Australian history

17 December, 1967: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappears

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

Harold Holt had succeeded the long-serving Liberal Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1966 and won an election in November of the same year. Holt continued the commitment of Australian troops to Vietnam, introduced by Menzies in 1965, and this issue dominated Australian politics over the next decade. At the same time, the Holt government introduced several reforms that led to the eventual dismantlement of the ‘White Australia Policy’ over the next decade (eventually abolished by the incoming Whitlam government in 1973).

However Holt is probably most famous in Australia for his extraordinary disappearance on 17 December, 1967. On this day, he went swimming at Cheviot Beach on Mornington Peninsula, a beach he claimed he knew ‘like the back of his hand’. The tide was unusually high and conditions were, according to witnesses, not good for swimming. Despite this, Holt swam quite far out and eventually disappeared out of sight. Presumed drowned, his body has never been discovered.

Here is a digitised version of the official investigation and report into his death, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. And here is the obituary given in Parliament on its first day in session since his disappearance (March 1968).

There have been several conspiracy theories developed around Holt’s disappearance, with the most prominent one being that he was taken by a Chinese submarine. This theory was expounded by Anthony Grey in his book The Prime Minister Was A Spy.

In a moment of irony, the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre was built in Melbourne after his death.

Forthcoming volume: The Far Left in Australia since 1945

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I am happy to announce that Jon Piccini, Matthew Worley and I have recently signed a contact for an edited volume tentatively titled The Far Left in Australia since 1945 as part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics. While there is no publication date yet, here is an outline of the forthcoming book as a preview…

The far left in Australia – as has been revealed by edited collections on its equivalents in the UK, USA and elsewhere – had significant effects on post-war politics, culture and society. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War II with some 20,000 members, and despite the harsh and vitriolic Cold War climate of the 1950s, seeded or provided impetus for the re-emergence of other movements. Radicals subscribing to ideologies beyond the Soviet orbit – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others – also created parties and organisations and led movements. All of these different far left parties and movements changed and shifted during time, responding to one political crisis or another, but they remained steadfastly devoted to a better world.

Equally, members and fellow travellers of the CPA and other far left groups instigated or became centrally involved in struggles for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace—alongside continuing work in trade unions. In starting these groups, providing personnel, funding and guidance, far left activists contributed in no small way to the reforms that have changed Australian from the racist, sexist and parochial society of 1945 to one which is now multicultural, champions gender equality and is open to the world. The far left’s contribution to culture also cannot be ignored, with the CPA in particular providing a home for writers, poets, film makers and others who found their experimentation unwelcomed in an Australia in the grips of the cultural cringe.

Lastly, the Australian far left has also had a fascinating – if troubled and convoluted – career of ‘mainstreaming’ itself, whether through aforementioned cultural organisations, or through working with the social democratic Australian Labor Party, forming their own electoral alliances, or reaching out with mass market books. As such, while the far left might have never led a revolution in Australia, it has inarguably played a central role in revolutionising it.

The study of protest movements is exploding around the world. Major research and publishing projects charting the far left – particularly set around that halcyon year of 1968 – have appeared in most western nations in recent years. Yet, no such comparable body of work exists for Australia’s vibrant and exciting far left movements in the post-war era – from the Communist Party of Australia to smaller ideological groups, their intersections with broader movements for women’s, indigenous and gay liberation and broader effects on culture and society. By analysing far left movements in Australia from 1945 to the 1980s, these interconnections are explored in depth, and a light can be shone on the current state of Australia’s left and progressive movements.

As such, this book’s key strengths lie in its broad range of topics – from the politics of Australian communism in its various forms to the far left’s interactions with the women’s, gay, anti-nuclear, anti-war and indigenous groups, as well as attempts to mainstream its appeal via electoral politics, government compromises and mass media.

This work exists at the intersection of academia and activism, offering politically and theoretically informed chapters which provide both valuable scholarly interventions into key local and global debates, as well as casting light on contemporary struggles around the world. As such, its readership will be broad, encompassing activists of all ages and across a variety of causes, as well as the growing body of academics and postgraduate students studying and teaching global radicalism, as well as scholars engaged in 20th century history in general.

This collection, bringing together 14 chapters from leading and emerging figures in the Australian and international historical profession, for the first time charts some of these significant moments and interventions, revealing the Australian far left’s often forgotten contribution to the nation’s history.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information about the volume in the near future!

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The Communist Party of Australia reports on ‘the Battle of Cable Street’

The importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ for the Communist Party of Great Britain has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but I thought readers might be interested in how it was reported on in the Workers’ Weekly, the bi-weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia. On Friday October 9, 1936, the newspaper reported:

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Of interest to the Communist Party of Australia, and to historians of Australian politics, was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who refused to ban the march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had previously been the Governor of New South Wales. As Andrew Moore has written, Game gained similar notoriety in Australia for the dismissal of the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As the creation of the Public Order Act 1936 followed quickly in the wake of ‘Cable Street’, the Workers’ Weekly printed a follow up article denouncing measures by the state to curb Mosley. .On 13 October, 1936, the newspaper published this report:

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The article mentions that the CPGB could not rely on the state to deal decisively with the BUF, as the POA was more likely to be used against communists than fascists, as discussed by David Renton here.

