Following Australia’s entry into the first World War, thousands of Queenslanders enlisted in the military to go and fight in Europe.
However, as the war dragged on and it became evident that victory would not be achieved quickly or easily, the initial enthusiasm for the conflict waned and recruitment rates began to decline.
The British government, needing fresh manpower to bolster its reserves in France, pressured the Australian federal government to send more reinforcements. The federal government, led by Billy Hughes, did not have the numbers to legislate for compulsory military service.
The Queensland government had originally been mildly supportive of the notion of conscription, but with election of a Labor government led by T. J. Ryan in 1915, the government’s stance hardened by late 1916, as the position of the party’s rank-and-file membership swung decisively to opposing compulsory service.
This opposition was not welcomed by Hughes, and Ryan was the only state premier to openly oppose the federal government on the issue.
The federal government responded to this anti-conscription sentiment in the community with a series of censorship measures, which permitted the federal government to censor speech which in their view would have interfered with the war effort. Some of these censorship measures were unorthodox even for the time.
Premier Ryan and Treasurer Ted Theodore, finding the situation intolerable, decided to counteract the actions of censor Jeremiah Stable by reading out some of the banned material on the floor of state Parliament, working that parliamentary privilege would allow Hansard containing the material to be distributed.
Travelling to Brisbane ostensibly to address a public meeting, Hughes arrived late at night with Stable and a detachment of soldiers at the Queensland Government Printing Office, seizing all 3,300 printed copies of Hansard, along with all of the type.
Hughes then informed Ryan that while there was “nothing worth censoring” in his own speeches, the anti-conscription materials of Theodore and his fellow minister John Fihelly were objectionable and would not be allowed to be distributed.
Hughes also informed the Government Printer, A. J. Cummings not to publish any further copies of the Hansard. Cummings was an ardent conscriptionist, and disclosed to Hughes that Ryan had ordered him to ignore any censorship instructions that he might receive, and that if the Army were to attempt to enter the printing office by force, that the Queensland Police would “offer every assistance in their power” to prevent them from doing so.
Upon learning this, an alarmed Stable, not wanting the situation to descend into violence, cabled Hughes and asked if there were any way to solve the problem without resorting to armed force.
The following day, 27 November, Ryan demanded an explanation from Hughes for the seizure of Hansard, and for the failure of the postal service to transmit copies of the Hansard to subscribers. He also had a special issue of the Government Gazette issued that described the situation, and gave a general description of the contents of the Hansard, without giving any specific details that might fall afoul of the censor.
Hughes responded, taking responsibility for both actions, accusing Ryan of publishing a document that was “a Hansard in name only”, and putting Ryan on notice that “if some of the statements published in your so-called Hansard are repeated outside (of parliamentary privilege), I shall know how to deal with them”.