalists governed on their own until the elections of 1922, when the newly emerged Country Party gained the balance of power in the House of Representatives. The Nationalists could not govern without Country Party support, and it was obvious that a confidence-and-supply agreement would not be enough to keep the Nationalists in office. However, the Country Party had never liked Hughes' rural policy, and their leader, Earle Page let it be known that he would not serve under him. Several of the more conservative elements of the Nationalist Party had only tolerated Hughes after the war, suspecting he was still a socialist at heart. Page's demand finally gave them an excuse to dump Hughes, and Hughes was forced to resign in January 1923. Former Treasurer Stanley Bruce was chosen as leader, and quickly entered into a coalition with the Country Party. The price, however, was high—five seats in cabinet (out of 11), including the Treasurer's post and the number-two position in the ministry for Page. These kinds of demands were unheard of for such a young party in a Westminster system. However, Bruce agreed rather than force another election. This was the start of the traditional coalition of non-Labor parties.

With the ouster of Hughes, the Nationalists took on a decidedly more conservative hue. Despite initial concerns that Australians wouldn't warm over to the aloof Bruce, the Nationalist-Country coalition won a smashing victory in 1925. It was reelected in 1928, though with a significantly reduced mandate. However, only a year later, the embittered Hughes led a group of backbenchers to cross the floor on a vote on Bruce's plans to reform the industrial arbitration system. In the subsequent election, the Coalition was heavily defeated, suffering what was at the time the second-worst defeat of a sitting government since Federation. Bruce even lost his own seat, and was succeeded as leader by former Attorney-General John Latham.

The Nationalists were never a real force in Australian politics again. The party had spent its entire 12-year existence in government, and was ill-prepared for a role in opposition. In 1931, following negotiations with a group of Labor Party defectors led by Joseph Lyons, the Nationalist Party was absorbed into the new United Australia Party. Although the UAP was dominated by former Nationalists, Lyons was chosen as leader rather than Latham. The UAP replaced the Nationalists as the main conservative anti-Labor Party.

Young Nationalists Organisation

Around 1929, Robert Menzies, then a member of the Victorian Legislative Council, joined with Wilfrid Kent Hughes to form the Young Nationalists Organisation. Menzies was its first President.

The organisation kept its name when its parent party became part of the UAP. Half the UAP members elected in the 1932 Victorian state election were Young Nationalists, almost trebling their parliamentary representation. The Premier, Sir Stanley Argyle, included three of them in his eight-person cabinet, including Menzies as Deputy Premier.

Later, when Menzies founded the Liberal Party of Australia, he invited delegates from the Young Nationalists to attend. The Young Nationalists followed the UAP into the Liberal Party, and formed the nucleus of the new party's youth wing, the Young Liberals.

Electoral performance

Election Leader Votes  % Seats +/– Position Government
1917 Billy Hughes 1,021,138 54.2
53 / 75
Increase 53 Increase 1st Majority
1919 Billy Hughes 860,519 45.0
37 / 75
Decrease 16 Increase 1st Minority
1922 Billy Hughes 553,920 35.2
26 / 75
Decrease 11 Decrease 2nd Coalition
1925 Stanley Bruce 1,238,397 42.4
37 / 75
Increase 11 Increase 1st Coalition
1928 Stanley Bruce 1,014,522 39.0
29 / 75
Decrease 8 Decrease 2nd Coalition
1929 Stanley Bruce 975,979 33.9
14 / 75
Decrease 15 Decrease 2nd Opposition


See also