75th Anniversary of the introduction of The Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943

The Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 was a Commonwealth law passed on 19 February 1943. The Act extended the area in which the Militia were obliged to serve, from Australia and its territories to the South-Western Pacific Zone for the duration of the war and up to six months of Australia ceasing to be involved in hostilities. This area was a triangle bound by the equator and the 110th and 159th meridians of longitude.

Conscription, compulsory military service for young men, has been a contentious issue throughout Australia’s history. The Defence Act 1903 was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Commonwealth Government and gave the government the power to conscript for the purposes of home defence. The 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 immediately following its election in October 1929.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, compulsory military service for duty within Australia was revived. In a statement to Parliament on 15 November 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies noted that the War Cabinet had determined that the Militia forces needed to be kept at an adequately trained strength of not less than 75,000 men – “there is I believe, a growing recognition of the fact that military training for the defence of Australia should be a normal part of our civic life, and that if it is to be just and democratic, it should be made compulsory.”

Compulsory military training was to be reintroduced to take effect from 1 January 1940, requiring all unmarried men turning 21 in the call up period to undertake three months training with the Militia.

The Leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), John Curtin, strongly opposed the move in Parliament and reiterated ALP opposition to compulsory military service overseas. However in 1943, as Prime Minister, Curtin sought to amend the ALP platform and on 5 January 1943, the Federal Conference of the ALP passed the following resolution –

“that having regard to the paramount necessity of Australia’s defence, the Government be authorised to add to the definition of the territories to which the Defence Act extends the following words: ‘and such other territories in the South-West Pacific Area as the Governor-General proclaims as being territories associated with the defence of Australia’.”

There were several reasons for this radical change to traditional Labor policy. The limitations on where conscripts could serve was seen to be hampering military planning and there were large numbers of American conscripts arriving in Australia to assist in its defence. Curtin therefore argued that:

‘the US had saved Australia and the Government had had a desperate fight to get aid for Australia. He did not want to live those months again. Now the position was that there was a barrage of criticism in Australia and the United States that Australia would have Americans defend Darwin but not Australians fight for the Philippines.’

On 26 January 1943, War Cabinet approved a bill to give effect to the motion and The Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 became a reality. The Act not only extended the area in which the Militia were obliged to serve but also allowed for the transfer of Militia units to the AIF if 65 per cent or more of their personnel had volunteered for overseas service.