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The Communist Issue
The Double Dissolution Election 1951
The Petrov Affair 1954
Menzies value as a politician
The Communist Issue
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
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
Referendum on Communism,
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,
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,
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
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?
Can you offer reasons why the Australian people rejected
the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party?
GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT
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)
JESSIE STREET URGES UNITED PEACE ACTION
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.
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