Australian history

‘The Far Left in Australia since 1945’ – forthcoming with Routledge

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Vietnam Moratorium march in Canberra, Sep. 1970 (via National Archives of Australia, NAA A9626/112)

We are pleased to announce that our forthcoming edited volume on the history of the Australian far left in the Cold War era has been put up on the Routledge website, with a Table of Contents. Unfortunately it is not available to pre-order just yet. We hope this is rectified soon!

You can check out the book and its TOC here: https://www.routledge.com/The-Far-Left-in-Australia-since-1945/Smith-Piccini-Worley/p/book/9781138043855

Meanwhile excerpts from the chapter written by myself and Jon Piccini on the Communist Party of Australia and the ‘White Australian Policy’ can be found here and here.

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The Communist Party and the ‘White Australia Policy’, 1920-45

To celebrate the submission of the manuscript for our edited collection on the history of the Australian far left in the Cold War era, I am posting an excerpt from a chapter by Jon Piccini and I on the Communist Party of Australia and immigration restrictions, primarily the ‘White Australia Policy’. The following section looks at the period between the two wars, when the CPA was in the ascendancy…

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The Australian left has a long and conflicted history of engagement with the politics of whiteness, The Immigration Restriction Act, colloquially known as the ‘White Australia Policy’, was amongst the first acts of newly created Australian commonwealth in 1901. It was strongly argued for by the left of politics, particularly the Australian Labor Party (ALP), who saw it as a means of securing the union movement’s gains from cheap foreign labour. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) primarily opposed the policy and campaigned against explicit racial discrimination, but at the same time, supported some restrictions upon immigration and appeared sympathetic to the anti-immigrantism expressed by sections of the Australian labour movement. Throughout the inter-war period, the CPA was throughout its existence torn between a professed global solidarity and the realities of the Australia’s position as a bastion of white skin privilege. The Comintern criticised the CPA for this, and an uneasy compromise was made whereby the party extended a ‘friendly hand’ to migrant workers in Australia, but campaigned against ‘mass immigration’ from Europe at the same time.

The Communist Party of Australia and the Comintern in the 1920s

The Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920 and immediately applied for membership to the Communist International (Comintern). From the inception of the Comintern in 1919, the international communist movement was imbued with an anti-colonial agenda and agitated against the ‘colour bar’ that operated in the colonial sphere and in the former settler colonies, including Australia – what Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have described as ‘white men’s countries’.[1] For example, the 1922 theses on the Eastern Question drafted at the Fourth Comintern Congress stated that ‘the international proletariat does not harbour any racial prejudice’ and any antagonisms between coloured and white workers served to fragment and weaken the unity of the workers’ movement.[2] In an issue of The Proletarian, one of the pre-existing journals that became an outlet of the newly formed CPA, Pearl Hanks criticised the Australian worker for ‘ignor[ing] the existence of the colored man while they can, and when that is no longer possible, to meet him with open hostility’.[3] Quoting the Indian member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Shapurji Saklatvala, Hanks reminded readers:

A dream of Communism for white races only is the height of folly, because… the industries in England cannot be taken over by the workers while the sources of raw material remain in the hands of the capitalists.[4]

This realisation, Hanks argued, forced the conclusion ‘that we must give up either our color prejudice or our hopes of Communism’, further stating, ‘there is no justification for the color bar, because a civilisation which excluded the colored races would benefit only a comparative handful of the world’s inhabitants’.[5]

Although anti-racist rhetoric was quickly incorporated into the Communist Party’s literature and the party platform, this did not necessarily transform into practical political activism, with the CPA continuing to campaign against ‘mass immigration’ and others in the party arguing that ‘race’ was not a significant issue for the CPA. For example, in 1922, Fred Wilkinson, in a report to the Comintern’s Anglo-American-Colonial Section, wrote that ‘employers want cheap coloured labour imported’, but wrote approvingly that the ‘trade unions are, of course, opposed to this’.[6] In December 1924, The Workers’ Weekly claimed that ‘the boss class finds in immigration a powerful weapon for the degradation of the condition of the Australian workers’ conditions’.[7] The paper seemed to lament the Australian labour movement was not strong enough ‘to control such dangers as immigration’ and argued that the strategy, for the time being, was to ensure that ‘immigrants were met at once and enrolled in unions’, with ‘an embargo imposed on all who refused’.[8] In another article from 1925 titled ‘Immigration Menace’ proclaimed that the Communist Party recognised ‘this present immigration campaign [by the Australian government and employers] is the biggest immediate problem before the Australian working class’.[9] To counter this, the CPA announced that preparing material in Italian to appeal to migrant workers ‘to stand firm alongside Australian trade unionists in the fight for the preservation of the conditions which have been won only by the hard fighting of Australia’s workers.’[10] To help build links with these Italian workers, the CPA called for ‘an abandonment of all irritation tactics against the fellow workers who have been shanghaied across from Europe.’[11] A few weeks later, the CPA conceded:

It is not immigration as such that troubles the working class in Australia. It is unemployment, and the cause of that is found in the anarchic character of the capitalist system.[12]

