Conscription – the sequel

Conscription: The Sequel*

Bill Thompson

Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra Region Branch

This paper will briefly examine the aftermath of the failed attempts to introduce conscription for overseas service into the Australian military forces during World War I. It will discuss the inter-war years; the constraints imposed by anti-conscription sentiments on recruitment for World War II, and the subsequent, successful, but again controversial, introduction of two conscription schemes for military service in the 1950s and 1960s. The situation at the present time will then be reviewed.

Post Federation

Following Federation, the uncoordinated troops of the former colonies had been formed into a militia titled the Citizen Military Forces, this formation being the main land force for the defence of Australia. Apart from training obligations, the CMF would only be required for a defence emergency within Australia and its Territories, as the Defence Act 1903 did not permit the militia, as non-volunteers, to serve overseas.[1]

Conscription in World War

At the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, initially volunteers in adequate numbers formed the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), one intended for service overseas. By 1916, maintaining the fighting strength of the AIF became increasingly difficult in the face of hugely increasing numbers of casualties on the Western Front. With recruitment numbers dwindling, the Labor Government of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes faced a major manpower crisis if the AIF was to be maintained at fighting strength. The prime minister turned to conscription for the solution.[2]

As earlier speakers have discussed, the events that arose from the unsuccessful conscription referendums of the World War I were to have profound long-term impacts on the Australian polity. Without exception, conscription had been a fiercely contested recruitment measure, most particularly opposed by sectarian interests. A split now divided the Australian Labor Party (ALP), with its leader, W. M. Hughes incurring a vote of no confidence by the ALP caucus. This instigated his breaking away to form another party, the Nationalist Party, which attained government in 1917.[3]

Between the World Wars

The public controversy over conscription for overseas service, with its bitter aftermath, scarred Australia. It ensured legislation was never enacted, and it also caused conscription for service overseas to be removed from the political agenda for the two decades after the end of the War. After World War I conscription was based wholly on a universal compulsory scheme for service entirely in Australia. Compulsory training continued briefly, gradually reducing in effectiveness to the point that the Scullin Labor Government, seeking to reduce expenditure in the early days of the Great Depression, abolished the scheme in 1929.[4]

Manpower problems of World War II

Upon the outbreak of World War II, the United Australia Party government of Robert Gordon Menzies in October 1939 reinstituted a compulsory military scheme for militia service within Australia. This was a measure to expand the Citizen Military Forces, and in turn to provide a pool of personnel from which selected members could be identified for the all-volunteer Second Australian Imperial Force (2AIF).[5]

It was also decided in 1939 that a private soldier would be paid four shillings per day if a member of the CMF, and if a member of the 2AIF this volunteer service attracted five shillings, with one shilling deferred to be paid on discharge.[6] Married soldiers were compelled to allot two shillings per day to their dependents.[7]


These pay rates mirrored the pay rates of the AIF of 1914.[8] There were frequent calls in the press for the soldier’s wage to equal that of the federal minimum wage, in 1913 being 53 shillings per week.[9] This was not practical as the soldier’s remuneration reflected a salary plus all found (inclusive of necessary provisions), whereas the basic wage was formulated on a family rate of a man, wife and two children. Perhaps a more suitable comparative measure would be average weekly earnings as they were in 1939, but this writer could not identify that figure.

A change of government in October 1941 saw a Labor Government returned to office. By February 1943, with manpower in urgent demand, particularly for the army, Prime Minister John Curtin put the Defence (CMF) Bill before parliament, and controversially the Prime Minister, one hitherto implacably opposed to compulsory service, had to justify so doing by explaining the likelihood of a direct threat to Australia posed by the conflict in the South West Pacific area.[10] To achieve this, he amended the Defence Act to include New Guinea and its nearby islands as part of Australia. Despite bitter criticism from within the ALP, and opposition from the general population, the reality was that Australia was fighting alongside its allies whose forces included conscripted troops. Certainly the security situation prevailing in the South West Pacific at that time imperilled Australia, one that offered no alternatives for the Curtin Government. This arrangement prevailed until the cessation of hostilities in August 1945, when all conscription for the Australian Military Forces ceased.

