Centenary of trade union anti-conscription

One hundred years ago on May 11, 1916, the All-Australian Trade Union Congress launched a campaign against the compulsory enlistment for service to the armed forces, otherwise known as conscription. Here, we take a look at the history of the campaign and consider its enduring significance today. We also highlight the important role our founder Maurice Blackburn played in the anti-conscription movement.

The anti-war and anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917

World War I was Australia’s bloodiest conflict with more than 60,000 Australians killed and hundreds of thousands of others wounded. But if it wasn’t for Maurice Blackburn and other anti-war and anti-conscription activists fighting alongside him, the cost in terms of human casualties is likely to have been much higher.

The first national compulsory training scheme for the armed forces was introduced in Australia in 1911. Five years later, when WWI was in full swing, a heated political debate erupted regarding whether compulsory service should be extended to conscription.

Prime Minister William Hughes was vehemently opposed to conscription. But a trip to England changed his views and he returned in favour of compulsory national service to help address the rapid depletion of Australia’s troops.

Hughes had hoped to introduce conscription in Australia by way of an Act of Parliament, but while he was away, Maurice Blackburn and others began lobbying against the war and conscription. Blackburn used his technical, tactical and persuasive skills to propose resolutions opposing conscription that were ultimately carried by the All-Australian Trade Union Congress. These views were subsequently adopted by the Victorian and New South Wales branches of the Australian Labor Party and members of parliament were in turn asked to pledge their support for the anti-conscription campaign.

Thus, Hughes found himself returning to a Labor Party that was opposed to moves to introduce conscription in Australia.

As Hughes could not secure conscription through legislation, he then sought and obtained a compromise to put the issue to the Australian people with a referendum.

A referendum took place in October 1916 and was narrowly defeated. A second referendum tried to introduce conscription again in 1917 and was again defeated.

One man’s role

“Had it not been for Maurice Blackburn’s proposal the people would not have been consulted and Conscription would undoubtedly have been established in Australia in 1916,” said Percy Laidler in Bertha Walker’s Solidarity Forever, published in 1972.

In fact, Maurice Blackburn dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of Australian workers to live in a fair, equal and peaceful world. He used his political and legal skills to great effect in laying the foundation for the success of the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917. Had he and others failed in this task, we may have lost many more Australians during WWI. Therefore, we owe a great debt to him, the union movement and the other leaders who fought passionately for the cause as part of the campaign.

One hundred years ago, Australians rallied against conscription and won. Maurice Blackburn and the work of the union movement in the anti-conscription campaign reminds us that we all have the power to change the course of history and the direction of this country by campaigning against unjust or unfair ideas or laws.

Learn more about the man behind the law firm  and the firm itself.

TOPIC: Social justice
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Liberty Sanger

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Liberty Sanger is a Principal, Board member and Practice Group Leader at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, co-leading the Victorian WorkCover and Road Accident injuries (TAC) departments. Liberty is a qualified Law Institute of Victoria Personal Injury Accredited Specialist and she is recognised by the prestigious Doyles Guide as one of only five leading lawyers in workers' compensation in Victoria. Liberty says she became a lawyer to help people. “I love getting excellent results for my clients. The process of obtaining compensation can be very stressful and confusing. Having to navigate your way through the WorkCover system at the same time as dealing with the consequences of your injury and the permanent changes to your life and life plans can be completely overwhelming. Knowing this, I am driven to make sure that I take that stress away from my clients and get them the best result possible. I have been told by many clients that having Maurice Blackburn on their side from the beginning of their claim took a load off their mind, and that the compensation I have obtained for them has made a real difference to their lives. Knowing the approach to my work and the outcomes I achieve has had that impact on their lives is incredibly satisfying.” Liberty is Chair of Maurice Blackburn’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, which is charged with recommending strategies and initiatives to the Board to ensure that every employee feels comfortable to bring their whole unique self to work and thrive in an accepting and supportive environment. She has also been appointed Chair of the Victorian Government’s Equal Workplaces Advisory Council as part of their Gender Equality Strategy. The Council has been asked to identify government action that will promote the achievement of gender equality, to identify promote and publish good practice examples of initiatives that work to promote gender equality and to consider the issues and linkages relating to pay equity, equality and productivity to achieve equitable outcomes for women and men. "While we've achieved a lot, there is still a long way to go. When you look at the data, you see significant gaps in the areas of pay, leadership and workforce participation, and a grossly disproportionate representation of women affected by family violence, bullying and harassment. And there can’t be any explanation for this other than differential treatment of the genders. The good news is that we can take action to redress all of these things. While it will take courage and leadership from all of us to do so, we will all benefit when we get there," says Liberty. Liberty was raised in Wodonga and stayed true to her roots while progressing social agendas on national platforms through a number of political and community organisations. A self-confessed “committed unionist and opinionated chatterbox”, Liberty regularly voices her views on The Friday Wrap with Jon Faine on 774 Melbourne radio, by reviewing newspapers on ABC News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland, and as a regular panelist on Politics HQ on Sky TV. She has also been a guest on the ABC’s Q & A TV show.  Memberships & accreditations Law Institute of Victoria Member Law Institute of Victoria Personal Injury Accredited Specialist Australian Lawyers Alliance Member Maurice Blackburn Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee Chair (2017-present) Melbourne Olympic Parks Trust Member (2017-present) Equal Workplaces Advisory Council Chair (2017-present) McKell Institute Advisory Board member (2016-present) YWCA Life Member Emergency Services State Super Fund Board Director (2010-2013) Federation Square Pty/Ltd Board Director (2009-2012) Victoria Law Foundation Board Director (2004-2009) Liquor Control Advisory Council Chair (2006-2009) Media Code of Conduct Working Group on Body Image Chair (2007-2008) Awards Doyles Guide leading lawyer, 2016 ...

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