Perceptions of Communism in Australia Reception and Rejection Robert m V dick

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Perceptions of Communism in Australia
Reception and Rejection

Robert M V Dick
It would be difficult today to imagine the circumstances that would lead to the perception of the Australian Government that the Communist Party or some other radical group, was actively planning to overthrow our established system of government. But in 1950 so real was the Menzies Government’s belief that this is what the Communist Party of Australia was planning to do it enacted a Bill that would give the Government the power to dissolve the Party, prosecute communists and disqualify them from holding certain positions. The Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 was probably the most contentious piece of legislation ever passed by an Australian Parliament. The Government’s actions underscore the power of their perceptions of what Communism meant.
Focusing on the immediate post World War 2 period up until the late 1950s, this paper seeks to identify events that created those perceptions not to justify the Government’s actions but to more fully understand them and their effect. Not everyone shared the Government’s concern about what Communism meant for Australia. Members of the Communist Party of Australia and their fellow-travellers had another vision of an impending change, a revolutionary change that many thought imminent. The manner of that change was perceived by the Government as good enough reason to suppress Communism. The same events that may have influenced the Government’s actions also appear to have been an energising factor for those who believed that the ideal society Marx had predicted was imminent leading many to embrace Communism only later to later reject it as evidenced by the rise and decline in Party membership over this period.
The Government’s efforts and those of other opinion leaders including the Catholic Church and the Returned Services League in influencing public perceptions of the supposed ‘threat’ will also be briefly explored to perhaps reach a conclusion on their effectiveness in persuading people to reject Communism.
Our perceptions are created by external stimuli and the way in which we categorise them will depend to some extent on our previous experiences and our emotional state. Our interpretation of those perceptions is therefore open to subjective evaluation. McCullagh proposes “Our perceptions of the things in the world are a function of our culture, of its practices and concepts.”(Behan McCullagh, 1998, p. 24) He further proposes that cultural variations can occur particularly when they become theory laden which can strongly influence how our perceptions are interpreted.
Original perceptions are not permanent. As new experiences occur we can update or change our perceptions. Our perceptions might also be wrong either because we do not get complete information or we misunderstand the stimuli. What we perceive therefore may not reflect reality – there can be ambiguity in perception. This suggests that perceptions can be manipulated.
Menzies position on Communism reflects a deep conviction that Communism constituted a threat that demanded action. Was his perception right and did it justify the actions that the United Australia Party under his leadership took in 1940 and again in 1950 now as leader of the Liberal Party? Pursuing answers to these important questions would take us beyond the limits of this paper. But what should be done is to at least sketch in the context of the situation because this was critical not only to the strengthening of Menzies perceptions about the Communist Party in Australia, but to the perceptions of others as well.
The view that Communism constituted a threat gained much ground during the Depression in the 1930s. To the large numbers of unemployed workers and their families in desperate circumstances the Communist Party appeared to be the only organisation prepared to actively help them. This was an image that the Party was keen to promote and out of their own unemployed workers’ groups formed the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) and successfully signed up new members out of the large number of unemployed. This made it possible to channel the militancy of the unemployed through membership of the UWM into membership of the Communist Party. As McIntyre points out the UWM was intended to extend the influence of the Communist Party “to tap the discontent of unemployed workers, draw them into action around their immediate concerns, lead them into activities that would demonstrate the futility of reform, and ultimately recruit them to the revolutionary cause.”(Macintyre, 1998, p. 197.) Brown rejects the assertion of the UWM being a Communist front as a notion put forward by “bourgeois historians” but he fails to conclusively prove otherwise.(Brown, 1986, p. 64)
The growing membership of the Communist Party swelled the size of the many rallies organised by the UWM around Australia to protest at the plight of the unemployed and in some cases to deliberately provoke the police into a violent response.(McGillick, 1980, p. 50) There can be no argument about the personal hardship many suffered during the Depression with an unemployment rate around 30% forcing many to the poverty level. There is also no doubt that in some situations the UWM did help those in need when government failed them. But their concern for the unemployed must be balanced with the declared revolutionary aims of the Communist Party as expressed by the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Australia on 29 August 1931 that included such statements as:

The Communist Party is fighting the battle of the exploited against the exploiters, and is leading the struggle for the overthrow of the rule of the capitalists and the big landowners.


