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The Conscription Debate

Twice during the First World War Australians were asked to vote in a national referendum on introducing conscription.

Buttons: Conscription No; Yes

The 1916 referendum failed when 51 per cent voted no. In 1917 the war continued. The armies of Europe were deadlocked and the war had worsened. In desperation Britain asked for fresh troops. During the federal election campaign in 1917, Hughes promised that ‘if national safety demands it, the question will again be referred to the people’.

At the election Billy Hughes gained a majority in the Senate. Parliament could have introduced compulsory overseas service. Instead Hughes called a second referendum for 20 December 1917.

The conscription debate divided the nation. Listen to the audio clips below to find out some of the arguments. What other arguments can you think of? How will you vote?

Audio is recorded by actors from historical research.

‘The people of Australia are about to decide the destiny of their country. They are about to show the world what manner of men and women they are. They must declare that they stand loyally by the Empire and their kinsmen. I ask them to prove in this referendum whether they want to be their own masters, or slaves.’

December 20th, 1917

Would you have voted for conscription?

This is a past exhibition that was shown at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House during 2008. A travelling version is on show at the Museum and regional centres during 2009.

More information is available on the exhibitions page.