Conscription: A Memoir

Historians and fans of the Whitlam government have been commemorating the 40th anniversary of its election. In December 1972 Gough and his deputy Lance Barnard hit the ground running, operating as a duumvirate for two weeks pending the other cabinet appointments. Our new PM quickly announced formal recognition of China, and also a pertinent decision for your KC correspondent, which warrants personal reflection.

In 1964, in the grip of Cold War paranoia, the Menzies government had introduced National Service for 20 year old males, to be inducted for two years in the army and three years in reserves. In ’65 it extended call-up provisions to allow conscripts to be sent overseas to fight, which had only happened in Australia once before – in 1943 as the country faced a direct threat.

During WW1 PM Billy Hughes tried twice by referendum to introduce conscription for overseas service, and was soundly defeated twice. But this time around the supine Australian people copped it sweet. And by 1966 conscripts or ‘nashos’ were sent to fight in the Vietnam War of Liberation, on the wrong side. One hundred & eighty-five died.

The almost comical innovation in the modern draft was the selection mechanism, as they didn’t need everybody at once: birthdays of all 20 year olds were put on marbles in a lottery barrel, which were randomly picked out like a bad TV quiz show, with the same crap prize. Having never bought a lottery ticket in my life, POH nevertheless won this one.  Or more correctly lost out. The 3/1 odds of being drawn were high (probability 25%) in my round of the 16 bi-annual ballots. The final 5 draws of the scheme were indeed broadcast on new-fangled television. The original barrel and marbles today reside in the National Archives.

As a university student call-up was deferred whilst my studies continued, and serendipitously a three year degree extended to four in 1972. After thinking about this whole war scenario, I registered as a conscientious objector, which meant arguing in court your conscientious beliefs against war. My father wasn’t happy when he heard that I’d done it without consulting him, but I reckoned that’s what consciences were for: to search them yourself. I thought of draft evasion too, as I already had a passport. But I wasn’t attracted to any resistance groups or in need of shared solidarity. It felt like a personal act.

Serious serendipity overtook events this month forty years ago when Gough struck down the conscription laws forthwith in that first busy week of government. All national service obligations were null and void and my court case was never scheduled. I was a free man, just when the conscription machinery and courts would have come for me.

I’ve had a soft spot for Gough since then, although I never forgave him turning a blind eye to the Indonesian invasion of east Timor, which as Portuguese Timor in 1970 had been my first foreign country, on the way to Bali during uni holidays.

A month after the elections I took off again to Bali and the wilds of SE Asia for ten months, with my precious savings and freedom intact. The past is a strange country, eh?

lottery-barrel.jpgBallot balls


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s