The Propaganda of Conscription Down Under Part Two – The Referendum of 1917

Here we go again.

Before we start, if you haven’t read the previous post, chances are this one won’t make too much sense, and as I don’t intend repeating myself here, I suggest you read it first, which you can do by clicking here.

For the rest of you, here’s Australian artist Claude Marquet, whom we met last post, once more, this time celebrating the result of the 1916 vote and the defeat of the ‘Yes’ campaign in fine allegorical style.  The political fall-out for Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes was severe.  The following month he was expelled from the Australian Labor Party due to his views over conscription, a couple of dozen other MPs following him into the newly-formed United Labor Party.  Hughes resigned as Prime Minister, was immediately reappointed by the Governor-General, and with the help of Joseph Cook’s Commonwealth Liberal Party, formed a minority government, the two parties amalgamating in February 1917 as the Nationalist Party of Australia with Hughes as leader and Cook as his deputy.  A general election was held on 5th May 1917, much of the nationalists’ campaigning centred around support for the troops at the front, and there was mention of a second plebiscite on the question of conscription.  Nonetheless, the Nationalist Party was victorious with an increased majority, with Hughes remaining as Prime Minister.

Continued pressure from Great Britain, and Hughes’ own sincere belief that conscription was the only solution to the A.I.F.’s manpower problem, culminated in the announcement that a second referendum would take place on the issue of conscription, with a vote to take place on 20th December 1917.

And this time the question the public was asked to answer was short and sweet, although once again there was no use of the word ‘conscription’; ‘Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces oversea?’.  Incidentally – soapbox stuff coming up – note that the last word is ‘oversea’ – check out the ballot paper immediately above and the proclamation poster preceding it – and not ‘overseas’ plural, and then copy & paste the referendum question into a search engine and see whether every single entry says ‘overseas’ plural, or not?  Except for Wikipedia, which should be right, because I’ve changed it!

Nor was there any mention that the government intended to send a maximum of 7,000 men overseas each month, apparently the required number to achieve agreed targets.

The government’s tactics following their defeat in the first referendum in 1916 had been, to say the least, predictable; anti-war campaigners, members of the Women’s Peace Movement, religious leaders, all were targeted and some even arrested under recently passed war legislation.  Not that this was a new state of affairs; in May 1916 a cartoon in the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) newspaper ‘Direct Action’ showing capitalists nailing workers to a cross fixed to the top of some sort of war machine earned the artist, one Tom Barker, a year in jail with hard labour!

Hardly surprising, then, that the 1917 campaign, once announced, was a bitter and divisive affair,…

…fiercer fought than that of the previous year.

The propaganda campaign followed the course of that in 1916,…

…and although I have attempted to divide which posters and leaflets were used in which campaign over these two posts,…

…I have little doubt that some of the 1916 leaflets were reprinted and redistributed for the 1917 campaign, and probably a few are wrongly dated in the archives from where they were sourced.

The Anti’s Creed (left), a parody of the Nicene Creed (right).

In the meantime, the Anti-Conscription League of Australasia,…

…was once again out in force,…

…and, as in 1916,…

…industrial workers, farm labourers,…

…and trade unionists were targeted once again, by both sides.

Both referenda were also somewhat split along religious lines, many protestants with extended British families supporting the ‘Yes’ campaign, and many catholics, particularly the large number with Irish connections, supporting the ‘No’ campaign (the centre leaflet here might remind you of a recent post during our tour of the cemeteries around Loker).  And where you have religious differences,…

…it seems hardly surprising that the racist card once again came into play.

As in the 1916 referendum there were meetings and demonstrations galore, even more monster processions, and just like the previous year,…

…the women’s vote would be crucial when the final numbers were counted.

Opposing viewpoints using the same image,…

…and a poster you’ll recognise from the previous referendum, this time reprinted for the 1917 campaign with updated text.

In the 1916 referendum…

…a majority of Australian soldiers serving abroad had voted for the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Here Australian soldiers cast their ballot papers for the second referendum, somewhere in Belgium, on 8th December 1917,…

…twelve days before the Australian public would vote at home.

This time almost 200,000 men of the A.I.F. voted, and this time, unlike 1916, the majority voted ‘No’, by 103,789 votes to 93,910.

Claude Marquet was once again front and centre of the ‘No’ side’s propaganda campaign.

Marquet was a self-taught black & white artist, originally a copper-mine worker, who became one of Australia’s best-known political artists.

His first published work appeared in an Adelaide weekly magazine in 1897, his sharp, allegorical, yet simple style well suited to newspapers.

In the early years of the 20th Century, as his work became more proficient and recognised, he moved to Melbourne where he worked for both labour and conservative publications, before, in 1906, the Australian Worker paper invited him to Sydney, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Other than the bloated top-hatted capitalist Mr. Fat, seen here on the left and in a couple of the previous collages (Prime Minister Hughes on the right),…

…Marquet’s best-known character was the fur-coated, ostrich-feathered Mrs. Toorak in her heeled boots, lapdog under arm, this drawing published on 23rd November 1916, a month after the first referendum.

Another of Marquet’s most famous images – a million copies of this were produced for the campaign – shows Prime Minister Hughes, his small stature neatly enhanced by the roll-ups on his trousers, facing the allegorical figure of Death, who puts another ballot paper into Hughes’ top hat.  The chest of drawers behind Hughes contains the returns from the September 1915 War Census, which established the names of all men between the ages of twenty one and thirty five eligible to be enlisted, and obliged them to report for a medical examination to ascertain their fitness, with, as far as I can see, just two exemption papers pinned on the spike above – exemptions were hard won at the exemption tribunals.  Which rather suggests that back in 1915, at any rate, Hughes had been confident that, should conscription be required, he would be able to push through the necessary legislation.

Sadly, in 1920 Marquet and a friend were sailing in Botany Bay when a sudden storm blew in and neither they, nor their boat, were ever seen again.

Post-referendum image in the Western Mail from January 1918.  When voting day, 20th December 1917, came around, the Australian public voted, once again, ‘No’.  This time the margin of victory was slightly increased, 1,181,747 Australians voting ‘No’, and 1,015,159 voting ‘Yes’, 53.8% to 46.2%.  And, this time, there would be no return to the conscription debate in Australia for the remainder of the war.

My thanks go to the following institutions and websites for the use of images in these two referendum posts: Anzac Centenary Queensland, Culture Victoria, National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia, Parliament of Australia, State Library of Victoria, Sydney Living Museums, The Old Treasury Building Victoria, and any others I have missed!
This entry was posted in Australia, Books, Documents, Maps & Artwork, Conscription. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Propaganda of Conscription Down Under Part Two – The Referendum of 1917

  1. Morag L Sutherland says:

    Fabulous post. I learnt a lot….as always

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