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The four conscription debates in Australia

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Everyone knows that conscription was a really divisive issue in the First World War when Billy Hughes split the Labour Party and the nation with two unsucessful attempts to carry referendums to support it. The first referendum in 1916 was pivotal in the Les Darcy story because it was the threat of conscription that drove him to stow away on a freighter on the eve of the referendum to travel to the United States.

The first debate

When I started researching conscription for the Les Darcy book I was initially confused by the literature that turned up on conscription for national service years before 1914. Billy Hughes was the driver in that campaign as well, although he was not the Prime Minister. My notes are in storage and google has only turned up some fragments of information so I will rely on memory.

Between 1911 and 1929 Australian males aged between 18 and 60 were required to perform militia service within Australia and its territories. The Defence Acts of 1903 and 1904, empowered the Australian Government to call up ‘unexempted’ males in time of war. The Defence Act 1909 made training and service compulsory in time of peace.

Pro-conscription and anti-conscription groups debated the matter for some years and Lord Kitchener visited in 1909 to advise on the details of the scheme. It was compulsory for older teenagers and young men, with exemptions for people in remote areas and some other considerations (presumably medical conditions). The scheme started for teenagers with drills in halls and parade grounds. For older trainees the drill was supplemented by camps of two or three weeks duration.

The most active anti-conscription group (actually a coalition of groups in different states) kept on protesting until 1914 but closed down when Australia entered the war. The leadership was not lacking in patriotism (just opposed to compulsion) and it did not want to undermine the war effort. Conscrition for actual military service was not an issue at that stage.

The second debate

This revolved around the two referendums that Billy Hughes hoped would provide the leverage that he needed to get the Labor Party on side. Actually there was no guarrantee that conscription would have resulted if the vote had gone the other way because the Labor members in the Upper House could have blocked it in defiance of Hughes and public opinion.

This is how it played out.

Key groups in the Labor Party were implaccably opposed to conscription. These were the Labor majority in the Upper House, the Labor conferences in NSW and Victoria and the Melbourne Trade Union Congress.

On August 24, 1916 Hughes went to Cabinet with a proposal for a referendum (strictly a plebescite because it did not concern the Constitution). Cabinet accepted the idea by five votes to four. Then there was a debate lasting four days in the Labor caucus. At 2.30 am on the fourth day Hughes obtained a two-vote majority from the survivors.

The first vote for conscription was lost by a wafer-thin margin, the second went down more comfortably.

The third debate, WW2

PM Curtin was a leader of the anti-conscription cause in WWI but for various reasons he backflipped and allowed conscripts to fight well outside the territorial boundary. This is a summary of the episode.

After bitter debate within the party, Curtin convinced the ALP to accept a limited form of conscription for overseas service. In February 1943 the area in which CMF conscripts were permitted to serve was extended to cover Japanese-held islands south of the equator.

Some Labor die-hards damned Curtin as a traitor. Others saw him as a pragmatist, forced to adapt his firmly held beliefs in response to the crisis of World War II. After a lifetime’s opposition to militarism, this was perhaps the toughest decision he ever had to make.

Fourth debate – Vietnam

National service training ran through the fifties but I don’t think it aroused much comment because the regular army consisted entirely of volunteers.

In 1969 conscription was introduced, with the possibility of service in Vietnam. Young men turning 20 were in a lottery and some were recruited while others were not. My marble was in the first barrell but did not come out. Students were exempt and there were some 10 year doctorates as a consequence.

Written by Admin

July 11, 2006 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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