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During 1916 and 1917, two bitter and divisive referenda were conducted on this issue.
Compulsory military service had been part of Australian life before the declaration of war in 1914. Shortly after Federation, the Defence Acts of 1903 and 1904 provided that men between 18 and 60 should be liable for service in time of war, but limited the obligation to service within the Commonwealth and Commonwealth territories. In 1910, Lord Kitchener’s report on Commonwealth defence recommended the introduction of compulsory military training and this was introduced in January 1911. (This was later abolished by the Scullin Labor government in 1929).
Australian troops fighting overseas in World War I enlisted voluntarily. In the early stages of the war, voluntary enlistment provided enough men to support Australian efforts. However, as the enormity of Australian casualties on the Western Front became known in Australia and as no quick end to the war seemed likely, the number of men volunteering fell steadily. Australians began to realize that this war was not going to be a short and glorious affair.
There was sustained British pressure on the Australian Government to ensure that its divisions were not depleted: in 1916 it was argued that Australia needed to provide reinforcements of 5500 men per month to maintain its forces overseas at operational level. With advertising campaigns not achieving recruiting targets, Prime Minister William Hughes decided to ask the people in a referendum if they would agree to a proposal requiring men undergoing compulsory training to serve overseas.
The issue stimulated bitter and divisive argument within Australian society. Divisions, some based on fault lines already present in the new Federation, arose in political parties, between labor and employers and often ran along religious lines.
The campaign to establish conscription for overseas service began, supported by various bodies such as the Universal Service League and many politicians including Labor leader and later Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes. Politically, the movement had broad implications as the mood of many Australians, particularly those associated with the labor movement and unions, were opposed to conscription and even to Australian support for the battle with Germany. Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne, a leader for many Irish Catholics and often seen as a Labor supporter, and anti-British, was opposed to the notion of conscription for overseas service.
On 31 August, Prime Minister William Morris Hughes announced that the question of compulsory overseas service would be put to the people in a referendum.
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?
The referendum was held on 28 October 1916 and resulted in 1 087 557 votes for and 1 160 033 against. New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia voted ‘No’.