At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in June 1924, Dora Montefiore, a veteran socialist and suffragist representing the CPA, admitted that the trade unions were opposed to non-white workers and acknowledged that ‘it would be pointless to ignore the question of coloured workers’.[13] Montefiore argued that the CPA weren’t calling for ‘bringing in cheap coolie coloured labour’, but, influenced by Marx’s ‘Proletarian of all lands unite!’, the position of the CPA was ‘we cannot accept any exploitation of coloured workers, because any such exploitation is bound to be followed by reduction of the wages of white workers’.[14]

Throughout the mid-1920s, the CPA continued to campaign against ‘mass immigration’, particularly government sponsored immigration from the British Isles (seen as way of simply of British imperialism transferring its poor to another part of the empire)[15] and from southern Europe. The Party argued that ‘the wholesale importation of immigrant workers into Australia’, which was ‘a deliberate attempt on the part of the capitalists to flood the country with cheap labour’ and thus called upon Australian workers to ‘take every possible step to combat the dangers of large scale immigration’.[16] Labourers from Italy were specifically targeted by the Communist Party, with the party press identifying a particular ‘problem’ in Queensland where:

colonies of Italian workers have developed and their lack of knowledge of the English language and the hostility of certain unions… have forced these workers to become easy prey of the capitalist class and a menace to the conditions of the Australian workers.[17]

But an edition of The Workers’ Weekly from August 1927 warned its readers from being hostile towards Italian workers, reminding them:

The Italian workers did not drop from heaven, but, to the contrary, come from a country that experienced a working class revolution, with the Labor movement developed to a higher degree than in Australia. The Italian workers have been members of the Communist Party, Italian Labor Party and the trade union movement before their arrival out here and if given the opportunity they will demonstrate their trade union traditions equally with other workers that have done so here. [18]

This highlighted a contradiction in the CPA’s outlook towards immigration and the ‘White Australia Policy’. While stressing that the unions still needed to ‘protest against the State aided mass immigration of Labor’,[19] the Party also emphasised that they were internationalists and ‘welcome[d] workers from any land’.[20] The programme of the CPA during this period consisted of the following:

  • To agitate for the discontinuance of state aided immigration schemes and international post war agreements.
  • To impress upon their trades unions the necessity of recruiting into their ranks all immigrants on arrival.
  • To advise their trade union and labor councils to affiliate to the Red International of Labor Unions… with the definite object of securing the unity of the rival organisations into an all inclusive trade union international organisation.[21]

John Pepper, a Hungarian-American member of the Comintern’s Anglo-American Secretariat harshly criticised the Communist Party of Australia’s contradictory stance in 1926, in response to report by the CPA’s Edgar Ross on the ‘Australian question’. Pepper called the white working class in Australia ‘a proletariat with many privileges’, which was reinforced by the White Australia Policy.[22] For Pepper, the Party ‘did not fight energetically enough against the White Australia ideology of the workers’ and warned that if the CPA ‘does not want to become something similar to the official Labour [sic?] Party’, it had to combat the White Australia Policy’.[23] The following year, the CPA resolution declared:

In opposition the chauvinistic and racial policy of the A.L.P. as manifested in its White Australia Policy, the C.P. must put forward a policy of opposition to State aided immigration whilst insisting on the elimination of all racial barriers in the Immigration Laws; at the same time formulating a programme for receiving and organising immigrant workers into the working class movement of Australia.[24]

The conflicted agenda was agreed to by the Comintern as its own resolution on the ‘Australian Question’ put forward something similar, proposing that the Communist Party ‘must conduct an ideological fight against [the] social chauvinism’ of the Australian labour movement, by ‘championing an internationalist policy’, as well as ‘insisting upon… free admittance for the workers of all countries’.[25] But at the same time, the Comintern called for the CPA to criticise and condemn the ‘plans of the British and Australian governments for mass migration’.[26] Robert Bozinovski has described this approach as the Party’s ‘commendable opposition to White Australia in the face of virulent racism’, but also noted that the Comintern continued to complain that the CPA ‘was not sufficiently vocal in its opposition’.[27] Stuart Macintyre has suggested that this contradictory position was because of the social and political origins of the Communist Party and its attachment to the international communist movement. ‘The concern for the purity of the race was a persistent theme of the Australian labour movement’, Macintyre explained, and because the CPA was ‘a by-product of that movement’, as well as a ‘member of an internationalist organisation committed to the unity of the workers of the world’, the Party ‘found itself torn between old habits and new loyalties’.[28]

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From the Workers’ Weekly, Jan 1926

From the Third Period to the Second World War

Despite the sharpening of anti-colonial and anti-racist politics of the international communist movement during the ‘Third Period’ (between 1928 and 1934) and the greater focus on the Aboriginal struggle and Australian colonialism in New Guinea by the CPA, its position on the White Australia Policy largely stayed intact throughout the 1930s. As more southern European workers came to Australia fleeing the Great Depression and political upheaval in Europe, the Communist Party attempted to appeal to these workers. In an open letter in The Workers’ Weekly, the CPA announced:

