Back to All News

Adjournment: Conscription

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Nov 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:02): As commemorations of First World War events are being rolled out we should also remember that many courageous people took a stand for world peace and did not support this war. Some became conscientious objectors. The words of the last Anzac are a reminder that we should remember and honour these people. The last Anzac-the last Anzac for the whole world-lived in Tasmania, and he said on his deathbed:

For god's sake, don't glorify Gallipoli-it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten.
I do pay tribute to Jonathan King, Alec Campbell's biographer, for documenting so much of Alec's extraordinary life.

The First World War was a fraught time for Australians, not just for those engaged in the war but for those in Australia. In November 1916 Prime Minister Hughes wrote to all state premiers setting out that state police should take the lead in arresting civilians for offences against the Defence Act, which targeted anti-conscriptionist activities. Queensland Premier Ryan reportedly refused this request and on 19 November he spoke at a public meeting in Brisbane where he voiced his opposition to conscription. Publication of this speech was subsequently censored, but, to the great credit of the then Premier, he repeated the censored comments in parliament, where they were recorded in Hansard. He then directed that 10,000 copies of his speech be made available to members of the public in pamphlet form, orchestrated by the Australian Worker organisation. Prime Minister Hughes, in his capacity as Attorney-General, then directly intervened and demanded that all copies of the parliamentary debates containing Premier Ryan's censored remarks-and the related pamphlets-be seized. Premier Ryan became a hero for many people in Australia. There was a famous event in the Domain which saw 120,000 coming out in support of Premier Ryan.

We all know about the two referendums that rejected conscription. It is interesting to look at how those referendums were conducted. The second one was under the Hughes federal government. That government attempted to disenfranchise segments of the population. For example, the electoral roll for the plebiscite was closed only two days after the ballot was announced. This affected regional voters, many of whom only received news of the plebiscite after the rolls had closed. The poll was also held on a Thursday, which made it difficult for many workers to vote-it is well known that the union movement was very active in the anti-conscription struggle-so that was another aspect of the referendum with a cloud over it. The government had also determined that, if British subjects or their fathers had been born in an enemy country, they were unable to vote unless more than half the sons in the family aged 18 to 45 had either enlisted or been rejected from enlistment. There were also reported instances of polling booth scrutineers intrusively questioning voters with foreign names prior to issuing them with a ballot. Many of these details are set out in some very interesting books and pamphlets about this era. There is one by Bertha Walker, called How to Defeat Conscription, that I found particularly informative.

I want to acknowledge the outstanding work that so many unions played in the anti-conscription campaign. One of the earliest recorded instances of labour union opposition to conscription occurred on 25 July 1915. This was the Amalgamated Miners Association in Broken Hill. They met at the trades hall to pass a resolution against conscription. The movement amongst unions very quickly became huge. In May 1916, the All-Australian Trades Union Congress, representing 97 organisations and encompassing half the country's unionised workforce, was held in Melbourne and several anti-conscription resolutions were passed. The Australian Railways Union deserves special mention. Fortunately, as we know, our forebears had great wisdom and established a wonderful rail network. The workers on that rail network distributed anti-conscription literature across Australia during the plebiscite campaigns.

Another very important organisation that at times gets lost in history, but which we certainly need to remember, is the Australian Women's Peace Army. It was a pacifist organisation which campaigned against the war in general and participated in the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917. One of its slogans was 'We war against war'. Their flag took the feminist colours of purple, green and white. Their most well-known members were their president, Vida Goldstein, as well as Cecilia John and Adela Pankhurst. They supported the election campaigns of peace candidates, put in petitions to members of parliament and offered practical help to those disadvantaged by war. It was really a very inspiring organisation.

There were so many organisations involved in the anti-conscription movement. One that was very prominent, and which has a family connection for me, was the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as 'the wobblies'. Their paper was Direct Action. Many of their members were arrested. Tom Barker was the first arrested in Sydney and he was sentenced to 12 months in prison in March 1916. Many of their members were sent to jail. There were 12 members who were arrested and charged with conspiracy. Some were given very long sentences. Some were deported to Chile.

Where there is a family connection for me is that my grandad Benjamin Centennial Lewis was a member of the IWW. He was not part of the group that was initially jailed, but he was subsequently jailed for raising money for the campaign to have these people released. Interestingly, somebody doing research about our family came across a police document about my grandad. This is from the Metropolitan Superintendent's Office, Sydney, 27 November 1918. The title is 'Application for summons against Ben Lewis for using abusive language in the Domain'. My grandad was the chairman of a meeting that the police described as 'release and defence committee'. On the day that they say that my grandad used what they call abusive language, there were 2,000 people in the crowd. They particularly took objection to grandad because in speaking he selected two mythical policemen as the subject of his abuse. It is quite entertaining to read it these days, but it shows how extensively the different arms of the government were used against people who were engaging in legitimate activities to object to what was a very controversial war that many saw as a war where the colonial powers were literally dividing the world up.

I started by mentioning Jonathan King, and I again wanted to return to some of his comments, because he has raised concerns about how some of the commemorations for the First World War are being undertaken and whether they are becoming too commercialised. I do respect the commemorations. I think it is very important to honour and remember people who have died in war. But I think we also need to recognise that there were people who objected to that war. Jonathan has set out the case very strongly. Considering that so much attention is given to Gallipoli, I would like to just quote from his comments about the Western Front:

The Western Front was many times more significant than Gallipoli. Five times as many Australians fought there: 250,000 not 50,000. They fought five times more battles, many of which they helped win, and well over five times as many were killed. As Australia's last Gallipoli Anzac ... stressed-
and then he repeated a comment that I gave at the beginning of this talk. This is from Alec Campbell:

Gallipoli was a failure, but tell 'em we won the fighting on the Western Front.
I pay tribute to Mr Campbell, all those people who died in the First World War and all those people who protested and were successful in winning those two referendums against conscription.

 

Back to All News