Conscription (compulsory military service for young men) has been a contentious issue throughout Australian history. The Defence Act 1903 was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Commonwealth Government. While the Act gave the government the power to conscript citizens for the purpose of home defence, legislation did not allow soldiers to be conscripted for overseas service.
The Universal Service Scheme was the first system of compulsory military service in Australia. The legislation for compulsory military training was introduced in 1909 by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, and was passed into law in 1911. This scheme was abolished by the Labor Government after its election in October 1929.
Compulsory military service for duty within Australia was revived in 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. There was to be no conscription for service overseas, but instead, in a bill passed in February 1943 by the Curtin Labor Government, "Australia" was defined in such a way as to include New Guinea and the adjacent islands. This obliged soldiers in the Citizen Military Force (CMF) to serve in this region, known as the South–West Pacific Area.
Compulsory military training was brought back in 1951 by the Menzies Government as the National Service Scheme. The scheme was criticised as being irrelevant to modern defence needs, and for being a drain on the Regular Army's finances and manpower. In 1959 the scheme was abolished. National Service was re-introduced in 1964, and in May 1965 the Coalition Government introduced new powers that enabled it to send national servicemen to serve overseas. From 1965 to 1972, 15,381 national servicemen served in the Vietnam War, with 200 killed and 1,279 wounded. The National Service Scheme was abolished on 5 December 1972 by the newly-elected Whitlam Labor government.
- Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995
- National Archives of Australia, Fact sheet: Universal military training in Australia, 1911–29
- T.B. Millar, Committee of Inquiry into the Citizen Military Forces Report, March 1974, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1974