1917 has been described as the worst year of the war, both on the battle fields and on the home front. The Western Front saw a staggering 76,000 casualties, almost twice the number of the previous year. There were 40,000 deaths - two-thirds of all Australian deaths during the war. Few families were spared. A shocked and grieving nation struggled to comprehend the enormity of the loss. Not surprisingly, enlistments continued to be sluggish.
At home spiralling prices and food shortages saw growing public anger, while industrial disputes in New South Wales spread interstate and escalated into six weeks of industrial action known as the 'Great Strike'. Incredibly, against this background of national grief and industrial turmoil, Prime Minister Billy Hughes was persuaded to try again for conscription.
The second referendum question
This time the question put to the people was brief, but there was still no direct mention of conscription.
Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?
If anything the second campaign was more bitter than the first, fuelled by escalating civil unrest.
Price rises and food riots
In 1914 Australians enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world, but a combination of a severe drought in 1914 and wartime inflation soon saw living standards spiralling. By 1917 prices had risen by 28%, while the value of the currency (the pound) fell. Working people who struggled to feed and clothe themselves in better times soon faced real distress. The government had promised all of Australia's export supplies of meat, butter and cheese and the whole of the wheat crop to Britain for the duration of the war, which put added pressure on prices.
Public discontent grew steadily during 1916, as the Hughes Government reneged on its promise to introduce price controls. But it spilled over into real public anger when Australians learned that food was rotting in storage containers on wharves waiting for shipping to transport it. Calls for 'direct action' to take 'the people's food' by force grew stronger. In July 1917 the Wharf Labourers' Union decided to ban the shipment of food overseas until the cost of essential items had returned to pre-war levels. From August groups of women led by socialist feminists Adela Pankhurst and Jennie Baines held daily demonstrations demanding the release of food. They gathered in the Treasury Gardens, and on the steps of Parliament House, but there were also spontaneous demonstrations in suburban streets in poorer areas.
Torchlight Demonstration and Grand March 19 September 1917
On the evening of 19 September a large group of women and men assembled at the Yarra Bank to march on Parliament House. There they were addressed by Jennie Baines, Lizzie Wallace and Adela Pankhurst. Plain clothes police informants took detailed notes of their speeches. From the Yarra Bank the crowd marched slowly down Batman Avenue, across Princes Bridge, down Flinders Street and then up Spring Street, past the Old Treasury Buidling towards Parliament, joined by what the police report described as 'some thousands of people' along the way. A large police contingent halted the crowd at the Eight Hours Monument, where they proceeded to sing protest songs - described by the Australasian newspaper as 'songs of revolt'. Some of the crowd broke away and went on a window smashing spree in Collins, Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, using half bricks and rubble carried with them. A long list of businesses was damaged. In alarm the government invoked the Riot Act and enrolled over 400 special constables to contain the rebels. Pankhurst and Baines, already on remand for previous offences against wartime regulations, were arrested and imprisoned. Hughes described Pankhurst as a 'damned nuisance' and considered deporting her.
The Great Strike
The 'Great Strike' began in August amongst New South Wales tram workers who were protesting against proposed new work practices. They feared that the changes would result in lower wages and longer hours. The strike soon spread to other workers and interstate, until some 69,000 workers in eastern Australia were on strike. They included coal miners, waterside workers, painters and dockers, railwaymen, meatworkers and others. More than 20,000 workers were affected in Melbourne, either on strike or stood down as a result of the strike. The Government was outraged that workers should dare to strike during wartime. But the industrial action seems to have drawn on all of the accumulated grievances of the past few years, falling living standards, spiralling prices, the conscription referendum and resentment at growing government repression of dissent combining to ignite public anger. Demonstrations were staged almost every day,and involved huge crowds of workers. Some estimates put the crowds at 100,000 in Sydney and up to 30,000 in Melbourne on the Yarra Bank. A nervous government began to fear that Australia, like Russia, might succumb to revolutionary insurgents.
Although Hughes was prepared to concede some points to striking workers, his Nationalist Government was determined to break the strike. They commandeered coal, shipping and transport vehicles to keep essential power services operating, rationed gas and electricity, and recruited a volunteer force of strike breakers (the unions called them 'scab' workers) to work in the mines and on the waterfront. As the strike began to collapse, some returning workers found themselves locked out, prompting further rounds of violent demonstrations. Volunteer constables armed with batons dispersed crowds ruthlessly. By the end of October it was all over, but the anger and the resentment remained.
A distinct sectarian note further inflamed opinion in the lead up to the second Conscription Referendum. This is generally attributed to the active intervention in the debate of the charismatic Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. Mannix addressed huge anti-conscription rallies in the lead up to the vote, much to the fury of Hughes, who added the archbishop to his list of 'enemies within'. Many Catholics were also of Irish descent, and it has been assumed that events in Ireland alienated them further from the imperial cause. The ruthless suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin in April, and the executions and internments that followed, angered many Australians of Irish descent and fuelled their determination to oppose conscription.
This time the day set for the vote was a work day - Thursday 20 December. Perhaps Hughes hoped that workers would have more difficulty getting to polling places on a working day than on a Saturday. If that was his intention, it failed: once again voter turnout was high - at 81% just a little below the referendum turnout in 1916.
The result was a decisive increase in the 'No' vote. This time 53.8% overall voted 'No', while 46.2% voted in favour. A majority in Victoria joined NSW, Queensland and South Australia in voting 'No'.
The Hughes Government made no further attempts to introduce conscription.
[bg_collapse view="link" color="#783f40" expand_text="Further reading" collapse_text="Reduce" ]
Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot & Sean Scalmer (eds) The Conscription Conflict and the Great War Melbourne, Monash University Publishing, 2016
Joan Beaumont Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2013
Brenda Niall Mannix Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2015
Judith Smart 'A divided national capital: Melbourne in the Great War', The La Trobe Journal, No 96, September 2015, pp. 28-58.