National Service: Have a debate but make sure it is an informed one

back to Discussion papers

In 1909-11, under the Fisher Labor Government, Australia was the first real democracy in the world to introduce universal military conscription in peacetime. Australia has adopted military national service schemes five times in our history: 1905-09 (selective cadet scheme), 1911-1929 (universal), 1939-45 (universal), 1951-59 (mostly universal) and 1965-72 (selective). Several factors need to be addressed when seriously considering the current and future strategic utility, and citizenship equity, of reintroducing compulsory national service.


Acknowledging the Context

Periodic calls for the reintroduction of military or civil national service in Australia tend to ignore or gloss over the facts, implications and history involved. This is prone to occur in social media posts, comments posted on media articles, thinly-structured television "debates", talkback radio "discussions", or when some TV or radio hosts and polemical newspaper columnists go into ranting mode.

Compulsory schemes involving laws requiring conscription of the unwilling or the apathetic rather than, say, encouraging more Australians to volunteer for full-time or reservist service in our defence force, mean at least five hard truths always need to be faced.


Effective debate means a focus on the strategic utility of military national service

From the viewpoint of its strategic security utility (including opportunity-costs economically), the Australia Defence Association considers that the following six points of an above-politics — or military professional nature — should form the basis for any realistic and informed discussion of compulsory national service: 

Australia's previous experiences with both universal and selective national service schemes, during both peacetime and wartime, provide some clear strategic, economic, social and military-professional lessons.

Except for times of serious strategic risk, shortfalls in defence force recruiting or retention are better met by raising ADF salaries and conditions of service so they can actually compete with community norms, especially when the national labour market is experiencing strong competition for skilled and semi-skilled labour.


1951-59 universal national service scheme

Australia last had a universal military national service scheme during 1951-59 although the scheme was largely a selective one from 1957 (see below). In this period the Australian population was under nine million (about one-third of the current figure) and the total military-age (18-26) male population was around 520,000.

The primary intention was to develop and maintain an Army Reserve 100,000 strong in both its active and standby (inactive) components. This was achieved by 1959 with the active strength being around 51,000. This universal scheme involved most 18-year old males undertaking just under five and a half months (176 days) service split into full-time and part-time obligations.

In the beginning this involved: 

From 1951 to 1959, 500,000 young Australian men had registered. A total of 227,021 had served, in 52 separate intakes, by the end of 1959.

Most of those ‘called up’ (around 198,000) were allocated to the Army. After exemptions and deferments on medical, educational, conscientious and geographic isolation grounds (living more than 100 miles (160 kilometres) from an Army Reserve depot), about 27,000 national servicemen entered the Army each year with about half that from 1957 onwards. About 23,500 served with the Air Force and 6,862 with the Navy.

Very few, and probably none, saw actual war service overseas in Korea and Malaya (the only conflicts involving Australia during the period of the scheme).

Not least because the very short period of service involved prevented the additional military training required, even without counting the further 12-month period that deployment entailed. There were also the obvious legal and political constraints of the scheme's aim being to bolster the Army Reserve as a strategic contingency measure within Australia, not reinforce the full-time Army overseas.

Some serving with the Navy are believed to have been on ships temporarily visiting Korean waters, but not deployed there for long periods, before hostilities ended in 1953. Some from all three Services certainly assisted with British nuclear tests in the early and mid 1950s in the Monte Bellow Islands and at Maralinga respectively.

Most national servicemen served with the Army because this was the chief strategic need at the time and the short period of service involved was best attuned to the often more general nature of lower-level Army training. The nationally-dispersed geographic structure of the Army Reserve, and its broad community links, assisted this.

University students were mostly allocated to the Army and tended to undertake the first intake each year before the academic year began. This could mean their full-time obligation was 77 days not 98 with the other three weeks added to their subsequent three years of reservist service.

The period of full-time service in the Navy and the Army was normally taken up with recruit training. Special-to-Category and special-to-Corps training in the Navy and Army respectively was largely undertaken during the part-time service subsequently undertaken with the respective reserves.

There were several key problems with this universal scheme from a defence capability or military operational viewpoint: 


1965-72 selective national service scheme

Following a Cabinet decision on 05 November 1964 (and legislation on 24 November), selective military national service for one in forty 20-year old males was introduced in early 1965. In May 1965 the Act was amended to include liability for overseas service. Selection was decided by ballot based on dates of birth.

This selective national service scheme was introduced largely because the Treasury thought this would be cheaper than raising defence force pay rates at a time of virtually full employment – especially for skilled and semi-skilled labour. To the contrary, the wider labour market distortions and overall costs to the national economy involved ended up far outweighing the sums supposedly saved.