The fascist threat in Australia, presented by Eric Campbell’s New Guard, had resided largely by 1936 and there is little in the CPA’s literature that discusses combating the New Guard in a similar fashion to the street fighting seen in Europe. By 1936, the fascist threat was largely external, with a number of Australian communists traveling to Spain the fight in the Civil War.

My article in The Guardian on the history of the Australian far right

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Just a quick note that I have reached the bourgeois elite now. The Guardian Australia website has published a short piece by myself on the history of the far right in Australia since the 1960s. The argument of the piece is that the far right has swung between electoralism and ‘direct action’ at different points in its history. You can read the piece here.

New CFP: The First Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History (31 Jan – 3 Feb 2017)

This is a call for papers for a conference organised by my colleague Andrekos Varnava. It looks exciting. Hopefully see you all there!

The First Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History

Tuesday 31 January – Friday 3 February 2017

The School of History and International Relations, Flinders University, and the other sponsors of this meeting, invite abstracts for the first ‘Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History’, to be held in Adelaide from Tuesday 31 January – Friday 3 February 2017.

Emeritus Professor Eric Richards was a Professor of History at Flinders University for over 35 years, specialising in British and Australian social history, and specifically on Scottish history and British and Australian immigration history. The ‘Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History’ aims to honour Professor Richards, who remains active as an Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, and to create a regular conference for scholars in Australasia working on British and Australasian history broadly defined (i.e. British history includes imperial/colonial history) for the ‘British and Australasian History Network’.

The theme of the symposium is ‘Movement and Movements’. This theme has been deliberately chosen to reflect the research interests of Professor Richards as well as to include as many scholars working in British and Australasian history as possible. We are looking for papers that focus on the following areas:

  • Migration experiences and policies
  • Race Relations
  • Cultural reflection, formation, creation and deception.
  • Indigenous and diaspora responses and experiences
  • Constructions of the English and / or British Empire
  • Constructions of the Australians, New Zealanders and other groups in Australasia
  • Nationalism versus trans-nationalism
  • Inter-cultural and / or multi-cultural responses, relations and experiences
  • Cultural erasure and historiography
  • Mimicry, mediation and masculinity
  • Religion, secularism, philanthropy and missionaries
  • Health and Medicine
  • Science and environment/ecology
  • Policing, border control, law and order
  • Archaeology, museums and collecting
  • Ideological binaries from the metropole to the periphery
  • Imperial pacifism and conscientious objectors
  • Colonial women and women in the empire
  • ‘High’ versus ‘low’ cultural responses
  • Art History
  • Film, Music, Photography and Literature and the British-Australasian Connection
  • Artists and the perspectives of artists
  • Broadcasting and popular entertainment
  • Imperial/colonial loyalties and disloyalties

Keynotes
Professor Alison Bashford, University of Cambridge, UK
Professor Joy Damousi, University of Melbourne,
Professor Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury, NZ
Professor Andrew Thompson, University of Exeter, UK

Registration
A registration fee will apply, but this has been kept to a minimum.
4-day Full Registration: $300; 1-day Full Registration: $120
4-day Student Registration: $150; 1-day Student Registration: $70
The deadline for paying registration fees is 5 December 2016.

Publications
We envisage several publications to arise out of the symposium. The organisers will be looking at publishing at least one edited volume and one special issue journal. Participants will be approached soon after the conference. Also we encourage participants to take the initiative (so long as the symposium and organisers are acknowledged) to publish collected works.

Abstracts
A 200-word abstract and a short biography of about 100 words (all in one word file) should be sent to Dr Andrekos Varnava (andrekos.varnava@flinders.edu.au) by 25 July 2016.

Organising Committee
Dr Andrekos Varnava, Flinders University
Professor Philip Payton, Flinders University
Ella Stewart-Peters, PhD Candidate, Flinders University
Tony Nugent, PhD Candidate, Flinders University

Download a PDF version of this CFP here.

1951 and the attempt to ban the Australian Communist Party: When Turnbull’s predecessor gambled on a double dissolution election

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Yesterday Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that if the Senate did not pass two pieces of legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), he would call for the Governor-General to issue the writs for a double dissolution election. This would mean that all seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would be contested at the election to be held on 2 July. Only a handful of double dissolution elections have occurred sine Federation in 1901, with the first double dissolution called by a Liberal Prime Minister occurring in 1951, requested by Sir Robert Menzies.

