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Anzac Day is also about the right to democratic dissent and those who fought for it

Activists trying to bring attention to the issue of rape in war were arrested for protesting at Anzac Day services in the 1980s. ACT Heritage Library

In response to foiled plans for a terrorist attack at an Anzac Day commemoration service, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that interfering with such an event is “utterly alien to Australians”.

But Abbott is wrong. While any attack resulting in deaths would be reprehensible, and quite different to interruptions to services in the past, interfering with an Anzac Day service has been a very Australian way of drawing public attention to an issue.

Protests against abuses in war

In the 1960s and 1970s, anti-Vietnam War protests were common at Anzac Day events.

On Anzac Day 1982, 750 women stood on the hill overlooking the War Memorial in Canberra during the official wreath laying. They held a large banner, which read:

In memory of all women of all countries raped in all wars.

This important action drew attention to the gender-specific effects of war long before the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

The then minister for the capital territory, Michael Hodgman, had tried to prevent the raising of this kind of issue on Anzac Day for the two previous years. On Anzac Day 1981, 65 women were arrested for trying to join the march to recognise women raped in war.

Michael Hodgman tried to prevent protests from taking place at Anzac Day services. AAP

Two days prior, Hodgman had gazetted an ordinance making it an offence to engage in conduct “likely to give offence or cause insult to” persons taking part in an Anzac Day parade. He claimed to have information that representatives of Marxist and lesbian groups would attempt to sabotage the Anzac ceremony.

In 1982, Hodgman produced a further ordinance intended to stop the women.

These repressive ordinances helped galvanise a much larger number of organisations concerned with civil liberties and freedom of assembly, including the Labor opposition. They ensured nationwide media coverage for the women’s actions.

There was widespread controversy over whether dissenting voices had the right to participate in a national ceremony or whether such ceremonies should be limited to honouring the fallen.

As the centenary of the Gallipoli landing approaches, memories of such dissenting actions seems to have disappeared from public consciousness. This is despite the priority that Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has been giving to the issue of sexual violence during armed conflict.

Protests against conscription

Yet if Gallipoli was about defining the nation, shouldn’t Australians be celebrating the value of democratic dissent? A team of social scientists has been preparing to mark the centenary next year of the first conscription referendum, a truly distinctive democratic event.

Australia was not only a nation that voted itself into existence in the referendums of the 1890s. It was also the only country in the first world war to provide the opportunity to vote on the issue of conscription.

Despite the censorship and restrictions under the War Precautions Act, the 1916 conscription referendum was a sufficiently democratic exercise for the result to be an unexpected win for the “no” vote. The “no” vote was even stronger in the 1917 referendum.

James O'Loghlin, the only senator to see active service in WWI, opposed conscription. NLA

One of the arguments against conscription was that it represented the kind of militarism that the Allies were fighting against. As a result, it was the antithesis of the “British liberties” central to Australian democracy. This argument was reinforced by the increasingly authoritarian behaviour of the prime minister, Billy Hughes, arrests under the War Precautions Act and the breaking up of public meetings by uniformed soldiers.

Anti-conscriptionists were able to pre-empt accusations of disloyalty to Britain by arguing they were defending British liberties against “Prussianism”. James O’Loghlin was the only senator to be on active service overseas during the first world war. On his return to the Senate in 1917 he was expected to support conscription. Instead, he said:

I am opposed to Kaiserism, whether that Kaiserism comes from Billy Hughes or William Hohenzollern.

The conscription referendums are often remembered for leaving a legacy of political bitterness and division. But perhaps we should also remember them, like the dissent events around Anzac Day, as embodying the value of democratic conflict – perhaps the central democratic value.

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