In times of full or near-full employment and buoyant economic conditions all conscription does is transfer labour market shortages somewhere else in the economy, generally with inflationary effects on wages and salaries. The only advantage of such a transfer of labour market shortfalls is that the civil economy is usually better placed to overcome them through increased immigration or temporary foreign labour. 

Some facts about the 1965-72 national service scheme are worth noting. About 800,000 young Australian men registered and about 63,735 were ‘called up’. Most served with the Army as service with the Navy or the Air Force involved a three-year full-time period but no subsequent period in the respective reserves. 

When national service was reintroduced in early 1965 the Army needed to be increased from its limited manpower base of 22,500 in order for Australia to meet its strategic commitments in helping defend Malaysia from Indonesia's "Confrontation" policy, and because future commitments to the defence of South Vietnam appeared likely. The latter occurred from mid 1965 but with the first battalion group deployed comprised of only regular troops.

The Army's strength reached 41,500 only three years later and peaked at around 44,500 in 1970. National servicemen were approximately one third of the full-time Army by 1970. 

Up to 2500 Australian citizens and permanent residents entered the defence force as national servicemen each quarter but the number was adjusted downwards depending on the levels of volunteer recruitment. More than this number were 'called up' each quarter but many were unsuitable on medical, psychological or educational grounds. Some claimed exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection to all wars, a matter adjudicated by the civil courts.

Those already serving for a minimum of five years (effectively not nominally) with the defence force reserves were otherwise exempt from national service. 

Those called up could also defer their service while completing their tertiary education or for significant compassionate reasons. Those deferring on educational or compassionate grounds had to undertake their national service when the reason for their deferment expired. Some managed to defer their service until the application of the National Service Act was suspended in December 1972 following the election of the Whitlam government.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s many of our elected male members of parliament who turned 20 during the 1965-72 period fell into this deferment group – a fact not lost on many Vietnam veterans. 

The term of full-time service was reduced from two years to 18 months in mid 1971 and the requirement for a further three years in the Army Reserve was largely met by standby (inactive) reserve service only. National servicemen were fully integrated into units across the Army and were paid the same as other defence force personnel.

This was different to most overseas conscription schemes where conscripts tend to serve in segregated or mostly conscript-staffed units and often at lower rates of pay (often resulting in a budgetary preference for conscripts over volunteers because they are much cheaper in the short term). The re-enlistment rate for national servicemen finishing their period of national service was much less than for regular army volunteers. 

After the May 1965 legislative amendment (above) all national servicemen were liable for service in Vietnam and such deployments began in 1966. The official enforcement of this policy was not relaxed until mid 1971.

In some units warned out for service in Vietnam, however, the policy was administratively circumvented at unit and sub-unit level on moral and practical (teamwork) grounds. Chiefly through the transfer from the unit of those national servicemen who did not wish to serve in Vietnam. But many, probably most, national servicemen were effectively given no real choice in the matter during the 1966-71 period. Others “volunteered” with varying degrees of enthusiasm when their unit was warned for service in Vietnam out of concern they might be letting their mates down by not participating.

Service in South Vietnam was invariably during the second year of service after 12 months of recruit, specialist and unit (collective) training in Australia. About 15,400 national servicemen served in South Vietnam over the period and they comprise about 30 per cent of Vietnam veterans. At any one time national servicemen comprised about one third of the Australian Task Force and at most times about half its infantry component.

In the 1962-72 period 474 Australians died in Vietnam. By 1972 some 50 more had died of their wounds or illnesses after returning to Australia. An unknown number have died since from their wounds or otherwise prematurely because of Vietnam service. Of the 474 who died in Vietnam, 202 were national servicemen. 

At the time the selective scheme was suspended in late 1972 the strength of the regular army was 42,300 with national servicemen comprising just on 12,000 of the total.

The National Service Act governing the requirement for this particular selective conscription scheme was repealed in 1973. 


Subsequent developments

Since 1973 the Australian Defence Force has been maintained by voluntary recruitment only. The strength of our Army peaked at 33,000 in 1983 and declined to its lowest (and strategically insufficient) level at 24,000 in 2000.

General provision for national service remains in the Defence Act but only in ‘time of war’ (including apprehended war).

The legal definition of what is war and apprehended war are now quite unclear due to changes in international law and practice since 1945.

Much confusion also occurs in public perceptions, largely because it is not widely understood that formal 'declarations of a state of war' have been illegal in international law, and therefore unnecessary as a national legal term, since the UN Charter was signed in 1945.

In international law, war now exists as a material fact alone.

In 1992, legislation was also passed to extend the grounds for conscientious objection to military national service. Previously a conscripted person had to prove (in court) their conscientious objection to all participation in all wars based solely on deeply-held religious belief.

