I attended a very enjoyable conference last Saturday at Brunswick, under the auspices of the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee, Melbourne Labor History Society and Victorian Trades Hall Council. Just look at the speakers: Barry Jones, Stuart Macintyre, Joy Damousi, Ross McMullin as the ‘big names’ but all of the speakers were excellent. The day started with a small group from Brunswick Secondary College (who featured in the play 1916 that we saw last year) who sang two songs from WWI.
Barry Jones gave the keynote address where he outlined the political context for the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 (which someone noted was not ‘referenda’, as I always assumed). He pointed out that even before Federation, Australia had always been enthusiastic for war, with involvement in the Maori Wars, Crimea, US Civil War (on both sides), the Sudan, Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion. During WWI, Australia was impelled by a need to be seen, a sense of adventure and hope for reciprocal support. He described the political environment of the new Commonwealth, which before the war was relatively civilized, with no party system. Into this came Billy Hughes, a divisive figure, vicious campaigner and wrecker, who unleashed sectarianism and broke the ALP. He outlined why Hughes needed a referendum, and why he went for a second one in December 1917 after the first was defeated in 1916.
He was followed by Murray Goot who analysed the returns of the two referendums, looking for patterns and anomalies. He challenged a number of the received explanations for the defeats, and explored a number of ‘what if’ scenarios, including a consideration of what might have happened if the second referendum had passed.
Stuart Macintyre described the electoral context generally, then focused particularly on the Brunswick-Coburg area. Two local political identities were discussed in more detail. Peter Love spoke about the local Labor MP Frank Anstey- a man prone to hyperbole and opposed to conscription from the start. Caroline Rasmussen examined Maurice Blackburn (commemorated in the law firm of that name) who was M.P. for the adjoining seat of Essendon who also opposed conscription, but from a more dispassionate commitment to ‘liberty’, the right of conscience and the law. His wife Doris, was also an activist, although hampered by family commitments at the time.
Kate Laing spoke about two women’s groups active at the start of the war that were both involved in international movements. The Sisterhood of International Peace, which emphasized ‘respectability’ was at first reluctant to take a position on the war, out of fear of the War Precautions Act. The Womens Peace Army grew out of the suffrage campaign, and was always the more activist organization. Joy Damousi expanded on the Womens Peace Army, led by Cecilia John. She emphasized how both sides of the conscription debate leveraged motherhood: what would a ‘responsible mother’ do?
[And at this stage, I missed the next two speakers because I was in the Serenading Adela Choir, and we had to prepare for our performance of our party-piece ‘Ghosts Don’t Lie’]
[Images from https://brunswickcoburganticonscription.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/our-successful-conference/ and https://www.facebook.com/pg/BrunswickCoburgAntiConscription/photos/ And no, you can’t see me! I’m hiding in the corner]
After lunch Ross McMullin emphasized the significance of the fact that while other Labor governments in the world only had to react from Opposition, the Australian Labor Party was in office, voted into power in 1914 largely on the strength of its Defence policy. He spelled out the options facing Hughes and traced the political maneuvering chronologically during the war. He then moved to the long term consequences, including the National Party’s portrayal of themselves as the party of the AIF Digger.
From this point attention shifted to the Vietnam War and conscription. Ann-Mari Jorden examined the shift attitudes towards universal compulsory military training, from its introduction prior to WWI in 1911, the development of the Citizens Military Force between 1951 and its abolition in 1959, and the introduction of compulsory (although largely unenforceable) registration in 1964. She traced the treatment of religious conscientious objectors right from the Defence Act of 1903, and the gradual dropping of the ‘religious’ criteria of conscientious objection.
The day finished with Paul Barratt, who is currently promoting the reform of the Australian Government’s war making powers, preferably so that a motion needs to be passed in both house of parliament, with a statement from the Solicitor General that it is legal, and passed by the Governor General. Jenny Grounds from the Medical Association for the Prevention of War canvassed an array of steps that the government could take to promote peace.
So- what a treat! Excellent speakers, well-organized and lots to think about.