Defeat of conscription in World War 1 remembered

November 14, 2015

Forty people attended a public meeting in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick on the campaign against conscription during World War I.

Michael Hamel-Green, a draft resister during the Vietnam War who is now an emeritus professor at Victoria University, gave a talk on the history of the anti-conscription campaign, with a particular emphasis on the role of local residents.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes called two referenda on conscription for military service outside Australia, in 1916 and 1917. Both were defeated, the second by a greater margin than the first.

A wide range of people were involved in the anti-conscription campaign, including socialists, trade unionists, and pacifists, but also some Catholic bishops and priests.

The Industrial Workers of the World and the Australian Socialist Party campaigned against conscription, but so too did some Labor Members of parliament such as Frank Anstey and Maurice Blackburn. The ALP was divided on the issue.

Brunswick resident and future Prime Minister John Curtin, the national organiser of the trade union anti-conscription campaign, was arrested for refusing to register for military service. He was sentenced to three months jail, but released after three days as a result of protests.

Some other anti-conscription campaigners were jailed for longer periods. Adela Pankhurst was jailed for several months for allegedly inciting people to damage property at a demonstration. Women such as Pankhurst and Brunswick High School principal Julia Guerin played a key role in the anti-conscription campaign.

After discussion about this history, Moreland councillor Sue Bolton introduced a discussion on how to commemorate the anti-conscription struggle. A motion was passed calling on Moreland Council and other organisations to commemorate the referenda.

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