Now it is permissable to claim a conscientious objection, and on other than religious grounds, to participation in a specific war.

This provision has yet to be tested in practice as Australia has fought no wars using national servicemen since 1971. 

There remain strong concerns that the additional grounds, and allowing objection to a specific war instead of war in general, will prove unworkable in practice. Especially under the testing national unity and strategic security conditions that military conflicts tend to involve. Concerns principally stem from the:

Lessons from the military national service schemes of the 1950s and 1960s

The lessons of the universal national service scheme of the 1950s and the selective scheme of the 1960s remain largely relevant to Australia’s present strategic situation. As do other subsequent developments in Australia's strategic security setting, demographics and society.

From the national strategic security or military operational viewpoints, universal or even selective military conscription makes little sense unless very large numbers are required quickly and equitably at a time of significant force expansion.

Our current strategic situation, although increasingly uncertain, is not one of those times. However, the option of national service should always be retained in case our strategic circumstances (including longer-term national demographic profiles) deteriorate markedly. 

There would also now be demographic, equity and work-health and safety impacts on any contemporary military or civil national service scheme.

An equitable universal national service scheme today involving, for example, the conscription of all male and female 20-year olds (instead of selectively one in forty male 20-year olds as in the 1960s), would involve the conscription of up to 250,000 young Australians annually. This would severely distort the labour market and seriously weaken the wider economy.

Military national Service on this scale would also provide far more personnel than the ADF, especially the Navy and the Air Force, could conceivably need in peacetime.

Just as importantly, it would risk the same damage to the defence force's ongoing operational capabilities and deployments, and to its modernisation in depth, as was caused by universal national service in the 1950s. 

Few countries retaining extensive military national service schemes are democracies. Most third-world countries with universal military conscription schemes retain them to mop up youth unemployment, and/or because they pay conscripts very little this is seen as a cheaper option than paying volunteers.

Foreign democracies still dependent on extensive universal military conscription schemes for strategic reasons, such as Israel and Singapore, are usually countries with small populations who see themselves as surrounded by much more populous and not always friendly neighbours.

In both these two cases they are also relatively young countries who retain universal national service schemes for nation-building and cross-ethnic interaction purposes because of the special nature of their respective societies. 

A selective national service scheme is by definition always inequitable to some degree. Any new selective scheme in Australia would have to be very well-designed to avoid being invalidated by modern human rights and equity legislation.

The core problem for any democracy implementing a selective military conscription scheme is how do you choose who has to render military service and who is exempt.

If, for example, as certain radio talk-back and evening TV hosts are wont to declaim, the unemployed should be conscripted the scheme would probably not survive a High Court challenge as grossly inequitable. After all, if our national defence circumstances are serious enough to require national service they obviously invoke every citizen's responsibility to help defend Australia. This responsibility is like jury duty and is an equal one shared by all Australians. It should not be decided on an individual's temporary economic circumstances or controversial community perceptions of their availability, suitability or social worth. 

Furthermore, virtually all jobs in the modern ADF are at least semi-skilled rather than unskilled.

Another big problem with compulsorily enlisting those deemed unemployed is that many, perhaps most, of those in the long-term unemployment category are unskilled or would not meet defence force entry standards for education levels, age limits, employment stability and medical or psychological fitness.

Given that military service is intellectually challenging, physically arduous and often inherently dangerous anyway, the overall operational effectiveness of the force and its occupational health and safety levels should not be further risked by lowering entry-level standards in this manner. 



Universal  military consription may be needed at some time in the future if our strategic security circumstances seriously deteriorate. The option must always be retained (as it is in the current Defence Act).

It cannot be justified for national security, military or economic reasons in Australia's current strategic circumstances. But this situation needs to be kept under regular review. 

Selective military conscription may appear superficially attractive as an alternative. If only because it would provide the smaller numbers of personnel needed to cover recruiting shortfalls when our strategic situation requires a larger (but still not large) ADF during times of full employment.

But a selective military conscription scheme would be hard to implement equitably or efficiently. While it avoids many of the military pitfalls of a universal scheme it suffers from many of the same economic (and political) disadvantages. 

Military or civil national service may or may not be desirable for a range of political or social reasons. As a staunchly non-partisan organisation the ADA has no position on this matter except to note that it should not be the defence force's job to fix society's wider perceived ills.

Such real and perceived ills and their cures are the shared responsibility of all Australians. 

Finally, any effective discussion of either military or civil national service needs to address all the strategic, operational, demographic, economic and social equity issues involved, rather than just concentrate on perceived collective and individual social benefits. 


back to Discussion papers