Personal Stories: Government Mandating a Non-Complier as an Objector

On 27 August 1970 a new regulation was gazetted which allowed the Minister for Labour and National Service to test in court whether in fact a non-complier was in fact a  conscientious objector under the National Service Act (NSA). This could be undertaken without the agreement of the non-complier.

As support by the Australian community for conscription and the Vietnam War declined the government sought ways to minimize the bad publicity of non-compliers being imprisoned. One strategy was to have the army undertake a medical examination of a ‘troublesome’ person and discharge them on medical grounds. Another, which was particularly used  from1970 until 1972, was to not issue a summons to those who broke the law under the NSA. A third strategy was to amend the NSA to authorise the Minister of Labour and National Service  to treat a non-complier as a conscientious objector. This could be undertaken without the permission of the non-complier. The new regulation was gazetted on 27 August 1970. The personal stories that follow relate to this regulation.

Gary James Cook was an Economics graduate and Economics tutor, and a second year Art’s student, when he was called-up for military service on 28 January 1970. He was from Nedlands in Western Australia. He had successfully applied for deferment to complete his University studies. He attended a medical examination in1969 and was found to be fit for military service. Gary then refused to comply with the call-up notice and he returned his registration card to the Department of Labour and National Service.  Gary was the first referral by Minister Snedden to determine whether he was a conscientious objector under the new regulation. The hearing was held on 7 October 1970 at the Court of Petty Sessions in Perth. Gary did not attend the court but his authorized agent Derek Schapper read his statement to the court.[31] It read, I refuse to participate in this hearing, just as I will refuse to comply with any procedure which is part of the conscription system, a system which directly contributes to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Gary continued, This hearing is an attempt by the Government to avoid having to gaol me for two years. The presence of a large number of political prisoners in our gaols is apparently not a pleasing prospect for our Government. I have no applied for CO status and I do not want to be classified as a CO within the terms of the National Service Act. Ironically Magistrate T Ansell found the Gary did not hold beliefs that prevented him from engaging in military service at the referral hearing.[32]

The second referral by Minister Snedden under the new regulation was Laurie Carmichael of West Newport in Victoria. This was heard in court on 8 October 1970, the day after the first referral of Gary Cook. Laurie had refused to register under the NSA during 1968. He handed to the registrar a statutory declaration and a letter explaining that he was a conscientious non-complier, and did not consider the government had the power to force him to answer the questions on the National Service Registration Form. The major grounds for his non-compliance was his opposition to Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.

He was asked at an interview in November 1968 as to why he did not register and take a chance his birthdate would not be selected, or if it was, that he might fail the medical examination. Laurie answered, Then I would comply with the Act – I would then recognize the validity of the Act by registering. I would concede the right of the government to call people up for service in Vietnam. He also told the interviewer that he would not register for alternative service, even if it was introduced. He stated that, if Australian forces are withdrawn from Vietnam I shall reconsider registering depending on the conditions of the time.[33]

The triplets David, Graham and Robert Mowbray of Sydney all refused to register for national service in 1967. All were Christians and active in the Methodist Church. As such they had a good chance of gaining  full exemption from military service with an application to be registered as a conscientious objector. However, they all chose non-compliance.[34] This is evident in in a statement made by Robert which was shared by his brothers, I believe that conscription for military service is immoral. I recognise that I have an opportunity to place my beliefs before a court and gain exemption. However, I do not consider this sufficient. I must reject the right of a government to conscript anyone to kill. He stated further that, Christian discipleship challenges me to resist an Act which crushes basic human rights and sends young men off to a war which world opinion condems. By my own university experience training and the experience gained in everyday life I am seeking to equip myself to give the kind of service to mankind which will promote justice and help remove the causes of war.[35] Graham made a  similar statement.[36]

Robert was sentenced to seven days imprisonment in Long Bay Jail 30 March 1969 for refusing to undertake a medical examination. His brothers shared the same fate. The response of the authorities to David’s resistance bordered on the farcical.[37] David described himself as a Christian, pacifist, ecologist and revolutionary. He was required by the Supreme Court to report to Phillip Street Police Station. He with his girlfriend and parents were stopped by media people as they approached the station. David started answering their questions about why he was going to jail for seven days as had his two brothers before him. Three plain clothes policeman who said excuse me to the media persons pulled David’s arm behind his back and dragged him into the station. Brian Mowbray, David’s father, entered the station and requested an interview with a senior police officer. After 15 minutes this was granted. Brian complained of the unnecessarily and unwarranted coercion used upon his son who was quietly and peacefully complying with the Supreme Court order.

The Mowbay triplets were deemed in1971 by Minister Snedden to be conscientious objectors under the new regulation and were not proceeded against for their non-compliance.