Something extraordinary happened in Australia on 28 October 1916. On that day the country voted on the following proposition:
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?
A vote in favour would endorse the government’s attempt to conscript Australian men to fight on the battlefields of Europe; a vote against would repudiate the war plans. The fact that the vote took place at all was of great significance: nowhere else was such a crucial measure determined by an act of mass democracy. More extraordinary still, Australians voted no.
It was a slim majority (just 51.6%), but a majority nonetheless. Amid the clamour of war, against the combined forces of the press, employers, most of the churches and the government, the trade union-led anti-conscriptionists – known widely as ‘antis’ – defeated the proposal brought by then Labor Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes. But not before an intensive campaigning period, in which the bitter social divisions within Australia were exposed. This campaign, and the measure’s repudiation, changed the course of Australian history.
Yet, many know little about it. The year of 2016 is an empty page on the commemorative calendar; a time of respite between the 2015 centenary of the Gallipoli campaign and the commemorations of the bloody battles on the Western Front to come. The occasion will not go completely unmarked – the Victorian Trades Hall Council has reproduced banners from the campaign to display on its walls. A community group in the Melbourne suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg has held a variety of events to mark the cause’s local history. Bill Shorten launched The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, a collection of academic essays. But in terms of official recognition, nothing.
That this act of forgetting should come now, in a year when the merits of a plebiscite to determine a controversial political issue are once again being debated, adds a certain sense of irony to the (absent) occasion. The conscription plebiscite clearly does not fit within the official narrative of the war and its emphasis on the national unity that supposedly existed at the time. The home front has, to a large extent, been excised from such accounts.
But the war years are incomprehensible without an understanding of the conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917 and the divisions they represented. To ignore those debates is to denigrate the legacy and the memory of the war experience, with all its complications and nuances. It is to construct a narrative that ignores what it cannot assimilate; one that has no place for moments of social contest, where masses of Australian people move in united action.
The conscription campaign was an act of mass democracy, with roots already evident at the outbreak of war in 1914. Speaking on the campaign trail for the September federal election, Australia Labor Party leader Andrew Fisher assured imperial loyalists that, under his leadership, the country would contribute to the British Empire’s war effort – ‘to our last man and our last shilling’. As a dominion of the empire, Australia was immediately involved in the conflict.
But Fisher’s hyperbole did not reflect general euphoria: the reception of the war was, predictably, complex and conditional. This was particularly the case among the Australian working class. Workers were enlisting in large numbers: in fact, so many members of the right-wing Australian Workers Union (AWU) enlisted that a request was made to the defence minister for a battalion to be comprised entirely of the union’s men. Many joined out of loyalty to the empire; some in the belief they were serving Australia; some out of a thirst for excitement; and some because drought had dried up jobs alongside the riverbanks and the army was one way to ensure a steady wage. It should seem obvious, but these recruits were people, not numbers. No two enlisted for precisely the same reasons – and none knew what the world’s first industrial war would be like.
James Scullin, a future Labor prime minister, first came to national fame as a fighter against conscription in 1916 when, as editor of Ballarat’s AWU-controlled Evening Echo newspaper, he wrote almost daily against the measure. His newspaper was covertly rushed into Melbourne where, due to its anti-conscription message, it sold in the thousands: he gave expression to the ambivalence many felt towards the war. Back in 1914, he had described the conflict as abhorrent, but argued that it was Britain’s duty to stand by its allies in the fight. He believed the war to be far from ideal, but necessary. Nevertheless, he warned that ‘predatory combines’ might seek to profit off the war and argued that ‘international arbitration’ should be pursued to prevent such conflicts occurring again.
Socialists in the labour movement shared this fear. Soon ‘every patriot will recoup himself out of the pocket of the worker’, commentator W Wallis wrote in The Labor Call in September 1914. But Wallis prevaricated on the war itself, not yet prepared to oppose the conflict.
John Curtin, on the other hand, had no such qualms. Famed for his later leadership of Australia during the Second World War, Curtin was a socialist trade union leader with a reputation for opposing militarism. In May 1914, he won the Melbourne Trades Hall Council over to an anti-war position. After war was declared, he condemned it as the product of capitalist imperialism: it would be the working class that suffered, he argued, as war ‘is not only the assassin’s trade, it is the exploiter’s auxiliary’.
The conduct of the war confirmed these fears for the labour movement. The working class was disproportionately bearing the cost of the war, whether on the shores of Gallipoli or economically at home. Working-class families were gripped by anxiety over the fate of sons, husbands and brothers overseas, and this was matched with trepidation at home as prices rose and wages stagnated. Michael McKernan’s history of Victoria during the war period reveals that over 2000 young men from the staunchly working-class suburb of Richmond went to fight, while the patriotic middle classes in Camberwell contributed just 255.
