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William Hughes and the 1916 Conscription Badge

Video clip synopsis – William Hughes, “The Little Digger”, campaigned twice for national conscription to boost an Australian army decimated by World War One.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 5min 5sec
Tags - Australian History, conscription, defence, gender, human rights, icons, identity, leadership, national identity, Prime Ministers, representations of war, war, see all tags


William Hughes and the 1916 Conscription Badge

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About the Video Clip


William Hughes and the 1916 Conscription Badge is an episode from the series The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures, produced in 2007.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures
Award winning cartoonist and yarn spinner, Warren Brown, reveals the emotional lives of Australian Prime Ministers through 10 objects they used every day or even adored – from Robert Menzies’ home movie camera, to Joseph Lyons’ love letters, Harold Holt’s briefcase and Ben Chifley’s pipe. These treasures reveal the nation’s leaders, as you have never seen them before.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures is a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with Old Parliament House and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Curriculum Focus


National Statements of Learning for English
Year 9 Speaking and Listening

Students speak and listen through discussions, conversations and oral presentations including meetings, extended presentations, formal and parliamentary-style debates, and group discussions. They analyse and investigate challenging ideas and issues and advance and refute arguments.

This is an extract only. Go to The National Curriculum Statements for English
Teachers and students should consult their State’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


During World War 1, also known as The Great War, Australian soldiers fought on the Western Front (the border area between France and Belgium) between 1916 and 1918. This was Australia’s main war involvement, far bigger than the fighting at Gallipoli in 1915. Australians fought in the war as fellow members of the British Empire – with the Australian Government not hesitating to consider Australia also at war when Britain declared war on Germany.

In 1916 the Australian Government, under Prime Minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes, called for conscription of Australian men to supply replacements for the war casualties; voluntary recruiting did not seem to be producing sufficient numbers to supply the front line.

“The Little Digger”, as Hughes became known, held a referendum (really a ‘plebiscite’, a popular vote that indicated people’s opinions, but was not able to change the Constitution) in which the people of Australia had to indicate whether they supported or opposed conscription. The referendum caused great divisions in Australian society and within Hughes’ own governing Australian Labor Party.

The referendum was very narrowly defeated.

In December 1917 Hughes, who by this time had been expelled from the Labor Party for his advocacy of conscription and was now the leader of the Nationalist Party, a combination of the pro-conscription Laborites, and the Liberal Party, held a second referendum. A slightly increased majority rejected the proposal, but with great social hostility and disruption being caused by the issue.

The irascible Hughes was a popular and dynamic politician despite a tendency to feud. He worked with 100 secretaries during his term in office, helped found the Labor party, the Nationalist Party, and the United Australia Party and was ousted from all three. He formed the Commonwealth Police Force after a dissenter socked him with an egg during a conscription campaign and the state police force did nothing.

William Hughes (1862 -1952) was Prime Minister of Australia from October 1915 to February 1923, and a member of the Commonwealth Parliament from the first sitting in 1901 until his death in 1952. The 1916 conscription badge is held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

Classroom Activities


Conscription today?

One of the characteristics of military conscription in Australian history has been that it applies only to males. (During World War II some women, as well as men, were conscripted to do certain civilian jobs — it was called ‘Manpowering’.)

What if an Australian government decided to introduce conscription today — should it also apply to women?

Research this, and organize a debate on the issue: That women should be subject to the same conscription as men.

A second element to look at and debate is the issue of whether women should be in combat in the same way as men in the Australian Defence Force.

Organise a debate on the issue: ‘That women should have the same front line combat roles as men’.

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers

Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

STUDIES magazine (Ryebuck Media) 3/2002 ‘Women in the Australian Defence Force — Do they have an equal role to men?’ (STUDIES magazine is sent free of charge three times a year to all Australian secondary schools)