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Conscientious Non-Compliance

To state the obvious the 1964 National Service Act (NSA) for military service did not permit non-compliance with it. This was whether a non-complier acted on his conscientious beliefs or not. The arguments that conscription was immoral and unjust, and that it violated individual liberty were not acceptable grounds for exemption from military service. Similarly, the argument that the Vietnam War was immoral and therefore sending regular and conscript servicemen to Vietnam was unconscionable was not an acceptable ground for exemption. The overwhelming desire of conscientious non-compliers or draft resisters was the repeal of the NSA.

From the late-1960s support by the Australian public for the Vietnam War deteriorated. The pressure on the Australian Government to find a face-saving exit from Vietnam and selective conscription for this war gathered momentum. The government was generally unprepared for the opposition generated by conscientious non-compliers and a wider community of opposition. As non-complier numbers grew there was the prospect of dozens being jailed for the statutory two years. This generated bad publicity for the government. Over time there was a growing realisation by many of the government that it was defending the indefensible. One sign was an amendment to the NSA to allow the government to refer a non-complier to a court to determine whether his beliefs warranted registering him as a conscientious objector. The person himself did not make the application. In this way a ‘troublesome’ person was dealt with under the NSA. Another sign was a reluctance to proceed with the prosecutions of draft resisters which had grown to about 350 by December 1972.[2] At this time the Whitlam Labour Government was elected and it suspended the operation of the NSA.

The resistance and activism of the conscientious-non-compliers were important in changing Australian public opinion towards opposition to the Vietnam War, and to the process of selective conscription designed to ensure enough conscripts were available to be sent to that conflict.

In a society like Australia the vast majority of citizens have reverence for the law. However, persons of conscience believe that where a law is manifestly unjust or immoral their conscience may demand that they not comply with it and work for its repeal. Such was the case with non-compliers during the Vietnam war years.