Labour History

‘The Minister for Starvation’: Wilfrid Kent Hughes, Fascism and the Unemployment Relief (Administration) Act of 1933

Labour History (2001), 81, (1), 135–154.

Abstract

In January 1933, Victoria’s recently elected United Australia Party government enacted the Unemployment Relief (Administration) Bill, a piece of legislation which, in terms of its attempts to force the unemployed to work for sustenance, was unparalleled in any other state.1 From this time, the material fate of Victoria’s unemployed rested greatly in its hands. The Act, which codified as well as added to previous legislation, formed the basis of the Victorian state government’s unemployment relief policy until the outbreak of World War II. It was arguably the most significant piece of legislation directed towards the unemployed in Australia during the Depression. The legislation was the handiwork of Wilfrid Kent Hughes, a man of unusually forceful and eccentric character, who prior to gaining office had frequently asserted his sympathy for fascism. Shortly before his period as Minister came to an end, he declared himself openly to have become, as he put it, a ‘fascist without a shirt’. The paths which led him to this position, and the effects which his conversion may have had - both on the shaping of his legislation, and the responses to it - are worthy of more attention than historians have previously allocated to them. This paper examines these issues in the context of class relations, and attitudes towards fascism and democracy during this key period of the nation’s history.

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Author details

Spenceley, Geoff

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