The Conscription Referendum and The Present

One Outstanding and Rare Success in World Terms: The Defeat of Conscription Referenda, Saving Tens of Thousands of Lives

The Australian peace movement, however, did have one outstanding success. In a victory for democracy, which is to this day outstanding in world history, Australia voted No in two referenda. The success of the anti-conscription vote depended on uniting workers and farmers who had different emphases. To our knowledge, that rejection of conscription was a world first, a history to be proud of and tell our children and grandchildren about. The No vote saved tens of thousands of Australian, German and other lives.

We need a national memorial to the conscientious objectors to war in or beside the National War Memorial. The same applies to one of the greatest achievements of the Australian peace movement, namely the defeat of the conscription referenda during WWI. The results were:

First plebiscite on universal compulsory military service, 28 October 1916:
For: 1,087,557 – Against: 1,160,033
Second plebiscite on “proposal for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces”,
20 December 1917:
defeated by a greater margin
For: 1,015,159 – Against: 1,181,747


Echoes in our own day:

Like many others in the movement against the Vietnam War and conscription, the author of this exhibition drew inspiration and encouragement from the World War I peace movement. We, who carry their tradition, have to be prepared to work for peace even when success seems unlikely.

Like Mark Feinberg and the others, we ask whose interests do the current Australian and US war in Iraq and other areas in the Middle East serve? Negotiations should begin immediately and Australian troops should be brought home. It is time to banish the hangdog view that says nothing we can do is of any use. Those who opposed World War I and conscription were often denounced as German agents, Sinn Feiners and Bolsheviks; at times they were outcast and jailed. They made a difference and deserve to be remembered.