Why Labor Rules: Conscription in the 1960s

When this was written for ABC Unleashed in June] the ALP ruled 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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David Coles
15 years ago

The government’s current internet censorship policy threatens to do the same thing to the ALP – some people have already left, and others are talking about leaving. To quote Mark Newton:

Have you seen any evidence over the last few weeks that there are any votes in this?

The previous Government lost office because they spent 12 years promulgating policies that annoyed Gen-X, while their baby-boomer support moved to the left and their grey-power base died of old age. In the last election, hardly anyone younger than 40 voted for the Coalition, and they have a long-term demographic problem on their hands as they try to reacquaint themselves with the voting public, seeking forgiveness from angry Gen-X’ers and working out how to appeal to Gen-Y’s. It’s probably going to take a while, and I figure the ALP will win the next couple of elections while the coalition works themselves out.

That’s Howard’s legacy, by the way: Complete dissolution of the core of coalition support.

So look at the ALP: Who are they annoying by proposing these policies? The Internet-connected under-40’s, and ESPECIALLY the jacked-in under-30’s.

They can piss these people off at their peril. These people have more disposable income, better interpersonal networks, more political awareness, longer memories and longer life expectancies than any other significant voting bloc in history.

The ALP went out of their way to attract them before the last election, but now the country’s first YouTube prime ministerial candidate hasn’t updated his Facebook page since the last election and is trying to censor everyone’s Internet connection.

Having spent so much effort attracting this voting bloc, what kind of reception do you think the ALP will get when they betray their newly hard-won voters?

Have a think about that, ALP number crunchers. You’re killing your new base, and you’re less than a year through your first term. How stupid are you?

15 years ago


I think far too much emphasis is placed on what happened in Australia here — the change you saw in Australia was replicated in many places in the world, including many countries that didn’t go to Vietnam, especially in terms of places becoming more liberal, and Labor was simply there to capitalize on it. Other factors like the decline of religion (which has also happened in many places) seem more likely to have lead to more liberal values.

15 years ago

I would like to point out that a huge amount of the opposition to conscription came from the working class. The SOS group in Wollongong who blocked a train had impecable working class credentials and were quite different from the ‘doctors wives’ (which by the way is both condecending and sexist). Many of my friends and fellow draft resisters came from the working class. I have a poster of early draft resisters in the Hunter Valley most of whom were apprentices in heavy industry without the middle class option of deferment until completion of a degree. The left unions were the strongest supporters of those of us who choos to resist the draft and I spoke at many a stop work meeting raising money and support for the anti conscription struggle as in fact did my grandfather in 1917. Working class resistence to conscription was fundamental to labor history in Australia.

Fred Argy
15 years ago

The issue of conscription seems well and truly dated.

There is currently very little difference between the Parties. It did look likely at one stage that the Opposition was going in strongly on the issue of tax cuts rather than expenditure increases (and Malcolm is still having a bit of a go). But the Opposition has been arguing the case for broad based pension increases, more assistance to homeless etc. for a long time. This leaves them with very few differences in policy.

The two Parties obviously have different radical ideologies (libertarian – or classical liberal – and social democrat). But when values are tempered, to make them more acceptable to the public, they add up to nothing.

15 years ago

The issue of conscription seems well and truly dated.

Is it?

The future of Australia’s defense is increasingly precarious. The United States on which we depend will change its foreign policy stance markedly over the next little while and it’s a long standing axiom of foreign policy thinking that competition with China may lead to some kind of armed conflict.

In that even will we be forced to choose between our greatest ally and our greatest trading partner?

And considering the cost of the Iraq/Afghan wars and the current financial strife will the US be able to maintain its military supremacy? If not we will be forced to take responsibility for our defense which we’ve thus far been able to avoide doing because of imperial arrangements casual or otherwise.

How will we do this? We have a standing defense force of some 40 000 people. A small population, a large territory blah blah. If we are no longer under the umbrella of global hegemony, what will we do? Can we rely on people to rediscover their civic duty and join the forces en masse. Will we acquire nuclear capabilities? Or will we reintroduce national service?

Fred Argy
15 years ago

I still think the issue of conscription is mostly irrelevant.

What I was trying to say is that the only real difference between Labour and Liberals is basically around the size of government and the labour market. The Liberals have now conceded in both cases: there is now hardly any difference between the two parties on these two issues, other than rhetoric.

This means that, anytime a Labor government gets into a real jam or seems unable to obviate the threat of recession, it will be replaced by a conservative government. That is the pattern of the past. We don’t need to look any further.

15 years ago

I cannot imagine conscription getting up for national defence, simply offering better pay and conditions in the armed forces would probably work better.

Yeah probably not. There’s a view extant at least in the US service that ordinary Joe Sixpack soldiers aren’t worth the trouble. We’re more likely to go the way of the Americans. Highly trained elite military personelle backed up by megatechnology.

This raises the issue of cost which will be substantial. If Metal Storm bears fruit however we may find ourselves catapulted into the forefront of arms industries. (Altho’ I’m not sure to what extent the US military, the main investor, will own the results.) However if we do become a leading hi-tech arm manufacturer this will probably bring up question viz the influence of the military-industrial complex as it has in the States from Eisenhower’s time.

With any luck in the event we have to have that debate one hopes it will be one more characterized by sobriety than that we’ve seen Stateside.

8 years ago

The resistance to the war is interesting, in so far as it meant support for a communist takeover in the South of Vietnam as well as the North, still, that was not the point of my post.

It did not.
Anyone with the most basic understanding of Indochinese history would dispute this.
The Vietnamese had been fighting foreigners for centuries, and the French conquest in the 1850s was never going to stand.
They opposed the Japanese during their occupation, and finally defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
In sequence, they fought the French, the Japanese and the Americans. This followed centuries of resistance reaching as far back as the Khmer era, and they successfully kept Chinese war lords at bay also for centuries. The Vietnamese were never going to be a pushover – even for the most powerful nation on earth.
With the partition at the 17th parallel under the terms of the Geneva Accords, elections were to be held throughout the country in 1956 to establish a government of national unity. It never happened, because the regime in the South was fully aware that Ho Chi Minh would have won.
This is the background of historical fact that created the conflict. It was not an aggressive war started by the North and the Viet Cong. It was, as was recognized by those who objected to our involvement, a war of national liberation.
It was not a war fought on the basis of Marxist ideology. The fact that the Americans never understood that it was a nationalist struggle is one of the most egregious examples of the failure of international diplomacy in recent history.
The other great myth was that the Chinese were hand in glove with the Vietnamese. The Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 busted that one.
You see what you’ve done there?
You’ve substituted myth for historical fact. It happens so routinely in discussions about Vietnam, that it goes unnoticed. As an ex-conscript at the pointy end (7RAR, 2nd tour, 1970), I always notice it.
It’s much the same kind of mythology that led to the intervention in Iraq. Remember the WMDs that never existed?
Please avoid rewriting history to suit your political ideology. Those who have lived it find this more than a little offensive.