Government powers

The war saw governments take on new and wide powers over aspects of people’s lives.

The Commonwealth Government was the great ‘winner’ from the war. Running a war was a national event, and it became clear that the Commonwealth would need to increase its authority as well as its spending and revenue-raising powers to prosecute the war successfully and effectively.

One of its major actions was to pass the War Precautions Act. The Act gave the Commonwealth great jurisdiction - powers that were far greater than it would have under peace conditions.

The War Precautions Act gave the Commonwealth Government weight in two main areas. It could make laws that were normally not within its prerogative - so in effect the Constitution which normally limited the Commonwealth’s power was suspended for the duration of the war and six months afterwards. The War Precautions Act and the Defence Act gave the Commonwealth authority to make laws about anything that affected the war effort - and High Court interpretations in disputes meant that this covered almost anything. In a famous quote, a member of parliament asked the Commonwealth’s main law officer, the Solicitor-General Sir Robert Garran, ‘Would it be an offence under the War Precautions Act ...’ ‘Yes!’ said Garran.

The other great change was that many of these new powers available to the Commonwealth were able to be exercisable under Regulation, meaning that parliament did not have to pass the law, all it required was a document prepared by the relevant Minister, and signed by the Governor-General. So in effect parliament lost much of its control during the war, and laws were made by a few Ministers.

Some of the major activities carried out under the authority of the War Precautions Act by the Commonwealth were:

  • passing Trading With the Enemy Acts that cancelled existing commercial contracts with firms in enemy countries;
  • creating loans to raise money for the war;
  • taking on power to tax incomes - they shared this with the States, who previously had this power for themselves;
  • fixing the price of many goods - something that the Constitution did not give the Commonwealth the prerogative to do normally;
  • interning (locking up) without trial people who were born in or had an association with enemy countries;
  • compulsorily buying farmers’ wheat and wool crops; and
  • censoring publications and letters.