Australian plebiscite, 1917

The 1917 Australian plebiscite was held on 20 December 1917. It contained just the one question.


The plebiscite was held a year after the highly contentious 1916 plebiscite on conscription. That plebiscite had resulted in a surprise "no" vote, with voters in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, as well as a majority of electors nationwide, rejecting the proposal. The political fallout was swift, and by November 1916 had led to the collapse of the First Hughes Ministry. This resulted in a split of the ruling Australian Labor Party into two factions, with Prime Minister Billy Hughes and some Labor MPs forming the breakaway National Labor Party, which by February 1917 had merged with the conservative Commonwealth Liberal Party to form the Nationalist Party of Australia. While the Nationalist Party was dominated by former Commonwealth Liberals, it retained Hughes as leader. After Hughes and the Nationalists scored a convincing victory at the 1917 election, Hughes announced a second plebiscite on the question of conscription to be held on the 20th of December.[1]

The proposal for the plebiscite was less far reaching than that of the 1916 poll, eschewing full conscription of able-bodied men and instead proposing to conscript men between the ages of 18 and 44 through a ballot system, and only in months where voluntary enlistments fell below 7000 men.[2]

The Plebiscite

"The Death Ballot", a campaign poster for the "No" vote.
"Facts for Farm Workers", a campaign poster for the "Yes" vote.

This plebiscite was held due to the Government's desire to increase the available forces for overseas service during the ongoing World War I, to a total of 7000 men per month. It was conducted under the War Precautions (Military Service Referendum) Regulations 1917. It formed part of the larger debate on conscription in Australia throughout the war.

The campaign was notable for the Egg Throwing Incident where a protestor threw an egg at Prime Minister Hughes,[3] and for the Raid on the Government Printing Office, where federal authorities stormed a Queensland government building to confiscate copies of the Queensland Government Gazette deemed to contain subversive anti-conscription materials.[4]


State On




For Against Informal Result
% %
New South Wales 1,055,883 853,894 341,256 41.16% 487,774 58.84% 24,864 No
Victoria 807,331 678,806 329,772 49.79% 332,490 50.21% 16,544 No
Queensland 378,378 310,164 132,771 44.02% 168,875 55.98% 8,518 No
South Australia 261,661 197,970 86,663 44.90% 106,364 55.10% 4,943 No
Western Australia 162,347 135,593 84,116 64.39% 46,522 35.61% 4,955 Yes
Tasmania 106,803 78,792 38,881 50.24% 38,502 49.76% 1,409 Yes
Federal Territories 4,037 3,002 1,700 58.22% 1,220 41.78% 82 Yes
Total for Commonwealth 2,776,440 2,258,221* 1,015,159 46.21% 1,181,747 53.79% 61,315 No
Obtained majority in two States and an overall minority of 166,588 votes.
Not carried

* Including 199 677 votes by members of the Australian Imperial Force, of which 103 789 were for, 93 910 against, and 1978 informal.


  1. Connor, John (2011). Anzac and Empire: George Foster Pearce and the Foundations of Australian Defence. Cambridge University Press. p. 107. ISBN 9781107009509.
  2. Carroll, Brian (2004). Australia's Prime Ministers: From Barton to Howard. Rosenberg Publishing. p. 93. ISBN 9781877058226.
  3. "Senior Sergeant Kenny entirely exonerated.". Warwick Examiner and Times. Qld. 5 December 1917. p. 4 via National Library of Australia.
  4. Fitzgerald, Ross (1994). "Red Ted": The Life of E. G. Theodore. University of Queensland Press. p. 96. ISBN 9780702226496.
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