Australian referendum, 1917 (Conscription)

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The 1917 Australian plebiscite was held on 20 December 1917. It contained just the one question.

Background[edit]

The 1917 plebiscite was held a year after the highly contentious 1916 plebiscite on conscription. The 1916 plebiscite had resulted in a surprise "no" vote, with voters in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, as well as a majority of electors nationwide, rejecting the proposal. The political fallout was swift, and by November 1916 had led to the collapse of the First Hughes Ministry. This resulted in a split of the ruling Australian Labor Party into two factions, with Prime Minister Billy Hughes and some Labor MPs forming the breakaway National Labor Party, which by February 1917 had merged with the conservative Commonwealth Liberal Party to form the Nationalist Party of Australia. While the Nationalist Party was dominated by former Commonwealth Liberals, it retained Hughes as leader. After Hughes and the Nationalists scored a convincing victory at the 1917 election, Hughes announced a second plebiscite on the question of conscription to be held on 20 December 1917.[1]

During the course of World War 1 38.7% of eligible Australian men enlisted for service, around 420,000 out of an eligible population of a little over 1 million. During the war the range of men eligible to volunteer was expanded, with the initial age range of 19–38 expanded to 18-45 in June 1915. Similarly medical standards were lowered, for example the minimum height dropped from 5ft 6in (167 cm) in August 1914 down to 5ft (152 cm) by April 1917.[2] There was however a significant decrease in the number of enlistments after 1915, with the average in 1917 of less than 4,000 enlistments per month:[3][4]

  • 1914: 52,561
  • 1915: 165,912
  • 1916: 124,352
  • 1917: 45,101

The 1917 Plebiscite[edit]

"The Death Ballot", a campaign poster for the "No" vote.

The proposal for the 1917 plebiscite was less far reaching than that of the 1916 poll, eschewing full conscription of able-bodied men and instead proposing to conscript men between the ages of 18 and 44 through a ballot system, and only in months where voluntary enlistments fell below 7,000 men.[5]

"Facts for Farm Workers", a campaign poster for the "Yes" vote.

This plebiscite was held due to the Australian Government's desire to introduce conscription to increase the recruitment of forces for overseas service during the ongoing World War I, to a total of 7,000 men per month. It was conducted under the War Precautions (Military Service Referendum) Regulations 1917.[6] It formed part of the larger debate on conscription in Australia throughout the war.

All of the historical documentation refer to the ballot as a referendum,[6][7] even though it did not involve a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution. Because it was not an amendment to the constitution, (1) it had no legal force, (2) it did not require approval in a majority of states and (3) residents of federal territories were able to vote.[6][8] Such a ballot is now usually referred to as a plebiscite to distinguish it from a referendum to alter the Constitution.[9]

The campaign was notable for the Egg Throwing Incident where a protestor threw an egg at Prime Minister Hughes in Warwick, Queensland,[10] and for the Raid on the Queensland Government Printing Office, where the Australian Army stormed a Queensland government building to confiscate copies of the Queensland Government Gazette deemed to contain subversive anti-conscription materials.[11]

Results by state.
  Yes
  No

Results[edit]

Result [9]
State On

rolls

Ballots

issued

For Against Informal Result
 %  %
New South Wales 1,055,883 853,894 341,256 41.16% 487,774 58.84% 24,864 No
Victoria 807,331 678,806 329,772 49.79% 332,490 50.21% 16,544 No
Queensland 378,378 310,164 132,771 44.02% 168,875 55.98% 8,518 No
South Australia 261,661 197,970 86,663 44.90% 106,364 55.10% 4,943 No
Western Australia 162,347 135,593 84,116 64.39% 46,522 35.61% 4,955 Yes
Tasmania 106,803 78,792 38,881 50.24% 38,502 49.76% 1,409 Yes
Northern Territory and Capital Territory 4,037 3,002 1,700 58.22% 1,220 41.78% 82 Yes
Total for Commonwealth 2,776,440 2,258,221* 1,015,159 46.21% 1,181,747 53.79% 61,315 No
Obtained majority in two States and an overall minority of 166,588 votes.
Not carried

* Including 199 677 votes by members of the Australian Imperial Force, of which 103 789 were for, 93 910 against, and 1978 informal.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Connor, John (2011). Anzac and Empire: George Foster Pearce and the Foundations of Australian Defence. Cambridge University Press. p. 107. ISBN 9781107009509. 
  2. ^ "Enlistment standards". Australian War Memorial. Archived from the original on 13 October 2016. 
  3. ^ "Enlistment statistics, First World War". Australian War Memorial. Archived from the original on 13 October 2016. 
  4. ^ A.G. Butler (1943). "Special problems and services: the official history of the Australian Army Medical Services in the war of 1914–1918, vol. III" (PDF). p. 889 – via Australian War Memorial. 
  5. ^ Carroll, Brian (2004). Australia's Prime Ministers: From Barton to Howard. Rosenberg Publishing. p. 93. ISBN 9781877058226. 
  6. ^ a b c "War Precautions (Military Service Referendum) Regulations 1917". Commonwealth of Australia. 10 November 1917. 
  7. ^ "Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917 – Fact sheet 161". National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 5 July 2016. 
  8. ^ People in the territories were not able to vote at a referendum to alter the Constitution until after the 1977 referendum.
  9. ^ a b Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Referendum results". Parliamentary Library of Australia. .
  10. ^ "Senior Sergeant Kenny entirely exonerated.". Warwick Examiner and Times. Qld. 5 December 1917. p. 4 – via National Library of Australia. 
  11. ^ Fitzgerald, Ross (1994). "Red Ted": The Life of E. G. Theodore. University of Queensland Press. p. 96. ISBN 9780702226496.