Conscientious non-compliers were a diverse group of young men who opposed the National Service Act (NSA) for military conscription and the Vietnam war to which conscripts were sent. Non-compliers worked for the repeal of the Act.
It is difficult to obtain a precise number of conscientious non-compliers to the NSA during 1965 and 1972. By this is meant those who actively non-complied as distinct from stating they intended to do so. An analysis of a large sample of known non-compliers reveals the following.
The demographic was early 20s. This is to be expected as selective conscription was directed at 20 year old males.
The highest numbers were from the states of New South Wales and Victoria. This is not surprising as these were the most populous states. In the largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne there was better communication and information about rights and better organisation for the practice of dissent and non-compliance. Increasingly during the Vietnam war years draft resisters organised collectively to agitate for the repeal of the NSA.
The most important ground for opposition to the NSA was the libertarian argument. Conscription itself was immoral as it violated individual liberty. Many believed that because conscripts lacked the vote this was undemocratic, and, because it was selective it was unjust. The ballot system was likened to a lottery, some referred to it as a ‘death lottery’.
Another important ground for non-compliance was that the NSA provided for the possibility of both regular and conscripted men to participate in the immoral Vietnam War. Opposition to the Vietnam War existed in its own right but it was inseparable from the NSA.
A view commonly shared with conscientious objectors was a humanist or religious belief of the immorality of killing human beings.
A number of the non-compliers viewed the NSA and the Vietnam War as a symptom of all that was wrong with contemporary Australian society. They argued that what was needed was widespread societal reform, which included the repeal of the NSA and the end of Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.
Historically, conscientious non-compliers and conscientious objectors have been characterized as coward and shirkers and even traitors. Such a view accuses them of contributing little service to society. In fact these young men of principle were brave in the face of a majority who viewed them this way. Some were jailed and some badly treated whilst incarcerated. The truth is that these young men of conscience were already gainfully employed or were undertaking education and training. Some lost their jobs and had their careers ruined. There are many examples of these men who gave exemplary service to society and continue to do so today.
Another charge, often made by those on the conservative side of politics, was that draft resisters were under the influence of communism. At the time fear of communism was strong in the community. Yet the communists were and always have been a tiny minority in Australia. While some conscientious non-compliers held communist beliefs, the majority were guided by strong humanist or religious principles with a firm belief in democracy, personal rights, liberty and community service.