Australia in Comparative Perspective

Turner did not ignore the wider—especially European—context for Australian labour’s ideological struggles, but there was little in the book that delineated what was distinctive about the Australian experience of war. There was certainly no attempt to set Australia in a comparative context, and most of the social and labour historians who followed Turner showed less familiarity than him with the European context of socialist and labour movement battles. Yet, as Robin Archer has recently pointed out, Australia was unique among the belligerents in having such a powerful labour movement and party of the left at the beginning of the war.18 Labor was in opposition in Australia when war broke out, but it had governed from 1910 to 1913 and in August 1914 was just one seat away from office. The Australian Labor Party was also unique in being so strongly committed to national defence and preoccupied with threats to a white Australia. Before the war, it had committed itself to naval construction and compulsory military training for home defence, in both instances with an eye on the threat seen to be posed by Japan. The European socialist parties had agonised debates over how to respond to the gathering crisis in July and August 1914.19 it is true that, in the end, British and European unionists did not deploy the general strike against the war, and French, German and Austrian socialists voted for war credits. All the same, they also organised mass protests calling for peace. Byway of contrast, the crisis that the war engendered on the European left had no Antipodean reflection, where only a tiny minority of socialists, anarchists and pacifists opposed the war in 1914, despite the existence of a strand of internationalism in the left of the labour and socialist movements.20 Labor’s federal leader, Andrew Fisher, famously promised to fight to “our last man and our last shilling” and even if he was more measured in his rhetoric on other occasions, few doubted his party’s commitment to the war in these early months.21 When a general election was held in september, Labor won easily and Fisher became prime minister.

While a few Australian historians, following their British and European counterparts, have challenged the exaggerated claims made for popular war enthusiasm in these early days, the reality of a rush to war remains beyond question.22 Douglas Newton has pointed out that while the British Liberal Cabinet remained divided between hawks and doves in the period before the German violation of Belgian sovereignty, there was no such debate in Australia either within or between parties. On the contrary, the Australian Liberal government offered military support for Britain—both naval and land forces—while the controversy was fought out within the Imperial cabinet. The Labor Party, still in opposition, offered no criticism of government actions. Rather, responding to claims from its opponents that it might jeopardise Australian defence if elected to office in the forthcoming contest, Labor signalled its willingness to cooperate. Newton argues that Labor, fearing an attack on its empire and defence credentials, effectively issued its political opponents with a blank cheque on the war.23 And soon in government itself, it would be Labor’s role to honour that cheque.

Australian historians have paid little attention to the particular complexion that the labour movement’s power gave to Australia’s response to the war. Unlike elsewhere, Labor had to deal with the responsibilities of government, not only federally but in several of the states. This challenge meant that the tension between prosecuting the war effort and pursuing Labor’s platform was sharper in Australia than in other belligerent nations. When the issue of conscription emerged during 1915, it raised particular problems for a party and movement already divided over other matters. The claim that the conscription of men could not be countenanced without the conscription of wealth rhymed with the critique that many businesses were making great profits from the war at the expense of the working class.24 Yet this was not the basis for the labour movement’s opposition to conscription. Far more critical was the claim that conscription offended the movement’s commitment to freedom, an argument increasingly buttressed with claims during the 1916 campaign itself that compulsion would pose a threat to the ‘White Australia Policy’.25

As Archer contends, among the belligerents it was only in Australia that the effort to introduce conscription was defeated. Again, he argues convincingly that the very strength that had discouraged peace efforts in 1914 helps to explain the success of anti-conscriptionism on 28 October 1916 and 20 December 1917, the two occasions when voters rejected proposals for conscription in a plebiscite.26 It was, after all, the union movement that led the campaign of opposition to conscription, since no other force in Australian society had the authority or resources to play such a role. The propaganda effort of the AWU, a large union of labourers that had begun as a shearers’ union, is widely regarded as having been critical to the outcome. The size (about seventy thousand members), prestige and geographical reach of the AWU had previously produced boasting about its contribution to the manning of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF); in 1916, the very same qualities were put to work against conscription for overseas service, although much also depended on the energy and eloquence of Henry Boote, the English- born editor of its newspaper, the Australian Worker.27 Australian anti-con- scriptionists pointed to the allegedly baleful effects of conscription on freedom in Britain, which had adopted compulsion in January 1916, to argue that it should be rejected by freedom-loving Australians. In the 1916 referendum campaign, they pointed out that the sister dominion, Canada, had managed well enough without it, an argument no longer available in late 1917, by which time Canada had adopted conscription (Fig. 7.1).

South Bulli Miners’ Lodge members in May Day demonstration parade, ca.1917. (Australasian Coal & Shale Employees’ Federation, E165/56/49. From the collection of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre.)

Fig. 7.1 South Bulli Miners’ Lodge members in May Day demonstration parade, ca.1917. (Australasian Coal & Shale Employees’ Federation, E165/56/49. From the collection of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre.)

The labour history-influenced Australian home front historiography mainly ignored these transnational borrowings. It was, of course, impossible to ignore that radical political ideas and organisational forms circulated internationally, via newspapers, pamphlets and migrants. The Chicago-based IWW, the most prominent dissident political organisation in Australia during the war, has figured prominently in the historiography. Historians have also recognised that proposals in Australia for One Big Union were indebted to syndicalist ideas whose origins lay elsewhere, primarily in the United States. Others turned to the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on Australian radical politics.28

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