One of the great political issues of the 1950s and 1960s was the fear of the spread of communism, both within Australia and from outside Australia. The Australian Communist Party had been formed in 1920, but until World War II it had a very small membership and limited influence in the trade unions. However, in the late 1940s and early 1950s the Communist Party began to achieve some control in important trade unions such as the Waterside Workers' Federation, the Railways Union and the Amalgamated Engineering Union. As workers struggled to gain better pay and conditions after the depression years and the war, strikes broke out in the mining industry and on the waterfront, and the communists increased their influence.

This industrial unrest in the late 1940s helped to destroy the Chifley Labor government. Even though communists were not allowed to be members of the Labor Party, Labor's opponents were quick to suggest that there were communists in the Labor movement. Certainly some trade unions on which the Labor Party depended for electoral and financial support were controlled by dedicated communists.

The fear of communism was magnified during the Cold War, because this was a period of confrontation between the two great ideologies of liberal democracy and Marxism. Communism had spread across much of Eastern Europe, and it was seen as an expansive force determined to destroy Western capitalist society. Whether Prime Minister Menzies believed this or not is hard to know, but he spoke often of the communist threat to Australia, particularly after China became communist in 1949. As a skilful politician he also knew the great political advantage and electoral success he could gain by exploiting the fear of communism.

In 1950 the Menzies government took the controversial step of trying to ban the Australian Communist Party, and the Communist Party Dissolution Bill was introduced into parliament. The Labor Party opposed the bill on the grounds that it infringed the basic rights of Australian citizens. Nonetheless the bill was passed, but in March the following year six of the seven judges of the High Court declared the action unconstitutional. During the High Court hearing, Dr Evatt appeared on behalf of the Waterside Workers' Federation who were contesting the case. For Evatt, very much at home arguing the cause of civil liberty, it was a brilliant victory. Later his opponents were to claim, with­out foundation, that he was sympathetic to communism.

Menzies, however, was still determined and in September 1951 he called for a referendum in which the Constitution would be changed to give the government power to make laws in respect to communists and the Communist Party. Like so many attempts to change the Constitution, the referendum was unsuccessful, though only by a small margin – 2,317,927 voted in favour, 2,370,009 voted against.

Referendum on Communism, Yes and No propaganda posters.
In 1950 and 1951 the Federal Government attempted to make the Communist Party illegal in Australia. In order to make this possible a referendum to extend Commonwealth powers was held in September 1951. What are the main arguments used in the Liberal Party advertisement? (right) What are the main arguments used in the Communist Party advertisement? (left) What was the case for and against outlawing the Communist Party?

Mr Menzies' speech to parliament on the abolition of the Australian Communist Party,
April 1950

At the last general election, 87,958 persons, a small fraction of the total number of electors, voted for Communist candidates. The importance of the Australian Communist is, therefore, not numerical but positional; these Communists are not to be ignored as if they were a mere handful. They occupy key positions in key organisations in the industries upon which this country would have to depend if tomorrow it were fighting for its life. The choice before us is a grim but simple one. We can do nothing, and let a traitorous minority destroy us, as they most assuredly intend to do; we can leave the Communist free to do his work so long as he is a union official, but deal with him in any other capacity; or—and this is the answer to the choice—we can fight him wherever we find him, leaving him no immunity and no sanctuary at all.

The security and defence of Australia are dependent not only upon the valour of our troops in time of war and upon the industry with which they are supported in the factory and on the farm, but also upon the continuity of those great industries that are vital to a national effort should war come. It is a childish idea that the fifth column springs miraculously into existence when a war is on. It is carefully prepared and organised in advance. By strike and sabotage, it conducts its own cold war and the success of that war depends upon the strength, or weakness, of the community in which it operates. We would not have tolerated a fifth column in Australia from 1939 to 1945. We, certainly, do not propose to tolerate one in 1950, at a time when militant communism, checked for the time being in Western Europe, is moving east and south-east to carry out its plans to put down democracy and to usher in the revolution.

Coalmining, iron and steel, engineering, transport, building and power are key industries. There may well be others which under this legislation the Governor-General may from time to time proclaim. In the considered judgment of His Majesty's Government in Australia it would be an act of criminal folly to leave revolutionary Communists in key positions in those industries so that with all their smallness of numbers they may achieve destructive results which five army corps could hardly hope to achieve.

(Australia, House of Representatives, Debates 1950, vol. HR207, p. 1995.)


1. Menzies admitted that very few Australians voted for the Communist Party. Why then did he feel that the Communist Party was a threat to Australia?
What reasons did Menzies give for the banning of the Communist Party?
To what degree did Menzies' speech play on emotion and fear rather than reason? Is this reflected in the cartoon?
Why would it be easy to create the fear of communism in the minds of many Australians in the 1950s?
5. Can you offer reasons why the Australian people rejected the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party?



In 1950, the Liberal Party government led by Menzies introduced the Communist Party Dissolution Bill into Parliament. Menzies claimed that `Australia must be placed on a semi-war footing which will involve restrictions on many civil liberties'. The legislation proposed to outlaw the Communist Party and prohibit anyone declared as a communist from holding a job ob in the trade union movement or in a government organisation. Once declared a communist, it was then up to the accused to prove his or her innocence. This clause in the legislation enraged many people as it threatened individual freedoms and the rights of the individual. Ten trade unions and the Australian Communist Party challenged the Bill in the Australian High Court.

Letter from Jessie Street denouncing the Communist Party ­Dissolution Bill.

TRIBUNE—Wednesday, September 19, 1951.

(The Tribune, the newspaper in which both sources appear, is a left-wing newspaper that was opposed to the Bill)


A vigorous call to peace-lovers to take action to maintain peace has been made by Mrs Jessie Street in a statement to the Australian Peace Council.

Mrs. Street, wife of Mr. Justice Street, Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales, is known throughout Australia for her many years of indefatigable cham­pionship of progressive causes, particularly the cause of women and children and of peace.

Mrs. Street is an executive member of the World Peace Council and an office bearer of the AustralianCouncil.
"If you want peace you must prepare for peace, the statement says.
"But those planning for war are trying to spread the dangerous doctrine—if you wish for peace you must prepare for war.
'At no time have the peoples wanted war. Those planning wars have always had to deceive the people into consenting to arm by making them believe they were preparing for peace. Those countries who prepared for war have always found a pretext for going to war.
"Today." the statement continues, "every move for self government and independence is denounced by a ruling clique as 'Communist'. Every person and body of people who work for peace, or who oppose the policies of this ruling clique, is labelled Communist.

"According to propaganda Communism is utterly vile and brutal and must be stamped out as a plague. The peoples of countries accepting Communist leadership must be exterminated at all costs.

"In line with this approach, General MacArthur called the war in Korea 'Operation Killer'. According to their own figures, two million men, women, children and babies have already been killed in Korea."

Mrs Street asks: "Do you wish to take part in the war which the ruling clique is preparing to wage on the pre­text of stamping out Communism, but which in fact is to protect the right of investors to make money and to claim as private property the natural resources of for­eign countries?

"If your answer is NO, throw your whole weight behind the peace movement. Join or form a local peace committee and be active in its work.

What audiencewould this source appeal to?