At the start of this war many naively thought it would end quite quickly, but instead it has gone on and on. The war has also consumed far more lives than expected. Many of the men who went off to fight in 1914 are now dead or invalided. Like Britain, Australia initially sought to recruit more men by appealing for volunteers. However, less and less men are signing up now that they have a sense of the war’s real horror.
Britain got around this problem by introducing conscription, emulating continental European countries by compelling military service. Billy Hughes, Australia’s prime minister, wants to do the same, but conscription is more opposed in his country. Hughes leads the Labor Party, but opposition to conscription is strong within the labour movement. The opposition of his own party members means that he cannot force conscription through parliament.
Instead Hughes calls a plebiscite, inviting Australians to vote for conscription. Aside from Hughes himself, the proposal is supported by the opposition Liberal party, by most of the media, the Protestant churches and by establishment interests generally. Conscription is opposed by much of the labour movement and the Catholic church.
The pro-conscription newspapers provide glowing reports of Hughes addressing cheering crowds supporting the plebiscite but ignore or downplay meetings of those who are against the draft. As a result, when the votes are counted today, many are shocked to discover that Australia has voted narrowly against conscription.
For Hughes the vote is a disaster. He has already been expelled from several unions he had helped to found. Now he is the prime minister of a country that has rejected his signature proposal and leader of a party that is increasingly alienated from him.
Norman Lindsay poster in support of conscription (Wikipedia)
International Workers of the World poster opposing conscription (Wikipedia)
Post referendum cartoon from The Australian Worker by Claude Marquet (Wikipedia)