By Bob Scates
Australia has a long history of opposition to military conscription and one of key flashpoints occurred between 1964 and 1972. The reintroduction of compulsory military service in late 1964 came in the context of the conservative federal government’s ardent support for the Vietnam War. Campaigns and coalitions drawn from pacifists, the Australian Labor Party, Communist Party of Australia, churches, unions and other groups quickly emerged. These initially enjoyed a minority of public support but began to build opposition to the war and conscription through protests, industrial action and campaigns in support of conscientious objectors, some of whom were imprisoned.
Over the next eight years these initially small actions grew into a mass movement. This, in combination with overseas campaigns and military failures on the part of the US led coalition, eventually brought a majority of Australians around to rejecting the war. The campaign against military service used increasingly defiant tactics and came to repudiate any cooperation with the process of conscription. This led to the arrest and jailing of activists for activities ranging from educating the public, occupying government offices, and refusing to register for the draft. These encouraged and highlighted non-compliance, with more than 11 000 people having failed to register for conscription by the end of 1970. They also exposed the government’s inability to arrest more than a tiny minority of resisters.
Originally published in 1988, Draftmen Go Free provides an in-depth account of the hundreds of campaigns and actions that were carried out across Australia. The full book is available for download below. In this excerpt author Bob Scates, who was himself imprisoned for draft resistance, discusses two key developments from 1971, one involving jail solidarity with members of the women’s group Save Our Sons, and the other the creation of a Draft Resisters Union (DRU) Embassy at the University of Melbourne.
In January 1971, five Melbourne Save Our Sons members were arrested for trespassing in a National Service Office. The five — Rene Miller, Jean McLean, Christine Cathie, Jo McLaine-Cross and Joan Coxsedge expected to be fined by the court. However, the Magistrate took a dim view of the anti-war activity and sent the five to Fairlea prison over Easter 1971. On their first night in gaol a large painted sign appeared mysteriously on the outside gates of the prison: SMASH CONSCRIPTION: FREE SOS WOMEN: DRU
The Plumbers’ Union described the gaoling in the following terms:
It has been the practice of members of the Save Our Sons Movement, to attend the offices of the Department of Labour and National Service, on the 10th floor of the Princes Gate building, during registration periods when young men were obliged to register under the provisions of the National Service Act. In April, of this year, the Department of Labour complained to the Employers’ Federation about these women counselling and handing out leaflets to young men in the lift lobby.
Mr Eric Gwyther, the Assistant Secretary of the Victorian Employers’ Federation, requested the ladies to leave and when they refused, their names were taken and they were proceeded against for trespass by summons, under the provisions of the Victorian Summary Offences Act.
The case was the last one heard on the Thursday afternoon before Good Friday and the five women were found guilty and sentenced to fourteen days gaol without the option of a fine. This was a most savage sentence for the first offenders and was obviously a political decision to intimidate them into ceasing their dissent from the Government’s policies. This case was the first use of amendments to the Summary Offences Act, which the Victorian Bolte Government rushed through Parliament despite the opposition of the trade unions and Australian Labor Party.
On Good Friday, South Yarra lawyer Peter Faris visited the five at Fairlea prison. He said that “the SOS women were given fish and chips in newspaper yesterday and told not to complain about it”. He described the women as being determined and remarked on their dress. “They all wore grey prison uniforms and said they had been put with several other prisoners in a large dormitory.”
On the Saturday of the Easter weekend a State Conference of the Young Labor Association was being held at La Trobe University. The conference passed a resolution, without dissent, which called for “industrial and political action” to free the five women. Alan Best, a Young Labor delegate, called for a handout of leaflets at the Department of Labor and National Service the following Thursday. At 6 a.m. on Sunday April 11, 1971 a dawn service was held outside the gates of the prison. The same afternoon saw Bill Hartley (Victorian ALP Secretary 1965-1970), Professor Ian Turner (Monash) and Ian Cathie (ex-State MP for South-Eastern) speak to a demonstration at the gaol. About 20 people kept what the Age described as a “chilly vigil”8 all night at the City Square in Melboume. Victorian Opposition Leader, Clyde Holding, called for the release of the five:
It is oppressive and heartless for the Government to allow their imprisonment to continue.
A strike by waterside workers after a mass meeting at Festival Hall stopped all work at the Port of Melbourne.
After six days the five women were released. Jean McLean told Scope, a trade union paper, that a mother of five was being kept in prison for the crime of shoplifting. During their prison sentences the SOS women worked as billets and laundry hands. They were able to form bonds of friendship with other prisoners and kept in contact with some Fairlea inmates after their release.
