In 1941 and early 1942 a Japanese invasion of Australia seemed imminent. In response to this threat it was suggested that a military line across Australia from Brisbane to Adelaide be established. Territory south of the line would be defended. The rest of the country would be abandoned to the Japanese. In his book The Brisbane Line – A Reappraisal, author Drew Cottle through a fresh examination of contemporary sources and drawing on the testimony of Ken Cook, an anti-fascist counter-intelligence agent during this period, uncovers a story of collaboration, conspiracy and betrayal. Cottle’s examination of the history of the Australian economy and the growth of its ruling class helps to explain how and why this happened. From 1870 to 1939 Australia’s economic cultural and political development was dominated by Britain. Australia was a dependent economy and became industrialised during this period. Although dependency was a constant the pattern of dependency changed. Central to this change was British imperialism after World War I. Britain declined economically and the USA challenged Britain in every foreign market. Protection of its empire became crucial for Britain. Britain temporarily arrested its problems of post-war unemployment and loss of export markets by investing capital and labour in Australia. This led to increased urbanisation and industrialisation in Australia. The Australian economy became dependent on key sections including its rural export industries. This period also saw a dramatic increase in the importance of mining. This resulted in the emergence of monopoly mining capitalists including BHP. These capitalists had a vested interest in the growth of local manufacturing between the two world wars. This provided the impetus for the Australian ruling class to develop close relationships with Japan during this period. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria. Japan adopted a permanent war economy to strengthen its quest for overseas markets and colonies. Australian capitalism was to play an indirect but not insignificant role in the creation of Japan’s empire, the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Japan’s military drive threatened American attempts to secure South-East Asian mineral, oil and rubber supplies. It also created tensions within Australian capitalism over the export of Australian minerals and raw materials to Japan. Australian wheat, wool and flour helped to clothe and feed Japanese forces in China. This trade also benefited Australian capitalists as it helped to stabilise pastoral industries and avoid economic collapse in the Depression. This dependence on trade with Japan brought about shifts in the economic and political affiliations of the Australian capitalist class. A section of the ruling class felt that Japan’s invasion of China was regrettable but for them trade with Japan made good economic sense. A pro-Japan lobby representing capitalists in key areas of the Australian economy was formed. Even though they were aware of Japan’s growing military preparations. This resulted in a decade-long appeasement of Japan by the ruling class. During this period appeasement remained constant. However, divisions within the ruling class emerged, about its preservation as a class. It was caught between three imperial powers. Most of the capitalist class still saw their future with the British Empire. Others vacillated between the United States and Britain. A “Japanese-minded” minority would wait and see. This minority representing sections of the Australian business community was prepared to make peace with the Japanese, if they invaded Australia, in the hope of preserving their own interests. For their part the Japanese cultivated friends and allies in Australia based on trade and a shared anti-communism and class hatred. To secure its objectives of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, Japan needed strategic materials including scrap iron for the manufacture of war materials. Shipment of Australian scrap iron to Japan opened up class divisions within Australia. This was highlighted in the Port Kembla pig iron strike of 1938 to 1939. When the waterside workers of Port Kembla refused to load the Dalfram because of Japan’s military expansionism they were denounced as the destroyers of Australia’s best interests. The ruling class demanded that the government replace the “anarchy” at Port Kembla with “law and order”, that it “gaol the strikers” and “uphold Australia’s commercial obligations.” Even during this crucial period when Australia was under threat from a foreign power the class war went on unabated. Under the shadow of a Japanese invasion of Australia the ruling class saw its appeasement of Japanese militarism as sound business practice. The threat to Australia posed by the sale of scrap iron and other minerals to Japan wasn’t even considered. Despite boycotts imposed by waterside workers, iron and steel scrap was exported by BHP from ports other than Brisbane, Sydney and Fremantle until 1941. Ruling class support for BHP was not unanimous in this struggle but it did have support of the government of the day. While their bosses were trading with the “soon to be enemy” workers were taking a stand of their own.
To the fury of the establishment and the government, members of the proscribed Communist Party, militant unions and other patriots sought to organise a people’s army. The Miners’ Federation, the Waterside Workers’s Union and other left-wing unions called on the Labor government to arm the people. Following the military defeat of Japan, memory of the Brisbane line faded as the cold war took over. Japan did not invade Australia and Japan’s friends among the Australian ruling class did not have their allegiance put to the test. What emerges from this sorry tale of collaboration, treachery and betrayal is that the ruling class always looks after its own interests. This is what is behind the present policy of collaboration with the United States’ drive for world domination. The ruling class, in its loyalty to the British Empire, its appeasement of Japan and its post-war embrace of corporate America has betrayed Australian workers.
Sixty years after the defeat of fascism, the interests of Australian workers are again being sacrificed as the capitalist class becomes more and more dependent on U.S. imperialism for its survival. Cottle’s interpretation of the events outlined in his book is based on a huge body of secondary material as well as Australian security and intelligence records. Unfortunately, it may never be known for certain if the betrayal of sections of the ruling class in the years leading up to World War II would have resulted in the establishment of a Vichy-type government. Conservative politicians and historians have tried to bury the controversy. Many of the records, which could substantiate what happened, have gone missing. This should come as no great surprise. After World War II, governments in Australia focussed on battling the power of militant trade unions, on anti-communism and on scare mongering about the imminence of World War III. In this atmosphere, the notion that wartime collaborators among sections of the ruling class ever existed has been swept under the carpet.