Conscription and censorship inflame passions

Name: Jeremiah Stable
Date: 1917
Unit: 1st Military District
Location: Brisbane, Qld

Conflicts between the Commonwealth and State governments are nothing new. During World War I the subject of conscription almost split the nation, causing rifts within political parties and families.

Captain Jeremiah Joseph Stable was a Commonwealth Government Senior Assistant Censor in the Intelligence Section of the General Staff, 1st Military District, during the war and had the power granted by various authorities to intercept mail and to carry out other duties under the War Precautions Regulations 1915 and the Aliens Restriction Order 1915.

His role in the political battle between the Prime Minister, W M Hughes, and the Premier of Queensland, The Hon T J Ryan, had the makings of a first-class thriller.

Conscription has always been a contentious issue and in 1917 it inflamed politicians and the public alike. It also led to the defection of members of the Labour Party, including the Prime Minister, W M Hughes, and several of his colleagues.

Hughes joined with Liberal members of the House of Representatives to form a new Nationalist Party.

During the course of World War I, two referendums were held to seek conscription when the number of volunteers dropped to dangerously low numbers.

On the first occasion, the question was defeated by a margin of 72,476 votes. A majority of soldiers serving overseas at the time not surprisingly voted for conscription. On the second occasion the vote against conscription increased to 96,152 with troops overseas again favouring conscription but by a smaller majority.

The subject split political alignments and families throughout Australia and led to a number of incidents.

The Queensland Parliament was the scene of a great debate with the Premier, the Hon T J Ryan, speaking out against Military Censorship on the subject of conscription.

On 22 November 1917 he moved the motion.

"That this House emphatically protests against the manner in which the censorship is being abused to suppress reports of the views of those opposing the Commonwealth Government's conscription proposals, and condemns it as an unwarranted interference with the rights of free discussion on the platform, and in the Press, upon one of the gravest issues ever submitted to the public, and a flagrant infringement of the time-honoured rights of a free people".

He then spoke passionately against any form of censorship that was not

"purely for the purposes connected with the successful carrying on of the war".

Mr Ryan said censorship

"should be utilised for the prevention of information getting to the enemy or for any other purpose that is intended for securing the public safety and the defence of the Commonwealth".

"Now anything that is bona fide for the securing of public safety and the defence of the Commonwealth no doubt is welcomed by all parties and by every member of this House. (Hear, hear!) But when these powers are used for an entirely different purpose; when they are extended to be utilised for political purposes, they are then beyond the ambit, not only of the War Precautions Act, but of the whole purpose for which censorship is established."

Following this debate, the Prime Minister, W M Hughes, sent a hand-written note dated 27 November 1917 to the Senior Assistant Censor, Captain Jeremiah Joseph Stable, ordering him to proceed to the Government Printer and

"demand delivery of such further copies of Hansard No 37 as have been printed and take delivery of all copies or loose sheets of same.

"You are to formally notify all persons who may endeavour to prevent you carrying out this order that you act with the authority of the Commonwealth and of regulations under the War Precautions Act and call upon all persons who assist you, to carry out your instructions and obey the laws of the Commonwealth. W M Hughes, Prime Minister & Attorney-General."

It is understood that the debate and the Hansard report contained unauthorised material which the Prime Minister wanted suppressed.

Captain Stable's son, Dr John Stable, recorded in 1978 details of what happened next from his memory of what his father had told him.

"My father was known under the title Senior Assistant Censor as used by the Deputy Post Master General, H B Templeton, in written authority of 5 June 1916," Dr Stable recalled.

"A further authority signed by the Commissioner of Police of 2 June 1916 is significant.

'To Officers in charge of Police Districts & Members of the Force in charge of Police Stations in QUEENSLAND.

'The bearer of this is Captain J.J. Stable, of the Intelligence Section of the General Staff, 1st Military District, to whom the powers of 'A Competent Military Authority' under War Precautions Regulations, 1915, have been delegated.

'Members of the Police Force will render to Captain Stable all assistance in their power that he may ask for or require in pursuance of his important duties under the Defence Department.

Commissioner of Police, Queensland.'

"What is to follow probably represents the first conflict of force between the Commonwealth and a State. It has been necessary to draw from memory as there is no more in writing than has been quoted.

"Having received his orders my Father went to the State Government Printing Office in George Street, in uniform. This building is still there (1978). He was about to enter when a row of Policemen with batons rose out of the recess between the building and the footpath which in those days was a common feature giving light and access to the basement.

"He was unable to carry out his duty in spite of the Police Commissioner's written authority. This authority must have been over ridden by Premier Ryan who at that moment is said to have been standing in his dressing gown on the footpath opposite.

"This is not unlikely as judging by the Prime Minister's letter there must have been a heavy session the day or evening before.

"The Cecil Hotel and nearby residences were used by politicians in those days.

"Having failed to gain entrance, my Father left and walked to Victoria Barracks and there obtained a troop of armed soldiers. Then mounted on a horse, marched at the head down George Street to the printing office.

"He again confronted the Police who granted access. The Government Printer, Cummings, opened the door.

"Cummings and my Father then went to the press and destroyed all copies, with the exception of three copies, of the Hansard. One copy was kept by Cummings, one by Captain Robinson who at the time of this incident was destroying the plates and printing of the Standard newspaper in Edward Street. The location is now the site of Watkins Place. The whereabouts of Robinson's copy is not known. Cummings gave his copy to the National Library in Canberra from whence it vanished.

"The third copy was retained by my Father and still exists. In the passage of years it has lost part of its cover. (It is now with the Queensland Museum)

"The Prime Minister's letter appears to have been done in a temper and haste, probably at night, after a session with T.J. Ryan. The letter must have been delivered by hand to my Father, then living at Eagle Junction. He acted promptly in the morning.

"The missing copy of Hansard was found amongst gardening tools on the balcony of my Mother's home unit after her death in her ninety-second year." (1974)

Original material for this article was provided by Dr R.L. Stable of Queensland


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Conscription and censorship inflame passions, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/conscription-and-censorship-inflame-passions
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