The last British-born Australian prime minister left his Welsh background and his teaching career in 1884 when he emigrated to Australia. At first, Hughes took a variety of jobs, of which politician was but one. At the outbreak of war, Hughes was attorney-general in a Labor government. The Labor win in September 1914 gave a clear mandate for vigorous prosecution of the war, and Hughes was the most vigorous member of the government in this regard. He persuaded Australian metals producers to cancel contracts with the mainly German firms which monopolised the market, and he set up the Australian Metals Exchange to ensure that Germans would excluded after the war. Government control and monetary help ensured that private enterprise could achieve the necessary output. Similar schemes were set up for wool, meat, sugar and wheat.
On the resignation of the prime minister in October 1915 Hughes was elected unanimously as his replacement, but his attitude to the imposition of Commonwealth control in industrial relations, commerce and monopolies alienated some Labor supporters. In 1916 Hughes travelled to England, and had great success as a speaker at various rallies around the country with his calls for greater economic pressure on Germany. His position as a popular Dominion leader gave him an entree into the political life of London, especially given the Welsh connection with Lloyd George, and he even took part in some cabinet meetings. He pressed hard to win markets for Australian exports and to find ships in which to carry them. In June Hughes attended the Allied Economic Conference in Paris as a member of the British delegation but with authority to speak for Australia. It was this conference which passed the so-called Paris Economic Resolutions which aimed to intensify the economic war and to exclude Germany from postwar markets. Hughes was enormously popular in France because of his repeated attacks on German commercial power and because of his flamboyant rhetoric. Less appealing to the French, however, was the risk of a system of imperial preference which Hughes embodied. His visits to Australian troops in France who were about to take part in the Somme offensive had inclined him to favour conscription as a means of ensuring necessary reinforcements; and on his return to Australia at the end of July he instituted a referendum over the question. Despite the support of most of his colleagues , there was strong opposition from the trade unions and within Hughes' Labor Party. The referendum went against conscription by a small majority, and Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party for having campaigned for a 'yes' vote.
Having formed a new party in coalition, Hughes was returned as premier in the May 1917 elections, but he had lost the authority and vigour of his early days. When the war seemed to be going against the Allies at the end of that year, Hughes announced a second referendum on conscription. This was also lost, by a larger margin, after a heated and sometimes violent campaign. Hughes resigned, but was asked to form another government because no-one else could command a majority.
Hughes attended several Imperial War Cabinet meetings in London during 1918, arguing the economic case for Australia and advocating the exclusion of Japan from the Pacific. He was still in London when the armistice was signed, and he campaigned to give himself a place at the peace conference as the representative of Australia, not as a member of the British delegation. Hughes repeated his popular success of 1916 with the French public for his opposition to President Wilson. He argued successfully for the Germans to pay pensions as reparation, and he fought Wilson's policy of 'no annexations' over the matter of Germany's Pacific island colonies which Australian and New Zealand troops had captured in 1914. Hughes was determined to retain control so as to preclude Japanese expansion. He was rewarded by the creation of a special class of mandate to cover Australian administration of the former colonies.
Although Hughes returned home after the conference as a hero, his political base had eroded, and he was tired. He was forced to cede the premiership after the 1922 election. Often controversial, always creating a strong impression, Hughes' wartime leadership gave to Australia a voice in the councils of world figures to set alongside the over 330,000 Australian soldiers and nurses who saw service overseas during the war.