Power can be wrested from the hands of the ruling class only by ruthless class struggle. Victory can be gained only by a mass revolutionary front with the Communists.(McGillick, 1980, p. 48 - 49)

The size of the mass rallies unsettled the larger population who while willing to help the disadvantaged in their own way were now confronted by a mob sometimes unruly and violent. The apparent growth in Communist Party membership in this period added to the general concern but possibly unnecessarily so. Membership did increase in the 1930s and McIntyre estimates that at the end of the war there were more than 20,000 Australian communists, but if it were possible to separate active members from inactive and those who were fully paid-up and those that weren’t, the number might be much smaller.(Macintyre, 1998, p. 412)

At the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, the Menzies Government acquired the power under the National Security Act to subject those publications considered to be prejudicial to national security, to censorship. In 1940 tighter controls were introduced that banned Communist publications and those of other organisations and ordered trade unions to remove Communists from editorial positions and to declare all Communist organisations illegal.(Macintyre, 1998, p. 396) When Menzies resigned as Prime Minister in 1941 and John Curtin was commissioned to form a Labor Government, these controls were removed by the Labor Attorney General Dr Evatt.
May 1940 brought an abrupt end to the so-called ‘Phony War’ with the German occupation of France and nearby countries. An all-out effort was now waged by the Government to arouse Australia to the dangerous situation in Europe and the potential threat from Japan. A large rally held in Melbourne in May 1940 helped to build up patriotic enthusiasm and what Menzies called to a “move against enemies in our midst.”(Martin, 1993, pp. 296-297) The popular feeling generated by the gathering would doubtless support any move by the Government to do this.
Australian Communists initially supported the war regarding the fascists to be the great enemy. But the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact in August 1939 however forced a rethink of their position. In line with the Comintern view issued in 1939 the war then came to be regarded as an imperialist war on both sides and Australian Communists now opposed Australia’s involvement.(Brown, 1986, pp. 97 - 98) A ‘Hands off Russia’ resolution passed at a Labor Party Conference in Sydney in March 1940 called for a cessation of hostilities. The Conference further claimed that “the Australian people have nothing to gain from a continuance of the war” which was being managed “by the anti-Labor Menzies Chamberlain Government”.(Day, 1999, p. 378) For Menzies this confirmed the overwhelming left-wing influence on the Labor Party and he denounced the resolution as “an un-British attitude which the Australian people will not stomach.”(Martin, 1993, p. 297)
In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and it did not take long for the Communist Party to reverse its opposition to the war and now support all allied efforts to defeat Nazi Germany. Anyone showing anti-war sentiments would be out of step with the new policy.
John Curtin replaced Menzies as Prime Minister in 1941 and he remained in power until his death in 1945. When Federal Parliament convened in 1944 Robert Menzies had reformed the United Australia Party as the Liberal Party which he now also led. The Liberal Party platform did not include a policy of an outright ban on Communists. Menzies had resisted calls from the Country Party to go that one step further mainly on the basis that if declared illegal, the Communist Party would go underground and become more dangerous. Also, to declare any system of political thought illegal would be regarded as an attack on freedom of speech.(Martin, 1993, p. 81)
John Curtin died in 1945 and was succeeded by Ben Chifley. As well as his mounting apprehension of the Communist Party heightened by a series of post-war industrial disputes, Menzies and the Liberal Party were now faced with moves by the Chifley Labor Government to nationalise the private banks. The Liberal Party viewed this as a result of Communist influence on the Labor Government. In Menzies’ view this was socialism by stealth and in the Parliamentary debate on the issue Menzies stated:

But no further consideration of the facts reveals that this socialization measure is no example of unpremeditated illegitimacy. It is, on the contrary, the normal child of long-considered socialist policy which, in Australia, for the last 25 years, has been deeply influenced by Communist and Revolutionary ideas.(Crowley, 1973, p. 177)

Although not enough to now pursue outright dissolution of Communist party it was as a result of two unrelated events that led to a Liberal conversion and to now include the declared intention to ban the Communist Party if voted into office, in the Party platform.