The Communist Party of Australia, as the only internationalist party in this country, presents itself to you, the emigrant workers, Maltese, Italians, Greeks, Yugo-Slavs, and toilers of all other nationalities, as the only political party defending your interests and consistently carrying out a programme and policy leading to emancipation, to bread and work and freedom for all members of our class.[29]

But the Party still campaigned against state aided migration programmes, arguing that while the CPA ‘want[ed] to see Australia populated’ and ‘want[ed] to see great, growing and economically secure working-class population’, they insisted that ‘the State mass migration schemes must be resisted’.[30]

The rise of fascism in Europe also shifted the Communist Party’s thinking about immigration and anti-racism. Since the 1920s, Italians had come to Australia to escape the Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini and after the Nazi’s ascension to power in 1933, a small number of Germans fled to Australia, followed by a small number of Jewish refugees in late 1930s (who were initially refused permission by the Australian government).[31] These refugees from fascism ignited sympathy amongst many Australian workers, with the Communist Party, trading on its anti-fascist credentials, pushing for a greater intake of refugees and criticising the Australian government for its racialism. In August 1937, the Party castigated the Lyons government and the mainstream press for using ‘the language of Hitler’ in referring to incoming migrants as ‘undesirable’ and ‘physically and mentally inferior’.[32] ‘This question of “superiority” and “inferiority” in races’, the Party editorialised, ‘is one of the vilest features of fascism and its ideology’, and was also, according to the CPA, ‘one of the most effective weapons in the hands of capitalism for splitting their ranks.’[33]

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, the CPA campaigned for a greater intake of refugees from Europe. For example, an editorial from February 1939 stated:

The great Australian labor movement must fight for the rescue of these [refugees], our brave fellow-workers. The working class must see that these destitute people of our own class are not allowed to starve or be returned to the fascist terror merely because they have no money…

The Lyons government must be compelled to assist financially working-class refugees from fascist barbarism.[34]

Although the Communist Party continued to argue against ‘mass immigration’, they characterised the arrival of these refugees as a ‘special problem’ that had been ‘created with the rise of fascism’.[35] The Party thus claimed that the Australian working class ‘can be nothing but sympathetic to the victims of fascist terror and anxious to assist in securing sanctuary for them.’[36]

The Party built a small cadre of migrant members amongst the Italian, Greek and Jewish communities, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, and became increasingly involved in mobilising the Jewish community towards anti-fascism and support for the war effort. Unlike the British and American Communist Parties,[37] which had built significant Jewish membership in the 1930s due to their militant anti-fascism, the Australian party had to make significant concrete efforts to welcome Jewish members into the Party and combat anti-semitism amongst its members (and the wider labour movement). A 1943 document, intercepted by the security services, outlined the important responsibility of the Australian Communist Party in this field:

  1. To mobilise the labour movement and people generally to understand the nature of anti-semitism, to stamp it out and expose the fascist plans of its purveyors.
  2. To win the Jewish people for the National Front for active participation in the fight against fascism for all progressive activities of the Australian people and for active steps to combat anti-semetism [sic].
  3. To support every step which has as its aim the saving of as many Jewish people as possible from Nazi controlled Europe, to fight for the reconstruction of Jewish life after the war with full rights for all Jews. To participate in carrying out these tasks is the special duty of all Jewish Communists irrespective of what their particular Party activity or responsibility may be, where they may work or amongst whom they may mix.[38]

By war’s end, the Australian far left was in a buoyant mood – the Soviet Union was held in high esteem, European colonies around the world were declaring independence, and with some 23,000 members in 1944 and an ability to exert control over at least 40 per cent of Australia’s unions, the previously marginal CPA had become a force to be reckoned with. At the height of this momentary euphoria, the Party’s Assistant Secretary Richard ‘Dick’ Dixon wrote a short pamphlet entitled Immigration and the White Australia Policy, which captured the Party’s partial awakening to the issues of race and migration—openly attacking the White Australia policy for the first time. Yet, Dixon’s pamphlet straddled a difficult course – challenging the labour movement’s long history of opposing coloured immigration, while arguing to retain the wages and conditions that ‘white Australia’ maintained.[39]

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[1] Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2008)pp. 6-7.

[2] ‘Theses on the Eastern Question’,in John Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011) p. 1181.

[3] Pearl Hanks, ‘The Color Problem’, The Proletarian, 7 December, 1920, pp. 11-12.

[4] Hanks, ‘The Color Problem’, p. 13.

[5] Hanks, ‘The Color Problem’, p. 13.

[6] Minutes of meeting of the Anglo-American-Colonial Section of the Executive of the Comintern, 6 April, 1922, p.5, 495/72/2 RGASPI, Moscow.

[7] ‘How to Deal with Immigrants’, The Workers’ Weekly, 12 December, 1924, p. 1.

[8] ‘How to Deal with Immigrants’, p. 1.

[9] ‘Immigration Menace’, The Workers’ Weekly, 5 June, 1925, p. 4.

[10] ‘Immigration Menace’, p. 4.

[11] ‘Immigration Menace’, p. 4.

[12] ‘The Immigration Menace’, The Workers’ Weekly, 17 July, 1925, p. 2.

