Jack Waterford in the 1960s.

Jack Waterford in the 1960s.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the narrow election in December 1972 of the Whitlam government. Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the day Gough Whitlam effectively ended conscription in Australia, ordered that seven draft dodgers in jail be pardoned and released, and had letters sent to hundreds of others, including me, absolving me of my crimes against the state. Thousands of conscripts performing national service could ask for release almost immediately.

One had to be 21 to be able to vote in 1972, and I was but 20. By the time I cast my first vote, in May 1974, the voting age had been lowered to 18.

But if a 20-year-old could not vote in 1972, the males of the cohort could be made to serve. All young men had to register, at 19, with the Department of Labour and National Service. Those born in the first half of the year had a ballot in January; those in the second half in July. Random selections of marbles in a basket set birth dates, until the numbers required were made up.

Anti-conscription rally outside prime minister Harold Holt's residence. Andrew Blunden, 20, civil engineering student , burns his national service registration card .

Anti-conscription rally outside prime minister Harold Holt's residence. Civil engineering student Andrew Blunden, 20, burns his national service registration card.

I was, as it were, a registered non-registrant. I had written to the department giving them details of my identity, address, date of birth and so on but declaring that I refused to register, and that I would not serve if impressed. About 600 people were in this category - most of us members of the Draft Resisters Union. Another 2000 or so failed to register for political reasons but made no public song and dance about it. Fewer of these were prosecuted. Over the years perhaps another 20,000 simply failed to register at all, and fewer than 100 were pursued. Strictly, failure to register was an offence which led to one's automatically ''winning'' the ballot, but only a tiny proportion ended up in the army.

Between 1964 and 1972, about 800,000 young men were in the ballots, and something like a third of them had at least a single encounter with the system. About 240,000 found their birthdays selected, of whom after medical examinations, claims for deferment, or various tricks about 64,000 ended up being called up for two years' service, some of which, particularly in the earlier period, was almost certain to be in Vietnam - plus three years in the reserves. About 100,000 (40 per cent of those tested) failed their medicals. One could be a seminarian (about 500), or in a mental asylum (about 2000) or establish to a court's satisfaction that one had an absolute conscientious objection to military service (about 1200). Marriage, joining the Citizen Military Forces, and attending university were the most common ways of getting deferment.

National service was closely linked to Australian participation in the Vietnam War, although this had effectively ended by December 1972. That war was initially popular - the Holt government won by a landslide in 1966 with Vietnam as the primary issue. It became increasingly unpopular and divisive, as in the US, at whose pushing we had become involved. Initially, many of those opposed to the war sought to avoid conscription by claiming to be conscientious objectors, or pacifists. To get such an exemption, one had to argue one's case in court - as often as not before an RSL-badge toting magistrate who would call you a coward and ask you if you would physically intervene if someone was trying to rape your mother, or sister.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard listens to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott address allegations made against her at Parliament House.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard listens to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott address allegations made against her at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares

But one's indignation against violence could not be selective. One could not say, for example, that one would take up arms to fight Nazis, but not Palestinians. One was either for or against military violence; it was for government, not some private conscience, to decide which wars were just, or where armies should be deployed.

Early opposition involved burning draft cards, teach-ins, sit-ins and demonstrations by students. Increasingly, it turned towards confrontation, widening the campaign from campuses to workplaces, churches, schools and the public square, and embracing a general critique of government over issues such as Aboriginal affairs, racism in South Africa and a supine approach to US policy.

Opponents detected evidence of sinister Soviet manipulation of the movement, but however enthusiastically old communist party cadres supported some aims, the protest movement was dominated by a hippy new left that tended to reject old-line communist attitudes, approaches and discipline. On 1960s social issues, the Communist Party was a fuddy duddy conservative nag - just the sort of thing we were revolting against.

