Public Forum on WW1, the Case of Fr Jerger and Civil Liberties

Fr Charles JergerOn Sunday November 22, a public forum on the internment of Passionist Priest, Fr Charles Jerger, during WW1 and his subsequent deportation in July 1920, was held in Marrickville.

Co-hosted by Gallipoli Centenary Peace Campaign and St Brigid’s Parish, the forum was addressed by three speakers: Dr Janice Garaty, Assoc Prof Douglas Newton and Dr Peter Manning.

What follows is a review of the three presentations.

Dr Janice Garaty’s Address

Dr Garaty recounted the events that resulted in Fr Jerger’s internment in February 1918 at the Holsworthy Military Camp. The case against Fr Jerger originated from a complaint made by a local parishioner, Mrs McCall, who accused him of expressing disloyal sentiments designed to discourage recruitment to the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in a sermon on September 26, 1916.

It is interesting to note that the accusations against Fr Jerger originated within the Catholic community. This indicates that there was no singular Catholic position on the war or on conscription. Mrs McCall had a husband and a son in the AIF and deeply resented Fr Jerger’s German origins, even though he had only spent the first two years of his life in Germany, before migrating to Britain and then to Australia with his mother and step-father. At the time of his fateful sermon, Fr Jerger had been resident in Australia for 28 years.

While Catholics who supported the war and conscription were responsible for supplying the evidence against Fr Jerger, as Dr Garaty points out, the case was vigorously taken up by sectarians such as Marrickville councillor, John Ness, who was bent on gaining government support to first intern Fr Jerger and then to have him deported. John Ness served as a councillor and mayor on Marrickville Council from 1907 to 1922 (as Mayor from 1915-1917 and 1918 to 1919) and ex officio chairperson of the local recruiting committee.

Initially John Ness made representations to the Department of Defence in 1916 and again in 1917 about the alleged disloyal remarks made by Fr Jerger. Having received no response, he raised the matter publicly at the inaugural meeting in February 1918 of the local branch of the exclusively Protestant, Australian Loyalty League. Barely one week later, Jerger was interned.

Dr Garaty referred to a number of petitions, large public meetings, trade union protests and black bans and even High Court challenges to Fr Jerger’s deportation. But as she pointed out:

High Court challenges to his deportation as an alien were futile as it was clarified Jerger was not protected by citizenship although his father had been a naturalised British subject. In spite of waterside workers’ strikes and black bans on P & O ships he finally left Fremantle … on 26 July 1920.

Fr Jerger was never to return to Australia, dying in London on September 11, 1927.

Assoc Prof Douglas Newton’s Presentation

The central theme of Assoc Prof Douglas Newton’s presentation was “war is the pasture of bigots, and the solvent of principle”. Newton noted a common dynamic in wartime politics. In his words “the cry is raised ‘enemy at the gate’ and immediately the rabid ‘ultra-patriots’ begin to search for ‘the enemy within’ and demand their persecution, incarceration, and deportation”. According to Newton, fear-mongering campaigns, in Australia today as in Australia during WW1, display “long-running but always despicable political trends: the search for political advantage by whipping up the politics of division.”

With respect to the curtailment of civil liberties during the Great War, Newton referred to the enactment of the War Precautions Act (the Act) in October 1914. This legislation provided the government with emergency powers by granting the Governor-General the authority to proclaim Regulations under the Act. The wording was deliberately vague enabling the Governor-General – in reality, the Cabinet or even a single Minister advising him – to exercise a very wide range of powers. Among the hundreds of Regulations proclaimed under the Act was Regulation No. 28, issued in May 1915. This Regulation directly impacted on Fr Jerger. It stated:

No person shall, by word of mouth or in writing, or in any newspaper, periodical, book, circular, or other printed publication … Spread reports or make statements likely to prejudice the recruiting, training, discipline, or administration of any of His Majesty’s forces…

Under the Act, Fr Jerger was also directly affected by the power given to the Minister of Defence in 1914 to intern ‘enemy aliens’. The number of Australians of German extraction interned during the war totalled 6,890. Well after the war had ended, the Australian government adopted a summary deportation policy and 6150 interned ‘enemy aliens’ – German nationals as well as naturalised Australians – were shipped back to Germany from May 1919.

Newton’s survey of the domestic political context immediately prior to and during the Great War covered the ‘khaki election’ of 1914 and Australia’s decision to offer an expeditionary force and control of the Royal Australian Navy to Britain some 40 hours before the British leadership eventually decided to declare war on Germany. Also discussed were differences of opinion on the war and conscription within the Catholic Church and the deepening of political divisions within the wider community as the war exacted its deadly toll.