The first event occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1948 where wartime resistance leader Jan Masaryk had been appointed as a token democratic Foreign Minister in the Communist Government in Prague. Masaryk jumped or was pushed to his death from an upper window of the foreign office weeks after the Soviet inspired coup that had installed him. The personal tragedy was internationally mourned but it also confirmed long held suspicions in the West as to the intentions of the Stalin Government in Moscow and Communism internationally.
The other event was a rail strike in Queensland which ran from 13 February to 3 April 1948. This stoppage was one of a number of major disputes across Australia that disrupted large sections of the economy. Early in the strike the Communist Party took up the causes of the striking workers. Mr Ted Rowe a Communist Party Central Committee member was reported in the Communist newspaper Tribune, Sydney, 14 Feb 1948, as vowing to continue the strike until their aims were met.(Crowley, 1973, p. 183) The high profile role played by the Party and by Fred Paterson MLA, the only Communist Member of State Parliament in Australia led many to believe, the Liberal Party included, that the Communists were responsible for the dispute. Later events revealed the strike was not primarily inspired as a Communist disturbance.(Martin, 1999, p. 81 - 82)
Having now taken a decision to ban the Communist Party in Australia if elected, Menzies wasted no time in creating the perception at Liberal Party rallies that the Communists represented the prospective fifth column in the event of a war with Russia. The period of tension starting from the closing years of the War and extending into the late 1980s known as the Cold War created a generally held perception in Australia and elsewhere, that the Soviet Union was determined to colonise Eastern Europe and not stop there and that war with Russia was possible. That perception appeared justified when Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949.
In the same year miners employed in NSW mines went on strike in support of claims for benefits they claimed had accrued both during and after the war. Despite last minute efforts to try to avert the strike, it went ahead and for the next seven weeks the Labor government fought it out with the Miners Federation and other Unions who supported them. Again, the Communist Party was prominent in the conduct of the strike. Police raided the Communist Party headquarters, ‘return to work’ pamphlets were dropped from the air at miners’ meetings and the Navy used to unload emergency coal supplies imported from India. Blackouts, reduced train services and industry shut-downs exacerbated what was turning out to be a bitter confrontation between the Labour Party and the Communist Party. Faced with a Government threat to place troops in the mines, the miners returned to work.
Tactically the strike could not have taken place at a worse time for the Labor Government, for the miners and the Communist Party. With the Cold War beginning to occupy people’s minds, and the prominence of the Communist Party in the dispute, rightly or wrongly it was the Communist Party that was seen to be the cause of the dispute.
The 1949 strike gave Menzies the ammunition that he revelled in using. He undertook an extensive public speaking interstate tour and used the circumstances of the Miners’ strike to great effect.(Martin, 1999, p. 107) The 1949 Federal election resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberal Party and. Robert Menzies became Prime Minister. The industrial situation and the succession of events in Asia that exposed the region’s vulnerability to Communist aggression were high on the new Government’s agenda.
Despite the new Government only having a majority in the House of Representatives, the Communist Party Dissolution Bill was presented to Parliament in April 1950. The Preamble to the Bill explained the Government’s perceptions of the threat posed by the Australian Communist Party. It begins:

Whereas the Australian Communist Party, in accordance with the basic theory of communism, as expounded by Marx and Lenin, engages in activities or operations designed to assist or accelerate the coming of a revolutionary situation, in which the Australian Communist Party, acting as a revolutionary minority, would be able to seize power and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat.(Preamble to the Communist Party Dissolution Bill 1950)

The Bill passed through the House but was considerably altered by the Senate; the proposed changes were unacceptable to the Government.

