Labour History

‘Conscription is Not Abhorrent to Laborites and Socialists’: Revisiting the Australian Labour Movement’s Attitude towards Military Conscription during World War I

Labour History (2012), 103, (1), 145–164.


Historical accounts of the 1916-17 conscription referendums have tended to portray the Australian labour movement’s anti-conscriptionism as a natural phenomenon. Prime Minister Billy Hughes and other Laborite pro-conscriptionists were ‘rats’ who had acted against the anti-militaristic creed of the working class and its major political representative, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). By contrast, this article builds upon recent work in the field to suggest that labour movement opposition to conscription was not some fait accomplit. Drawing upon contemporary labour movement newspaper writings, union and ALP conference proceedings and, in particular, the views of the Victorian-based federal Labor MP, Frank Anstey, it argues that the labour movement was not in theory opposed to conscription. Rather the movement objected to a form of conscription which applied to human life but excluded the nation’s wealth. In turn, the article questions the inevitability of the disastrous Labor split which followed the holding of the first referendum.

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Author details

Dyrenfurth, Nick