Opposing conscription in World War One

Vote No! Union opposition to conscription in World War One

“Not a cab, bus, tram or train should run…not a man of the all-powerful working class should be at work…whatever happens…whatever the consequences – attend the stop work meeting on Wednesday, October 4th.”

John Curtin, Secretary, ‘Australian Trades Union Anti-Conscription Congress’ leaflet, 1916.


During the First World War Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes wanted to conscript Australian men to fight overseas.

He decided to hold a public vote called a plebiscite (sometimes called a referendum) to find out the Australian public’s opinion, hoping that the people were in favour of conscription. The date was set for 28 October 1916.

Hughes expected the Australian people to vote ‘Yes’. But the public was not convinced. In May 1916 the Trade Union Congress decided that it strongly opposed conscription. They employed John Curtin (who was to go on to be Prime Minister during the Second World War) as secretary of the Australian Trades Union Anti-Conscription Congress. The Trades Union issued an anti-conscription manifesto which was seized by police in a raid on the Melbourne Trades Hall Council.

Trades Unions were worried that working men who left their jobs to become soldiers would be replaced by cheap migrant labour which would lead to lower wages, poorer conditions and even leave soldiers with no job to return to after the war. The hard-won rights and benefits unions had fought for would be lost. Some also believed that conscription would make workers slaves of the military. Many thought that the conflict was ‘the Rich Man’s War and the Poor Man’s Fight’ which was only being fought to benefit powerful and wealthy men. During the War prices rose and living standards fell whilst the profits of businesses like shipping companies increased dramatically.

The Trades Union called a ‘Stop Work’ on 4 October 1916 and tens of thousands of workers gathered on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne to support the anti-conscription cause. Among their number were Wharf Labourers, Carpenters, Builders’ Labourers, the Port Phillip Stevedores, Glass Bottle Makers and Rubber Workers.

On 28 October 1916 the plebiscite was lost. Australia voted ‘No’ to conscription 51% to 49%. Prime Minister Hughes called it “a black day for Australia”. In December 1917 a second plebiscite on conscription was also defeated, this time by an even larger margin. This ended the conscription debate for the remainder of the war. Australia and South Africa alone were the only nations involved in World War One not to introduce conscription.

DID YOU KNOW: Passionate anti-conscription campaigner John Curtin introduced conscription during the Second World War as Prime Minister.

‘The Blood Vote’ leaflet, written by W. Winspear, drawn by Claude Marquet and authorized by John Curtin, 1917.
This leaflet encourages women not to vote to send their sons and husbands to die in the War. Australian women had won the right to vote and so were targeted by groups on both the pro and anti conscription sides of the debate. This started a tradition seen in later conscription debates (such as during the Vietnam War) of Australian women opposing conscription.

Australian Curriculum Links:

History/Year 9/Historical Knowledge and Understanding/World War 1
The impact of World War 1, with a particular emphasis on Australia (such as the use of propaganda to influence the civilian population, the changing role of women, the conscription debate):
Identifying groups who opposed conscription (for examples trade unionists, Irish Catholics) and the grounds for their objections

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