The ‘Fairlea Five’ as they became known were not intimidated by the prison system and a few days later were in the vanguard of yet another demonstration at the Richmond Army Barracks where new conscripts entered the building in the early hours of the morning.
Joan Coxsedge was later offered a job at Fairlea by the State Minister for Community Welfare, Ian Smith. Smith later reneged on the offer.
The demonstrations at the National Service intakes appear to have had some impression on the potential draftees as a former conscript, Gary McKay wrote:
There was chaos at the induction centre when we arrived. The police were out in force and the footpaths were choked with protesters. This time they weren’t all young students but also included a matronly band of dissenters who rallied under the flag of the “Save Our Sons” movement. Dad was unable to get closer than 400 metres to the gate and so we said our goodbyes and I walked down to the gate with my suitcase and took in the bedlam around me.
At the gate the scene was fairly hysterical. Almost every women there was over 40 and intent on doing her utmost to hinder the police allowing draftees free passage to the depot … It was all very emotional and judging by the reactions of the young draftees who were watching all this from inside the depot grounds, it was not without its effect. Some of the guys were quite impressed by the intensity of the demonstration.
Whether any potential conscripts actually turned away is unknown. However the above description of an SOS demonstration at Marrickville (NSW) is interesting as a view from “the other side”.
By late 1970, it appeared that the government would not launch a campaign of wholesale arrests and gaolings of draft resisters, but instead only selectively prosecute a small percentage of those defying the Act. By gaoling one or two of the 11,000 who had broken laws at any one time, the system anticipated being able to intimidate the majority of twenty year olds into compliance. Michael Hamel-Green responded:
A counter to this government tactic was found in the concept of an underground resistance: a collective refusal by draft resisters to submit to intimidatory gaolings in the same manner as they had collectively refused to submit to compulsory registration and army induction …
The strategy of underground resistance, calculated as it is to cause continuing political discomfort to the government, is obviously not guaranteed to insure resisters against eventual arrest and detention. No one currently in the underground expects such insurance. The point is neither to submit to conscription nor to flee from it, but rather to share the risks of politically confronting it, both with fellow resisters and with the broader community. The bourgeois media will inevitably try to distort the moral and political bases of draft resistance by prejorative reference to ‘draft dodgers’, but such characterizations carry their own contradiction: people will hardly fail to ask themselves why draft ‘dodgers’ should publicly risk or defy arrest when — according to the stereotype — they would be more sensible to stay out of sight completely.
Perhaps the most successful action of the embryo underground was the occupation by four wanted draft resisters and three hundred supporters of the Melbourne University Union building in Parkville from September 27 to 30, 1971. The voice of Melbourne peace worker, Sue Mc Culloch, explained the purpose of the occupation: “Good morning, this is Radio Resistance 3DR. We are trying to give power to the people.”
It was not long before the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) began to jam the pirate broadcasts. Short successful assaults by the radio station on the airwaves continued intermittently for forty-eight hours and could be picked up throughout the inner suburbs of Melboume. Mike Matteson (Sydney), John Scott (Adelaide), Tony Dalton (Melbourne) and Michael Hamel-Green (Melbourne) participated in numerous on-campus meetings and spent many hours talking with supporters. The illegal broadcasting, coupled with the harbouring of the four underground draft resisters, made an eventual police raid almost certain.
Barricades of chairs and chains were erected on stairwells, and look-outs were posted. At 5 a.m. on the final morning, thirty or so plain-clothed and uniformed police were sighted approaching the campus. They were soon supplemented by an additional one hundred police. University sentries set off sky rockets and sounded fog horns as a warning. It took police only minutes to stumble over the barricades where they were greeted by chants of ‘Power to the People’ by the crowd. The police were told that the birds had flown and a quick police search of the building failed to locate any of the four elusive resisters. The police left empty-handed, not realising that Hamel-Green, Scott, Dalton and Matteson were all still in the university building where they remained for the next four hours before quietly slipping out into the community.
- Australian women protest conscription during Vietnam War [Save Our Sons (SOS)], 1965-1972
- Vietnam Moratorium Campaign: Australian citizens force end to participation in Vietnam War
- Brave Enough to say ‘No’: William White and the Fight against Military Conscription during the Vietnam War
- Activism and Campaign History: Start Here
- History - Australia
- Military conscription
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti War
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti War - Vietnam (1961 - 1975)
- Save Our Sons
- Vietnam War, 1961 - 1975
- Women activists