The Moratorium Movement

Although people in Australia had been protesting against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the National Service Act, since their beginning (see, for example), 1970 saw the biggest public demonstrations. The largest of all happened on 8 May 1970 in Melbourne, when between 60,000 and 100,000 people (depending on who you ask) took to the city streets to express their opposition. Two further moratoriums followed, in September 1970 and June 1971.  

The moratorium movement was designed to bring together the various committees, clubs and groups who had so far often been working in isolation. The national Chairperson was Jim Cairns, a federal Labor politician (who went on to be Deputy Prime Minister under Gough Whitlam) who had been vocally protesting Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War for some time. The vice-chairs were Jean McLean (leader of Melbourne’s SOS, and an ALP member); Laurie Carmichael, of the Amalgamated Engineering Union; and Harry Van Moorst as the student representative. The possibility of an Australian moratorium was mooted from the end of 1969, following on from two massive moratoriums in the United States. (See Ken Mansell’s detailed timeline of 1969 here). The weekend of May 8-10, 1970, was eventually agreed as the time when there would mass demonstrations across Australia.

The May 1970 moratorium generated an enormous amount of media coverage before it even happened. There was a great deal of discussion about whether such a demonstration was even appropriate, with Billy Snedden, the Federal Minister for Labour and National Service from 1969-71, claiming in a speech to Parliament that protesters were “political bikies pack-raping democracy”. There was also great concern expressed about the possibility for violence. In Melbourne, the moratorium occurred with no violence; it was the largest such demonstration Australia had ever experienced.  

Note: “conscription” and “the draft” are used interchangeably for “the National Service Act”.

The interview excerpts you will find here were recorded by Alexandra Pierce between 2018 and 2022. Some of them were conducted in person, while others were done via Zoom or Skype. They form part of a larger project dedicated to documenting the role of Melbourne women in protesting both the National Service Act and the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1972. It is important to keep in mind that these women are recalling events from more than fifty years ago.

Oral history sources can be used in the same way as a written history source, and should be referenced appropriately. Consideration should be given to their context – both the context of the person at the time they were speaking, and at the time they are discussing. Oral history has a vital place in recording previously overlooked historical voices.

These sources are particularly designed to address key knowledge from the VCE study design for Australian History, Outcome 2: War and upheaval (1950–1992). Key skills that can be applied include:

  • ask and use a range of historical questions to explore continuity and change
  • evaluate sources for use as evidence
  • analyse the perspectives of people and how perspectives changed and/or remained the same over time
  • analyse the causes and consequences of continuity and change
  • evaluate the historical significance of changes to and continuities in Australian society
  • construct arguments about continuity and change in Australian history using sources as evidence.


Suggesting reading and viewing:

Rowan Cahill, ‘The Moratoriums: “Pack-Raping Democracy”?’ Australian Society for the Study of Labour History:

Ken Mansell, various articles and timelines found at Labour History Melbourne:

Peter Dodds and Ross Campbell (dir), “As Long as I Can Walk”, 1971 (footage from the third moratorium in June 1971):

This Day Tonight, “Melbourne Moratorium against Vietnam War”, May 1970:

Vietnam War Protests – Melbourne, 1971: