The First Conscription Referendum

Group portrait of the officers of the 10th Light Horse Regiment who voted in favour of military conscription in the referendum, pictured with their "How to Vote" banner. AWM P00228.034

On this day 100 years ago, Prime Minister Hughes put the referendum to the people. The Government asked Australians:

“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?”

What of the Soldiers? Stan Cross, 1917, AWM ART19721

Anti-conscription badge, 1917, AWM REL28376.005

The question split the nation and made headlines across the country, despite the The Kangaroo Island Courier reporting the Prime Minister's appeal at the inaugural campaign function in Adelaide as "one of the most magnificent and inspiring functions known in the city."

Notices of anti-constription meetings1 and advertisements, such as the one below, were drowned out in the press by those for conscription, who had little difficulting in painting the "no" vote as one which would give tacit support to the German Army.2 Across the country, newspapers such as The Sydney Mail regularly printed letters in support of William Hughes, which argued that Australia, and the White Australia policy, would only be safe if more men were sent to thoroughly rout the Kaiser.3 And headlines such as "Facts Appeal to Women: "No" Weaknesses Exposed,"served to garner support from female voters, many of whom had already lost sons, brothers and husbands to the fighting.4

"No Conscription." The Daily Herald (Adelaide), 20 October 1916.

Despite the overwhelming support for the "Yes" vote in the press, when it finally came to the polls, Australia's first conscription referendum saw the pro-conscriptionists defeated.

The final vote was counted with 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against.

In December 1916, the ANZAC Bulletin in London reported on the defeat of the referendum, casting Australia as "weary, wan and just a little ashamed" having shown a "depth of selfishness and ignorance which has filled her with vague, but haunting dread."5 This dire pronouncement notwithstanding, a conscription referendum would not succeed in Australia during the Great War, nor during any successive conflicts.


1. "Anti-conscription Meeting." The Mount Barker Courier, 13 October 1916.

2. "Don't Scab." The Register, 25 October 1916.

3. "Representative Tasmanians Who Follow Mister Hughes." The Sydney Mail, 25 October 1916.

4.  "Fact Appeal to Women." Punch (Melbourne), 19 October 1916.

5. "The Australian Referendum." The ANZAC Bulletin (London), 22 December 1916.