Politics in a time of War
In Australia in 1914, the build up to war occurred in the midst of a Federal election campaign. Prime Minister Joseph Cook’s Commonwealth Liberal Party had been elected the year before with a one seat majority and also faced a hostile Senate dominated by the Labor Party. Instability ensued and Australia’s first double dissolution election was called in June 1914 to try and clear the political air. WA’s Labor Premier, John Scaddan, recognised the political ramifications of the declaration of war during a national election, but also at home in WA. The ‘War’ file shines a light on some of the interrelationships between politicians of the same and differing political parties, and also reveals their interactions with various community groups 100 years ago.
While the ‘War’ file only hints at some of the behind-the-scenes politics at the commencement of the war, there is a clear statement in a telegram dated 6 August from WA Labor Senator George Pearce who, while in Mount Barker campaigning, informed Scaddan that “local meetings poorly attended war crisis has at least temporarily killed party politics”. The next day Pearce wired Scaddan from Denmark with the message that Andrew Fisher, the Leader of the Federal Opposition, was against appealing to the Federal Government to stop the election. On 5 September Andrew Fisher’s Labor Party won the election and Senator Pearce became the Defence Minister.
Apart from the Federal election, one of the first serious political issues to confront the Premier and WA Government upon the declaration of war related to ensuring food supplies remained stable and secure and that their cost was not driven up by a general panic. There were very real concerns that there might be shortages of food, and also that there might be profiteering due to this uncertainty. The ‘War’ file includes correspondence from individuals and community organisations, such as the Town Clerk of Boulder, the Labour Council in Geraldton and the WA National Council of Women (a letter signed by Edith Cowan – later Australia’s first female Member of Parliament) recommending and supporting moves to control the price of foodstuffs in this time of crisis. Not long after the outbreak of war, and due to great community concern, the WA Government worried about an impression that some were trying to profit out of the crisis, drafted strong legislation - the Control of Trade in War Time Act.