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Conscription in Australia

Conscription in Australia, or mandatory military service also known as National Service, has a controversial history dating back to the first years of nationhood. Australia currently has no conscription.

Boyhood conscription

The Government of Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and other non-Labor Governments had introduced a form of conscription for boys from 12 to 14 years of age and for youths from 18 to 20 years of age between 1905 and 1909.

An Australian Labor Party Government instituted a system of compulsory military training for all males aged between 12 and 26 from January 1 1911.

John Barrett, in his study of boy conscription, Falling In, noted:

"In 1911 there were approximately 350,000 boys of an age (10-17 years) to register for compulsory training up to the end of 1915. Since 'universal' was a misnomer, about half that number were exempted from training, or perhaps never registered, reducing the group to 175,000.

There was also extensive opposition to boyhood conscription resulting in, by July 1915, some 34,000 prosecutions and 7,000 detentions of trainees, parents, employers or other persons required to register.

World War I

Under Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes full conscription was attempted during WWI through two referendums.

The first plebiscite was held on the 28 October 1916 and narrowly rejected conscription with a margin of 49% for and 51% against. The plebiscite 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?

A second plebiscite was held on 20 December 1917, and was defeated by a greater margin. The question put to Australians was:
"Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?"

After the failure of the first plebiscite, Billy Hughes was expelled from the Australian Labor Party parliamentary caucus, and promptly crossed the floor with about half of the parliamentary party and became Prime Minister of a conservative Nationalist Government. Following the split, Labor stayed out of office for ten years.

After the first plebiscite the Government used the War Precautions Act and the Unlawful Associations Act to arrest and prosecute anti-conscriptionists such as Tom Barker, editor of Direct Action and many other members of the IWW. The young John Curtin, at the time a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, was also arrested. Anti-conscriptionist publications (in one case, even when read into Hansard), were seized by government censors in police raids.

Other notable opponents to Conscription included Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Queensland Labor Premier Thomas Ryan, Vida Goldstein and the Women's Peace Army. Most trade unions actively opposed conscription.

Many people thought of conscription as a sign of loyalty to Britain, their mothercountry, and thought that it would also support those men who were already fighting. However, trade unions feared that their members might be replaced by cheaper foreign or female labour and opposed conscription. Some groups argued that the whole war was immoral, and it was unjust to force people to fight.

Divided Nation

The conscription issue deeply divided Australia with large meetings held both for and against. The Women's vote was seen as important with large women's meetings and campaign information from both sides aimed at women voters. The campaigning for the first plebiscite was launched by Hughes at a huge overflow meeting at the Sydney Town Hall where he outlined the Government's proposals. This was followed by a huge pro-conscription meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall on September 21.

Anti-conscriptionists, especially in Melbourne, were also able to mobilise large crowds with a meeting filling the Exhibition Building on September 20; 30,000 people on the Yarra bank on Sunday October 15, and 25,000 the following week; a "parade of women promoted by the United Women's No-Conscription Committee - an immense crowd of about 60,000 people gathered at Swanston St between Guild Hall and Princes Bridge, and for upwards of an hour the street was a surging area of humanity". An anti-conscription stop work meeting called by five trade unions held on the Yarra Bank mid-week on October 4 attracted 15,000 people.

The first referendum bill was passed on September 21, 1916, and mandatory registration and enrollment commenced while the first plebiscite campaign was underway. By October 5 The Age reported that of 11607 men examined, 4581 were found fit, approximately 40 per cent.

The Age noted, in an article Influence of WW1, that "the great bulk of the opposition to conscription is centred in Victoria.". Many meetings in inner Melbourne and Sydney were disrupted by anti-conscriptionists with speakers being howled down from the audience in what The Age described as "disgraceful exhibition" and "disorderly scenes".

The issue deeply divided the Labor party, with ministers such as Hughes and George Pearce, vigorously arguing the need for conscription for Australia to help the Allies win the war. They were supported by many within the party, including Labor's first Prime Minister, Chris Watson and NSW Labor Premier William Holman. Hughes denounced anti-conscriptionists as traitors, and a climate of bitter sectarianism (with most Catholics opposing conscription and most Protestants supporting it) developed.

World War II

In 1939, at the start of World War II all unmarried men aged 21 were to be called up for three months’ Militia training. These men could serve only in Australia or its territories.

Conscription was effectively introduced in mid-1942, when all men 18-35, and single men aged 35-45, were required to join the Citizens Military Forces (CMF). Volunteers with the Australian Army scorned CMF conscripts as "chocolate soldiers", or "chockos", because they were believed to melt under the conditions of battle. However, CMF Militia units fought bravely under difficult conditions and suffered extremely high casualties during 1942, in slowing the Japanese advance on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea. New Guinea was then an Australian territory.

