A century of Yay or Nay

A century of Yay or Nay
Documenting national debates
20 December 2017

December 2017 will mark the centenary of the 1917 conscription plebiscite in Australia. For the second time during World War I, Australia declared 'no' in response to the question of conscription proposed by then Prime Minister Billy Hughes. By 1917, voluntary enlistment had waned and conscription was proposed to keep up with troop requirements overseas. The question of conscription was debated across Australia and was divisive politically, socially and religiously. Alongside official Parliamentary papers and newspaper reports, ephemera collected from the era provides a valuable insight into the social climate of the debate.

A century later, Australia went the polls again on a different issue: marriage equality. This debate has proven similarly decisive and has also generated propaganda and ephemera of a similar nature which reflect the current societal views.

Along with the many recent World War I centenary events, a closer look at the 1917 conscription vote reveals an important insight into the public opinions of the time. Many of these sentiments can be interpreted through the distribution of ephemera and propaganda during 1917, and its subsequent collection by the National Library of Australia and other institutions. Badges and pamphlets were popular vehicles of expression on both sides of debate. Almost identical badges either declaring NO or YES were popular, as well as badges evoking emotional responses such as 'A soldier's mother says YES'. Calling upon motherly nurturing qualities was used on both sides of the debate, with 'The Mothers' anti-conscription leaflet denouncing the ballot as a death vote for their sons.

Badge - 'A Soldier's Mother Says YES', World War I, 1916-1917, Museums Victoria via Trove https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/226121747

'Australians No Conscription badge', A.E. Patrick, circa 1917, Museums Victoria via Trove https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/207542324

Public rallies both for and against conscription were important throughout the campaign. Ticket stubs from the pro-conscription demonstrations at the Melbourne Cricket Ground demonstrate strong conscription support. Large anti-conscription rallies were held in Melbourne on the bank of the Yarra River, and were led by prominent pacifists such as Adela Pankhurst. Objects from both sides of the debate lend a valuable insight into the atmosphere of the protests.

Ticket - Pro Conscription Demonstration, Melbourne Cricket Ground, 10 Dec 1917, James H Cook, Museums Victoria via Trove https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/207480946

Anti-conscription rally, Yarra Bank, Victoria, Sunday 16 April 1916, National Library of Australia https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138262103

A century later, the 2017 marriage equality national vote has also resulted in a range of propaganda and ephemera which reflect the current views of society. Some methods of expression surrounding the marriage equality debate such as public rallies and badges echo the 1917 conscription campaign. Other approaches are firmly grounded in the twenty-first century, such as television advertisements and skywriting. All of these forms of propaganda and ephemera are valuable resources in recording the varied views of the Australian public at this moment in time. Just as the badges and ticket stubs of the 1917 conscription debate continue to reveal the atmosphere of World War I Australian society, in time the marriage equality ephemera will be a valuable contribution to Australian social history.

The National Library of Australia is calling on Australians to help record the 2017 marriage equality campaign by collecting any published material, from all sides of the debate. This material will be kept in perpetuity by the Library as reflection of this moment in Australian social history. This material may include leaflets, posters, badges, signage, or other ephemera. We welcome small print items to be brought in person to the reception desk at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Donations can also be made via post to:
Ephemera Officer, Printed Australiana
National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT 2600

Teachers and students can find out more about the conscription debates of last century in our newly launched Digital Classroom module on World War I here.

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