Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

The fight over conscription

The national debate on the question of conscription during World War I was one of the most volatile this country has witnessed. In two short years Australia experienced two defeated referendums, the expulsion of the Prime Minister from his own party, a federal election in which his new party was elected by a large majority, and a general strike that rocked New South Wales.

The collections of UMA bring to life both sides of an argument that tore Australian society in two. Supporting conscription were Percival Edgar Deane, private secretary to Prime Minister Billy Hughes in 1916 and Sir William Harrison Moore, Dean of the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Law. Moore's notes show the work conducted by University of Melbourne academics in connection with the 'yes' campaign during the referendums on conscription. The letter and key found in the Deane collection reveal the confidence Prime Minister Billy Hughes enjoyed from the British government, which had introduced conscription in Britain.

On the other side, the extensive trade union collection presents the anti-conscription campaign through both the public arguments against the Government and the behind-the-scenes organising of what is still regarded as one of the most powerful anti-Government campaigns in Australian history.

The Bendigo Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee minutes show a unanimous motion in support of the expulsion of Hughes, as well as a recommendation to invite the famous anti-conscription activist Adela Pankhurst to speak. The Bendigo District Political Labor League was to face unexpected competition just a short while later as Hughes moved to the electorate in preparation for the federal election — his old seat was considered to be too strongly anti-conscription for him to win it.

The Worker was the newspaper of the Australian Workers' Union (AWU). Not usually known for aligning itself with the left-wing forces of the labour movement, the AWU nevertheless became one of the mainsprings of the campaign and The Worker its voice.

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