The 1950s

After the end of World War ll the process of decolonisation took place and with it the Domino Theory emerged. This centred on the belief that if a country turned communist, communism being an international movement, then it would spread to adjoining nations causing them to fall to communism, and then similarly other countries. Hence the Domino Theory.[11]

Returned to government in December 1949, Prime Minister Menzies assessed the world security threats. A ‘Cold War’ was developing in Europe between the communist East and the non-communist West, a Malayan Emergency declared in 1948 in response to a communist insurgency, the communists’ ascendance in China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War when the communist North attacked South Korea in 1950, all contributed to the circumstances for a major anti-communist and national security campaign by the conservative Menzies government.

It should be noted here that the Australian land forces immediately committed to the Korean conflict in June 1950 had been drawn from the Australian element of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. Further reinforcements followed with a unique campaign in Australia for the voluntary enlistment of mainly World War II veterans, for a contingent dubbed ‘K’ Force.[12]

Similarly, the Australian contingent sent to the Malayan Emergency began with its ground force joining the UK sponsored Far East Strategic Reserve in October 1955, all Australian Regular Army volunteers.[13]

Perceiving political advantage, and ignoring the commendable wartime effort of the preceding ALP Government, Menzies saw the international situation was such he could exploit to his political advantage and one that had the attendant benefit of besmirching the ALP, with the inference that if it was socialist it must therefore be one step from being communist.

Pursuing its anti-communist crusade, in April 1950 the Menzies Government endeavoured unsuccessfully to introduce into parliament the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and re-presented it again in September, when it was passed into law the following month. The Act did not survive a High Court challenge in November 1950 with six of the seven judges finding against. Following a double dissolution election in April 1951, Menzies sought a referendum in September on retaining the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950. The referendum failed.

In such an atmosphere Menzies seized the opportunity to introduce other measures into the mix. He controversially provided the British with a testing facility for atomic weapons, initially at Monte Bello, off the coast of Western Australia in 1950, and later at Maralinga in South Australia in 1956, Britain having been refused permission by the United States to use its facilities.[14]

The Menzies Government legislated for another compulsory universal military service scheme. The National Service Act of 1951 made it compulsory for the partial training of a large number of men (women were excluded) who could later be brought to an efficient level in the event of an outbreak of war. After initial training, these conscripts had an obligation for further service with CMF units, in which interestingly, all CMF personnel were volunteers. To further complicate the conditions of service in the Australian armed forces, there was an opportunity for men to meet their National Service obligation (variable according to service) with service in the Royal Australian Navy or the Royal Australian Air Force, providing they volunteered to serve outside Australia.[15]

This situation remained until 1957 when a defence review determined that the manpower arrangements for Australia’s defence failed to meet requirements, requirements that undertrained amateurs could not provide. For the Army, its budget depleted by the universal training scheme, the new international reality required a professional soldier, one that could only be obtained after a much longer period of training. The days when you could arm troops with a .303 calibre rifle, and send them off to war after just three months training, as had been done in two World Wars, were over.[16]

The Menzies Government’s preoccupation with the threat of Communism was not reflected in its actions. Defence expenditure at the end of the Korean War declined from 4.9 per cent of the gross domestic product in 1953, to 2.5 per cent of GDP in 1964.[17]

The 1960s

The early 1960s saw the emergence of a fraught security situation in South East Asia, when Australia viewed with alarm the increasing unrest, particularly in Indonesia and to a lesser extent in Indo-China.

The formation of the Malaysian Federation provoked opposition from President Sukarno of Indonesia, as he considered it was a means by which Britain could continue its colonial rule over Malaya. Sukarno sought to destabilise and destroy the new Federation by an undeclared war, one dubbed ‘Confrontation’ or Konfrontasi in Indonesian. Together with Britain and New Zealand, the Australian forces, army, navy and air force, were deployed to counter Indonesian aggression on the Malay Peninsula, in Sarawak and Sabah. Principally an army operation, it was to extend from 1962 to 1966, with all Australian personnel drawn from the regular forces. As it transpired, Confrontation was not a major conflict for Australia, but it was politically sensitive, given its potential to escalate to a much greater and intense conflagration with Indonesia.[18] In this regard very little information on operational matters was disclosed to the Australian public at the time.[19]