[13] Dora Montefiore, ‘Speech at the 5th Congress of the Comintern Moscow, 25th June 1924’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/montefiore/1924/labour.htm (accessed 4 April, 2017).

[14] Montefiore, ‘Speech at the 5th Congress of the Comintern Moscow, 25th June 1924’.

[15] The Empire Settlement Act 1922 saw the introduction of a programme by the British government to send large number of people, especially returned soldiers and their families, to the settler colonies, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and southern Africa. See: John A. Schultz, ‘Finding Homes Fit for Heroes: The Great War and Empire Settlement’, Canadian Journal of History, 18/1 (1983) pp. 99-111.

[16] ‘Immigration Policy’, The Workers’ Weekly, 15 January, 1926, p. 2.

[17] ‘Immigration Policy’, p. 2.

[18] Chas Nelson, ‘Miners and Italians’, The Workers’ Weekly, 12 August, 1927, p. 2.

[19] Nelson, ‘Miners and Italians’, p. 2.

[20] W.E.P., ‘Foreign Workers in Australia’, The Workers’ Weekly, 19 August, 1927, p. 4.

[21] ‘Immigration Policy’, p. 2.

[22] John Pepper, ‘Meeting of the Secretariat (British)’, 22 April, 1926, p. 2, RGASPI, 495/72/14.

[23] Pepper, ‘Meeting of the Secretariat (British)’, p. 5.

[24] ‘Australia in the Scheme of Empire’, The Communist, 1 March, 1928, p. 9.

[25] ‘Resolution on the Australian Question’, 31 October, 1927, p. 12, RGASPI, 495/3/30.

[26] ‘Resolution on the Australian Question’, p. 12.

[27] Robert Bozinvoski, ‘The Communist Party of Australia and Proletarian Internationalism, 1928-1945’ (Victoria University: Unpublished PhD thesis, 2008) p. 70.

[28] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia From Origins to Illegality (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p. 126.

[29] ‘Communist Party’s Appeal to All Foreign-Born Workers’, The Workers’ Weekly, 10 August, 1934, p. 3.

[30] ‘Against State-Aided Migration’, The Workers’ Weekly, 24 January, 1936, p. 3.

[31] Gianfranco Cresciani, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, 1922-1945 (Canberra: ANU Press, 1980); Klaus Neumann, Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees – A History (Collingwood, VIC: Black Inc, 2015) p.; Andrew Markus, ‘Jewish Migration to Australia, 1938-49’, Journal of Australian Studies, 7/13 (1983) pp. 18-31.

[32] ‘“Undesirable” Aliens and Desirable Parasites’, The Workers’ Weekly, 24 August, 1937, p. 2.

[33] ‘“Undesirable” Aliens and Desirable Parasites’, p. 2.

[34] ‘No Worker Need Apply – Lyons and the Refugees’, The Workers’ Weekly, 28 February, 1939, p. 2.

[35] Tom Wright, ‘Trade Unions and Migration: Aid Political Refugees’, The Workers’ Weekly, 26 August, 1938, p. 2.

[36] Wright, ‘Trade Unions and Migration’, p. 2.

[37] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945 (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1995); Jason Heppell, ‘A Rebel, Not A Rabbi: Jewish Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 15/1 (2004) pp. 28-50; Bat-Ami Zucker, ‘American Jewish Communists and Jewish Culture in the 1930s’, Modern Judaism, 14/2 (May 1994) pp. 175-185; Jacob A. Zumoff, The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015) pp. 172-186.

[38] ‘The Tasks of Jewish Communists in the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism and for the Rights of the Jewish People’, 1943, A6122 444, National Archives of Australia.

[39] R. Dixon, Immigration and the ‘White Australia Policy’ (Sydney: Current Book Distributors, 1945), available at https://www.marxists.org/history/australia/comintern/sections/australia/1945/white-australia.htm

Archives of political extremism in Australia: A short guide

Recently I was emailed asking about the archives of the political extremes in Australia and what archives had I come across in my research. I sent the following reply, which I think is a concise (but obviously not complete) survey of the various collections around the country. I thought others might be interested, so enjoy!

CPA ML

For my research on Australian political extremism, the predominant archival sources are those of the Communist Party of Australia. The Mitchell Library in Sydney has the largest collection of materials belonging to the CPA and the Aarons brothers, as well as a number of other CPA members. The University of Melbourne also has a substantial archive of CPA material, as well as that of Bernie Taft, Ralph Gibson and George Seelaf. UQ has a smaller collection of CPA material.

The Noel Butlin Archives at ANU has a wider labour movement collection, donated by several academics and labour groups. The National Library of Australia has some records relating to different radicals, such as Guido Baracchi, and Ralph and Dorothy Gibson.

The State Library of Victoria has digitised over 100 CPA pamphlets, which can be viewed via their catalogue and Trove has digitised the newspapers of the CPA until the mid-1950s.

There is a website called Reason in Revolt which has digitised a bunch of Australian radical materials, but it is far from complete and needs updating. But it does have extensive copies of the materials of the various Trotskyist groups in Australia, especially the ISO and the SWP/DSP.

