What makes a good conference?

The blog has always thought a good conference is one where you learn something you didn’t know; get prompted to think anew about something you thought you knew; and where you get hot under the collar about some speaker’s comments.

The recent Military History and Heritage Victoria conference – The Great Debate: Conscription and National Service 1912-1972 – managed to tick the boxes for all three success criteria.

For a start Dr Michael Lawriwsky gave a paper on Australia’s first WWI VC winner, Albert Jacka. Despite the blog living in the city of which Jacka became Mayor and running across statues, parks and roads named after him most days the blog was largely ignorant of who he was, what he did and – most importantly – how his story illustrates the reality of the divisions in Australia around WWI and conscription. While Jacka fought along with two of his brothers his father and another brother were fervently left wing and anti-conscription.  The divisions in the family were such that neither father nor campaigning brother appear in photographs of Jacka’s family homecoming and neither were invited to his wedding. In that respect the Jacka case study is a very useful introduction to Joan Beaumont’s excellent Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War.

Also new to the blog was the extensive financial support the famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) John Wren gave to Jacka and other returned soldiers. In particular Wren advanced the money which enabled Jacka to go into business and, when the Depression sent the business out of business, National Australia Bank records make it clear that it was Wren who made it possible for Jacka to get out from under while keeping his house. This would have cost Wren about 20,000 pounds (with one pound in 1929 being worth about $53 in current dollar value). Interestingly though, Jacka was not among the VCs on horseback leading a Wren organised parade in which Archbishop Mannix took part. Dr Lawriwsky also points out that Wren gave away around two million pounds during his lifetime possibly making him Australia’s greatest philanthropist yet.

Tim Fischer, former Deputy PM and a subaltern in South Vietnam, raised the question as to whether the ballot used to call up people for the Vietnam War was, if not rigged, at least massaged. Tim’s questioning of apparent irregularities in the number of dates from each month in each draw can most probably be explained by the way we are often fooled by the fact that random numbers often don’t look random to us because we find patterns which are not really patterns – just a product of randomness. It does appear that there was some massaging around the edges partly because, as Mark Dapin (author of Nashos) said in another paper, intake numbers were skewed as deferments for people from earlier ballots completed their deferment and went into the Army.  Dave Sabben also added to the conscription background by proving that the new system was not designed for the Vietnam War but was given impetus by Cabinet fears of Indonesian infiltration or invasion of PNG. Mark Dapin also talked about this and analysed the details of the Cabinet debates around the time – amusingly highlighting how Billy McMahon’s interventions in the debates were inevitably both irrelevant and silly.

Dave Sabben (see Lex McAulay’s The Battle of Long Tan) is an extraordinarily brave man whose gallantry during the 1966 Battle of Long Tan, which pitted 100 Australians against some 2500 VC, has been recognised. However, the blog found his analysis of why we needed to be in Vietnam unconvincing even if it was consistent with the dominant domino narrative of the time. In particular he suggested that the Australian involvement demonstrated the worth of the ANZUS Treaty although there is ample evidence (see Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies) that it is actually useless. Moreover, at the time reference was made more often to SEATO than ANZUS. Nevertheless ANZUS lives on in myth rather than dying quietly like SEATO.

The IPA’s Chris Berg was going to give a paper on Billy Hughes and the politics of conscription but he had to pull out and, at short notice, Dr Andrew Kilsby pulled together a succinct and balanced analysis of Hughes, the conscription referenda and the politics of the time which is a terrific short introduction to the subject illustrated with some great images. Rafe Champion, made up for Chris’ absence in a paper about how the conscription debate was a forerunner of the coalition of viscerally hating chattering class forces which supported the ALP in the 1970s and 80s but have now thankfully been driven back by the good governance and civility of John Howard and Tony Abbott. As Rafe said, Abbott didn’t hold up the Ditch the Witch sign, he only stood under it. Just as he did with the Bob Brown’s Bitch one as well.

Despite the conference title there was no great debate as such about conscription and the consensus, even with explorations of community service options, generally was that conscription was unnecessary and probably both inefficient and a drain on both taxpayers and the Army. Inevitably some of the discussion about conscription ended up canvassing discussion of threats to Australia. Now the blog thinks there is something really significant about alleged threats to Australia. After all – since European settlement – successively the French, the Russians, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians again, the Chinese and the Indonesians were all believed likely to invade Australia.  Supporters of the threats’ validity would argue that it was only our great and powerful friends which stopped them but the fact is that the only people to have ever invaded the continent are the British (the first indigenous migrants some 60,000 years ago did, in contrast, genuinely find a terra nullius although the megafauna which had been the dominant creatures on the continent seemed to have been wiped out quite quickly).

At the conference some new threat suspects were drummed up – India was one outlier although the overall favourites were Muslims and the Chinese. But the most acute comment was probably that of Dr Jim Wood who remarked that if there was a threat it would most probably be a surprise.

The conference papers will be up on the Military History and Heritage Victoria website (http://www.mhhv.org.au/) in a few weeks although in the meantime there are papers from previous conferences and various articles.