This workshop will re-examine the conflict over conscription in Australia during World War I and the two plebiscites in which it was rejected. It will seek to re-establish the centrality of this conflict to our understanding of the war years and their legacy, place the conflict in international context, consider its lessons, and honour the memory of those involved.

Australian experience in the First World War is the subject of great historical and popular interest. That interest has been increasingly concerned with the sacrifice and heroism of soldiers — a trend that many Centenary commemorations seem likely to reinforce.  In contrast, there has been much less public debate about conflicts within Australia, and the efforts of those who sought to contain the war’s effects, although these are among the most distinctive features of Australia’s war-time experience and have been the subject of extensive historical research and scholarly publication, particularly in the domain of labour history.

This workshop will reexamine an episode of great historical importance on the home front, and of continuing contemporary resonance: the conflict over conscription. Australia was unique among the belligerents in its recourse to plebiscites on conscription in 1916 and 1917, and in the rejection of conscription that resulted. The campaigns around conscription tested the forms of debate, the limits of tolerance in a newly constituted federation, the power of gender interests and the possibility of democratic deliberation in a time of  war. The results shaped the war effort and the tenor of Australian politics. They also shaped the character of post-war life and memories of the war.

The purpose of this symposium is to reassess the intense conflict over conscription, to restore the conflict to a central place in public understanding of the war years and their legacy, and to contribute to a wider discussion about the politics of conscription internationally.

We aim to:
1. Re-examine the Australian conflict over conscription by placing it in its historical context, comparing it with the experience of other countries, and exploring its social and political legacy. Comparison with the historically liberal English-speaking countries will be especially important, for these countries began the war without conscription and with long traditions of opposition to it.
2. Intervene in current public debates about how to remember the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced in Australia and the profound domestic conflict it engendered. There is an increasing tendency in public discourse to remember the Australian experience of the war as a time of consensus and common national purpose rather than as a time of deep divisions and intense ideological conflict.
3. Honour and learn from the memory of those often overlooked individuals who debated the conduct of the war and especially those who sought to challenge or contain it. Recent years have witnessed a growing public tendency to define what is distinctive about Australia in martially inflected terms and to marginalise the quite different values that motivated some of the participants in the conflict over conscription.

The workshop will not only provide a reassessment of an important episode in Australian history. By providing a fuller account of Australia’s wartime past, it will also underpin a richer understanding of a range of challenges that currently animate contemporary politics. Among other matters, the conscription conflict raises issues relating to public opinion and the waging of war; political campaigning, public speech, and national unity; gender differences in political discourse and styles of protest; social movements and public policy; and memory, history, and national belonging. We expect that a close analysis of the battle over conscription by a group of leading political scientists, sociologists and historians will contribute to a fuller understanding of the contemporary form of many of these persistent and pressing issues.

For more information, please contact:
Mrs Nurdan Kulluk-Rennert
Manager, Executive and Workshops
Nurdan.Kulluk-Rennert [at]
+61 .2 62491788