The 1917 Australian plebiscite was held on 20 December 1917. It contained just the one question.
The 1917 plebiscite was held a year after the highly contentious 1916 plebiscite on conscription. The 1916 plebiscite had resulted in a surprise "no" vote, with voters in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, as well as a majority of electors nationwide, rejecting the proposal. The political fallout was swift, and by November 1916 had led to the collapse of the First Hughes Ministry. This resulted in a split of the ruling Australian Labor Party into two factions, with Prime Minister Billy Hughes and some Labor MPs forming the breakaway National Labor Party, which by February 1917 had merged with the conservative Commonwealth Liberal Party to form the Nationalist Party of Australia. While the Nationalist Party was dominated by former Commonwealth Liberals, it retained Hughes as leader. After Hughes and the Nationalists scored a convincing victory at the 1917 election, Hughes announced a second plebiscite on the question of conscription to be held on 20 December 1917.
During the course of World War 1 38.7% of eligible Australian men enlisted for service, around 420,000 out of an eligible population of a little over 1 million. During the war the range of men eligible to volunteer was expanded, with the initial age range of 19–38 expanded to 18-45 in June 1915. Similarly medical standards were lowered, for example the minimum height dropped from 5ft 6in (167 cm) in August 1914 down to 5ft (152 cm) by April 1917. There was however a significant decrease in the number of enlistments after 1915, with the average in 1917 of less than 4,000 enlistments per month:
The proposal for the 1917 plebiscite was less far reaching than that of the 1916 poll, eschewing full conscription of able-bodied men and instead proposing to conscript men between the ages of 18 and 44 through a ballot system, and only in months where voluntary enlistments fell below 7,000 men.
This plebiscite was held due to the Australian Government's desire to introduce conscription to increase the recruitment of forces for overseas service during the ongoing World War I, to a total of 7,000 men per month. It was conducted under the War Precautions (Military Service Referendum) Regulations 1917. It formed part of the larger debate on conscription in Australia throughout the war.
All of the historical documentation refer to the ballot as a referendum, even though it did not involve a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution. Because it was not an amendment to the constitution, (1) it had no legal force, (2) it did not require approval in a majority of states and (3) residents of federal territories were able to vote. Such a ballot is now usually referred to as a plebiscite to distinguish it from a referendum to alter the Constitution.
The campaign was notable for the Egg Throwing Incident where a protestor threw an egg at Prime Minister Hughes in Warwick, Queensland, and for the Raid on the Queensland Government Printing Office, where the Australian Army stormed a Queensland government building to confiscate copies of the Queensland Government Gazette deemed to contain subversive anti-conscription materials.
|New South Wales||1,055,883||853,894||341,256||41.16%||487,774||58.84%||24,864||No|
|Northern Territory and Federal Capital Territory||4,037||3,002||1,700||58.22%||1,220||41.78%||82||Yes|
|Total for Commonwealth||2,776,440||2,258,221*||1,015,159||46.21%||1,181,747||53.79%||61,315||No|
|Obtained majority in two States and the Territories and an overall minority of 166,588 votes.|
* Including 199 677 votes by members of the Australian Imperial Force, of which 103 789 were for, 93 910 against, and 1978 informal.
Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn, (25 November 1892 – 24 November 1960) was a soldier, lawyer, politician, and Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in battle that can be awarded to a member of the Australian armed forces. Blackburn enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I, and along with the rest of the 10th Battalion, landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, on 25 April 1915. He and another scout from the battalion were credited with reaching the furthest inland on the day of the landing. Blackburn was later commissioned and, along with his battalion, spent the rest of the Gallipoli Campaign fighting Ottoman forces.
The 10th Battalion was withdrawn from Gallipoli in November 1915, and after re-organising and training in Egypt, sailed for the Western Front in late March 1916. It saw its first real fighting in France on 23 July during the Battle of Pozières. It was during this battle that Blackburn's action resulted in a recommendation for his award of the Victoria Cross (VC). Commanding 50 men, he led four separate sorties to drive the Germans from a strong point using hand grenades, capturing 370 yards (340 m) of trench. He was the first member of his battalion to be awarded the VC during World War I, and the first South Australian to receive the VC. He also fought in the Battle of Mouquet Farm in August, before being evacuated to the United Kingdom and then Australia suffering from illness. He was medically discharged in early 1917.
Blackburn returned to legal practice and pursued a part-time military career during the interwar period. He also briefly served as a member of the South Australian parliament. He led the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia in South Australia for several years, and was appointed the coroner for the city of Adelaide, South Australia. After the outbreak of World War II, Blackburn was appointed to command the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion of the Second Australian Imperial Force, and led it during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign in 1941, during which he personally accepted the surrender of Damascus. In early 1942, his battalion was withdrawn from the Middle East and played a role in the defence of Java in the Dutch East Indies from the Japanese. Captured, Blackburn spent the rest of the war as a prisoner-of-war. After he was liberated in 1945, he returned to Australia and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services on Java in 1942.
Following the war, Blackburn was appointed as a conciliation commissioner of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration until 1955, and in that year was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for his services to the community. He died in 1960 and was buried with full military honours in the Australian Imperial Force section of the West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide. His Victoria Cross and other medals are displayed in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial.