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Wednesday, 26 November 1941


Mr BLACKBURN (Bourke) .- I regret that I have to ask the House to grant me indulgence to speak of a controversial matter which does not usually arise when Parliament is about to adjourn for the Christmas recess. A controversy took place recently upon the soldiers' vote in the conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917. As their decision then is being now treated as relevant to the question, and as the decision of the soldiers is relied upon by the conscriptionists and the anti-conscriptionists of to-day, I shall outline to the House, as concisely as I can, what appear to me to be valid reasons for believing that the soldiers actually on active service in the last war voted on both occasions against conscription.

The first referendum was taken in Australia on the 2Sth October, 1916, but voting began overseas on the 16th October. Before the poll in this country, a manifesto issued by the Prime Minister called upon the soldiers to lift up their voices and send one mighty shout across the leagues of ocean, bidding their fellow citizens to do their duty to the Empire, its allies and the cause of liberty, and to vote " yes ". Notwithstanding that, so soon as the 28th October had passed there was a general belief in Australia that the soldiers overseas had voted against conscription, and that belief was confirmed by statements of persons in authority who should have known the facts, that " the Anzacs had turned them down ". This opinion was further confirmed by the curious reluctance of the Government of the day to make any statement on the matter. Although the poll closed on the 2Sth October, 1916, both in Australia and abroad, no definite statement about the result could be obtained from the Government. Both in the Parliament of the Commonwealth and in the House of Commons, questions seeking information on the subject were directed to Ministers. The Prime Minister of Australia declared that he was precluded by instructions from England from divulging the result of the soldiers' vote.


Mr Calwell - That would be correct.


Mr BLACKBURN - It does not appear to have been correct. On the 19th December, 1916, I quote from Ilansard, volume LXXX., page 10216, Mr. Joseph Cook asked -

Is the Prime Minister aware that conflicting statements have been made concerning the way in which the soldiers at the front voted on the compulsory service referendum, and is it noi possible to set the matter at rest by making public the details of the voting?

The Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) replied -

I should be very glad to make such a return public did not a request from the Imperial Military Authorities preclude me from doing so.

Both before and after that date the Secretary of State for the Colonies in the House of Commons was asked similar questions. On the 14th December (I quote from the Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1916, volume

SS, pages 831) Mr. Lynch, asked the Secretary -

Whether he can give the result of the voting of the Australian soldiers in France in reference to the compulsory military service in Australia?

The Minister replied that he had no information, and added -

It is quite obvious that the publication of chis information is entirely a matter for the Commonwealth Government and not a matter for the Government here.

Incidentally that occurred before the Prime Minister of Australia had given the answer that I have read earlier. Again, on the 20th December, the clay after the Prime Minister had replied to Mr. Joseph Cook, Mr. King asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies -

Whether he will ask the Australian Government to publish as soon as possible the actual numbers of soldiers voting for and against conscription ?

The Secretary of State (Mr. Long) replied -

No, sir; this is entirely a matter for the discretion of the Commonwealth Government.

That is at page 1423 of the volume of the Parliamentary Debates I have just quoted from. Although the referendum was completed on the 28th October, 1916, it was not until the 27th March, 1917, the day after Parliament had been dissolved and an election campaign had been commenced, that the figures were published. When they were announced it appeared that a majority of the soldiers had voted for conscription. I shall deal with that later. Had there been a majority for conscription, it would not have been very remarkable in view of the way in which the referendum was taken. The Commonwealth Electoral Office was not in charge of the referendum in 1916. The persons who had control of it were appointed by the Government of the day and no provision was made for the scrutiny of the votes by independent scrutineers at the poll. In 1917, the poll was taken under the direction of the Commonwealth Electoral Office, and on that occasion provision was made for scrutineers appointed by each party to examine the votes. Again it has been made to appear that the result favoured conscription.

I come now to the opinion that was expressed by people who knew the facts at the time. It indicates that the votes of the soldiers actually on active service favoured the voluntary system and opposed conscription.


Mr Hughes - There is not a word of truth in what the honorable gentleman says.


