Introduction of Selective National Service

The Menzies Liberal Government introduced selective national military service during 1964. This differed in two main ways from the past. First, national service was not new but it had always aimed to be universal, that is to include all males of a particular age group. Now it was selective being directed at eligible men turning twenty years of age during 1965, but only for those whose birthdate marble was drawn in a ballot. The required number of birthdate marbles to be drawn was determined by the estimated numbers of men required by the military during 1965 and the subsequent years.

Second, national servicemen or conscripts had never been compulsory assigned to serve overseas. A limited precedent had been established during 1942 when the Commonwealth Government permitted national servicemen to serve with regular soldiers in the South-West Pacific. This was deemed to be Australian territory. National servicemen were integrated with the regular army and could be compelled to serve in wars anywhere. On 8 March 1966 the Australian Government announced it was sending conscripts to fight in Vietnam.

The National Service Act (NSA) was opposed by a minority of Australians on four main grounds. Some opposed conscription itself, and especially when it was selective and not universal. Others opposed Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, and especially after1966 when large numbers of regular and conscript troops were sent to South Vietnam. Yet others opposed participation in all war as immoral. They are referred to as pacifists. A few others viewed conscription and the Vietnam War as symptoms of all that was wrong with contemporary Australian society.

Some of the eligible young men for national service refused to comply with the NSA and sought its repeal. This included a refusal to register or undertake the required medical examination or obey a call-up notice. Usually their non-compliance was publicly communicated to the Minister for Labour and National Service. Their non-compliance was primarily based on their conscientious beliefs concerning the immorality of conscription and war, particularly the Vietnam War. This group was known as conscientious non-compliers or draft resisters and they are the subject of this gallery.[1]

Conscientious non-compliers should be distinguished from conscientious objectors when examining the Vietnam War years. The objectors complied with the NSA and then applied for exemption from combatant and non-combatant military duties or combatant only. Pacifism to all war was the only ground for exemption permitted under the NSA. Exemption could not be obtained if it was based on opposition to conscription or to a particular war. Conscientious non-compliers by definition did not comply with the NSA.

It should be noted that the term ‘conscientious objector’ has traditionally been used for all who have a principled opposition to conscription and/or war, including a particular conflict. During the Vietnam War years the term was only reserved by the government for pacifists to all war. In practice conscientious non-compliers and conscientious objectors usually shared common conscientious beliefs.