Tonight I went to the Melbourne launch of the The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, edited by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer.
And who should be there to launch it than Bill Shorten, the ALP Leader of the Opposition, with a very fine speech. He started by drawing some parallels between Billy Hughes in 1916 with the present day…a new Prime Minister, unable to take his party along with him, who changed his mind on a political stance that twelve months ago he had vehemently attacked and who foisted onto the people an expensive opinion poll in the form of a referendum. Sound familiar?
While not at all disputing or undermining the recognition of the sacrifice at the front, he pointed out the international uniqueness of the referendum as a way of resolving the conscription question. In the setting of the oldest operating Trades Hall in the world, he noted that this was the geographic, political and emotional centre of the ‘no’ vote in a debate that certainly did not exemplify the much-lauded ‘golden age of civility’. To the contrary, it was bitter, vindictive and spiteful and far worse than what passes for debate today. It was really an excellent speech, (whether he wrote it himself or not) – I wish I’d taken notes- and it was very well-delivered. Excellent. [Update: here’s the speech]
He was followed by Robin Archer, one of the editors. He emphasized that WWI was not, as has been promoted, a period of consensus. Far from being ‘the birth of a nation’, there was already existing in Australia a precocious progressive environment. Nor was ‘mateship’ on the front a uniquely Australian phenomenon, even though the referendum was.
Then a couple of songs from the Trade Union choir, including Eric Bogle’s ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier’.
Out into the twilight we went, stopping to admire the replica banners that adorn Trades Hall at the moment. There’s a picture here of Trades Hall in 1917 festooned with banners.
And here’s the 2017 version:
And you’ll just have to wait for my review of the book!