In the background to debate in Parliament, some trade unions particularly the Waterside Workers Federation waged a campaign of strike action and while not specifically directed at the Dissolution Bill the strikes had a political motive. The Government responded by invoking the Crimes Act and warned unionists to be aware of Communist influences. Public demonstrations against the Bill took place around Australia including Canberra where one group comprising academics and church leaders condemned the Bill although press comments were generally favourable to the proposed legislation.(Martin, 1999, p. 145)
Opposition to the Bill in Parliament did not only rest on the rejection of the perceived threat that Communists posed to Australia. Dr Evatt while confirming Labor’s rejection of Communism, forcefully pointed out that in relation to the perceived threat of Communism, Menzies had failed “to tell the people that assertion and advocacy are one thing but that proof is another.” Further, that if Australian courts established that offences of treason, sedition and conspiracy had been committed then current laws were sufficient to deal with them without the Bill currently before the House. Labor was also strongly opposed to that part of the Bill that enabled a person to be declared a Communist when the onus of proof was on the person concerned to prove otherwise.(Martin, 1999, p. 148) Eventually agreement between the House of Representatives and the Senate could not be reached and the Bill was laid aside and there the matter rested.
In June 1950 North Korean forces invaded South Korea prompting the United Nations Security Council to demand that the North Korean forces immediately withdraw which they failed to do. The United States and other countries were already fearful of the southward spread of Communism and the United Nations now urged member countries to provide military assistance to South Korea. The Communist Party in Australia condemned the allied assistance to South Korea as US inspired aggression.(Brown, 1986, p. 187)
The Government’s perception was that Korea “represented only one phase of Communist aggression and that Australia’s primary task was to oppose Communism in Malaysia” where Australian troops were already in action.(Cabinet Notebooks/1950) Australia now made a decision to deploy naval and air forces to Korea but a shortage of manpower, delayed the decision to commit land forces.
In July 1950 Menzies left Australia to visit England and the United States during which he had high level talks on economic and defence matters, particularly the situation in Korea which he discussed with General MacArthur in Korea; he was consequently well versed on the world situation. While Korea was an extremely dangerous situation it was not seen as the main game but more a Communist probe. Menzies believed Stalin’s aim was to initiate provocative actions by communist countries with a view to causing an expensive spread of Allied forces world-wide.
Menzies was now thoroughly convinced of the danger that Communist expansion in Asia posed for Australia and the need for Australia to prepare for a third world war. “This conviction dominated most of his thinking and policy-making over the next three years.” In the second of his national radio broadcasts Menzies on his return from overseas in September 1950 he said “If we are to be involved in a third world war in the next few years, it will be as a result of attack by international Communism…Korea is a sort of preliminary; a testing out of our strength.”(Martin, 1999, p. 169)
Parliament resumed on 27 September 1950 and Menzies re-introduced the Communist Party Dissolution Bill as Bill No. 2. The Government made much of the coincidental arrival of Australian troops in Korea during the debate. Last minute attempts by the Labor Opposition to derail the ‘totalitarian’ aims of the Government failed to stop the passage of the Bill through the Senate. Immediately the Communist Party and other unions announced a High Court challenge.
The High Court declared the Communist Party Dissolution Bill (No.2) invalid early in March 1951 and coupled with the Senate’s rejection of the Banking Bill, Menzies obtained agreement from the Governor-General for a double dissolution of Parliament to be followed by a general election. In the lead up to the election at the height of the Cold War, Menzies’ prime target was the Communists. Chifley also promised an all-out war on Communism but using existing legislation.
The election was held in April 1951 and resulted in the Liberal government being returned to power with a slightly reduced majority in the House of Representatives but with control of the Senate. Menzies now proposed to finally deal with the Communists and obtained Parliament’s approval to hold a national referendum to amend the Constitution to give the Commonwealth Parliament power to dissolve the Communist Party.
The referendum proposed two questions to the electorate. The “No” case was based broadly on the proposition that as a democracy the Government had no right to punish a person for his opinions. If a person is punished for breaking the law or conspiring with others to break the law, that is justice. The “Yes” case used the prospect of Communism activity as a grave menace to Australia’s industrial peace, production, national defence and security and quoted examples of Communist aggression in Korea, Indo-China and Malaya.(Crowley, 1973, pp. 251 - 253)
The resources enlisted by Menzies and the Liberal Party after almost three years, the latter two in Government, to deal with the perceived Communism threat even today, appear staggering. It had involved intense parliamentary debate over thirty-nine sitting days and for almost as long a period argued by trade unions and counsel before seven judges of the High Court, a double-dissolution of Federal Parliament, a general election and now a national referendum on 22 September 1951.(Webb, 1951, Preface) Prior to the referendum the Commonwealth Electoral Office had distributed 5 million pamphlets outlining the “Yes” and the “No” cases.
The referendum to amend the Constitution was not carried. In aggregate 50.6% voted “No” to the question and 49.4% said “Yes”. Interestingly the vote of members of the defence forces included in the aggregate result was different and more decisive – 68% voting “Yes” and 32% voting “No”.(Constitutional Change, Part 2 - History of Australian Referendum, Communism)
Menzies had the press behind him and early opinion polls indicated strong support for a “Yes” outcome. Even the most uncommitted observer could not escape the generally held Cold War tension. With such a massive effort why did Menzies fail albeit narrowly? There is little doubt that Menzies was convinced he was right in pursuing the dissolution and outlawing of the Communist Party in Australia. When introducing the first Dissolution Bill Menzies stated his position firstly repeated his original view against a communist ban and then why he changed:

