Under the War Precautions Act, the federal Government could make laws about anything that affected the war effort. This resulted in a dramatic increase in the range of federal regulations. During peacetime, the federal Government's powers under the Constitution were limited to specified subject matters; other matters were within the power of the Australian States. During wartime, the scope of the federal Government's power under the constitution to make laws with respect to the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth expanded to meet the exigencies of wartime. This expansion allowed the federal Government to overcome limits on its other powers and provided constitutional support for the War Precautions Act.
The federal Government also began to exercise powers that it had possessed prior to the war but had chosen not to exercise. For example, it began to levy income tax, which had previously only been levied by the Australian States.
Furthermore, many of the powers available to the federal Government under the Act were exercisable under Regulation. This means that they did not need to be passed by Parliament in order to became law. Any document prepared by the relevant Minister and signed by the Governor-General became law. Many War Precautions Regulations were made in this way.
Some of the activities carried out under the authority of the War Precautions Act include:
There were 3442 prosecutions under the Act, almost all of which were successful. Penalties ranged from cautionary fines to imprisonment for up to six months.
Some of the uses of the War Precautions Act were highly controversial. For example, leading up to the referendums on conscription, a Regulation that banned statements likely to prejudice recruiting was used to hamper the anti-conscription campaign. Almost any anti-conscriptionist speech could be construed as offending, and a number of prominent anti-conscriptionists were charged, including John Curtin.
Another controversial use of the Act was in the settling of labour disputes. When coal-miners in New South Wales went on strike in 1916, the Act was used to empower the Attorney-General to order the men back to work. The following year, a nationwide strike of Waterfront workers was defeated by the passing of a regulation that deprived the Waterside Workers Federation of preferences in seven of the busiest ports in Australia. Although in many cases the use of the Act in settling labour disputes could be seen as necessary for the war effort, some other uses appeared calculated to suppress the labour movement. For example in September 1918 the War Precautions Act was used to ban the use of the red flag, a traditional labour emblem.
The War Precautions Act was repealed by the War Precautions Act Repeal Act 1920.
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