The following 1968 telegram from then Federal Opposition leader Gough Whitlam is from the recently created UAA Series 1420, “Australian Student Christian Movement South Australian Branch Records”.
The message was sent in the context of a growing opposition to the War in Vietnam and in particular the compulsory selective conscription – a system whereby all twenty year old men would be chosen for national service according to randomly selected birth dates. The National Service Act (1964) was introduced by the Menzies Government to strengthen the Army’s ability to meet the perceived threat of communism in South East Asia. However, Harold Holt’s commitment of Australian troops (including conscripts) to Vietnam in 1966 saw the scheme come under increasing scrutiny. Questioning of the strategic and moral point of the War and the validity of the assumptions on which it was based was only intensified with extensive television coverage of North Vietnam’s early 1968 Tet offensive.
Against this back drop the conservative coalition government led by Holt’s replacement John Gorton amended the National Service Act in June 1968, adding the possibility of 12 months leave without pay for cases of ‘exceptional hardship’ – no doubt to ease the political pressure the issue was generating with an election due the following year. The Labor Opposition under Gough Whitlam proposed its own amendments to the Act, specifically non-military forms of national service for conscripts who were unable to meet the notoriously difficult criterion for classification as a conscientious objector. These, as the telegram states, ‘were defeated by the combined vote of the Liberal-Country Party and DLP members.’
The telegram reproduced here is likely to have been a ‘form’ message, sent out to the various organisations who were lobbying the Opposition to oppose the War and conscription, one of whom was the Australian Student Christian Movement. It is indicative of a time when anti-War sentiment began to coalesce into a broad movement made up of disparate elements – ranging from trade unions and the radical student left to Christian and mothers groups.
A full description of the University of Adelaide Archives holdings of Student Christian Movement records can be found here.
Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History. (Melbourne: Melbourne Univ. Press, 2008)
“Australia and the Vietnam War”, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, retrieved Dec. 2010, available from http://vietnam-war.commemoration.gov.au/conscription/moratoriums-and-opposition.php
“The National Service Scheme, 1964-1972”, by Sue Langford, retrieved Dec. 2010, available from http://www.awm.gov.au/Encyclopedia/viet_app.asp
“Conscription in Australia”, Wikipedia article, retrieved Dec. 2010, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_Australia