91. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (public) No vote

On the strength of the meeting held for the No vote at Yarram on 12/10/16, there was little evidence of any public support for the anti-conscription case in the Shire of Alberton. This was in sharp contrast to the high level of support for conscription evident in the very public, organised and ongoing campaign for the Yes vote, as detailed in earlier posts.

The meeting on 12/10/16 was written up, in great detail, in both the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle (18/10/16). The sole speaker for the No case that night was Senator Blakey, one of the Victorian team of ALP senators. Blakey was on a tour of Gippsland and he knew that he was in for a tough time. He had tried to speak at a similar public meeting at Leongatha 2 days earlier (10/10/16) but, according to the report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 13/10/16, he had not even managed to make himself heard:

The largest public meeting ever held at Leongatha took place last Tuesday night. Senator Blakey attempted to deliver an address against conscription, but he was hooted, and as soon as he rose to speak the audience stood up and sang the National Anthem. As Senator Blakey tried to make himself heard a cabbage thrown at his head inflicted a cut in his forehead. … He was on the platform for about an hour and a half, but he was not allowed to give expression to his views.

Two days later at Yarram things were only marginally better. While nothing was thrown at him and he did manage to deliver his speech – albeit with a barrage of interruptions – the reports make it clear that the very rowdy and antagonistic audience was not on his side. The meeting started on a negative note when Cr Buckley, introducing Senator Blakey, made the point that while he was prepared to introduce Senator Buckley as a guest speaker he wanted to  make it clear to everyone in the audience that he personally intended to vote Yes. The clear message was that the Shire council was decent enough to support Blakey’s right to speak but they certainly did not support his position.

Not surprisingly, Senator Blakey’s opening remarks were a plea for a fair hearing. He hoped that there would be no … repetition of of the drunken orgy at Leongatha …  because the … matter was too great to treat in a spirit of levity and hoodlumism. But the interruptions were constant. Blakey struggled to get his argument across in any coherent, planned way. Finally, at the end of the meeting, in an obvious attempt to hijack proceedings and make Blakey look foolish, the following resolution was put:

That, in view of the voluntary recruiting not being sufficient to meet the requirements of our army and reinforcement of men at the front, this meeting pledges itself to vote “Yes” at the coming referendum.

The resolution was seconded and put, but the vote in the end was indecisive, with only a handful voting either way. The newspaper report suggested people were either confused or annoyed that the motion had been put. Even the avowedly pro-conscription Rev Walklate … protested against a speech advocating “Yes” being made at a meeting in a hall paid for by those advocating “No”. Such niceties aside, it was abundantly clear that the meeting would never have been able to pass any resolution in favour of the No vote. Further, the reports make it clear that Senator Blakey was by himself. There were no references to other individuals or groups supporting him, either on the stage or in the audience; and most of those who asked questions at the meeting – Rev Tamagno, Rev Walklate, R E H Newberry, J Bett, F C Grano – have already been identified in earlier posts as backing conscription. Blakey would have cut a lonely figure. As a formal attempt to galvanise the No vote in the local community the public meeting was a complete failure.

There are no references in either of the local papers to any other meetings for the No vote held in either Yarram or the shire as a whole. Similarly, there are no references over the period August to October 1916 to the formation of a committee to promote the No vote. Nor is there even reference to specific individuals in the local community advocating the No vote. In short, there is no evidence that there was an organised, public – or even visible – No vote campaign in the Shire of Alberton for the 1916 referendum.

It is also worth looking briefly at the arguments presented at the meeting, both by Blakey himself and his opponents. Blakey argued that conscription per se was morally indefensible. He claimed that Hughes himself had gone back on his word, given in 1915, to not introduce conscription. He held that Australia had done its ‘fair share’ and that the cost of introducing conscription and committing to an even greater sacrifice was beyond the nation’s capacity. He criticised the metropolitan papers – the The Age and The Argus – as shamelessly biased.  He raised the fear that even married men would be conscripted, and there was the usual aside on the fear of cheap ‘yellow’ labour. There were also claims that Hughes was using the censorship laws to stifle the No campaign. For those opposed to Blakey, the major issue was that the AIF had to be reinforced and supported – it was the clearest example of national duty – and conscription was the only way this end could be achieved.

Importantly, none of these arguments were tied specifically to the Shire of Alberton. Blakey could just as well have been addressing an audience In Melbourne. There was no local dimension to the debate.  Nor was the audience divided on any ‘partisan’ basis. Most significantly, there was no mention of any organised Catholic presence at the meeting. In fact, there is no reference to Catholics at all in the extensive reporting of the meeting.