True, that was my view after the war. But events have moved. We are not at peace today, except in a technical sense. The Soviet Union…has made perfect the technique of the ‘Cold War’. It has accompanied it by the organisation of peace demonstrations designed, not to promote true peace, but to prevent or impair defence preparations in the democracies. We in this House and in this country…have witnessed the most threatening events in Eastern Europe, in Germany, in East Asia and in South-east Asia.(Martin, 1999, p. 143)

The stronger “Yes” vote by members of the defence forces may have been influenced by the position taken by the then Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Airmens League of Australia (RSSAILA). The League was itself earlier involved in a legal wrangle to give it the power to expel Communists from its membership thereby preventing them from gaining appointments to committees and councils.(Brady, 1950, p. 25) The League’s foreign policy was unequivocally “to fight Communism everywhere, a policy which has in effect become the foreign policy of Australia itself.”(Editorial, 1950, p. 4) But even this was not sufficient to swing the national result to a decisive “Yes”.

The influence exerted by the Catholic Church on the referendum result is difficult to pin down but is never-the-less a factor. Fitzgerald cites the pressure applied by some unions to Labor members of Parliament to earlier allow the passage of the Dissolution Bill which may be evidence of the Catholic anti-communist Movement influence. Santamaria as leader of the Movement, was initially against the banning of the Communist Party but changed his position with the North Korean invasion of South Korea.(Fitzgerald, 2003, p. 104)
The Movement’s journal News Weekly was consistently for the “Yes” campaign but interestingly the Catholic hierarchy with one exception (Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane) declaring that the referendum was a matter for an individual’s conscience. Archbishop Mannix privately expressed his opinion that banning the Communist Party was a bad idea.(Fitzgerald, 2003, p. 106)
Fitzgerald places the success of the “No” campaign at Dr Evatt’s feet. Evatt worked tirelessly in nationally urging a “No” vote and Martin agrees that Evatt was entitled to celebrate. Evatt had claimed that “the Australian people had rejected the Menzies campaign of unscrupulous propaganda and hysteria.”(Martin, 1999, p. 193) Menzies had several views on why the Referendum failed but probably the most likely factor, as he explained, that “in a Federation a distrust of the central authority and a dislike to the creating of additional central power” led to Constitutional changes being rejected.(Martin, 1999, p. 195)
Post war Australia saw an influx of migrants many from countries that had first-hand experience of Communism and were not keen to add to Party membership in Australia. Reconstruction and development including the first Australian Holden off the production line and the start of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme generated considerable jobs growth and prosperity. The period also saw the gradual fall in Communist Party membership which in 1949 was about half that of the Depression years. But the power of the Party was not in its numbers but in the positions in powerful unions that officials occupied. As it transpired, events outside Australia were to have more to do with the decline in membership. The allegiance and connection that Australian Communists had to a foreign dictatorship itself undergoing extensive change diminished the power and influence of the Party considerably.
The effort to outlaw the Communist Party in Australia provides strong evidence of the power of the perception of Menzies and the Liberal Party that the Communist Party threatened revolutionary change in Australia. There is also sufficient evidence that events outside Australia in Eastern Europe, Korea, China and in South East Asia would have supported that perception.
The other conclusion that might be drawn from the referendum decision not to change the Constitution is that even in the face of that substantial evidence, the Australian people were still of the opinion that the principle of freedom of opinion, must be maintained. This belief would be tested in the defection of the Soviet Diplomat Vladimir Petrov and subsequent Royal Commission into espionage that would erupt in 1954.

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