The Encyclopaedia of Anti-Revisionism Online has the best materials relating to Maoism in Australia, sharing some with the Reason in Revolt page. The current CPA has an archive of the Socialist Party of Australia’s Australian Marxist Review journal back to the 1970s.

On the other side of the extremes, there is little on the Australian far right outside of the National Archives of Australia’s security files. There are papers dedicated to the New Guard in the Mitchell Library, as well as at the NAA. Former ALP and anti-communist activist Frederick Riley has two collections – one at the NLA and one at the SLV, but these are quite wide and varied. UQ also has a collection of material relating to the Australian League of Rights, as part of the papers of Jack Harding and Raphael Cilento. At this stage, the Searchlight archive at the University of Northampton (UK) might have the best collection of post-1945 Australian far right material, other than the declassified ASIO files.

Obviously there are other archives and resources that I have missed. If you can suggest any, please comment below!

Parliament’s current obsession with s18c

On ‘Harmony Day’ yesterday, the Turnbull government announced that it would seek to introduce legislation that would amend the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) to remove the words ‘insult’ or ‘offend’ from section 18c of the Act. Under these proposed changes, only racial ‘harassment’ or ‘intimidation’ would be prohibited.

To many, this seemed like a pet project of the conservative right of the Liberal Party and some right libertarians that had gained too much attention. A number of commentators pointed to the continued discussion of the s18c in the opinion pages of The Australian, as well as the columns of News Limited commentators like Andrew Bolt or the journal Quadrant. The amount of media space devoted to criticising s18c and the Australian Human Rights Commission (who enforce the Racial Discrimination Act) seems to most to be out of proportion with mainstream public opinion in Australia.

In response to yesterday’s announcement, Fatima Measham from the current affairs website Eureka Street commented:

This got me interested. How had the discourse surrounding s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act changed since Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened the Act in 2011?

In September 2011, Andrew Bolt was found by the Federal Court to have authored two columns that contravened s18c. In response, a number of those on the right of politics, as well as many in the media from the ‘centre’, complained about the verdict and proposed for the wording of the Act to be changed. In the lead up to the 2013 election, the Liberals inserted this policy proposal into their manifesto.

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With Andrew Bolt regarded as a close personal friend, Prime Minister Tony Abbott first floated changing the Act in 2014, but with significant resistance from ethnic minority organisations and other progressive groups, Abbott dropped this initiative.

But the issue didn’t go away. The Australian continued to campaign for the working of s18c to be changed. So did some within the Liberal Party, such as Senator Cory Bernardi, or Abbott once he returned to the backbench. And since Turnbull’s rapid decline in the opinion polls, the conservative right have been using the issue to criticise Turnbull and assert themselves, despite their numerical sparsity.

Using Parlinfo, I looked into how often had the issue been raised in Parliament since s18c came into effect in 1995, as part of the amendments to 1975 Act instigated by the Racial Hatred Act 1995 (Cth). And here are the results:

HoR Senate
1994 7 1
1995 0 2
1996 1 0
1997 0 0
1998 0 0
1999 0 0
2000 0 0
2001 0 0
2002 0 0
2003 0 0
2004 0 0
2005 0 0
2006 0 0
2007 0 0
2008 0 0
2009 0 0
2010 2 0
2011 0 0
2012 3 3
2013 8 2
2014 40 58
2015 33 20
2016 38 59
2017 58 20

As the above table shows, despite from an initial flurry in the mid-1990s (when the Racial Hatred Bill/Act was debated and passed), it was not until 2014 that the issue really becomes a topic of discussion in parliament. Discussions of the subject went down significantly in 2015, after Abbott dropped the issue, but was revived the following year, especially in the Senate – now home to a number of Senators on the political far right. The below graphic also illustrates the sudden rise in discussion of the issue since the Liberals have regained office.

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Even though the Racial Hatred Act was passed more than 20 years ago and s18c has been part of the Racial Discrimination Act framework since then, it was only in recent years that conservatives and right libertarians have taken up the issue. This is demonstrated by the discussion of the issue in Parliament.

A much broader analysis of how and how much the issue has been discussed in the media is needed, but that’s for another time.

 

 

ASIO and surveillance of the women’s liberation movement in Australia in the 1970s

This post is an extended version of the paper that I gave recently for the ‘How the Personal Became Political’ symposium, hosted by the ANU Gender Institute. I am posting this on International Women’s Day 2017, so enjoy!

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In the volume of the official history of ASIO that deals with what Greg Langley has described as the ‘decade of dissent’, 1965 to 1975,[1] there is one mention of the women’s liberation movement and ASIO’s surveillance of it. In his volume, John Blaxland lists the women’s liberation movement as just one of the social movements that was monitored by ASIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the peace movement, and the movement for Aboriginal rights.[2] Blaxland does not go beyond this mention, but we know from other autobiographical works on the material history of ASIO, such as Anne Summers’ chapter in the Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets anthology,[3] that the security services did extensively monitor feminists and the women’s liberation movement during this period.

