Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18 (2): the War Census

The ‘Divided sunburnt country’ series


In 1915 Australians took part in a special census, called the War Census, ostensibly to help organise the country’s resources for total war but effectively to prepare for the introduction of conscription for war service. The War Census was based on a British model and was the brainchild of WM Hughes, Commonwealth attorney-general and, from October 1915, prime minister. Honest History’s two posts on the Census are Part I, here and Part II, here. By the time the Census was held in September, groups for and against conscription had begun to campaign vigorously, as Joan Beaumont writes:

William_Holman_1919WA Holman (Wikipedia)

The consensus about the War Census was fragile, and it soon frayed when in September a lobby group in favour of conscription, the Universal Service League (USL), was launched in New South Wales … [It] boasted support from across the political spectrum. Its members included [NSW Labor premier] Holman and a number of his ministers, leading figures in the Liberal opposition, major church and business leaders, the lord mayor of Sydney, prominent academics, the president of the National Council of Women and even some union leaders. Its manifesto, published on 11 September, demanded that the federal government move to introduce legislation to allow conscription for overseas service … [saying that] “today Australia is being defended in the fields of Flanders and on the hills of Gallipoli. If she is to be saved at all it must be there.” Conscription, the USL further claimed, would command “the loyal support” of Australians.

As it happened, the USL did not attract the same level of support in other states … [b]ut its creation had the effect of bringing into the open the debate about conscription that Hughes had been trying to contain. Two days after the USL published its manifesto, a meeting of trade unions in Sydney created an Anti-Conscription League, which soon had branches in every state. The Trades Hall Council in Melbourne and a conference of Victorian trade unions also declared themselves against conscription, as did the New South Wales Labor Council unless there were a matching “conscription of wealth”. The fact that the War Census when conducted revealed that half of the wealth in Australia was owned by fewer than 3 per cent of the population, and two-thirds of it by the top 5 per cent, added grist to their mill. (Beaumont, Broken Nation, Kindle locations, 2672-87)

There were divisions and conflict between groups at home, as there were between nations on the Western Front, even if the consequences at home were not as dire for individuals.

As Beaumont notes, the Census was interesting also for what it said about the distribution of income and wealth at the time, though some of its statistical methods were questionable. Now, 101 years later, when an election campaign is being described as ‘class warfare’, these points are of particular interest. Honest History has a collection of resources on inequality, historical and current.

David Stephens

2 June 2016

Divided sunburnt country: Australia 1916-18: recruiting in Gippsland.

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