Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917 – Fact sheet 161
Australian voters were asked in October 1916, and again in December 1917, to vote on the issue of conscription. Universal military training for Australian men aged 18 to 60 had been compulsory since 1911. The referendums, if carried, would have extended this requirement to service overseas.
The 1916 referendum
Australian troops fighting overseas in World War I enlisted voluntarily. As the enormity of Australian casualties on the Western Front became known in Australia and no quick end to the war seemed likely the number of men volunteering fell steadily. There was sustained British pressure on the Australian Government to ensure that its divisions were not depleted: in 1916 it was argued that Australia needed to provide reinforcements of 5500 men per month to maintain its forces overseas at operational level. With advertising campaigns not achieving recruiting targets, Prime Minister Hughes decided to ask the people in a referendum if they would agree to a proposal requiring men undergoing compulsory training to serve overseas. The referendum of 28 October 1916 asked Australians:
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?
The referendum was defeated with 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against.
The 1917 referendum
In 1917 Britain sought a sixth Australian division for active service. Australia had to provide 7000 men per month to meet this request. Volunteer recruitment continued to lag and on 20 December 1917 Prime Minister Hughes put a second referendum to the Australian people. The referendum asked:
Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?'
Hughes’ proposal was that voluntary enlistment should continue, but that any shortfall would be met by compulsory reinforcements of single men, widowers, and divorcees without dependents between 20 and 44 years, who would be called up by ballot. The referendum was defeated with 1,015,159 in favour and 1,181,747 against.
The conscription referenda were divisive politically, socially and within religious circles. Newspapers and magazines of the time demonstrate the concerns, arguments, and the passion of Australians in debating this issue. The decisive defeat of the second referendum closed the issue of conscription for the remainder of the war.
Records about the referenda held in Canberra
The Australian Prime Minister William Hughes' call for conscription was a consequence of heavy Australian casualties being experienced on the Western Front in World War I and a decline in volunteers to enlist to fight at home. His notion of conscription involved it being mandatory for men to join the army and receive military training and for the government to be able to send these troops overseas if necessary. The Australian public reacted immediately.
Why did it divide society?
While Australia's involvement from the outbreak of war was supported by the vast majority of Australians, the issue of conscription clearly and sharply divided the nation. Every group and individual had a strong opinion that was based on their own personal circumstances and their own experiences of the War. From the two plebiscites which were held in October 1916 and December 1917, it was obvious that the nation was relatively evenly split in half when it came to whether it supported conscription or not.
One of the reasons that conscription was so controversial was that it was generally unconventional for two people from within the same social group and who would normally share a similar opinion on something, to have two completely opposing views on the same topic. For example, among the ANZACs who had fought and returned home to Australia, there were some who strongly agreed with conscription because they knew that more reinforcements were needed on the battlefields. Some of them also felt that they had served their time for their nation and family and now it was the turn of someone else to do the same for them. There were, however, other ANZACs who held the contrasting opinion that no one should be forced to endure what they had experienced. They believed, therefore, that conscription should not be introduced.
The implications of conscription also proved to be a contentious issue when taking into consideration its validity in Australian society. A vote for conscription was perceived as being a vote in support of the British. One reason for this was that Britain, Australia's 'mother country,' had already established conscription. Another reason was that when Australia chose to support Britain in the War, her choice was partially due to the reciprocal support she would receive from Britain, if needed. As a result, many British patriots encouraged conscription to ensure that Australia would be seen to have experienced the difficulties of War and, as a consequence, not relinquish her duty and in the process sever her ties with Britain. This fuelled the underlying controversies surrounding Australia's inability to assert her independence from Britain.
How did it divide society - the battle
The conscription debate relied heavily on propaganda to convey its messages to the public. It employed techniques which played on people's emotions. Fear, guilt and shame were used to influence people to vote a certain way. Fear was often instilled in women and children through posters which advocated conscription in an attempt to make them believe that by voting 'yes' the men could continue to fight offshore and the Germans would not invade their country.See Image 1
Various forms of reasoning were employed to influence the public to support conscription. Hughes often referred to the primary reason behind Australia involving herself in the War in the first place, was her duty to Britain. In particular, the agreements that the nation had made to supply Britain with 16 500 Australian men per month were reiterated. He also pointed out to Australians that if they were expecting to be able to receive the support of the British military, then they should not discontinue supporting them in return. Hughes also indicated that Australia had a duty to her own men who had already made sacrifices and fought in the War, by not allowing their efforts to be in vain.
The patriots and pro-conscriptionists also employed a 'reverse must be true' approach which accused people who voted 'no' of looking after the best interests of the German leaders by not wanting to send more Australian troops to bring them down.
These arguments were boldly met by the argument that conscription denied a person their basic human right to freedom and was equivalent to sending a man to his death unwillingly. Many people believed that sending more troops overseas only to be killed in the War, was sheer stupidity on Australia's part and that the patriots were putting the British Empire before Australia. In addition to this, there were a number of people who were not in favour of conscription because they no longer trusted Hughes after he turned on his party and the workers of Australia.
The Australian Labor Party, of which Hughes was formerly a member, was completely against conscription for the purposes of serving overseas. Having long-standing affiliations with the trade union movement and a belief in doing what was best for the Australian economy, it is not surprising that the party aligned itself with trade unions and workers groups who supported the 'no' vote to conscription. They all perceived that conscription would only result in the bosses making more money and profiting from the War. Another factor in this argument was that without enough men to run the factories, Australia would have to accept immigrants for cheap labour. This was perceived as creating two problems for Australians: the first being that it would open Australia's previously closed doors to non-white immigrants; and the second being that the wages of white workers would consequently be lowered.
As was expected, the working classes were also against conscription because they believed that it would affect them most harshly. Their main concern was that the men who normally worked to earn just enough money to feed their families would be sent away and their departure would then put increased pressure on the women to care for their families, both financially and otherwise.
See Image 2
The division of class also created a division along religious lines. Upper and middle class Australians approved of conscription as they were closely associated with the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church was strongly in favour of conscription because of its solid ties to England and British church leaders who were very much in support of the War.
A split had emerged between the churches, with the Anglican Church on one side and the Roman Catholic Church on the other. The Roman Catholic Church was not in favour of conscription because a large number of Irish people were of this denomination. The Irish and the British had a long and tumultuous history. At the time, though, many Irish did not support the British as they still had painfully fresh memories of the British who were said to have used unnecessary force to bring down Irish Nationalist rebels in Dublin. The Irish also felt discriminated against and feared for the safety of the people from their home country, knowing that if Australians relieved the British in France then that would free more British soldiers to go to Ireland. In fact, the leader of the anti-conscription campaign was Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, who had come to Australia from Ireland in 1913. As Hughes' nemesis, Mannix argued that he did not oppose the War or the Empire however he believed that imperialists were sacrificing Australia's best interest by putting the Empire first.
See Image 3
Individuals in society were also divided on the issue of conscription, particularly women who were targeted in the propaganda. While some women who had sons and husbands already away at war requested other men to join to support them, other women were concerned about putting their loved ones in danger, especially if they did not want to go.
In the end, conscription did not receive enough support and was never introduced into Australia in World War I. It did, however, create deep divisions in society which have continued to resurface even into the 21st Century.