Unlike the National Archives in London, the National Archives of Australia have been very forthcoming in releasing ASIO files from the 1960s through to the early 1980s, particularly due to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by people who were subject to ASIO surveillance, as well as by a small number of interested journalists and academics. Although, as Tim Sherratt has written,[4] the publicly available ASIO files often have the most controversial elements still redacted, while more sensitive files are retained by the government. Still the amount of material that has been released has been highly useful for contemporary historians.

Most of the publicly available ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement have been digitised and cover the period from 1970 to 1980. As well as four national files (which are the papers that I have explored), there are a number of files dedicated the movements in New South Wales (9), Victoria (4) and the Australian Capital Territory (2). There are probably more files dedicated to the movements in the other states and territories, but some files on South Australia and Tasmania are incorporated into the national files.

ASIO were not the only branch of the state to be involved in the monitoring of the women’s liberation movement. The Special Branches of each state police force were involved in the surveillance of feminist activists across Australia, with Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter revealing the in-depth monitoring of socialist feminist Carole Ferrier by the Queensland Special Branch between 1975 and 1989.[5] The Special Branch files in most states have been destroyed (or are deemed not locatable),[6] with only glimpses of the work of these Special Branches being seen in their correspondence with ASIO maintained in the released ASIO files (one exception to this being the papers of the South Australian Special Branch made public during the inquiry by Justice White into the Special Branch’s security records in 1977).[7]

As Henderson and Winter, as well as Jon Piccini,[8] have noted in their research into ASIO and Special Branch files, while these files give us a detailed record of events, they also present a narrative of activism as determined by the surveiller and not by the subject of the surveillance. Their actions are deemed noteworthy if they fit in with ‘paranoid’ outlook of the security services, who were trained to see potential threats from a multitude of otherwise innocuous sources. As much as we see the behaviour of the activist in these files, we also see the thinking underpinning the actions of the state, who were much more readily to believe that many independent actors were part of a wider conspiracy against the established political and social order in Australia at the time.

The ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement assembled at the national level begin in early 1970. This provides evidence of three main motivations for surveillance of the movement. Firstly, the file contains plenty of clippings on the women’s liberation movement in the United States and their radicalism, and, as Ruth Rosen has shown, the FBI showed great interest in these feminist activists for a variety of reasons. This suspicion was transferred from the US to Australia, as Australian women started to read Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and other US feminist writers. Secondly, the files also note the beginning of various Women’s Liberation Groups formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1969-70, who are in communication with each other and looking to organise on a national scale, with the Sydney group coming first and then others taking inspiration in the other cities. Thirdly, ASIO were already heavily monitoring the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) and it is from these two groups that many of the more militant socialist feminists emerged.

olga-selling-tribune

CPA feminist Olga Silver selling ‘Tribune’

Both the CPA and SYA were involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the wider cultural radicalism of the era and tried to organise around the issue of women’s liberation, both within their party structures and within broader activist circles. In the fourteen years since 1956, the CPA had undergone a significant change from a very pro-Stalin and pro-Chinese militant party to a proto-Eurocommunist party that sought to embrace the new social movements that arose in the 1960s. As Margaret Penson has shown, under the new leadership of Laurie Aarons, the CPA started to take the idea of women’s liberation seriously and several women party members were involved in organising around the issue, with a national conference on women held by the CPA in 1970.[9] At the same time, those within the Party who eschewed these social movements (and held a more pro-Soviet viewpoint) started to agitate against the Aarons leadership and eventually broke away in 1971 to become the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).

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The SYA were a Trotskyist group that emerged out of the anti-war movement at Sydney University, influenced by the US Socialist Workers Party and the Mandelite Fourth International, including the British International Marxist Group. Critical of the Communist Party’s ‘Stalinism’, the SYA emphasised its anti-imperial solidarity work, including the establishment of the Third World Bookshop in Sydney, which became an organisational hub for the SYA (but also bugged by ASIO).

A 1971 report on the Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference, organised by the CPA’s Aileen Beaver, explicitly outlined the ASIO’s interest in the women’s liberation movement in Australia:

Over the past months the Women’s Liberation Movement has been gaining increasing support… and many of the Groups appear to be dominated by Communist Party of Australia (CPAS) members, eg, the Working Women’s Women’s Liberation Group in Sydney or by Maoists eg, the Worker Student Alliance Women’s Liberation Group in Melbourne or by Trotskyists eg, Sydney Bread and Roses Women’s Liberation Group. It is for this reason that ASIO is maintaining an interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement. (my emphasis)[10]

Much of ASIO’s surveillance of the women’s liberation movement came from its surveillance of the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance, through the bugging of the CPA and SYA offices, and reports by agents at meetings and conferences. As David Lockwood has noted, these ASIO files often observed the mundane every-day activities of those involved in progressive and left-wing politics. Page after page is filled with short memos outlining particular people of interest, their links to other people and organisations under surveillance and often with a short description of the person. With the case of feminist activists, these candid remarks by ASIO agents reveal the sexist contempt that they had for the women’s liberation movement at the time. For example, a memo on Isabelle Sandford (also known as ‘Coonie’) stated:

