Four days before Australians voted in the 1916 referendum about compulsory military service, a teacher at Richmond Hill State School decided to explore this process of voting when teaching the combined Fourth and Fifth classes. On Tuesday 24 October Mr William John Williams discussed the concept of a referendum -“what it is, when it is necessary and how it is conducted”, and informed his students that they would take part in a mock referendum the following day.
On Wednesday the mock referendum was held, with some boys acting as presiding officers, and the students were presented with a ballot paper.
That same evening the Hon. William McCormack – then Speaker of the Queensland legislative Assembly, and Queensland Premier from 1925 – 1929 – delivered an “open air” address near the Eureka Hotel at Queenton, against conscription.
As the Evening Telegraph reported the next day, Minister McCormack, having learnt of the school’s otherwise innocuous civics lesson, took issue with what he saw as a vote on conscription.
The Under Secretary of the Department of Public Instruction accordingly held an inquiry. District Inspector Jas. Johnson visited the Charters Towers school to interview teachers and ask students a number of questions.
Mr Johnson found that the mock referendum was not intended to be a vote on conscription, and that the exercise was misconstrued largely due to teachers “gossiping to outsiders”- quite an inflammatory thing to do during a time of war and amidst a debate on conscription.
The District Inspector, finding that the teacher “did nothing to warrant any charge of partisanship being made against him”, suggested a different ballot question.
- The complete Richmond Hill State School inquiry report can be viewed at:
- The official referendum of 28 October 1916 asked Australians:
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?
The referendum was defeated with 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against. http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs161.aspx