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Cabinet papers: Broadening the way for objectors not to become Diggers

Former Australian defence minister Robert Ray in 1991. Photo: Peter Morris A women’s anti-conscription demonstration at Marrickville army depot on April 20, 1966.

Australia became the first and still only nation to recognise a right of selective objection to military conscription.

The cabinet agreed to allow people to claim an exemption from being called up to fight in a particular war or warlike operation as well as to war or warlike operations generally.

The sweeping changes to conscription were made by a cabinet comprised of many men and women who had joined the anti-conscription and anti-Vietnam War marches of the 1960s and 1970s.

During the Vietnam War, cases of conscientious objection were heard by ordinary courts, but the cabinet agreed that a new tribunal would be set up to hear cases of conscientious objection if conscription was introduced.

Government MPs were pushing for a law to prevent future governments from introducing compulsory military service without parliamentary authority.

In May 1991, Defence Minister Robert Ray told the cabinet that people who opposed the current provisions for conscription that applied when Australia was threatened might criticise the changes.

“But the proposal would widen grounds for conscientious objection,” he said.

When Tasmanian senator Michael Tate became Justice Minister he drafted a bill to amend the Defence Act in relation to conscientious objection. It was referred to the Senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs in 1983.

The most controversial aspect of the draft bill was the proposal to recognise selective objection.

In its submission to the standing committee’s inquiry, the Defence Department was totally opposed to altering any legislation relating to conscription.

A confidential Defence Department internal minute noted:

“If the proposed changes to eligibility for exemption on conscientious grounds are adopted, they should logically be available during service, whether compulsory or voluntary. In this context, should regular [volunteer] members of the Defence Force gain exemption and thus not be available to perform the duties for which they have been trained, any national investment which has been made in their training will have been wasted. Further, operational capabilities that are essential components of an effective national defence force could be rendered inoperative if specially trained personnel manning critical functions were granted exemption.”

The federal opposition opposed the recognition of selective objection, saying it was unworkable.

Senator Ray said selective objection would not include military service required in the event of invasion of the Australian mainland.

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the Archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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