A conference of labour women reflected the suspicions of many when it objected to ‘the present methods of enforced recruiting – mainly by starvation’. The radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) claimed that this validated their anti-war position: that the war was purely for the benefit of the capitalists, who should have gone first to the trenches themselves.
This burgeoning disquiet was contained at first by the government’s promise in 1915 to alleviate economic suffering through a prices referendum; a measure which would have resulted in the control of prices being transferred from state to commonwealth government. But fate intervened: Fisher stepped down from the prime ministership and was replaced by Billy Hughes. Soon after taking office, Hughes circumvented the referendum by striking a deal with state premiers, who promised to voluntarily transfer powers. When this failed to eventuate, Hughes earned the opprobrium of the labour movement – one outraged correspondent in the Australian Worker labelling Hughes ‘a traitor to the workers’.
Departing for Britain to discuss the war effort, Hughes left an increasingly tense nation behind. His perceived capitulation over the referendum could not have come at a worse time: wages were restrained while prices grew, and the grim news from Gallipoli entrenched the belief in disproportionate Australian (and Australian working-class) sacrifice. Rumours that conscription was on the cards grew when the government required young men of military age to fill out cards stating why they had not yet enlisted. Fred Katz, a socialist leader of the Victorian Clerks Union, moved that union members should refuse to return the form. He was tracked down by a number of imperial loyalists – reported by the conservative Argus newspaper as ‘wearing the King’s uniform’ – who tarred and feathered him in the street.
As Hughes met with the great and good in Britain, suspicions grew that he was deviating from his Labor roots. By the time he returned to Australia in August 1915, he was convinced that Australia should introduce conscription to bolster troop numbers on the Western Front; the big question was how to implement it. The labour movement had not passively awaited his return.
Opposition to compulsory military service had been the purview of socialists and Christian pacifists since Labor had introduced such a scheme for young men in 1911. But Hughes’ referendum backflip hardened hostility towards the concept. The AWU declared its opposition in January 1916, and other individual unions and state Labor parties followed.
Sentiment did not automatically translate into action. The most significant – and least recognised – act of anti-conscriptionism took place at Melbourne Trades Hall in March of 1916. Frank Hyett, the socialist secretary of the Victorian Railways Union and close comrade of John Curtin, moved that the council should call a national meeting of Australian unions to declare a united position on conscription and determine a strategy to defeat the measure. This was the genesis of the union campaign – months before the plebiscite was even announced.
The Victorian radicals’ efforts became the All-Australian Trade Union Congress (AATUC), a meeting of the national movement that declared its ‘uncompromising opposition to the Conscription of life and labor’, and promised to organise against ‘any attempt to foist Conscription upon the people of Australia’. While many in attendance extended their opposition beyond just conscription to the war itself, pains were taken to explain that the vast majority did not. Socialists, meanwhile, moved that a general strike should be conducted to stymie any attempt to defeat conscription, but this was not accepted.
Once a national campaign had been established, the AATUC appointed an executive to run it. Victorian socialists such as Hyett dominated this executive. John Curtin would later be appointed its secretary, effectively making him the leading ‘anti’ in Australia.
Stakes were high. The executive prepared a manifesto to outline its case against conscription. It argued that the measure was representative of European militarism, and would diminish the rights and standards of the labour movement and Australian citizens. This argument would be expanded elsewhere to shamefully argue that White Australia was under threat from the measure – an important reminder of the dark, racialised heart of Australian politics at the time. The manifesto was too much for authorities, who raided Melbourne’s Trades Hall in the dead of the night in an attempt to prevent its circulation.
By the time of his return, Hughes was already at a disadvantage. The union movement had set in place a national campaign based in Melbourne (then the national capital), while the Easter Rising had solidified anti-conscription sentiment among Irish Catholics, who viewed the British Empire with increasing hostility.
On 30 August 1916, Hughes announced that a ‘referendum’ (in reality, a plebiscite, as it would not affect the constitution) would take place. The vote was called to alleviate Hughes’ political difficulties: he knew his own senators would not pass the measure against union opposition, and hoped instead that a plebiscite would instil his measure with popular legitimacy. Thus, the campaign began.
No single factor motivated the opposition to conscription. Some were driven by religious conviction; others by national loyalty; others by socialist anti-imperialism. The campaign was an act of mass democracy in which a constellation of actors were involved. It was a mark of the sprawling, far-reaching nature of the fight against conscription that Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne and twelve members of the IWW brought to trial for treason and sedition were involved in the same movement.
