On 28 October 1916 the first of two controversial conscription referendums was held in Australia. Military training for men between 18 and 60 had been compulsory since 1911, but the referendums asked to extend this to overseas service. If Australians voted ‘yes’ for conscription, many of their mates would be forced to go to war.
The death ballot, Riley and Ephemera Collection
The referendums kicked off bitter debate about the merits and dangers of conscription. Pro and anti conscription propaganda played on sectarian and anti-Irish sentiments, fears of immigration, and gender stereotypes, highlighting all sorts of tensions, fears and prejudices within Australian society. The issue was so divisive it led to a split in the Labor Party.
Both referendums were unsuccessful. The first referendum was defeated with 1,087,557 votes in favour of conscription, and 1,160,033 against. The second (held on 20 December 1917) was more comprehensively defeated, with 1,015,159 votes in favour and 1,181,747 against.
You can discover digitized conscription pamphlets and posters from our Riley and Ephemera Collection by searching our catalogue using the words Riley conscription World War 1914-1918. If you just want to see items that are available online, select the option ‘online resources’ near the top of the search results page.
Our favourite examples, highlighting the arguments used by each side, are the Vote no Mum and Vote yes Mum pamphlets. At first glance they appear to be the same, but closer observation shows that they present opposing views, using the same image and a slight change in slogan!
Vote yes Mum, Riley and Ephemera Collection
Australian Labor Party Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee, Riley and Ephemera Collection
Written by Debra Hutchinson
Librarian, Australian History & Literature Team