AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - CONSCRIPTION
Ninety years ago, on 28
October 2006, the Australian people voted to reject conscription for
overseas military service. A year later, on 20 December 1917, a larger
majority confirmed that decision in a second plebiscite. A majority of
the troops already serving overseas in the First Australian Imperial
Force also voted “No”.
Throughout the next
fifty and more years, the divide created by those campaigns re-made the
working class, embittered sectarianism and split Labor politics. Its
last hurrah came with the fiftieth anniversary during the 1966 Federal
elections. Labor leader Calwell campaigned against conscription for
Vietnam in the conviction that Australians shared his passionate
opposition from his youth.
The anniversaries of
the struggles over conscription merit notice on historical grounds
alone. In addition, the plebiscites are pertinent to three current
concerns: the wars around the Middle East; the history wars; and the
class war exemplified in the IR onslaught.
First, looking into
1916-17 can help our campaigning against wars today? One lesson is the
complexity in the motives of those who voted “No”. The majority did
not oppose the war itself. Most supported conscription for home defence.
Some voted “Yes” because they feared Japan – others voted “No”
on the same ground. The Labor Party had split over economic policy
before overseas conscription became central. Reactionary farmers and
pastoralists voted ‘No” because they could not afford to lose their
workforce. The IRA uprising at Easter 1916 generated perhaps as many
“Yes” votes as it did “Noes”.
By appreciating the
tangle of reasons for voting “No” in 1916-17, we can accept why
opponents of Australian forces in Iraq will start from a multiplicity of
positions. Our task, therefore, is twofold. We gather the broadest
coalition of opponents. In that process, we seek ways to bring some
analysis of oligopolising and of the nation-market-state to as many
people as possible. Through that process, we clarify our own
understanding of why wars happen. “The educator must be educated.”
Our responses to the
present are bound up with how we perceive the past. The Coalition and
the Business Council recognise that the history wars are not some
academic dispute over Post-Modernism. From the 1980s, Hugh Morgan at
Western Mining knew that corporate profits depended on blocking land
rights. He and his cronies got rid of two editors of Quadrant
to give voice to the Three Cheers view of settler Australia.
Howard told the Quadrant
crew at their 50th anniversary dinner how much he resented
the class struggle being part of Australian history courses. The call
for its erasure coincides with the Coalition’s stepping up of the
Howard urged the
revision of Australian history within months of becoming Prime Minister.
In January this year, he focused on classroom practice by insisting on a
narrative of events. Education Minister Baird demands a syllabus which
instills how Australia became “a modern liberal democracy”.
What is left out of any
narrative about the achievement of bourgeois parliamentary democracy
will be as decisive as how we interpret whatever goes in.
Howard refused to join
in the 150th commemoration of the Eureka Stockade in 2004.
The fact that the “No” votes expressed the free will of a majority
of Australians will not earn them a spot in the Tory narrative of
democracy. Nor is the majority vote against the Act to ban the Communist
Party likely to feature in such a syllabus.
Yet those events
contributed more than most to what passes for a “modern liberal
democracy” here. Had the results been different, Australia would have
shifted towards more open forms of class oppression. In each case, the
majority held the line against war hysteria. They defended a kind of
freedom against the political forebears of the Coalition and the
The Left need never
surrender any part of the Australian narrative. It is a mistake to say:
we’ll stick by Eureka and they can take Gallipoli. Socialists have
stories to tell about Anzac that subvert the militaristic legend. The
“man with the donkey”, Jack Simpson, was a red-hot unionist who
looked forward to a revolution to rid the world of aristocrats and
millionaires. Had he lived, he too would have voted “No”.