Conscription in the 1960s: Why Labor Rules


by Rafe Champion

Currently the ALP rules in Canberra and in all the states and territories, not necessarily wisely and well, but in some cases by wide margins.

The situation in mid 1965 was very different. Menzies had been the PM for as long as many people could remember and Liberals or allies under various names held power in the states from coast to coast with the relatively minor exceptions of Tasmania and South Australia.

Apparently something very significant has happened to the relative status of the major parties in the course of a generation. With the wisdom of hindsight the cause of that fundamental shift in the balance of power can be traced to a monumental blunder by the Menzies Government.

The mistake precipitated a seismic shift in the political alignment of the educated middle class. That was the introduction of conscription during the Vietnam War. This policy was announced in late 1964 and commenced in July 1965.

Paul Kelly touched on this when wrote in "The End of Certainty" that the conservatives lost a generation of politically active young Australians in the Vietnam quagmire.

"This was the generation which underwrote Labor's governance in the 1980s. Labor succeeded in the 1980s because it had better leaders, organizers and strategists. These resources grew from seedlings nourished for over twenty years."

That was a small paragraph in a large book and a lot more could have been made of it. Moreover Kelly did not pinpoint conscription as the critical issue. Without conscription the protest movement would have been restricted to outright pacifists, communists and their fellow travelers who could have been easily discredited or ignored, especially in the wake of the suppression in 1968 of the freedom movement in Prague.

This is the subject of a feature article in the Weekend Australian colour supplement (June 21-22). The Prague events were a repeat of the Hungarian episode in 1956 when Russian tanks trashed Budapest to signal the real moral credentials of communism.

As it was, the threat of conscription mobilised a completely different demographic of protesters, notably the Save Our Sons movement, an early version of the doctors wives.

Others like the previously apolitical NSW Humanist Society whose President, the calm and dignified Bridget Gilling, became the Chair of the first NSW Moratorium.

It also spawned Gordon Barton's Australia Party, forerunners of the Chipp Democrats, mostly dissident Liberals whose primary aim was to oppose conscription and the war.

Despite all that, it is most likely that the war had majority support in the electorate at large throughout the conflict.

Why was conscription such a serious mistake?

The war in Vietnam was depicted as a fight for the freedom of the people in the South from the communist rule of the North. But how is it possible to justify the conscription young men to fight for freedom?

Indifference to this contradiction signaled a serious degree of intellectual and moral insensitivity on the part of the Menzies Cabinet.

To aggravate the situation, the conscripts were called up when they turned 20, before they were even eligible to vote at the time.

Yet another unfair and irrational factor was the highly restrictive law on conscientious objection. The Act demanded both religious grounds for objection and also objection to all wars.

Unbelievers were excluded as were thoughtful and reasonable people who were not outright pacifists but wanted to exercise the right to make a decision about just and unjust wars.

The overwhelming majority of people had no strong feelings about the war and would have been content to live with it, like the Korean war in the early 1950s. With memories of World War 2 still fresh it was then accepted as a part of the order of things that regular soldiers would fight and die when called upon to do so.

However the big difference was conscription which injected a life or death element into the situation of people who were not regular soldiers by their own choice. This affected not only the young men who were called up(a minority in their age group)but also their friends and relations.

The end result was to catapult a large proportion of the educated middle class from a conservative or politically passive orientation stance to support for the ALP, or to even more radical positions.

At the same time, with the explosion of numbers in the universities, the educated middle class was expanding rapidly.

On top of that, the people who shifted in that ideological direction tended to be active and articulate, moving into careers and other positions of influence, both in and out of politics, where their views could be most effectively implemented and propagated - in the media, in the arts and cognate literary and cultural pursuits, in teaching of all kinds, in trade union organisations and in the increasingly policised branches and agencies of the public service and regulative agencies.

Many winds of change were blowing during the 60s and 70s alongside the Vietnam debate but it is most unlikely that they would have made much difference to the political allegiances of young people.

Growing affluence,sexual liberation, feminism, increased overseas travel, rock music, drugs, the decline of traditional religious affiliation, increased access to university education - these were politically neutral for the most part.

Liberalism is a broad church, just as broad and more open to social change than the traditional working class and trade union base of the Labor movement.

That was apparent when traditional ALP voters revolted against Keating's second phase as an agent of social and cultural transformation.

The conscription issue however had a tsunami effect. With barely a ripple on the voting figures at the time, the conservative ships of state rode on to more election victories until the waves of activism and organisational acumen broke on the electoral shores during the 1980s and beyond.

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