The pro-conscriptionists used every rhetorical legerdemain they could conjure in an attempt to bulldoze the union opposition, such as appealing to working-class voters not to ‘scab’ on their mates in the trenches by voting ‘no’. They knew the significant role the working class would play. It was the second conscription plebiscite campaign in 1917 that would see the most hyperbolic red scare over the alleged threat the IWW posed, but Hughes had no compunction stoking such fears even in 1916. Only military victory for the Allies, he argued, would assure the future of White Australia.
The antis disagreed. Left and Right of the labour movement were largely united in the racist argument that, if Australian men were conscripted, the nation would be vulnerable – both economically and militarily – to invasion from the north. Antis jumped upon the arrival of Maltese immigrants during the campaign as an alleged capitalist plot to replace white workers with low-paid immigrants. They dubbed their opponent William ‘Maltese’ Hughes.
But the antis did not solely appeal to racism. To them, conscription was a mark of militarism and imperialism. It was an assault on democratic rights, and on the gains of trade unionism. Where conscription for military service was implemented, they argued, conscription for industrial service – and a concomitant destruction of union standards – was sure to follow.
It required bravery to make such arguments. Many besides Katz were threatened with being tarred and feathered during the period. Acts of physical violence were common, often by mobs of soldiers. Curtin was advised to leave his shoelaces untied when he gave speeches on platforms along Melbourne’s Yarra River, so he could kick them off more easily if he was thrown into the water.
Both sides of the vote appealed to women as moral agents. The most famous piece of anti-conscription propaganda was ‘The Blood Vote’, beseeching women not to ‘smugly’ sentence other mother’s sons ‘to death/In that dreadful little room’. But women were not only the subjects of appeals; they were actively agitating. In Victoria, a Labor Women’s Anti-Conscription Committee was formed. Included among its leading activists was Muriel Heagney, who would become the leading activist for equal pay after the war. The committee organised public meetings and speakers corners, and canvassed suburb by suburb; working-class women, meanwhile, regularly interrupted the meetings of pro-conscriptionist forces, shouting down or clapping out ‘pro’ speakers.
There were few public spaces that did not see some anti-conscription activity take place. The most notable mobilisation came on 4 October, with tens of thousands gathered by the Yarra to hear Curtin, and similar numbers rallying in Sydney’s Domain. Ultimately, these social forces coalesced into an effective campaign that refuted the government’s war plans.
In a less active – but still very real – sense, the campaign stretched as far as the Anzacs gathered on the Western Front. Unsurprisingly, the votes of those doing the fighting were of great propagandistic value to Hughes: he held the vote early among the Australian Imperial Force (an all-volunteer branch of the Army, central to Australia’s war efforts at the time) in an attempt to bolster his campaign. The results were not to his liking. Conjecture exists over the exact numbers on each side; but the official numbers of 72 399 for conscription and 58 894 against were close enough for the results to be suppressed. This indicates that there was a contest over conscription not just on the home front, but on the frontlines as well – with a substantial proportion of Anzacs voting ‘no’.
But in the final count, nothing could hide the fact that conscription had been defeated. Hughes had asked Australians to vote, and they had voted ‘no’. This had been determined by a mass act of democracy; a large sprawling campaign that had reached all sectors of Australian society. For different reasons, and in different ways, the antis had reached enough people to assure a ‘no’ vote. Australian politics would never be the same.
The most immediate impact was on the Labor Party. Hughes had already been expelled by the New South Wales party before the vote, but in November 1916 he walked out of the party caucus room at Parliament House, joining with his conservative allies – a move that reshaped Australian politics. In December, the campaign victors joined at Labor’s National Conference, and – following a motion moved by Scullin – expelled Hughes and all of his followers from the movement.
The conscription plebiscite both defined and revealed. It defined the shape of politics to come, and left a marker in the Australian political landscape: fifty years later, when campaigning against conscription for the Vietnam War, activists referred back to the victory. And it revealed the divisions within Australian society over the meaning of the war, particularly on who did the fighting and who bore its costs.
Such an event should not be obscured through acts of historical forgetting. Remembering the nature of the plebiscite enriches an understanding of this period. It does not denigrate those who fought, but allows us to more clearly understand those who went and those who did not, and the context in which they made their decisions.
Just as importantly, it is about traditions; about what is celebrated and what is ignored. At its root, the conscription campaign was about the future of a country being decided by the mass of people who lived in it. It was about them deciding who would go to war: either those who chose to, or those the government selected. This act of mass democracy unleashed social energies in an act of political creation. It was a time when the working-class citizens of the country, so often denied a political voice, made themselves heard. A century on, it is vital that we listen, and remember such a moment in all its complexity; for, these people made history. They deserve to be remembered.
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