A century ago this month, Australia tore itself apart over the question of conscription. As more and more men became casualties of the Somme campaign – 23,000 Australians in the seven weeks from 19 July 1916, more than a quarter of these killed – the Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes, became increasingly desperate for higher enlistments to replace them. After spending much of the first half of 1916 in Britain and Europe, Hughes had become convinced of the need to conscript eligible Australian men for service overseas. Britain itself had introduced conscription in January 1916, and its introduction in Australia seemed to Hughes the logical solution to a pressing problem of how to help replenish the British Empire’s forces. But there were Australians who had other ideas, and the idea met with staunch resistance, especially from trade union leaders who argued that Australia was already doing enough. Hughes’s own Labor Party was divided over the issue, and anti-conscriptionists had a majority in the federal Senate where they could block any move to introduce compulsion by legislation. So the prime minister alighted on the idea of a plebiscite – or a mass public opinion poll of the kind currently being proposed for same-sex marriage – in order to resolve the question. The result was an intense struggle in which each side gave the other no quarter and, on 28 October 1916, a narrow victory for the ‘No’ campaign. But the Labor Party split and Hughes joined his former political opponents in forming a new pro-conscriptionist government. He made another attempt to get a ‘Yes’ vote in December 1917, but again without success. At the end of the war, Australia was almost unique among the belligerents in maintaining a voluntary system of recruitment, but the controversy left a legacy of great bitterness that continued to disfigure Australian life.
Frank Bongiorno is an Associate professor in the School of History.
On Saturday 29 October 2016 from 1pm, the Canberra Region Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History in partnership with the School of History will be holding an event to commemorate the first conscription plebiscite: ‘The Defeat of Conscription: A Centennial Retrospective’.
The venue is the Hedley Bull Centre (Building 130), Room 1, The Australian National University.
For further details, see: http://labourhistorycanberra.org/