Almanac History: Centenary of First Plebiscite on Conscription

 Conscription Centenary

On October 28 a public meeting will be held in Brunswick to mark the centenary of the plebiscite when Australia voted NO to conscript their men to fight in the charnel houses of World War 1. Eighteen months after the costly invasion of Gallipoli, a war many people expected to end in Xmas 1914, dragged on, as the casualty rate soared.


Casualty rates were increasing, yet the numbers of men enlisting was steadily declining. We lost 28, 000 Australians in the disaster on the Somme, yet replacement numbers could not keep up with these losses. The British Secretary of the State for the colonies was amongst those who pressured the Australian Prime Minister William Hughes to boost the numbers of Australians fighting. Australia was unique as our armed forces comprised entirely of volunteers; Australia did not have conscription. The Government of Hughes sought to introduce conscription.


Australia wide the pro and anti-conscription forces sought to win support to their position. The pro-forces supported by the resources of the government and the newspapers, with jingoism being rampant, expected a victory. Opponents of the war were derided as cowards, or stooges of the German Kaiser, this amongst the abuse they endured from pro conscription elements. Opponents of the war included a diverse range of Australians including Catholics, socialists and members of trade unions


Thus in October 1916 the voters of Australia were asked the following question:


Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency the same compulsory powers  over citizens, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth.


On October 28 1916 a plebiscite of eligible voters was conducted. A majority of votes, 1,160,033, representing 51.61% of the electorate, said no to the government’s proposal. Interestingly Victoria, a state where there was a strong anti-conscription movement, a majority of voters, 51.88% supported the governments call.  It was 353, 930 for; 328, 216 against.  Australia would not conscript its men to fight, and die, overseas.


So as we remember the battlefront heroics that Australian soldiers showed in the Middle East, Western Front and other battlefields during this ‘war to end all wars’ it’s important we also remember those who voted NO to sending our young men across to this horrible conflict .Sadly we do not get told much about these two plebiscites, two great moments in Australia’s proud history as a democracy. True, many thousands of brave men and women, including five members of my family, found themselves on the battle front, but it is true there were also many thousand brave men and woman opposed to this slaughter.


So to commemorate this momentous event in our democratic history Emeritus Professor Michael Hamel-Green, is addressing a public meeting in the Moreland Council’s Brunswick Library,  Oct 28th, 233 Sydney Rd Brunswick. This starts at 6PM. Hope to see you there.


Lest we forget.




  1. bob.speechley says

    I recall that a large majority of service personnel “at the front” were NO voters.

  2. Absolutely correct Bob.

Leave a Comment