Coonie is approximately 23 years of age, approximately 5’2” tall, with shoulder length straight dark brown hair. She has brown eyes, weights approximately 8 stone. She has a good figure, is neat and well groomed. She is not popular with the other members of the Women’s Liberation Group as they consider she talks a lot of rot, and has in fact been accused on occasions of being a liar.[11]

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Another memo on Elisabeth Elliott seemed to complain that while she was considered ‘a very attractive girl’, she was deemed to be ‘untidy in her general appearance’.[12]

The CPA had overseen the establishment of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in the 1950s, but by the early 1970s, it was being taken over by the Women’s Liberation Groups which involved both CPA and SYA members. One report from November 1970 noted ‘a lot of bickering’ at a South District branch meeting over whether the UAW was still the ‘main CPA women’s organisation’,[13] with dissidents (who would eventually form the SPA) allegedly pressing for the traditional organisation to maintain its role. In March 1971, ASIO further noted that future SPA leading figure Pat Clancy:

spoke disparagingly of the CPA leadership’s attitude of concentrating on Women’s Liberation as he feels that the potential of Women’s Liberation is minor compared to the possibility of organising women in the industrial area.[14]

The CPA maintained its support for women’s liberation movement and published a pamphlet in 1971 titled, What Every Woman Should Know, under the guise of the Women’s Liberation Working Women’s Group. An ASIO intercept report noted that the CPA sold out its initial run of the pamphlet and that hundreds of copies were to be sent to CPA bookshops in Melbourne and Perth.[15] In July 1972, ASIO still saw the CPA as ‘the best appointed Women’s Liberation’ group, but noted that ‘even within it there is quite strong opposition from many of the men’.[16] An agent’s briefing from 1972 National Congress of the CPA noted that one male Communist Party member spoke out against women’s liberation at the Congress, reporting:

He was very much against the part of Women’s Liberation where they were men hating. He felt that this was a bad attitude which could do nothing but harm to the organisation.[17]

As Steve James has written, the primary function of ASIO was intelligence gathering,[18] but one wonders about what use the information gathered by ASIO agents would be. For example, after a Women’s Liberation Conference held in Guthega in NSW in January 1972 by a faction within the SYA, a brief called for the following from any agents or informants attending the conference:

  • Identification of persons attending the Conference with particular reference to their political leanings…
  • Information concerning the reported split within the Socialist Youth Alliance over the issues of Women’s Liberation.
  • Information concerning a possible split in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney following the formation of the New Communist Party (Socialist Party of Australia).[19]

The first three national files are dedicated to the years from 1970 to 1972, but the last file covers the years from 1972 to 1980, suggesting a reduction in interest from ASIO, particularly in relation to the links between the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance to the women’s liberation movement, which was, as quoted above, the main reason for ASIO’s surveillance of the movement. This neatly coincides with the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972 and the reform of ASIO after the raid ordered by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in early 1973.

However surveillance did not stop entirely in this period and it seems that ASIO seemed to shift their focus of concern from the women’s liberation movement being a political concern with regards to Communist and Trotskyist entrism to a concern about the impact that the movement was having socially and culturally. One document drafted in November 1972, just before the election of Whitlam, argued explicitly that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a subversive movement… in a unique manner.’[20] Firstly, the report acknowledged, as had been ASIO thinking over the last few years, that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a target movement… for communist action organisations.’[21] The report expanded on this, stating:

This feature of Women’s Liberation, by itself, would make Women’s Liberation of security interest as the expressed aim of the communists is to capture, control, exploit every critical, reformist movement or organisation and develop it into a new revolutionary context.[22]

But this communist infiltration was not the only concern of ASIO. The same report purported:

Women’s Liberation… is not directly concerned with political subversion but is concerned with subversion on a higher and more sophisticated level, (that is social subversion, into which political subversion is incorporated).[23]

This suggested that certain people within the security services believed that the women’s liberation movement were actively undermining the moral fabric of Australian society in the 1970s. The report outlined at length the ways in which this moral subversion alleged manifested itself, including through the degradation of the education system, reconfiguration of sex values and conduct, promotion of drug use, rejection of traditional social values, and undermining of traditional understandings of ‘democracy’.

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ASIO outlines the ‘subversive’ agenda of the WLM in Australia (1972)

‘Because of its relentless critique of the existing social order, and the unique nature of its critique,’ ASIO stated, the women’s liberation movement was ‘a fertile field for communist activity’.[24] The report continued…

Women’s Liberation is engaged in the same process of dismantling existing institutions that the communists engage in AFTER the revolution (and, of course, continuously attempt). The communists are delighted to have a ‘captive audience’ which can be mobilised against the capitalist system…

From the Women’s Liberation social analysis, then, it is a short step to the communist analysis of political and social power in capitalist societies.[25]

