Would you vote for conscription? Five objects to help you decide
A century ago, Australians faced one of the most bitter and passionate debates in our history.
The First World War was being fought across Europe, and Australia had sustained huge losses at Gallipoli and the western front. Prime Minister Billy Hughes was adamant conscripts needed to be sent to fight to make up the numbers. Britain and some of the other Dominions already had conscription to bolster their reinforcements, and Hughes was determined to follow suit. Faced with a party unwilling to support him and falling political capital, Hughes put this question to the voters in a non-binding plebiscite (referred to by some sources as a referendum):
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?
How would you have voted? Here are five objects from the Museum’s collection which might help you make up your mind.
1. Honouring our commitments
Andrew Fisher, the Labor leader, made his famous statement to fight the looming war to the ‘last man and the last shilling’ at an election speech in Colac on 31 July 1914. Fisher’s words were used on this poster for the ‘yes’ campaign. The case was very clear: in order to honour our commitment to the Empire, Australians had to have more manpower and needed conscription to bring reinforcements to the front.
2. The Blood Vote
This poem is credited to W.R. Winspear, but recent claims have stated it was actually written by journalist E.J. Dempsey, who was unable to publish it under his name for political reasons. The art is by Claude Marquet, one of Australia’s most prolific cartoonists of the early 20th century. This handbill was widely distributed and printed in major newspapers.
3. Vote No Mum
This poster prominently features the Australian Labor Party, doubling as both a party advertisement and a call against conscription.
The ALP was one of the main contributors to the ‘no’ campaign. This was despite Prime Minister Billy Hughes being leader of the party. By the time of the plebiscite, Hughes’ stock had fallen so low within Labor he had already been expelled as a member, although he kept attending (and chairing) party meetings without challenge. Two weeks after the vote, on 14 November, Hughes’ leadership was rejected by caucus and he walked out. Hughes’ departure split Labor into two camps, one of which merged with the opposition to become the Nationalist Party before the 1917 election. The fallout from the split saw Labor confined to opposition for more than a decade.
4. Keep Australia White
Not all of the ‘no’ case was based on the morality of asking people to fight against their will. One of the more powerful and resonant arguments was about the White Australia Policy. Opponents believed conscription would cause a labour shortage in Australia which would be filled by importing workers from overseas, such as Asia or the Pacific, and that this would mean an end to White Australia. The overt racism of such a position is shocking now but at the time this was considered a reasonable point.
5. For the Flag
The conscription debate polarised Australia like nothing before, and arguably nothing since. Tempers were inflamed and passions aroused on both sides as the day of the plebiscite grew near. Both the pro and anti-conscription campaigners wore their colours for all to see, and badges either for or against conscription were produced in their thousands. This badge for the ‘yes’ case invokes the familiar themes; a vote for conscription is a vote for Australia, Britain and the Empire.
Both sides campaigned actively, but the result was a narrow victory for ‘no’, with 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against. Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania voted Yes, in the case of WA by a 2-1 margin. In just over a year, the whole exercise was repeated with a second plebiscite campaign, which was just as, if not more, divisive and emotional than the first but which was, also, rejected.
Even though both the 1916 and 1917 plebiscites were non-binding, the Hughes government made the decision to honour the will of Australian voters, and no further efforts were made to bring about conscription. Australia would eventually introduce conscription for limited overseas service during the Second World War, and the role of conscripts during the Vietnam War has been much-debated.
So which way would you have voted? Let us know in the comments.