‘Putting Shackles on a Free People’ – the Conscription Debate

On 31 August 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced his intention to hold a referendum on conscription.

The question to be put to the people on 28 October was:

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?

Meetings for either side of the debate were held in Wagga with most organised groups declaring their support for conscription; almost the only exception to this was the Political Labor League.

A crowd gathered in Little Gurwood Street, outside the Wagga Court House.
Throughout the bitter conscription debate, the people of Wagga gathered in the streets to hear speeches from pro- and anti-conscriptionists, just like this crowd assembled in Little Gurwood Street, c. 1910 [from the Pym Collection, RW2735/40].
For example, an open-air meeting was held in Little Gurwood Street on 7 October when just a few hundred men and women crowded around a lorry opposite the Court House to hear speeches on anti-conscription. The majority of the crowd were sympathetic to the speakers but the newspaper reports of the meeting were decisively against them.

Newspaper Report on an anti-conscription meeting.
A report in the Daily Advertiser on one of the anti-conscription meetings [The Daily Advertiser, 9 October 1916, pg 3].

In contrast, when Prime Minister Hughes spoke to a crowd of over a thousand people in the Strand Theatre in Baylis Street, the Press were firmly on his side.

They reported that Mr Hughes, “spoke slowly, deliberately and incisively… He was most persuasive and conclusively logical, but at times he waxed sarcastic at the expense of the anti-conscriptionists and indulged in biting epigrams which fell with dynamic force.” He asked the crowd:

“Shall we… go down to posterity as kinsmen of the Anzacs or as men who have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage?”


Newspaper headlines, "Prime Minister in Wagga - A Great Meeting - Enthusiastic Reception".
The headlines of the enthusiastic pressmen’s report of Prime Minister Hughes’ speech in Wagga [The Daily Advertiser, 24 October 1916].
Following the referendum on 28 October, the initial numbers at the Wagga polls were 1894 votes for conscription and 1641 against. 1859 men had voted in the non-compulsory referendum and 1734 women. These figures included Collingullie, Ladysmith, Lake Albert and Uranquinty.

By the time all votes were counted, Wagga Wagga had a majority of ‘Yes’ votes, despite the overall Hume and Riverina Electorates having voted against conscription.

And across the nation, the voting showed 1,087,557 votes for conscription and 1,160,033 against. This narrow margin encouraged Hughes to try again in December 1917 but the referendum was defeated with an even greater majority.

Update: For more reading on the conscription debate in the Riverina, Dr Bruce Pennay of Charles Sturt University has been looking into the impact of the plebiscite on the Australian people and on the reasons for the glaring disparity between the results in Albury and Wagga Wagga.


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