However as the 1970s progressed, the focus of ASIO on communist entrism in the Women’s Liberation Movement shifted to other parties than the CPA and the SYA (which had become Socialist Workers League after 1972). Between 1972 and 1975, ASIO noted the increased interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). The aforementioned report from November 1972 noted that the CPA(M-L) held the line that women should organise inside the Communist Party as ‘Marxism-Leninism is the only correct theory on this question.’[26] Two memos from 1975 reveal that some within the SPA, who were originally sceptical of the Women’s Liberation Movement’, argued that the Party ‘must associate with groups such as Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Electoral Lobby because in these groups is where the progressive people are.’[27] Geoff Curthoys was quoted as saying that ‘the S.P.A. must not sever connections with these groups’.[28] Freda Brown reportedly agreed with Curthoys, but stated that ‘the S.P.A. has not got the women’s forces’ to work with these groups.[29]

By 1980, the focus had moved the Australian branch of the Spartacist League, a highly sectarian orthodox Trotskyist group that had grown from the US and UK in the late 1970s. A memo from June 1980 commented that the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand were ‘active in two main groups… the Gay Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole, not in individual groups within the movements’, with the Women’s Action Committee identified as the group that the Spartacists were ‘specifically interested in’.[30] In one document from 1980, ASIO outlined the strategy of the Spartacists to acquire members, remarking ‘[i]t is a very long slow process but they gradually draw people away from groups like Gay Liberation and Women’s Rights’.[31] However a document from 1977 had already noted that the Women’s Liberation Movement had already expelled a number of Spartacist League members.[32]

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From ‘Australian Spartacist’, May 1980.

The current batch of files run out in 1980, but the last file of the series demonstrates that ASIO’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement had greatly waned by the late 1970s. Over the preceding decade, the movement had moved from the extra-parliamentary sphere to the heart of parliamentary politics and policy, as evidenced, for example, by the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as the first Advisor on Women’s Affairs by Gough Whitlam in 1973. The role that the far left played in Australian politics had also waned after the upturn in radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We know that surveillance of the far left and other social movements continued into the 1980s, but the files relating to the Women’s Liberation Movement do not continue into Hawke era.

[1] Greg Langley, A Decade of Dissent: Vietnam and the Conflict on the Australian Homefront, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

[2] John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 4.

[3] Anne Summers, ‘Number C/57/61: What ASIO Knew’, in Meredith Burgmann, Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files (Sydney: New South, 2014).

[4] Tim Sherratt, ‘Turning the Inside Out’, Discontents, October 24, 2016, http://discontents.com.au/turning-the-inside-out/ (accessed 6 March, 2017)

[5] Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter, ‘Memoirs of Our Nervous Illness: The Queensland Police Special Branch Files of Carole Ferrier as Political Auto/Biography’, Life Writing, 6/3 (2009) pp. 349-367.

[6] Andrew Moore, ‘“A Secret Policeman’s Lot”: The Working Life of Fred Longbottom of the New South Wales Special Branch’, in John Shields (ed), All Our Labours: Oral Histories of Working Life in Twentieth Century Sydney (Kensington: UNSW Press, 1992) pp. 193-226; Mark Finnane, ‘Long Gone, But Not Forgotten’, Griffith Review, 21 (2008) https://griffithreview.com/articles/long-gone-but-not-forgotten/ (accessed 7 March 2017).

[7] Justice White, Special Branch Security Records: Initial Report (Adelaide: Government of South Australia, 1977); Richard G. Fox, ‘The Salisbury Affair: Special Branches, Security and Subversion’, Monash University Law Review, 5/4 (June 1979) pp. 251-270; Anna Kovac, ‘ASIO’s Surveillance of Brian Medlin’, Flinders Journal of History and Politics, 31 (2015) pp. 132-133.

[8] Jon Piccini, ‘“People Treated Me With Equality”: Indigenous Australians Visiting the Soviet Bloc During the Cold War’, Labour History, 111 (November 2016) p. 2.

[9] Margaret Penson, Breaking the Chains: Communist Party Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975 (Broadway, NSW: Breaking the Chains Collective, 1999).

[10] ‘Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference’, August 1971, A6122 2573, National Archives of Australia (Canberra).

[11] ‘Isabelle SANDFORD’, 6 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[12] ‘Elizabeth ELLIOTT’, 8 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[13] ‘South Coast District – Communist Party of Australia’, 13 November, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[14] ‘Communist Party of Australia Dissidents – Activities in Trade Unions’, 30 March, 1971, A6122 2274, NAA.

[15] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1971, A6122 2573, NAA.

[16] ‘Communist Party of Australia 23rd National Congress – Women’s Liberation’, 12 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[17] ‘Leslie William SMITH (S/65/20)’, 10 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[18] Steve James, ‘Policing Political Violence in Australia’ in, David Lowe, et. al., Examining Political Violence: Studies of Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Internal War (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013) p. 342.

[19] ‘Women’s Liberation Conference, Guthega, New South Wales, 29th-31st January, 1972’, 13 January, 1972, p. 2, A6122 2573, NAA.

[20] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1972, p. 1, A6122 2575, NAA.

[21] Ibid., p. 1.

[22] Ibid., p. 1.

[23] Ibid., p. 2.

[24] Ibid., p. 2.

[25] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[26] Ibid., p. 4.

[27] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206003’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206005’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[30] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Interest in Mass Issues’, 30 June, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[31] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Tactics at Demonstrations’, 23 July, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[32] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ)’, 20 June, 1977, p. 3, A6122 2575, NAA.

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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