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Hughes, Thomas John (1892–1980)

by G. C. Bolton

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas John Hughes (1892-1980), politician, was born on 8 September 1892 in South Melbourne, son of Felix Hughes, labourer, and his wife Maria, née Boudan. The family moved to the Western Australian goldfields in 1896 and settled at Boulder. At the age of 14 Tom became a telegraph-boy and remained in the Commonwealth public service until his resignation as an assistant audit inspector in 1922. He played football, and rowed for Western Australia in 1914 and 1920. A strong anti-conscriptionist, he served on the State executive of the Australian Labor Party and was president (1921) of its metropolitan council. In November 1922 he won the by-election for the seat of East Perth in the Legislative Assembly. At her parents' home in Perth on 20 December that year he married with Catholic rites Lucy Olive Stone (d.1976), a tailoress.

Disappointed at not gaining cabinet office under Philip Collier, 'Diver' Hughes grew increasingly critical of the party's leaders and sided with the workers when the government sent police to the 1925 maritime strike. Although he lacked experience in the industry, he campaigned vigorously for the secretaryship of the Timber Workers' Union; after the job went to May Holman, he sued the Westralian Worker for libel. He broke formally with the party in August 1926 and did not contest the 1927 elections. Standing as an Independent Labor candidate for East Perth in 1930, he was defeated.

Hughes went into business as an auditor and accountant, and studied part time at the University of Western Australia (LL.B., 1932). Before he left parliament he had begun promoting lotteries on a 25 per cent commission. This source of income was lost when the State government banned private lotteries in 1930 and two years later set up a Lotteries Commission. Hughes's criticism of the commission led to the resignation of its chairman Alex Clydesdale, a member of the Legislative Council, on the ground of conflict of interest. In May 1934 Hughes unsuccessfully contested West Province for the Legislative Council.

Although threatened with bankruptcy, in February 1936 he stood as an Independent for East Perth against J. J. Kenneally. With considerable support from the Relief and Sustenance Workers' Union, Hughes won the seat on preferences. Kenneally challenged the result. Hughes resigned, fought a by-election in May and again won. On 27 August he spoke for two and a half hours in the House, levelling accusations of fraud and neglect against members of the Labor government. Parliament unanimously appointed a royal commission which found none of the allegations substantiated. Undaunted, Hughes continued sniffing out corruption. In 1937 he was admitted to the Western Australian Bar. Re-elected for East Perth in 1939, during World War II he urged the abolition of State governments. In 1943 he resigned from parliament to contest the Federal seat of Perth as an Independent, polled over 8000 votes, but was beaten into third place by T. P. Burke. After suffering a worse defeat at the Federal by-election for the seat of Fremantle in 1945, Hughes abandoned politics to concentrate on his legal practice. He spent his last years in the Home of Peace, Subiaco. Survived by his son and daughter, he died there on 6 November 1980 and was cremated with the forms of the Uniting Church.

Chunky and energetic, Hughes was a rare example of the larrikin populist in Western Australian politics. 'I've got nothing against socialism and communism', he said, 'but I hate socialists and communists'. While never formally a Lang Labor man, he spoke well of J. T. Lang and mustered similar support from working-class underdogs. He lost his appeal with the passing of the Depression.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 18 Aug 1926, p 352, 27 Aug 1936, p 221
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1934 (A3), 1937 (3)
  • Westralian Worker, 21 Feb 1936
  • West Australian, 8, 11 May 1936
  • C. Fox, The Relief and Sustenance Workers' Union 1933-1934: An Anti-Labor Political and Industrial Organisation (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1977).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Hughes, Thomas John (1892–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/hughes-thomas-john-10566/text18765, accessed 23 September 2017.

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