1916 conscription referendum remembered

November 5, 2016

On October 28, the 100th anniversary of the first conscription referendum, historian Michael Hamel-Green gave a talk at the Brunswick Library entitled "When Australians said no to war".

Hamel-Green said that in official commemorations of World War I there is "amnesia" about the divisions among the Australian people over the war.

When the initial high level of voluntary recruitment to the army declined, Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes decided to introduce conscription for overseas service — conscription for service within Australia was already legal.

This decision divided the Australian Labor Party. Hughes was eventually expelled from the ALP, but remained Prime Minister with conservative support.

Conscription was supported by most religious leaders, apart from Catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix. Australian Catholics, many of whom were of Irish descent, were alienated from the British Empire by the execution of the leaders of the Easter 1916 uprising in Ireland.

Conscription was also opposed by socialists, pacifists, the union movement and several women’s groups.

The Australian trade union congress set up an anti-conscription committee headed by John Curtin. Ironically, when Curtin was Prime Minister during World War II, he introduced conscription.

On October 4, 1916, there was a one-day strike against conscription; 50,000 people attended a rally at Melbourne's Yarra Bank.

Curtin was arrested for refusing to register for conscription. He was sentenced to three months jail, but released after a few days.

Brunswick was a centre of anti-conscription activity. Julia Guerin, principal of Brunswick Girls High School, led the Labor Women’s Anti-Conscription Campaign. St Ambrose Catholic Church in Brunswick was an organising centre. Frank Anstey, the local MP, was a prominent spokesperson for the campaign. He described World War I as a "war among rival capitalists".

A number of activists were jailed in Pentridge Prison in nearby Coburg, including Adela Pankhurst, who was jailed in November 1917 after leading a protest over food shortages.

In both the October 1916 and December 1917 referenda, conscription was rejected. Working-class areas generally voted no, while middle-class areas and rural areas voted yes.

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