The Vietnam War

In response to a worsening security situation in South Vietnam in 1962, Australia sent a contingent of thirty regular soldiers in July, to work with United States Army advisers, whose numbers that year expanded from about 1000 to over 11000 men. The thirty Australians formed the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) a unit that was to remain in Vietnam until December 1972.[20] By late 1964 it was evident to the South Vietnamese, United States and Australian governments that large scale military assistance was needed if the South Vietnamese regime was to survive the onslaught of the attacking North Vietnamese and their supporters in the South. Leaving aside the controversial matter of which government requested the less than spontaneous offer of assistance from Australia, the decision to despatch an Australian infantry battalion group was made.[21]

At this time the Australian Army had four battalions of regular infantry, and it was planned that service in South Vietnam would be of twelve months duration. It was realised also that the Army had to rapidly expand if the growing land force demands for service overseas were to be met. The government encountered difficulties in recruiting sufficient numbers, so in 1965 it resorted to the re-introduction of conscription for two years of full-time service. In due course nine infantry battalions served in Vietnam, with seven of them deployed twice.[22] The conscription scheme was also described as selective service, there being no equality of sacrifice, as it was not a universal scheme. Not all conscripts, now dubbed National Servicemen, the term preferred by the Menzies Government,[23] served in Vietnam, with just 15,542 serving there out of a total of 63,740.[24] A few served overseas with the battalions posted to Malaysia and later to Singapore, and interestingly, National Servicemen with teaching qualifications were posted to New Guinea to raise the educational levels of the nascent Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Some conscripts were clearly misemployed, as the writer encountered a qualified veterinary surgeon in a very junior and routine position in the field ambulance located at the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, South Vietnam. Clearly, if this had occurred in an industrial setting, it would be regarded as a demarcation dispute with the medical profession.

After initial wide spread public acceptance of conscription in 1965, there later emerged a growing opposition to it, from organisations such as the women’s movement Save our Sons and the Youth Campaign Against Conscription. Adopting an American initiative, Australia took up the anti-war and anti-conscription Moratorium Movement which mounted a series of public demonstrations against the war. Some trade unions expressed their opposition to the war in April 1965, including the Building Workers Industrial Union and the Seamen’s Union of Australia calling for the withdrawal of military advisers of the AATTV from Vietnam. The Executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions resolved in May 1965 that it would not support industrial action against the war.[25] For the unions it was a vexed issue. Some did not wish to be seen as not supporting the Australian troops overseas, whilst other unions were in fierce opposition to the War.[26] Fortunately, unlike the United States, Australia did not experience the shooting killings of demonstrators as occurred at Kent State University in 1970.[27]

It is argued that the security situation in Vietnam in the early 1960s was not a defence emergency directly affecting Australia. Notwithstanding the Domino Theory, one that presented in Australia as a reflection of White Australia prejudice or Yellow Peril hysteria that prevailed in our society since before Federation, the reality was that the Menzies Government was not prepared to pay the soldier his due. The then Minister for Army, Jim Forbes, perceived the Vietnam situation as threatening, and had tried successfully, despite Treasury opposing it, to improve the pay and conditions of soldiers. This did not yield the desired result as the enlistment rate did not markedly improve. Minister Forbes stated some fifty years later, the introduction of the 1965-72 selective conscription scheme was unavoidable.[28] It will be shown below that the government’s efforts were too little, too late, and that conscription was avoidable.

The election of the Whitlam Government saw the immediate end of conscription, with no resumption of conscription for the Australian Defence Force since December 1972.

Post-Vietnam War Conflicts

The Australian War Memorial has detailed an extensive list of operational deployments to war and war-like conflicts since the end of the Vietnam War. They include Iraq, Afghanistan, Irian Jaya, Iran-Iraq War and Fiji. Also, there have been at least twenty peacekeeping and humanitarian operations since 1972, with both Labor and Liberal Coalition governments determining there was no need for the re­introduction of conscription.[29] It is no coincidence this was achieved by improving pay and conditions of service for the Australian Defence Force generally, and the Regular Army in particular. Following are the current (October 2016) salary and allowances for a private soldier to illustrate this point:

Basic Pay and Allowances. Private[30]
Pay: $48,990.00
Service Allowance: $13,717.00[31]
Uniform Allowance: 419.00[32]
Annual Sub-Total: $63,126.00
Iraq Allowance: Daily 153.77
Say, 180 days Sub-Total: 27,678.00
Total $90,804.60


For other operations as specified, daily: Between 48.41 and 230,62

(Say; 180 days:   $8,713.80 and $41,511,00.

