Australian party politics at the time of the introduction of National Service in 1964 provided a secure basis for the introduction of a scheme of peacetime conscription of young men for overseas service. Even though conscription had always been contentious in the past, especially during the First World War when it had divided the community, the Menzies government of the day assumed that its introduction would not constitute a risk at the ballot box.
This second scheme of national service wasn’t introduced until November 1964 so was not an issue at the 1963 federal election. Menzies campaigned effectively on other issues such as the proposed North-west Cape communications facility, state aid for students at both government and non-government schools, and the “Faceless Men” controversy. The Coalition criticised Labor for its insistence on Australian decision making in the event of warlike use for the facility and was portrayed by Menzies as being weak in its support for the US alliance. This was integral to the successful Coalition strategy of using the US alliance as a campaign issue, a strategy that shored up the all-important DLP preferences.
The half senate election on 5 December 1964 resulted in the Coalition winning exactly half the contested seats with the Democratic Labor Party and independent senator Reg Turnbull holding the balance of power. This poll was held shortly after the introduction of national service in November 1964, but before the announcement in May 1965 heralding new powers that enabled it to send national servicemen overseas.
This sequence of events helped set up the political viability of the scheme. The importance of the DLP vote, bolstered by anti-Communist rhetoric, together with the staggered timing of the announcements (first of the second National Service scheme in November 1964 and then of National Servicemen being liable for overseas service in May 1965) were significant factors.
On the floor of parliament, the issue of conscription was almost always broached in the context of the threat from the north. On 22 September 1964, Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes (Member for Chisholm, and an ex prisoner of war) asked the following question –
I address a question to the Prime Minister. If, as the right honourable gentleman said in Sydney last week, " Australia had never lived in a state of greater risk ", why has the Government not already taken the necessary action to provide a defence potential commensurate with such risk? As 44.5 per cent, of the recruits for the Australian Regular Army during the last year were between the ages of 17 and 19 years, the latter being the earliest age for active service, and the total of recruits for the last three months would not even provide for wastage, when does the Government propose to re-introduce national service training involving the calling up of 14,000 a year, or some similar scheme to provide the necessary man power for the defence potential which must be built up? Does the Government intend to continue making an appeal to the pockets and not to patriotism of young Australians?
The Prime Minister, in his very brief reply, referred to the issue as “a matter of policy” and inferred that it was already under serious discussion. Indeed, it was, and the second scheme was introduced a few months later. Questions such as this one had laid the groundwork.
The notion that the scheme could result in young men serving unwillingly in a war zone was usually countered by drawing attention to the loophole provided by CMF membership, an option which was taken up by only a very small cohort of prospective conscripts totalling 7197, out of the 804,286 who registered during the duration of the scheme.
Again, there was a standard response when this was brought up on the floor of parliament –
Senator MCKELLAR (NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Repatriation) - The position is this: Our young men today who are eligible for call up have the opportunity to join the C.M.F. Until fairly recently, this opportunity did not exist in the country. It does exist now because extra units have been raised. If young men intend going into the C.M.F. and they are liable to be called up, they must decide to enlist in the C.M.F. before the ballot is due. It could well be said that a young man who has not decided to join the C.M.F. and subsequently is called up could be classified in those circumstances as being sent to Vietnam unwillingly. If there are some youths in this category, I would think that they would be very few.
One strange aspect of the scheme was that any twenty-year-old migrant called up, who had served for a continuous period in the military of his country of origin, could subtract that time from his two-year national service obligation.
The following answer was given by Senator Wright, Minister for Labour and National Service, with reference to this issue on Tuesday, 21 April 1970:
A Yugoslav or any other migrant who arrives in Australia prior to the date proclaimed for his age-group to register is required to register for national service. If, following the relevant ballot, he is called up for national service, he will be required to serve for two years less any period of continuous full-time service he has rendered in the naval, military, or air force of Yugoslavia or any other country.
The reasoning behind this is difficult to understand, but it does highlight the irony in the attitude of the government of the day which on the one hand used a random but unfair process to conscript young men, but once they were conscripted gave the appearance of treating them fairly.
Questions about national service were often concerned with ensuring that the scheme was being implemented fairly, rather than its moral justification.
Perhaps this emphasis on fairness after the event was a strategy of distraction.
As the end of the decade approached, Hansard began to reflect a more militant attitude on the part of the opposition, as the questions about national service begin to focus more on the rationale behind the country’s commitment in Vietnam, than on the implementation of the scheme.
By April 1970, the parliamentary discourse was very much about the war rather than the soldiers, and the realisation that support across the Pacific was faltering rapidly was becoming a political factor.
Senator MURPHY (NEW SOUTH WALES) - My question is directed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, ls it a fact, as reported all around Parliament House and also in the daily Press, that the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr McEwen, yesterday told a meeting of Government Parties that America had lost the war in Vietnam because it had lost the war at home? If so, will the Leader convey to the Government our congratulations on the truth having percolated through to at least one member of the Government that this illegal, immoral, and unjust war has been lost?
The issue of the moral underpinning of the war came to a head during the moratorium campaigns of 1970 and 1971, but it was always emmeshed in objections to conscription.
In his backgrounding of the political build up to the Australian commitment, Michael Sexton refers to the DLP, and B. A. Santamaria –
Under the intellectual domination of Santamaria, therefore, the DLP became a vigorous advocate for American policies and greater Australian defence capability…….It was this climate of fear – in addition to the DLP’s votes – that proved so electorally valuable to Menzies and prevented Labor – or anyone else – initiating a debate on some of the premises of the government’s foreign policies.
Sexton contends that Labor was effectively wedged by the political climate, and that they risked electoral damage should they make an issue of the Vietnam commitment. Conscription, at this early stage, seemed somewhat lost as an issue -
Even more important for the men who were organising Australia’s Vietnam involvement,
they could be sure that in this climate no real debate on their decision could take place. Only the Labor party was likely to attempt a debate, and it had been effectively discredited before the decision was even made. In the short term, therefore, they had ensured their safety from any adverse judgements – even if their peace of mind required a high price to be paid by others.
Between 1964 and 1972, 804,286 twenty-year-olds registered for national service and 63,735 of these national servicemen served in the Army. About a quarter of those called up (about 15,000), served in Vietnam. Of those, 202 were killed and 1,279 wounded.
These young men came from a wide variety of backgrounds and communities, but they had at least one universal experience derived from their schooling in Australia. They had attended ANZAC Day ceremonies at their local schools, and many would have participated in the associated marches and ceremonies.
 L.F. Crisp, (1970), The D.L.P. Vote 1958 – 1969 and After, Politics, 5:1, DOI:10.1080/0032367008401191, p62
 Sir Wilfred Kent Hughes (member for Chisholm), Parliamentary Hansard, Question Time, House of Representatives, 22nd September 1964, question addressed to the Prime Minister, p1
 Sue Langford, Appendix: The National Service Scheme, 1964 – 1972, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/viet.app (Accessed October 2019)
 Senator Kenneth McKellar (New South Wales) (Minister for Repatriation), Parliamentary Hansard, Senate Question Time, Tuesday 18th October 1966, p1132
 Senator Reginald Wright, (Minister for Labour and National Service), Parliamentary Hansard, Senate Question Time, 21st April 1970, p1
 Senator Lionel Murphy, Parliamentary Hansard, Senate Question Time, Thursday 23rd April 1970, p1
 Michael Sexton, War for the Asking, New Holland, Sydney, 2002, p96
 Ibid p108
 Ashley Ekins with Ian McNeill, Fighting to the Finish, The Australian Army and the Vietnam War, 1968 – 1975, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p837