Newton concluded his presentation with the following observation:

Sadly, like so such emergency legislation, that of Australia’s during the Great War was open to abuse and became an instrument for political vindictiveness and the politics of exclusion – deployed then, and still, by little men seeking to milk political advantage from great world tragedies.

Dr Peter Manning’s Address

In a real sense, Dr Peter Manning’s address was a continuation of the theme “war is the pasture of bigots, and the solvent of principle”. In today’s context, the war in question is the “war on terror”.

In Manning’s view, the recent draft “counter-terrorism” legislation – Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 – has a close affinity with the War Precautions Act (1914). Introduced to the House of Representatives on June 24, 2015 by the Abbott Coalition government, the draft bill was described as “one of the most poorly drafted and ill-conceived pieces of legislation ever introduced into the Federal Parliament”.1

Previous “counter-terrorism” laws had already expanded discretionary ministerial powers at the expense of judicial scrutiny. This latest ill-conceived legislation exacerbated this trend. In particular, it conferred on unknown government officials extraordinary powers to exile people without recourse to the courts. Ensnared in this legislative net were not only terrorists as defined by the bill but also humanitarian workers and even children convicted of vandalism.2

About two weeks before the forum, on November 10, the new Turnbull Coalition government decided to patch up the bill by making a number of changes. These included the adoption of all 27 recommendations of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Despite these changes, the bill was still bedeviled with defects. For example, in extending its scope to people who committed terrorist acts or supported terrorism e.g. through financing, training or recruitment, it failed to distinguish between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. On these grounds, dual nationals who supported a struggle like Nelson Mandela’s campaign against apartheid in South Africa were liable to have their citizenship revoked.3

In addition, the revised bill preserved two of the original draft’s most fundamental flaws: (a) with respect to a range of offenses, it still enabled the government to act unilaterally, without recourse to the judiciary or even permitting targeted persons an opportunity to be heard and (b) it maintained the Abbott’s government’s primary objective of establishing two classes of citizenship. This negates the principle that every Australian should be treated equally before the law.

Under this legislation, citizens of Australia only would be permitted to stay in the country irrespective of their actions, while the five million or so Australians who are dual nationals could be stripped of their citizenship and deported if their actions fell foul of the new law.4

The re-drafted bill passed both houses of parliament with Labor’s support on December 3.5 In Canada, the promise made by new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to repeal the former Conservative government’s “two-tiered” citizenship law, obviously had negligible influence on the Labor opposition. The constitutionality of the bill remains in doubt.6

In reflecting on the draft legislation and the creation of two classes of citizenship, Manning argued that what happened to Fr Jerger in 1920 could happen again today with the passing of the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015. For Manning, the lamentable lesson of Australia’s most recent binge in enacting “counter-terrorism” laws is this:

… that, with a quarter of Australia with double-passports and a third of Australia speaking a language other than English at home, we are ripe to see many more Fr Jergers filling our jails and being deported back “to where they came from”, whether they like it or not, and whether they die or not.

View photos of the forum here.

A written version of Douglas Newton’s presentation is published here. View the slides in his PowerPoint display here.


1 & 2. George Williams, ‘Citizenship rights a casualty of terrorism’, SMH, 16 Nov 2015.
3. During the Reagan administration’s “war on terror”, Nelson Mandela was put on the US terrorist watch list. This was a consequence of the administration’s strong support for South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime and its declaration that the African National Congress was one of the “more notorious” terrorist groups in the world. Mandela was only removed from this terrorist list in 2008.
4. For a discussion on the problematic philosophical underpinnings of the bill – citizenship as a “contract” and a “privilege” rather than a right – refer to Rayner Thwaites’ article: ‘Citizenship discussion paper offers a misleading take on this right’, The Conversation, 9 Jun 2015.
5. In the Senate, the vote on the bill was: 43 for and 13 against. Those voting against the bill included all nine Greens senators: R. Natale, J. Rice, R.A. Simms, S.C. Hanson-Young, S Ludlam, N.J. McKim, L. Rhiannon, R. Siewert and P.S. Whish-Wilson; Liberal Democrats’ D.E. Leyonhjelm; Democratic Labour Party’s J.J. Madigan; Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s R. Muir and SA Independent N. Xenophon.
6. Arguments against the legislation’s constitutionality can be found in the Parliamentary Library’s Bills Digest: Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015, No. 15, 2 Sep 2015, pp 26-27.

Further reading

Michael Bradley, ‘How can you lose your citizenship? Let me count the ways’, The Drum, 3 Dec 2015.
More information on Fr Jerger, together with additional references, can be found in the forum’s program here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.