National Service Scheme

Crowd demonstrating at a Vietnam Moratorium march on the steps of Parliament House, 1970
Melbourne, 1970. Section of crowd demonstrating at a Vietnam Moratorium march on the steps of Parliament House.C40174

Compulsory military training for the nation's young men was reintroduced in 1951 by the Liberal Government. It was the third such scheme to have existed in Australia since Federation. Eighteen-year-old men were required to partake in the National Service scheme, which meant that they had to undertake 176 days of military training. Those who elected to undertake their training in the army could break up their training requirements into two periods, 98 days in the regular army and 78 days in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). Those who elected to undertake their training with the RAN or the RAAF had to complete their 176 days in one stretch. The scheme was criticised as being irrelevant to modern defence needs, where skill was becoming more important than numbers, and for being a drain on the regular army's finances and manpower. In 1959 the scheme was abolished.

National service was brought back for a fourth time in 1964, and in May 1965 the Liberal government introduced new powers that enabled it to send national servicemen overseas. At that time Australian soldiers were involved with the war in Vietnam, and the Menzies government wished to raise the army's numbers to 40,000 in order to meet overseas commitments. All 20-year-old males had to register with the Department of Labour and National Service, and their names were selected by the "birthday ballot", in which men were randomly selected for national service by their date of birth. Exemptions were given to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the medically unfit, and theology students. Young men were granted exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection only if they could prove their objection to war was based on religious beliefs. A temporary deferment of national service was granted to university students, apprentices, married men, and those who could prove that national service would cause them financial hardship. Those who were selected for national service were required to serve for two years full-time in the regular army, and three years part-time in the reserves.

From 1965 to 1972, 15,381 national servicemen served in the Vietnam War, with 200 killed and 1,279 wounded. Once again the issue of conscription provoked debate within the Australian community, with university students and other members of the community taking part in large anti-conscription and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. The National Service Scheme was abolished on 5 December 1972 by the newly elected Labor government.


  • Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995
  • T.B. Millar, Committee of Inquiry into the Citizen Military Forces Report, March 1974, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1974

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Last updated: 10/25/2017