Daily Archives: December 20, 2017

‘The Conscription Conflict and the Great War’ ed. Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer


2016, 210 p.

Today is 20th December, the centenary of the second referendum held in Australia over the question of conscripting men to serve overseas in World War I.   So it is “meet and right” (to quote the Book of Common Prayer) that I should post this review today.

The Conscription Conflict was released last year, in preparation for the centenary of the first of the conscription referendums. As is made clear in both the foreword and conclusion of this collection of essays, the concept of asking the people about conscription is unique to Australia. It was not undertaken in any other country, and when Australia did introduce conscription during WWII and again in the 1960s, it did not make the mistake (as a government intent on introduction might view it) of asking the people again.  Not only was seeking the agreement of the people exceptional, what is even more striking is that the people answered ‘No’, in the midst of wartime emotion and censorship, and against the exhortations to vote ‘Yes’ from the Federal government, the major Protestant Churches, municipal councils, chambers of commerce, nationalist organizations, conservative women’s groups and almost all of the press.

This book is similar in scope and content to the La Trobe Journal I reviewed earlier, with one author and themes in common. This book, too, emerged from an expert workshop held at the University of Melbourne in 2015, sponsored by the Academy of the Social Sciences. It takes a much more international and philosophical approach than many of the  analyses of the referendums in the past.

Part I of the book starts with an exploration of the concept of liberalism held in Britain, and the changing response to conscription by various political brands of liberalism: the Gladstonian Liberals, ‘New Liberals’ and Liberal Imperialists.  I found this chapter, written by Douglas Newton (who also featured in the first chapter of the La Trobe Journal) rather difficult as I am not particularly knowledgeable about the nuances of British liberalism. Chapter 2 by Robin Archer (the historian, not the actor!) explores the philosophy of liberalism in Australia among Labor anti-conscriptionists at the time (the terminology is confusing because our current opposing political parties are Liberal and Labor- even though the Liberal party is also conservative).  The unions feared that compulsory industrial service would be introduced alongside military conscription, with workers allocated to jobs where pay and conditions would be determined by the military.   Their fears were lent credence by the increasingly authoritarian environment and rhetoric introduced by Prime Minister Hughes. In face of criticisms of their loyalty, Labor anti-conscriptionists emphasized the British liberal tradition, thus taking us back to the argument of Chapter I.

Part II deals with the anti-conscription campaign and results. Frank Bongiorno explores the varied organizations which made up the opposition to the referendum  and their ideological positions. He addresses the two referendums chronologically, and picks up again on the argument in Part I of the book that anti-conscriptionists drew on the idea of liberty and freedom as  fundamental principles. I’ve been studying the conscription referendums as they played out in Heidelberg and Ivanhoe, and Bongiorno’s final paragraph rang true to me when I considered the program of meetings at a local level, both pro- and anti-, which existed alongside those larger Melbourne-based rallies.

The campaigns over conscription were imbued with the grief and anxiety of a society at war, yet they were also colourful and exciting, occasions for marching and singing, for rallies, concerts and torchlight processions, for compelling oratory, for the display of banners, placards and buttons, for the sporting of sandwich boards bearing clever slogans, and, among women were increasingly at the heart of the enterprise…Such occasions could sometimes be a little frightening; yet they contained the pleasures of joining with others in a common cause, and the frisson of facing a little but not too much danger while fighting for freedom and democracy (p. 91)

Chapter 4, by Joy Damousi deals with the pro-conscription side by looking at the contribution of the academics at the University of Melbourne, a staunchly pro-conscription organization.  As she notes, for some of the academics involved, this was the only political question on which they campaigned publicly throughout their career.  In particular she focussed on the prominent law professor, William Harrison Moore, who along with the classics lecturer, Jessie Webb, published a set of arguments in support of conscription. He also toured the suburbs and country areas, preparing leaflets and addressing meetings.  Both went on to work with the League of Nations after the war.

Chapter 5 by Murray Goot re-examines the statistical results of the two referendums, placing them alongside the results of the elections of 1914 and 1917. He emphasizes the importance of the turnout, which in both referendums was larger than a ‘normal’ election, but warns that aggregate data are of little use in weighing the behaviour of the individual voter.

Part III  makes comparisons.  John Connor’s chapter asks ‘Why was it easier to introduce and implement conscription in some English-speaking countries than in others?’ He argues that it was easier to introduce conscription early on in the conflict (as America did soon after entering the war), and that passing legislation was more effective than asking the people. In the case of Australia, the labour movement, both political and industrial, was more powerful than it was in other countries. He takes a chronological approach, tracing through the “conscription conversations” of Britain, New Zealand and Australia in 1916, with its varied outcomes; then the United States, Canada and Australia in 1917 where, again, Australia said ‘no’ when the other countries did not; and finally Newfoundland and Ireland in 1918.

In Ch.7 Ross McKibbin compares Britain and Australia in more detail. He concludes that Britain’s political, industrial and military situations favoured the adoption of military conscription, and that because of a trade-off that saw the introduction of a quasi-civil conscription, Britain enjoyed a higher degree of political stability than other conscripting countries in the Empire.  He notes that the Labour Party in Britain emerged strengthened from the war, where as in Australia, the Labor Party was much weakened. Although both countries were sectarian and racist, this took a different form in each; and in Australia the failure to introduce conscription opened up the bitterness between those who volunteered and those who ‘shirked’.

The book finishes with Part 4: Legacies.  I very much enjoyed Sean Scalmer’s chapter that challenges an interpretation by Jeremy Sammut, a critic of Labor mythology,  who has posited that the left and the ALP have developed the  myth that the defeat of conscription saved Australia from a military dictatorship. Scalmer shows that the victors of the conscription battles did celebrate their collective achievements in the years following WWI, but this ‘legend’ was undermined by the actions of later Labor governments. The battle over conscription came to be seen as a Pyrrhic victory that brought about disunity, bitterness and division. Scalmer, however, argues that the conscription campaign was an important episode in the history of Australian democracy, and notes that “[b]y the respect granted to popular opinion, the primacy of the democratic principle was confirmed.” (p. 210)

And so, how did you spend the Reinforcements Referendum Centenary? I spent it outside Brunswick Town Hall, along with the cast of the Serenading Adela street opera. It will be performed on 7th January  to celebrate the centenary of the women’s march to Pentridge prison to ‘serenade’ Adela Pankhurst, who was incarcerated there for her anti-war activities prior to the second referendum.  But more of that anon.