By way of contrast, the Australian Bureau of Statistics website reveals that in Table 11A Average Weekly Earnings, Industry, Australia (Dollars) – Original Persons, Total Earnings, as at May 2016 is $1,160-90 or $60,366.80 annually.[33]


The writer has concluded that short of another world war, there will not be a need for conscription to meet the Australian Defence Force recruitment needs. The future re­introduction of conscription, and/or “selective service”, with its associated historical objections can be avoided, if there is an acceptance by the government of the day, of paying the soldier her/his due.



*This paper is a slightly modified version of the paper delivered at the Australian National University on Saturday 29 October 2016, seminar on the Conscription Referendums 28 October 1916 and 20 December 1917.

Bill Thompson spent twenty-nine years in the Australian Army both as a regular soldier, with service in New Guinea, Malaysia and Vietnam, and later as an active reservist. Whilst an industrial Officer with the Australian Services Union, Queensland Services Branch, he was the Australian Council of Trade Union’s nominee to the Department of Defence sponsored Defence Reserves Support Council for sixteen years. In 2012 he graduated from the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, gaining a Master of Arts in military history.

[1] Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, 3rd ed., (Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2008), 71.

[2] Peter Dennis, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris and Robin Prior, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, 2nd ed, (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2008), 156.

[3] Ibid. 156.

[4] Grey, Military History, 128.

[5] Dennis, et al. Military History, 156.

[6] To enable historic comparisons, this paper will detail only the pay rate for the rank of a private soldier.

[7] Dennis, et al. Military History, 63

[8] Editorial, “Launching the New Army”, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 1939, 8.

[9] “The Australian minimum wage, 1906-2013”, Fair Work Commission, accessed 28 October 2016, https:///

[10] Graeme Davison John Hirst, Stuart Macintyre, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, rev. ed., Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001, p. 146.

[11] Peter Edwards, Australia and the Vietnam War (Sydney, New South Publishing, 2014), 42.

[12] Grey, Military History 210.

[13] Dennis, et al., Military History, 158.

[14] Grey, Military History, 218.

[15] Dennis, et al., Military History. p 158

[16] Ibid.

[17] Unknown Author, Australia’s Prime Ministers; ‘Robert Menzies’, National Australian Archives, accessed 9 September 2016,

[18] Jeffery Grey, A Military History of Australia, 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2008, p. 232.

[19]  Ibid, 235

[20] Ian McNeill, The Team: Australian Army Advisers in Vietnam 1962-1972„ University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1984, 3.

[21] Grey, Military History, 237-8

[22] Ashley Ekins and Ian McNeill, Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1968-1975, (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2012), 839.

[23] J.R. Nethercote, ‘Conscription 1964: Robert Menzies’ last election’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 2014, accessed 9 September 2016,

[24] David Horner and Jean Bou, Duty First: A history of the Royal Australian Regiment, (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2008) 157-9

[25] Tony Duras, “Peace is trade union business: Trade union opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, 1965-72”, (Honours thesis, Australian National University, accessed 31 August 2016.

[26] Humphrey McQueen, We Built This Country: Builders’ Labourers and their unions, Adelaide, Ginninderra Press, 2011) 265

[27] Peter Edwards, Australia and the Vietnam War, (Sydney, New South Publishing, 2014), 124 and 222-3.

[28] Kevin Naughton, “We had to bring it in: Defending conscription 50 years on”, Crikey, 8 January 2014, Accessed 15 May 2016

[29] Australian War Memorial, Conflicts, accessed 25 October 2016

[30] accessed 25 October 2016

[31] Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal; Determination 2016/08, under s 58H amendment Defence Act 1903.

[32] Department of Defence, Pay and Conditions Manual, Ch. 4, Part F

[33] Australian Bureau of Statistics http.// Accessed 27 October 2016.