The Two Referendums
Two referendums were held on conscription in Australia – in October 1916 and December 1917. Both returned majorities for ‘No’, the second by a slightly larger margin.
This result was a shock. Prime Minister Hughes, and most of the political establishment, had assumed that the result was a foregone conclusion. There had been strong patriotic enthusiasm for the war, and almost all of the media and all of the state governments bar one were in favour of conscription. The success by a small but organised coalition of activists was truly one ‘Against the Odds’.
With such a close result, many factors were important. Billy Hughes was particularly incensed by the ‘Irish vote’ in Australia, even though it was numerically small; historians like Joy Damousi have pointed to the influence of women voters. One particular mistake made by Hughes was to issue a regulation in October 1916 instructing eligible men to register for service. This was before the referendum was held – Hughes assumed that he would win, but the display of hubris in this ‘October surprise’ likely turned undecided voters against him.
While the first referendum was fiercely fought, it was just a prelude to the controversy that was caused in 1917. In May 1917, a federal election was held. Although he had been defeated at the first Conscription Referendum, Billy Hughes' new Nationalist Party won a strong victory in this election. The conduct of the war was a major campaign issue, and Frank Anstey’s Nationalist opponent focused on Anstey’s opposition to conscription.
Emboldened by his sweeping victory, Prime Minister Hughes decided to call a second referendum on conscription, to be held in December 1917, even though at the May election he had claimed that conscription was no longer government policy. This second campaign was even more intense than the first.
Once again, the electorate returned a ‘No’ vote and once again Brunswick and Coburg voters were solidly anti-conscription.
Australia and World War One
Photograph - Send-off to the Brunswick Soldiers
Photograph - Brunswick Town Hall Honour Board
Memorial Plaque - Leonard William Telford
Poster - 'Australia has Promised Britain 50,000 More Men'
Labour Activists of Brunswick and Coburg
Photograph - Frank Anstey
Photograph - John Curtin
Photograph - Frank Hyett
Photograph - Maurice Blackburn
The Trade Unions' Anti-conscription Campaign
Handbill - 'The Blood Vote'
Cartoon - 'The Charge of the Would to God Brigade'
Handbill - Slave Conspiracy
The Women's Movement During the War
Photograph - Vida Goldstein
Photograph - Adela Pankhurst
Handbill - Conscription and Woman's Loyalty
Photograph - 'Women's No Conscription Demonstration'
Bella Lavender - Brunswick Campaigner
Photograph - Bella Lavender
Cartoon - Bella Lavender
Letter - Bella Lavender to Education Department
Photograph - Labor Women's Anti-conscription Committee
Religious Perspectives on Conscription
Handbill - Conscription and Christianity
Handbill - Conscription Questions for Voters
Handbill - How Would Christ Vote?
The Catholic Church and Conscription
Photograph - Daniel Mannix
Article - Cause of the War
Article - Revolt Victims
Cartoon - Australian Workman's Burden
Brunswick and Coburg During the Campaigns
Article - No Anti-conscription Meetings in Brunswick
Handbill - Public Meeting Against Conscription
Advertisement - Recruitment Meeting
Article - Remarkably Quiet Day
The Two Referendums
Handbill - Vote Thus Against Conscription
Article - Military Service Referendum Poll
Article - Conscription. Mr Hughes in Queensland
Article - 'Bourke'
The Soldiers' Votes
Diary - Claude Ewart
Photograph - Jack and Bert Grinton
Handbill - Returned Soldiers' No Conscription League Manifesto
Photograph - Soldiers Voting
Consequences for the Campaigners
Inscription - Police Just Raided
Article - 'Failure to Enrol'
Letter - Adela Pankhurst to Sallie Walsh
Article - 'Serenading Miss Pankhurst'
Story education resources
Education Against the Odds: The Victory over Conscription in WW1 Education Resource
The Against The Odds Education Resource provides a stimulating range of activities for students undertaking the compulsory Victorian History Curriculum Level 9/10 unit Australia at war (1914 – 1945). It helps students reflect on the complexities of the conscription debate through a range of analytical, creative and research tasks.
Education Against the Odds: The Victory over Conscription in WW1 Walking Map
The Against the Odds: The Victory over Conscription in WW1 Walking Map is a map of some of the sites described in the digital story or related to individuals therein. Download the map to use it for a self-guided tour in the area.