Last man and last shilling
28 October 1916
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?
This was a non-binding referendum that was not about a constitutional change.
A slim majority of Australians voted NO and the measure failed. The government honoured the result even though it was nonbinding.
Yes: 356,805 (42.92%), No: 474,544 (57.08%)
Yes: 353,930 (51.88%), No: 328,216 (48.12%)
Yes: 144,200 (47.71%), No: 158,051 (52.29%)
Yes: 94,069 (69.71%), No: 40,884 (30.29%)
Yes: 87,924 (42.44%), No: 119,263 (57.56%)
Yes: 48,493 (56.17%), No: 37,833 (43.83%)
Yes: 2,136 (62.73%), No: 1,269 (37.27%)
Yes: 72,399 (55.14%), No: 58,894 (44.86%)
Yes: 1,087,557 (49.39%), No: 1,160,033 (51.61%)
Is it right to compel someone to defend their country, even if they do not want to fight?
In 1916, and again the following year, Australians were asked to vote on whether men in National Service, or conscripts, could be deployed to fight overseas in World War One.
Australia had already committed tens of thousands of troops to the war and by 1916 more than 20,000 Australians had been killed. But Britain was crying out for aid and Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes wanted to allow conscripts to be sent overseas to answer the British call. Under National Service, young men could be conscripted but only be deployed within Australia. Hughes wanted to change that.
Hughes didn’t need the referendum to get his way, but he wanted to show his party and his opponents that the people were on his side. He toured the country making speeches and passionately asking Australians to vote yes ‘for the good of the empire’. His party colleagues, almost all of whom were opposed to conscription, were not impressed. Seeing no alternative, the NSW branch of the Labor Party cast Hughes from their ranks. Despite now being technically an independent, Hughes continued to lead the government.
The Liberal opposition supported conscription, which was popular with many people who considered themselves British. Opponents to Hughes’ plan included the Catholic Church, Irish Australians, most trade unions and civil libertarians. The campaign was emotional, and tempers flared on both sides. Accusations of disloyalty or of authoritarianism were levelled. Hughes didn’t help his cause by applying regulations and calling up men even before the vote, alienating some of his own supporters.
A very narrow majority of Australians voted against the proposal, and it was rejected. The loss only strengthened Hughes’ resolve, and he emerged as leader of a new Nationalist Party, formed with the opposition. As the war continued, Hughes called a second referendum for the end of 1917; the proposal was rejected again, this time by a much wider margin – almost 54% voted no.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes addresses a rally in support of conscription, Martin Place, Sydney c.1916. The large rallies led many to believe a ‘Yes’ vote was a foregone conclusion.
Australian War Memorial A03376
Anti-conscription poster, 1917. Racial prejudice drove at least one of the arguments against conscription – the potential for it to reduce Australia’s white population and force Asian or Pacific labourers to be imported. Museum of Australian Democracy collection 2014-0236
Anti-conscription leaflet from the 1917 referendum. Similar arguments for and against conscription were employed in both 1916 and 1917. Museum of Australian Democracy collection 2016-0103
Did you know
This was the first Australian referendum that wasn’t asking Australians to vote on a proposal to change the Constitution. This vote is sometimes called a ‘plebiscite’, but at the time it was still called a referendum.
Read more about the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum.