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The response of the Labour Movement to conscription: political objectors to military service


In the early part of the 20th century Christchurch was a hotbed of socialism, and the advent of the First World War rallied the movement around class-consciousness. The socialists espoused the belief that New Zealand workers had no quarrel with German workers; on the other side of the world, German workers were saying the same thing amidst massive street rallies.

Some were imprisoned on Ripapa Island for refusing to register for Compulsory Military Training, some spent time in Lyttelton Gaol for sedition, and others were incarcerated in Paparua Prison for conscientious objection. The conscientious objectors who were named on the military defaulters' list at the end of the War lost their rights as citizens for ten years.

Several of the seditionists and conscientious objectors became prominent local and national Labour politicians. One was Christchurch East's MP for twenty years, and another Prime Minister of New Zealand. Together they formed a government that built one of our country's finest achievements: the Welfare State. They cleared slums and built public housing, hospitals and schools. 

The Canterbury socialists refused to participate in a foreign imperial war, but one hundred years ago they were at the very epicentre of a class one.

Keith Locke marks the centenary of the first men to be jailed for sedition when they spoke out against conscription

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Pre-War Anti-Militarism and the Passive Resisters Union


The pre-war peace movement began in response to the 1909 Defence Act which introduced compulsory military training or ‘Peacetime Conscription’. Boys as young as 12 (later raised to 14) were obliged to drill regularly and this continued up to the age of 21 (later raised to 25).

Christchurch was the centre of resistance to compulsory military training with three organisations forming in two years: the Anti-Militarist League and the National Peace Council founded in 1911, and the Passive Resisters’ Union (PRU) founded in 1912. The Canterbury Women's Institute and labour organisations also supported this early peace movement.

While the Anti-Militarist League and the National Peace Council worked in traditional ways with meetings, letters, deputations, and the printing and disseminating of educational material, the PRU carried out a programme of civil disobedience. Only the young men who were affected by the Act could join the union and when their members began to be imprisoned and lose their civil rights the union published its own very effective publication, The Repeal.

The PRU with a membership of more than 400 led an effective campaign of resistance to the Act. Several hundred young men throughout the country refused to drill and were imprisoned for non-payment of fines imposed by the courts. Their campaign was supported by the wider peace movement which could justifiably claim that the Defence Act had become unworkable.

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