By 1943, Australia had been bombed; 20,000 Australians were prisoners of war. The Commonwealth Government changed the Defence Act to extend the definition of areas to which conscripted servicemen could be sent to include now all areas south of the Equator in South-East Asia under the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act (1943). This included all major war zones in the Pacific area. In effect, Australian conscripts could now for the first time be sent overseas to fight in the same areas as volunteers. The changes caused some public resentment and there was some public protest – but most people seemed to support conscription during World War II.

Compulsory military service ended in 1945, and most Australian personnel had been demobilised by the end of November 1946.

National Service in the 1950s

In 1951, during the Korean War, National Service was introduced under the National Service Act (1951). All Australian males aged 18 had to register for 176 (later 140) days of training and five years of service in the CMF. The regular military forces were kept as voluntary. In 1957 the system was changed to emphasise skill rather than numbers. The system was ended in 1959.

National Service from the 1960s

Vietnam War

In 1964 compulsory National Service for 20-year-old males was introduced under the National Service Act (1964). The selection of conscripts based on date of birth, and conscripts were obligated to give two years’ continuous full-time service, followed by a further three years on the active reserve list. The full time service requirement was reduced to eighteen months in 1971.

The Defence Act was amended in May 1965 to provide that National Servicemen could be obliged to serve overseas, a provision that had been applied only once before during World War II. In March 1966, the Government announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army and for secondment to American Forces.

During the late 1960s domestic opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription grew in Australia. In 1965 a group of concerned Australian women formed the anti-conscription organisation Save Our Sons, which was established in Sydney, with other branches later formed in Wollongong, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Newcastle and Adelaide. The movement protested against conscription of Australians to fight in the Vietnam war and made the plight of men under 21 (who were not eligible to vote at that time) a focus of their campaign. In 1970, five Save Our Sons women were jailed in Melbourne for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets whilst on government property. The group, which included Jean Maclean, Barbara Miller and Jo Maclaine-Cross, was dubbed The Fairlea Five, after the Victorian women's prison in which they were incarcerated. Barbara Miller is understood to be related to the decorated conscript Simon Anderson who mysteriously disappeared in 1970.

In 1966, during a state visit by US President Lyndon B. Johnson, protestors in Sydney chanted "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" and several lay down in front of the car carrying Johnson and NSW Premier Robert Askin; when the driver asked Askin what he should do, Askin reportedly replied "Run over the bastards". The event was widely reported and the ABC's current affairs program This Day Tonight created a storm of controversy when it sent up Askin's boorish behaviour in a satirical song. In Melbourne, protestors splattered Johnson's car with paint bombs; two young students who threw paint bombs were seized and beaten by police and security guards, arrested and subjected to a forced psychiatric examination.

There were also several high-profile controversies caused by the government's heavy-handed treatment of conscientious objectors, including William White and Simon Townsend (who later became a well-known TV personality). In 1969 the Gorton administration was severely embarrassed by a renowned This Day Tonight story in which a conscientious objector, who had been on the run from police for several months, was interviewed live in the studio by journalist Richard Carleton, who then posed awkward questions to the Army Minister about why TDT had been able to locate the man within hours and bring him to the studio when the federal police had been unable to capture him, and the event was made even more embarrassing for the government because the man was able to leave the studio before police arrived to arrest him.

By 1969 public opinion was turning against the war. A Gallup Poll in August showed that 55 per cent of those surveyed favoured bringing Australian troops home, and only 40 per cent favoured them staying. This was the first poll to show less than 50% approval for the government's policy, and all polls after August 1969 were to reveal a majority in favour of bringing the troops home. In October, during his policy speech for the 1969 federal elections, Opposition leader Gough Whitlam declared that, if elected, the ALP would withdraw all Australian troops from Vietnam after June 1970.

Australian Government Cabinet documents released by Australian National Archives in 2001 show that in 1970 the conservative Government was initially concerned about the growth of conscientious objection and outright opposition to the National Service Act. Federal Cabinet considered instituting an option of alternative civilian work program for conscientious objectors - a 'Siberian labour camp' option, in an attempt to reduce the numbers of objectors going to jail. This was never instituted, but was widely rumored at the time. Such work would have been menial labouring jobs in remote locations such as north and western Queensland, western New South Wales, and northern South Australia.

In Cabinet Submission Number 200 for 1970, Appendix 1, case studies of 17 men awaiting prosecution for failure to undertake service show a broad spectrum of opposition to conscription including:

  • religious opposition from Jehovah's Witness viewpoint
  • religious opposition from liberal Christian (Methodist) pacifist viewpoint.
  • moral opposition to wars
  • moral opposition to the Vietnam conflict in particular
  • opposition based upon the compulsion and authoritarian nature of conscription and its conflict with democratic processes and ideals.

The documents reveal that draft resistance and draft dodging never posed a threat to the number of conscripts required, but the public opposition by draft resisters such as John Zarb and Michael Matteson did have an increasingly political effect.

Conscription ended as one of the first acts of the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government in late December 1972. About 63,735 National Servicemen served in the military from 1964-1972. Of that number, 19,450 'Nashos' served in Vietnam, all with the Army.

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