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The 1916 Conscription Debate

Reflect on the deep divisions this referendum imposed—and its long-term effects on Australian society—with Professor Joan Beaumont, Dr John Connor, Dr Michael McKernan and Professor Peter Stanley. 

Introductory activities

Discuss what a plebiscite is.

Discuss what a referendum is.

Discuss what conscription is.

Drawing on their knowledge and research of battlefield conditions in the First World War, ask students to write a letter home to their families from the perspective of a soldier, sailor or nurse.

Ask them to consider the following themes:

  • being in the middle of a battle (what can you see, hear, smell and taste?)
  • living conditions where your unit is stationed
  • mates being wounded or killed
  • the trauma of witnessing and being part of battles (how do you react physically and emotionally to these experiences?)
  • home sickness.

This activity provides a personal context to conscription and to the activities at the end of this module. The aim is to have students reflect on these letters before and after the classroom vote.

Today, is the Australian Government considering having any referendums? If so, what are they?

Before you get started

In 1916, the Australian Government asked Australians to vote in a referendum to decide whether it could force men to fight—and possibly die—in a war on the other side of the world. It was the first time people had been asked to make such a decision, but it would not be the last.

Read about the social and political context below in which Australians went to the polls to help you understand their world at the time they had to make this difficult decision. Use the Trove list to find primary and secondary sources relating to the issue.


Listen to the podcast about the deep divisions in Australian society caused by the campaign for the 1916 referendum and the impact.

In the end, the 1916 referendum was defeated. Of the 82 per cent of Australians who voted, 1,087,557 were in favour and 1,160,033 were against.

How would you have voted? Why?

Stimulus questions

1. Read the 1916 referendum question below.

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?

What is the government asking? Write the question in a shorter and simpler way.

How would you write the question in order to get a Yes answer?

How would you write the question in order to get a No answer?

2. Most nations introduced conscription with some restrictions in place. If Prime Minister Billy Hughes had been more specific about who could be conscripted, how do you think it could have changed the outcome? What restrictions would you have placed if you had been the prime minister?

3. Why do you think there was such deep division in the Australian Government around the issue of conscription?

4. Why do you think the trade unions or religious organisations took up a position on this issue?

5. Unlike today in Australia, at the time of the 1916 referendum, voting was not compulsory. Find other examples of democracies that today do not have compulsory voting. How does their voter turnout compare to the 82 per cent turnout for the 1916 referendum?

6. Ask students to vote on the 1916 referendum question. How many voted Yes and how many voted No?

7. In groups, research and present a multimodal presentation, using images, quotes and documents from the era, to persuade your classmates to vote either Yes or No. After the presentations, repeat the poll. 

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