Menzies had won government in December 1949, defeating Ben Chifley’s Labor government, which had been in power since the end of the Second World War. The Liberal-Country Party coalition had made significant gains in the House of Representatives, but Labor still controlled the Senate, which made the passing of controversial legislation difficult, especially as a central part of the LCP’s programme in the lead up to the election was the proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

The CPA had been briefly banned during the war while Menzies was Prime Minister, but this was reversed by Chifley’s predecessor, John Curtin. As the Cold War erupted in the late 1940s, the CPA took a particularly militant line, partially inspired by the rise of communism in Asia and assertion by the Soviets that the world was falling into two opposing camps – the democratic and ant-fascist bloc of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European ‘People’s Democracies’ (soon to be followed by China) and the anti-democratic and fascist bloc of the Western nations. This led to fierce battles in the Australian labour movement over its stance towards Chifley’s Labor government, with the CPA-led trade unions pushing for confrontational industrial militancy in several industries. This came to a head in 1949 with the Coal Strike that led to the Chifley government ordering troops to break the strike and the imprisonment of several Communist trade unionists.

Sir Robert Menzies

Sir Robert Menzies

This industrial unrest gave Menzies the opportunity to campaign on the programme that an LCP coalition would ban the CPA. Drawn in tandem with the Suppression of Communism Bill by the Malan government in apartheid South Africa, the Menzies government drafted the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in early 1950. First introduced into the House of Representatives in April 1950, the Bill was opposed by Labor and heavily criticised outside of Parliament by the Communist Party and a significant portion of the trade unions. Initially rejected by the Labor controlled Senate, Menzies threatened a double dissolution election and Labor senators, possibly against the public statements made by Chifley, passed the Bill into law in October 1950. The legislation banning the CPA was broad in its scope and meant that fellow travellers who sympathised with Soviet communism could be prosecuted, as well as ‘official’ members of the Party.

As soon as the Bill became law in November 1950, it was subject to a High Court challenge by the Communist Party and several trade unions, with H.V. Evatt (soon to be Labor leader) acting as one of several counsels for the trade unions in this case. On 9 March, 1951, a 6-1 majority of the High Court of Australia found that the Communist Party Dissolution Act was unconstitutional and its powers to prosecute individuals for their alleged connection to the CPA violated what could be included in Commonwealth legislation. To re-introduce legislation banning the CPA would need a change to the Constitution, which itself needed a referendum to allow these changes. Without control of the Senate, Menzies felt that he would be unable to pass the necessary legislation to alter the Constitution and subsequently, formally ban the Communist Party of Australia.

On 15 March, 1951 – a week after the High Court’s decision – Menzies formally requested that the Governor-General order a double dissolution election, on the grounds that the Labor controlled Senate had already twice rejected his Commonwealth Bank Bill. Two days later, both houses of Parliament were dissolved and a bicameral election was held on 28 April, 1951. While Labor gained five seats in the House of Representatives, Menzies won control of the Senate and now had a majority in both houses.

This allowed the Menzies government to introduce legislation that would start the process to change the Constitution that would render any new Bills to ban the Communist Party legal and without grounds to challenge. With control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Menzies government quickly passed the Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communism and Communists) 1951 Act and a referendum was held on 22 September 1951.

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As the above graph shows, the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia voted ‘no’ and at the federal level, a slight majority voted against altering the Constitution to allow the banning of the CPA. While the gamble of the double dissolution had paid off for Menzies, his attempt to change the Constitution to ban a specific political organisation failed and was seen as government over-reach by many commentators.

The CPA's weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies' referendum defeat.

The CPA’s weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies’ referendum defeat.

Since Menzies, there have only been four double dissolutions, by Gough Whitlam in 1974, by Malcolm Fraser (in caretaker mode) in 1975 and 1983, and by Bob Hawke in 1987. Each time the incumbent government, besides Fraser in 1983, has retained power – although in the case of Whitlam, only briefly. It could be argued that powerful political conviction on a controversial, yet important, topic has helped governments get over the line in double dissolution elections. The question is whether the Turnbull government have this conviction or the right issue to take to the electorate if they proceed with a double dissolution.

Another reason to #FundTrove: Communist Party of Australia material now digitised

The first issue of 'Communist Review' after the ban was lifted by the Curtin Government on the magazine.

The first issue of ‘Communist Review’ after the ban was lifted by the Curtin Government on the magazine.

It was recently announced that funding for the National Library of Australia’s digital database Trove was under threat due to the Turnbull government’s search for ‘efficiency dividends’. This has led to a large social media campaign by academics, archivists and general enthusiasts of history from across the globe to #FundTrove, with several petitions to maintain funding for the website.

As this blog seeks to keep you all informed of online material relating to the history of communism and the global left, I thought you would like to know that Trove’s newspaper archive has now digitised several publications of the Communist Party of Australia. This includes:

The Communist (weekly from 1921 to 1923)

The Workers’ Weekly (weekly from 1923 to 1939)

Communist Review (monthly from July 1941 to June 1943)

The Tribune (weekly from 1939 to 1954)

The best way to find these titles is by using the ‘browse’ function in Trove’s digital newspaper section.

This is a valuable resource for those interested in communism in Australia, covering some of the most controversial periods of the CPA’s history. If you haven’t already signed the petition to fund Trove, do so here!