Mr BLACKBURN - I shall take the unimpeachable testimony of Dr. C. E. W. Bean. Dr. Bean was a supporter of conscription, and, although he reveals that in his references to the campaign, he gives an objective account of what occurred. In volume 3 at page S92 he says -

As a matter of fact the more responsible part of the force, including practically all ibo officers, most of the non-commissioned officers, and at least half of the mcn, was in favour of conscription. But the hope of securing the desired resolutions vanished. The polling, which had begun on the Kith October as ihe units reached the villages behind the lines was quickly completed. The vote of ibo Australian Imperial Force was found to be in. favour of conscription, but only by 72,339 against 5S.S94; and it was understood that it was the mcn on transports and in camps rather than those actually at the front, who were responsible for the excess of the " Yes " vote.

That opinion has been supported by other authorities, to some of which I shall refer. It was supported in the BritishAustralasian, a well-known journal published in England, and circulating amongst Australians in England as well as in this country. Reference to that paper is made in Dr. L. C. Jauncey's book, The Story of Conscription in Australia.Dr. Jauncey holds an American degree, but he is a South Australian. He was in Australia at the time of the conscription campaign, and wrote his book in Australia. The book quotes at page 239 the following passage from the British Australasian: -

It is too soon yet to say whether the voice of Australia has said a final " No " to conscription, but it will be surprising if the voles yet to come counterbalance the adverse majority. Certainly the votes of Australian soldiers abroad will not do it.

That was the opinion of an Australian writing in England. Among the Australians who were overseas at the time of the campaign was our present Minister to China, Sir Frederic Eggleston, who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a private. He was definitely a conscriptionist at that time, and in a by no means friendly review of Dr. Jauncey's book, be says -

The soldiers were right. I voted for conscription, hut I doubt whether I should do so again. No issues except defence against invasion will ever be clear enough to enable us to compel people to fight.

That review is published in Pacific Affairs for 1930, page 594. These statements tend to show that in the opinion of the soldiers, whatever attitude was taken by the men in troop transports and in camps, and those who, although enlisted men, were doing civilian duty in England, the men who were doing the actual fighting voted against conscription.

Mr.Fadden. - The honorable member has cited only three authorities.


Mr BLACKBURN - I have cited only three authorities because my time is limited. In any case, I do not think that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Fadden) was at the front, and I cannot see that he is competent to express an opinion. On the 3rd November, 1916, the Government promulgated a regulation forbidding anyone to say how the soldiers voted. That was actually after the effect of the soldiers' vote was known in this country. The regulation was Statutory Rule' 1916, No. 213, and the relevant provision was -

No person shall publicly announce, publish, or exhibit any figures or alleged facts as to the results of the voting by -

(a)   members of the forces serving beyond Australia or having returned from such service; or

(b)   members of the crews of Australian transport vessels employed in the conveyance of members of the forces to or from Australia, at the referendum held under 'the Military Service Referendum Act 1010.

Under that regulation, prosecutions were launched against a Mr. Holland and a Miss Cecilia John, in Melbourne. Mr. H. E. Starke, of the Victorian bar - now Mr. Justice Starke - defended Mr. Holland and Miss John, and examined the then Commonwealth Electoral Officer for Victoria, Mr. Lawson.From Mr. Lawson it was elicited that persons doing civilian duties abroad had been entitled to vote because they had actually enlisted for active service.

Greater precautions were taken at the 1917 referendum, when the soldiers overseas recorded a majority of 1,622. My authority is a statement made by the Commonwealth Chief Electoral Officer of that time, Mr. Oldham, and published on the 11th January, 1918, in the Melbourne Argus, and, I presume, in other metropolitan papers.


Mr Hughes - There is no truth in that statement.


Mr BLACKBURN - I am not setting my unsupported word against that of the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes), who was Prime Minister at the time. All I say is that my statements were taken from official figures.[Extension of time granted.] I quote from volume 5, page 22, of Dr. Bean'sOfficial History of Australia in the War of 1914-18-

The soldiers' vote taken about the 11th December under arrangements made by administrative head-quarters in London was slightly more favorable than in 1010; it is believed that a majority of the troops actually in the front was against the measure, but that the vote from the camps and the transports turned the scale and produced a slight majority of soldiers in favour.

In a statement made by the then Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Oldham, on the 10th January, 1918, and published in the Argus, and, I presume, other daily newspapers, on the 11th January, the figures showed that, of the soldiers actually overseas, which would include every member of the Forces overseas, whether at the time on active service or not, there was a majority of 1,622 for conscription. Of the soldiers on transports, there was a small majority against conscription, and of the soldiers who had not left Australia, there was a majority of about three to one in favour of conscription.







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