Interestingly, in his history of the Shire, Adams (1990 p186) presumes that the Catholics in the community did represent a bloc opposed to conscription.

Conscription became an important issue late in 1916 and a committee was formed in Yarram with B.P. Johnson as President to forward the movement. When the conscription referendum was held in November [sic] 1916, Yarram voted 1144 to 573. There was a strong Catholic “no” vote reflected in this result.

[Adams’ figures give the Yes vote 67% and the No 33%.]

However this argument appears too simplistic. Certainly for the 1916 referendum, there is no evidence of a Catholic bloc opposed to conscription; and it is too easy to assume that Catholics were the ones who voted against conscription.

The Catholic question was complex. We have already seen that the Catholics enlisted in numbers that generally matched their place in the Shire’s demographics. The argument of the pro-conscriptionists that the men at the front could not be abandoned – this appeared to be the strongest argument in the community – would have been as appealing to the Catholic families of men who had enlisted as any other group. Moroever, the most recent high-profile Catholic enlistment at the time was Fr Sterling, the parish priest, who had enlisted as recently as 21/10/16 as a Captain Chaplain. His enlistment would have been seen as a very public demonstration of loyalty and duty.

There is no evidence that the local Catholic community campaigned against the 1916 conscription referendum. Moreover, previous posts have shown that the local Catholics had actively supported the War effort over the preceding 2 years. It is also relevant, closer to the 1916 referendum, that the assistant priest – Fr W H O’Connor – who arrived in June 1916 to support Fr Sterling, was keen to lend his voice to support for the War effort. In fact, unlike Fr Sterling, Fr O’Connor was even prepared to speak on the same platform as some of the most outspoken patriots – and also pro-conscriptionists – in the community. For example, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/8/16 Fr O’Connor was one of the key speakers at a public meeting to celebrate the second anniversary of the War. The others on the platform with him were the Shire President, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and the Federal MHR, G Wise. Fr O’Connor spoke at length in favour of the Allied efforts and against German tyranny. He spoke about the local men who had … made the sacrifice and who died nobly and well and who … had offered up their lives for the cause. And he made it clear that in his previous parishes he had called on members of his faith to enlist:

In other parts it was my lot to encourage men to enlist, and [ I ] need only to tell them of their duty and they would go forth and do it. The young men from this district have done likewise and responded to the “Coo-ee” call for assistance.

At the same time, Catholic support for the War was not as unqualified as that of the local Protestants. Bishop Phelan’s position, for example, that the Catholic Church was ‘neutral’ on the matter of conscription, and his significant qualification that the individual citizen’s vote should be shaped by an informed conscience, was at great odds with the very public and uncritical support for conscription from the Protestant churches. Moreover, previous posts have pointed out how fundamental differences in areas such as schooling encouraged sectarianism in the community over the War years. Additionally, events in Ireland post Easter 1916 definitely saw many Irish Catholics question the Australian Government’s total support for the Empire. They also, inevitably, chose to see the AIF not as a component of the British (Empire) Army but as as a distinctive, independent and truly nationalist Australian force, which meant it was possible to support the AIF – and to a lesser extent continue to justify the War – and be anti-Imperialist. But none of these important shifts were on public view in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum.

Overall, there is no hard evidence that for the 1916 referendum, in the Shire of Alberton, there was an organised, public campaign amongst the local Catholics for the No vote. It is possible that Catholics followed Bishop Phelan’s advice and voted according to their conscience. But if they did so it was a private choice made via secret ballot. In any case, given the appeal of the dominant political argument of the day, it makes more sense to believe that the Catholic families would vote Yes, to support the reinforcement of their men at the front.

While it is not possible to identify a Catholic bloc publicly supporting the No vote, there was even less chance that there was an organised and visible bloc of ‘industrialists’, radical unionists, IWW agitators or even just ALP supporters campaigning for the No vote. Most of the rural workers had enlisted and, in any case, there had never been an organised labour movement in the Shire. Individual ALP voters might have opposed conscription and voted No, but, again, it was via secret ballot. It was a politically conservative community. The local papers were full of anti-union stories. They reported how the ‘machine’ of the industrial wing of the ALP was undermining PM Hughes’ authority and destroying the party itself. There were regular stories of how unions generally were undermining the War effort. Unionists were described as ‘traitors’ and ‘shirkers’. But all this was happening in Melbourne and the other capital cities.

Overall, there is no evidence that there was a public, anti-conscription campaign in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum. Instead, we need to look at the reality of the private No vote in the Shire. On Adams’ figures above, it was one-third of the voters. In a community where there was no public campaign for the No vote and, instead, apparently overwhelming support for the Yes side, it was a significant private vote.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

 

 

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