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.
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