On the 28th of October, 1916, Australians were asked to vote YES or NO. In favour of military conscription or against it.
The grim death warrant of doom
The propaganda campaign targeting the hearts and minds of women voters was uncompromising.
‘The Blood Vote’ pamphlet pictured a mother placing a YES vote into the Ballot box. She looks self-doubtful as a devilish figure (Prime Minister Hughes?) skulks in the shadows.
The poem complementing this nightmarish image is both dramatic and compelling. The ballot paper is a grim death warrant condemning another mother’s son to death. His widow and children cry out in the night, and weep for their father. The voting mother prays for forgiveness. She is desperate to wash away the blood-guilt, staining her soul.23
The YES campaign poster above reassures mothers that family men would be exempt from the draft. It suggests, somewhat dishonestly, that if the NO campaign gets up all will have to go.
The no campaign hit back. In Britain when the supply of single men had been exhausted, family men were drafted. So they copied the image and replied: dads will go anyway if you vote YES.
The surprise of their lives?
Prime minister Billy Hughes thought that he would give young men the surprise of their lives on polling day.
On Sept.29 Hughes had the Governor General announce a call up and registration of all eligible men. He did not consult the people or parliament. Controversially, all those who registered were fingerprinted – an activity usually associated with criminals.
On Oct.25 at a meeting of the Executive Council, Hughes put forth another decree. It was rejected by 3 of the 5 members. He re-convened on Oct.27. with the Governor-General in attendance This time the motion carried.25
Polling officers were authorised to question all males aged between 21 and 35 on polling day. These men were to be asked whether they had registered for military service on Sept. 29. If they answered no, their vote would be discounted.26
The announcement of this new regulation was to be delayed until just before the 28th. Despite attempts to suppress the edict going to print, it was leaked to the Gazette.
The fallout was immediate. 4 Ministers resigned and the government faced complete collapse.
Hughes’ political manipulations and intimidation tactics had backfired.
NO, by a nose
On polling day, voters were faced with the following question:
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth.YES or NO?
The wording confused many respondents. But it did not change the result.
The NO camp won, in racing terms, by a nose.
Billy Hughes was expelled from the Union movement. His Labour Party membership was revoked.
He realised his time was up.
Billy Hughes remained defiant to the end. It was everyone else’s fault. Socialists, pacifists, Irish Catholics;
I did not leave the Labour Party. The Party left me.25
Hughes took what was left of his political support and joined the Conservatives. He formed a Nationalist coalition and won the 1917 election. Despite this he lost the 2nd Conscription plebiscite (by a larger majority, on the 20th December, 1917.)
Hughes represented Australia at the Paris Peace Treaty in 1919. He advocated for crippling repayments for the cost of the war by Germany. After 1918 Hughes stridently upheld the ‘White Australia Policy’. At the newly formed League of Nations he voted against an anti-discrimination clause introduced by Japan.
Sasanof’s Melbourne cup.
A few days after the Oct. 28 plebiscite, 3 year old NZ gelding Sasanof won its race in Melbourne. A golden trophy cup was presented for the 1st time. Australians still celebrate ‘the race that stops a nation’. We have all but forgotten the blood vote that divided it, 100 years ago.
Mosman ’14-18 articles relating to this story:
The Blood Vote: Divisions at the Front, and at Home.
The Blood Vote: Mosman votes, YES
The Blood Vote: NO to Conscription, by a nose.
23 Of note the poster is authorised in the bottom right hand corner by J. Curtin who, although against conscription in WW1, as Labour Prime Minister had to introduce conscription for overseas service in WW2.
24 “How the Conscription Fight Developed” The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW : 1913 - 1950) 28 October 1936: 16. Web. 26 Oct 2016 nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146018154
25 Australian plebiscite, 1916 article retrieved online 16/10/16 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_plebiscite,_1916
26 Fitzhardinge, L. F. The Little Digger: A Political Biography of William Morris Hughes. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. 1979