Conscription : the Australian debate, 1901-1970

Main, J. M. Conscription : the Australian debate, 1901-1970. Melbourne: Cassell, 1970.

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Author Main, J. M.
Title Conscription : the Australian debate, 1901-1970
Place of Publication Melbourne
Publisher Cassell
Publication year 1970
Sub-type Other
Open Access Status
Series Problems in Australian history
ISBN 0304939897
Language eng
Total number of pages 170
Subjects 360101 Australian Government and Politics
Formatted Abstract/Summary
 Introduction

In all countries in which a liberal tradition was established in the nineteenth century, the introduction of compulsory military service has aroused deep controversies. In Britain it contributed to the divisions in the Liberal Party in 1915; in Canada, Australia and New Zealand it has provoked wide-ranging debate and sometimes political crises. Conscription runs counter to the ideal of liberty and the primacy of the rights of the individual. It is a form of coercion justified by its advocates on the grounds that under certain circumstances liberty must be subordinated to duty to the state or the community at large. In Australia, the debate on conscription has continued interm ittently since the founding of the Commonwealth in 1901, and while it has been wide-ranging and diffuse, it has also been extraordinarily intense. No other issue has divided the Australian community so sharply.

In the first session of the new Federal parliam ent in 901 a Defence Bill was introduced which put the defence forces of the several colonies under the control of the Commonwealth. It also provided that all able-bodied men should be compelled to serve in the country's defence in time of war. Immediately there were those who questioned the right of a government to impose such a universal obligation, and provision for exemption from combatant duties was made for young men who could prove that religious conviction forbade them to bear arms. But at the same time, in 1901, the Labor politician W. M. Hughes argued that if all men had a duty to defend their country, logic and necessity demanded a system of compulsory military training. After an incessant campaign conducted by Hughes and others, this was finally provided for in 1909 by amendments to the Defence Act. Opposition outside parliament was, however, quickly organised, and compulsory
training was stigmatised as 'conscription' or 'conscription under camouflage'. Each discussion of defence also touched upon the issue of whether or not Australia's defence might require men to fight beyond the boundaries of the continent. The Defence Act specifically provided that compulsory military service was to be confined to Australia itself; and the great war-time debates in 1916 and 1917 centred on the proposal that men should be compelled to serve overseas. From 1901 the two issues, compulsory training for home defence and compulsory service at home and abroad, have always been closely related in debate. Many have supported the first while opposing the second, while others have opposed both.

Before 1915 there were very few who asserted that men might be compelled to serve in armies beyond Australian territorial boundaries. But the question was raised : did Australia have an obligation to assist Britain in time of war? For the time being, however, it was believed that the Sudan expedition (in the 1880s) and the Boer War had demonstrated that Australians would always volunteer in sufficient numbers in the defence of the Empire. Many, particularly members of the Labor Party, would certainly have resisted any argument that Australians were obliged to come to Britain's aid in time of war. The traditional objection to compelling men to fight outside the country was rooted in the belief that Australia was, or ought to be, free from 'militarism', a characteristic form of social oppression in older countries. This objection was reinforced by another, related to Australia's status within the British Empire. She was not a sovereign power, possessed no independent foreign policy and her relations with other countries were determined by Great Britain. Were Australians then to be forced to fight in wars which their government had no part in making nor any direct interest in prosecuting? It seemed essential that Australia should not be drawn into imperial ventures or caught up in struggles for power in Europe.

Immediately before World War I there was considerable opposition to compulsory military training. Some of its critics were most concerned that the law and its administration gave little protection to conscientious objectors. Secondly, there were pacifists, most of them socialists or Quakers, who opposed all participation in war or training for war. Then there were others associated with the Labor movement who were concerned that compulsory drills imposed an unfair burden on working-class boys who were deprived of their already meagre leisure time and subject to severe punishment should they fail to attend drills. ..............................   
Keyword Draft -- Australia -- History
Q-Index Code AX
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown

 
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Created: Thu, 04 Sep 2014, 13:38:26 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Scholarly Communication and Digitisation Service