xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: February 2017

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Cory Bernardi is no Billy Hughes.

Well, Senator Cory Barnardi has decided that the right thing for him to do to in order to bring stability to the conservative side of politics is to leave the Liberals and form his own party.

This has prompted a very good friend of mine to point out that Bernardi is probably of Italian extraction and that everyone knows that Italians are ungovernable.

Well, yes, it is remarkable that Italy has had so many parties so many governments since WW2. Especially as they have a First Past the Post voting system, which usually ensures clear victories for one party or another.

Of course, the Romans were all Italians and profoundly influenced our own society by their 350 year occupation  of Great Britain. 350 years is a very long time when you consider that Europeans have only been living in Australia (apart from a few Dutch castaways in the North West) for 239 years and only for 191 years in Western Australia. (Only 188 years, if you do not count the establishment of Major Lockyer’s army camp in Albany in 1826).

Of course Italians lived here a long while before the great migration schemes post-World War Two.
Several Italian names crop up in the battle at the Eureka Stockade. Aussie football legend, Ronald Dale Barassi, proudly acknowledges that one of his forbears fought at Eureka.

Many of the farmlands in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and WA were pioneered by Italians. In Donnybrook, where I worked for seven years in the 1970s, I became aware of the many Italian families that took up land in that area right after the end of WWI, when Italy was our ally. 

Of course, there are Italian families spread right through the Great Southern. Manjimup, Pemberton, Balingup, also have many Italian inhabitants of long standing. One of the most famous was a man named Fontanini, who farmed near Manjimup. He developed his dam into a swimming pool for the community. It became a famous tourist attraction and still operates today as Fonty’s Pool. Many Italians were drawn to the Kalgoorlie goldfields in the early 20th century. 

Since Victorian gold rush times of the 1850s, Italians have distinguished themselves not only as farmers but also as politicians, artists, actors, boxers, footballers, athletes and solid members of any community they found themselves in. On the downside of course was the connection that some Italians had with the Mafia. But of course, crooks, have come from every nationality that there is.

The fact that Bernardi is jumping ship party politically, does not really besmirch the reputation of Italians. In fact he is in good company because Robert Menzies left the United Australia party to found the present day Liberal Party. He did this in the mid 1940s when the war was raging.

Undoubtably, the world champion and undisputed Australian  king of political party jumpers was a Welshman, named William “Billy” Hughes. Hughes succeeded Andrew Fisher as Labor Prime Minister in 1915 and quickly divided the country on the conscription issue. 

When the first national conscription referendum was narrowly defeated, Hughes faced a lot of anger in the Labor Party as many members disagreed with conscription. Hughes left the Labor party and formed a new party called the National Labor Party. He remained as Prime Minister, in a very divided parliament, and then joined forces with his former opponents in the old Liberal Party to become Prime Minister of the newly formed National Party. (Not to be confused with Menzies’  Liberal Party, formed after WW2, or  today’s National Party, which started life as The Country Party).

Hughes was prime minister from October 1915 until February, 1923. He was eventually forced to resign from the Prime Ministership because his brusque manner and his need to be on top of every detail had alienated just about everybody in the ruling United Australia Party.

For the rest of his parliamentary career, Hughes served as an often argumentative and polarising backbencher in the United Australia Party. He later joined Menzies' Liberal Party during WW2 and continued as an outspoken backbencher until he died in office early in 1952.

As Prime Minister, Hughes is remembered for the two WW1 conscription campaigns and for his strong representation of Australia at the Versailles peace talks in 1919. In Versailles he rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way with his outspoken manner, but he did achieve a lot of goals that Australia wanted regarding territories, such as New Guinea in the post war Pacific.

At the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, Hughes  had many rough exchanges with US President Woodrow Wilson, who at one point complained about Hughes’ outspoken behaviour at the conference table by pointing out that he only spoke for a country of five million people, whereas Wilson’s 14 Point Plan was acceptable to several allied countries with a total population of over 1200 million people.

Hughes fixed Wilson with a steely gaze and said, “I speak for 65 000 dead Australian soldiers.”
This was a stern rebuke to the US President, whose country came very late to the war and lost relatively few men in battle. Hughes gained many concessions for Australia with his strong approach to negotiation.

He was later given 45 thousand pounds by grateful benefactors who appreciated his feisty performance at Versailles. Hughes kept quiet about this payment. That secrecy later caused him some political damage.

Hughes stayed in the parliament into very old age. As a backbencher he was loudly outspoken on many issues. As “the Little Digger”, as the soldiers had nicknamed him in WW1, he always stood by the Cenotaph in Martin Place, in Sydney, on ANZAC Day. When he died, they put his statue on the spot where he used to stand.

On his 90th birthday, which everyone thought was his 88th, he was given a parliamentary dinner at which Prime Minister Menzies spoke eloquently and pointed out that Hughes had been a member of every party in the parliament.

“Never the Country Party, “yelled out Arthur Fadden, the Country Party Leader.

“No,” retorted Billy Hughes, gruffly, “I had to draw the line somewhere, didn’t I?”

Billy Hughes was Australia’s greatest political party jumper. He was probably our most divisive politician, through his conscription campaigns and many other issues.

Apart from being very outspoken, Billy Hughes was also very, very devious.We know he lied about his age. He was born in 1862 but always maintained he was born in 1864. 

Throughout his life, he proudly portrayed himself as the fire breathing Welshman, who would face up to any foe. He was actually born in Pimlico, near London, to middle class Welsh migrants.

A month after his big birthday party, Billy Hughes died of pnuemonia. He had a very large funeral, which was attendecd by many dignitaries. As his coffin was being lowered into his grave in a northern Sydney cemetery there was a loud crack of thunder.

Arthur Fadden was heard to remark, "He's arrived."

Oh, yes, Cory Bernardi has a long way to go before he can topple the Little Digger from his perch as Australia's top party pooping troublemaker.