I had no objection whatever to conscription - but I had a lot of objections to fighting in Vietnam, particularly with the corrupt and undemocratic regimes alongside whom we were fighting. I saw the ''other side'' as being as much nationalistic as communist, and thought we were on the wrong side of history. I didn't have much time for the other side either; essentially I thought we should stay out, or get out. I have never had any reason to change my view.

The later generations of draft dodgers became critical of the conscientious objector path, or of exploiting fairly well-known and well-rehearsed ways of deliberately failing a medical (such as confessing, or feigning homosexuality). That was simply a selfish and self-indulgent way of getting someone else to take our place. What was needed was resistance: standing up and fighting against the system.

Publicity, of course, was key.

We did not only urge that people not register, but prosecuted each other with breaches of the Commonwealth Crimes Act for inciting others to break the law. Thousands of registration forms were picked up in hundreds of post offices and filled in meticulously, if with false names and addresses, to make processing registrations a nightmare. Whenever a government minister was in the vicinity, groups of draft dodgers would surrender to him, asking to be taken to jail.

In all, only 14 people ever served the full two-year jail term for refusing to attend at a call-up centre. Perhaps 200 more, including myself, were convicted and fined for failing to register, and were ''due'' 28 days for refusing to pay our fines - but the Commonwealth Police was not very diligent or very competent, and only a quarter of these did any actual time.

Contrary to legend, carefully nourished by some who went away, few protesters - and none I knew - had or displayed animus towards our soldiers who were, after all, our relations, friends, schoolmates and others. They were seen as victims too.

The government itself liked to talk tough about dealing with us, but was not keen on creating martyrs, so the hunt for draft-dodgers tended to be confined to a very few high-profile ones, such as Michael Matheson. He obliged with some outstanding theatrics as a hunted fugitive in the ''underground''. Once, he was spotted by some Commonwealth policemen as he drove into Sydney University from Parramatta Road; they followed him in and smartly arrested him, but he called for help and the police were soon surrounded by students who freed Matheson, then handcuffed the policemen around a tree. That night, Matheson discussed the episode coolly in a live interview in an ABC studio - interrupted by police dashing in front of the cameras to arrest him. They missed him again.

State and territory police forces disdained to enforce National Service warrants, and openly sneered at the Keystone Cops. All the while there was a warrant for my arrest - with 28 days ''due'' - I was working at The Canberra Times in Mort Street, Civic, going regularly to courts and ACT Police headquarters. ACT Police were well aware I was, strictly, ''on the run''.

Canberra's most prominent draft dodger was Steve Padgham, still of this parish. Another resistant, who like Steve, became a teacher, was Robert Wilton, whose father, General Sir John Wilton had led the Australian deployment in Vietnam. I had a physical confrontation in 1970 with then Attorney-General Tom Hughes, but years afterwards he told me that on the issue I had been right and he wrong.

Many draft dodgers (and many conscripts) were to achieve senior positions in politics, public service, non-government agencies and even in business. I haven't seen many embarrassed about it.

On Sunday December 4, 1972, Whitlam flew to Canberra to tell senior public servants that he wanted to take over straight away, even before it was clear just who had been elected, and before a ministry had been elected. He and his deputy leader, Lance Barnard, would form a duumvirate, holding all the ministries between them. Some things he wanted to happen immediately. One was to release draft dodgers from jail. And to end the draft before Christmas. Sir Arthur Tange, head of Defence, caused immediate ire by saying that the latter could not be done until Parliament repealed the legislation. Whitlam responded, tartly, that its practical effect could be rendered void simply by a regulation. That's what happened.

A month or two later I received a letter - drafted I think in the Attorney-General's Department - informing me that the governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck had been pleased to pardon me for my failure to register. I need not bother to pay the still unpaid fine, nor worry about the 28 days in Goulburn Jail in lieu.

It was my very own official ''get out of jail free'' card, explicitly telling me I could pass Go. On the score of it, I got a cadetship.

I'm a bit of a magpie. I do not think I ever threw this document out, but it would take months to find it in my archives.