AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - Defending Liberty in Wartime

Defending liberty in wartime – 20 December 1917

 Notes for discussion on 3CR, Solidarity Breakfast, 21 December 2013.

Humphrey McQueen in conversation with Bill Deller and Annie McLaughlin.

 For our last session of the year I’d like to look at another anniversary but one that sets an agenda for the battles to come over the Great European War from 1914 to 1919. We can focus on one ideological offensive which is already shaping political debate The pollution from this indoctrination will last far beyond 2018

ANZAC-ery is used to legitimise other wars and military alliances. But more importantly the aim is to define what it is to be a good Australian. Going to war is equated with how best to serve one’s community. It directs attention away from the conflicts inside Australia.

The occasion we celebrate is the defeat of the second attempt to introduce conscription for overseas military service. 96 years ago yesterday – 20 December 1917.

Did it rate a mention in the mass media – even on the ABC? Yet it is one of the three most important events in the history of 20th century Australia.


Need a very quick chronology of what was happening in 1917. What was in dispute? Conscription for home defence had been in place since 1910. The issue in 1916-17 was conscription for service overseas. In 1914, all the Australians who went to war were volunteers. During 1916, the British convince Labor prime minister Hughes to get more cannon fodder through conscription service overseas. He can’t get it through the labor-controlled Senate and therefore is driven to hold a plebiscite. The vote was not a referendum to alter the constitution. There was no doubt that the government had the power to conscript for overseas service under the defense power. The vote was therefore a political conflict. The first plebiscite was defeated with 52 % voting against in October 1916. Labor splits and the Rats join the Libs to form a coalition. The elections in 1917 gave a big win to the Imperialists. That victory encouraged prime minister Hughes to have a second vote on 20 December 1917. He lost again this time by a bigger margin with 54% against.


Last week, Annie mentioned the quest for funds to finance a documentary about the Pig Iron dispute. Why is none of the tens of millions for War celebrations going into that project? We have only to ask to know the reason.

A simple test exists for spotting what is politically correct for the ruling-class. Does an event get a postage stamp? Gold Medalists get them even before the drug tests are finalized. Why no stamps for the Pig Iron strikers? Why has there never been one for any of the anniversaries of the defeat of conscription? Why none for the defeat of the anti-Red Bill in 1951? Again, we have only to ask to know the answer. The dominant ideas in any society are those of the dominant class. There is no place for celebrating popular victories against that class, no room for reminding us how to defeat the bosses. The agents of capital know how important it is not to give people ideas about how to fight back.

Progressives cannot afford to say ‘We’ll have Eureka and you can have ANZAC’. There is a democratic story to tell about the war years.  But we have to present a positive story. Standing on the sidelines throwing bricks might make a few people feel morally superior. That approach will also make it easier for the official line to carry the day. Strategically, the test is always whether a proposal will help to build a mass movement. Tactically, we need to tell stories which help us to feel ‘I could do that’. People are open to radical ideas if those alternatives offer values that appeal to the best in our natures.

It essential to remind ourselves of why these history wars over wars are politically significant. Carrying on like smarty-pants is the worst thing the Left can do. We have to use our points to set people thinking about bigger issues. The last thing we need is to piss people off by making them seem dumb. We have to pose questions, not become megaphone Marxists.

One effective way to intervene is to turn the values and yarns pushed by the warmongers against them. Wartime propaganda concentrated on the claim that our side was fighting to protect British liberties against German junkerdom. Our case is that our rights and liberties were defended above all by the defeat of the conscription plebiscites in 1916 and again in 1917.

            Our proof is a counter-factual: what if YES vote had won? We have a good idea of the kind of regime that would have been imposed. Our guide to that future comes from the solicitor-general, Sir Robert Garran:

The regulations were mostly expressed widely to make sure that nothing necessary was omitted, and the result soon was that John Citizen was hardly able to lift a finger without coming under the penumbra of some technical offence against the War Precautions Regulations. (Prosper the Commonwealth)

If that web of controls had spread then an even more open dictatorship would have followed. ‘British’ liberties suffered with the Commonwealth’s censorship of the Queensland Hansard, and the creation of the Commonwealth political police.

In addition, conscription for overseas service would have opened the door to industrial conscription. Ten years after the war, in 1929, the government used the War Precautions (Repeal) Act to convict the secretary of the Melbourne Trades Hall for encouraging something like a strike. If they could do that under the Repeal Act in peacetime, we don’t have to imagine what they would have got up to during wartime.

 Bourgeois democracy

What the two NO votes protected was bourgeois democracy. Before anyone says, only bourgeois democracy let’s spotlight two points

  1. a covert dictatorship of the bourgeois is better for workers than an overt military one.
  2. and more importantly, the only reason we have even a bourgeois democracy is because of workers’ struggles.

such liberties and rights as we do have were won and sustained by struggle.

So we have another chance to quote Hobart union organiser Samuel Champ from 1916:

Our liberties were not won by mining magnates and stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on gallows and rotted in dungeons and are buried in nameless graves. These are the men to whom we owe the liberties we enjoy today.

 Pedagogical principle

Every teacher knows: You start from where people are. You take something that the vast majority have some sort of notion about. That’s why Simpson and his donkey is a gift from the war-mongers’ side. They have spent decades and millions making him the best known soldier at Canakale (Gallipoli). We need to subvert the Simpson Essay that the Departmetn of Veterans’ Affairs pushes in the high schools. The Labor History Society in the ACT is sponsoring an essay competition to challenge the line required be in the running for a trip to Canakale. The alternative topic will be something like: ‘Had Simpson lived, how would he have voted on the conscription for overseas service?’ Other groups can follow suit by promoting essays and school debates in their communities.

 Beneath Hill 60

A not particularly good movie from 2010 dealt with tunneling under enemy lines in June 1916. The plot focused on the officer in charge of the mine workers who were doing the tunneling. The director totally ignored the industrial and political disputes that were raging throughout the mining districts back home. The script is typical of how the politics of wartime are ignored. The study notes for high schools did not raise conscription or the strikes. Teachers need supporting materials. The HonestHistory site aims to provide them. We’ll do our bit on 3CR in the coming years.