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 another crop of Labor defectors to form the United Australia Party in 1931.
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 September 15, 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 and 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, the two groups formally merged to form the Nationalist Party, with Hughes as leader. Although it was dominated by former Liberals, 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 this election Hughes abandoned his working-class seat, 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 but, as there were no alternative candidates, the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, immediately re-commissioned him, thus allowing him to remain as Prime Minister while keeping his promise to resign.
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