Communist Party of Australia

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.

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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.

Sydney, London, Moscow, Beijing: Schisms in the international communist movement, 1947-61

The following forms part of a forthcoming book chapter on the relationship between the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa. It builds on previous posts (here and here) and will also be worked into the manuscript that I am currently developing from my postdoctoral research. As per usual, any feedback is most welcome!

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Mao Zedong meets Harry Pollitt, Nelson Clarke and L.L. Sharkey.

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Moscow started to deviate in the post-war period. In the era of decolonisation that started after the Second World War, the CPA increasingly look towards Asia and the revolutionary precedent established by the Communist Party of China. It is evident that as the dual processes of the Cold War and decolonisation got underway, there was a clear division of labour between Moscow and Beijing, with the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence concentrating on Europe, while it was accepted that the colonial countries of Asia would follow the ‘Chinese path’. As David Lockwood has argued, after 1949:

an informal ‘division of labour’ within the world movement seems to have been agreed upon between the Soviet and Chinese parties in which communists in the colonies, ‘semi-colonies’ and ex-colonies would receive their advice from Beijing.[1]

The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Parties of Malaya, Indonesia and India, as well as the Chinese Party. This support also caused friction between the Australian and British parties, particularly over the level of support that the British party gave to the national liberation movements in the British colonies.

On the eve of the Malayan Emergency in mid-1948, the CPA’s leadership used the situation in Malaya to attack the CPGB for its reformist tendencies. In the initial post-war period, the CPGB supported the Labour Government, who despite endorsing colonial independence in some instances, harshly put down anti-colonial movements which had communist links, such as in Malaya. The CPA saw the CPGB’s support for Labour as ‘Browderist’, based on the argument made by former CPUSA leader Earl Browder that separate Communist Parties were no longer necessary in the global West. The Australian party further accused the British party of substituting the struggle for socialism with the acceptance of bourgeois democracy. The CPA believed that the CPGB had lost its way and it would rather look towards Moscow (and Beijing) for direction.

In particular, the Australian Communist Party, strongly influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (and for a time, the Tito regime in Yugoslavia), accused the British Communist Party of not fully committing the struggle against colonialism.[2] This began in 1947 with Sharkey’s heavy criticisms in the newspaper Tribune of the new pamphlet by CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt, Looking Ahead for ‘mislead[ing] the British working-class’ and evading the logic of Marxism-Leninism.[3]

The CPA had close ties to the Communist Party of Malaya (based in Singapore), who were debating whether to launch an armed insurrection against the British colonial government. Part of the CPA’s critique of the CPGB was that as the British party supported the Labour Government under Clement Atlee, they were unwilling to fully support anti-colonial rebellions in the British Commonwealth as this would upset any prospective ‘Labour-Communist’ alliance. On the other hand, the CPA was very supportive of communist anti-colonialism in the South-East Asia region (on the doorstep of Australia). With its enthusiasm for the Malayan Communist Party, the CPA could highlight the contrast between its agenda and the ‘reformism’ of the CPGB and also depict itself as a supporter of the emerging anti-colonial movements in Asia.

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A letter from the Central Committee of the CPGB to Sharkey in July 1948 accused him of ‘uncomradely and un-Communist’ behaviour for using the theoretical journal of the Malayan Communist Party to attack the CPGB.[4] The CPGB described Sharkey’s article, titled ‘The International Situation and Opportunism’, as ‘an entirely false presentation of the policy of our Party’ and pronounced:

Such methods as you have seen fit to adopt have nothing in common with international practice among Communist Parties and between Communist Party leaders.[5]

In a further exchange of letters between the two parties, published in the CPGB’s World News and Views, Sharkey further criticised the British party over its anti-colonial work, accusing it of

insufficient struggle on behalf of the independence of the colonies; and worse still, the example of the British comrades which led to opportunism and confusion in a number of the colonial Communist Parties.[6]

Although Sharkey did not elaborate on this accusation, it is true that some national liberation movements and Communist Parties in the colonial sphere, such as those in India, believed that the resolve of the CPGB on anti-colonial issues had waned in the 1940s.[7] The CPGB believed that the Australian party was possibly ‘pro-Tito’ (and thus willing to criticise the British party) because Sharkey had spent time in Calcutta with a Yugoslav delegate in 1948 as the only two non-Asian communist representatives at the congress of the Communist Party of India.[8]

In further private correspondence between Sharkey and Pollitt, the Australian Communist leader wrote, ‘you have an incorrect understanding of the present day maneuvers of British imperialism in relation to the colonial revolutions’.[9] However the CPGB maintained that anti-colonial politics was central to its programme and that ‘as the Party in the ruling centre of the Empire’, it held ‘the greatest responsibility… to combat the vicious and harmful policies of imperialism’.[10] And despite these fractures, the Communist Party of Australia still sent delegates to the CPGB’s Communist Parties of the British Empire conferences in 1947, 1954 and 1958, while several leading CPGB members, such as Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher, toured Australia in the 1950s.

Throughout the 1950s, the CPA looked increasingly to the Chinese Communist Party for direction and as Mark Aarons has written, ‘[t]he CPA was the first Australian political party to understand that Australia is geographically located in Asia.’[11] Although Australia was a settler colonial power, rather than a colony, it seemed to make sense, geographically, for the CPA to build closer ties with China, rather than simply looking to the Kremlin and the CPGB in London, with whom ties had been loosened throughout the late 1940s.

After the denunciation of the ‘crimes’ of the Stalin era by Khrushchev in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, Communist Parties across the world went into shock, with many suffering significant membership loss and debate spilling over into the public sphere. Inside the British Communist Party, dissidents, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer and Malcolm MacEwen (amongst others), sought channels outside the Party to denounce the actions of the Soviet Union, as well as the lack of internal debate within the Party. Phillip Deery and Rachel Calkin have shown that similar scenes occurred in the CPA.[12] Although the leadership of both the CPGB and CPA supported the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, the backlash in these Parties fostered a much deeper debate about the role of the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. In Britain, the Communist Party lost over 8,000 members between February 1956 and February 1958,[13] leading to the creation of the first New Left that attempted to negotiate a path between Western capitalism and Stalinism.[14] In Australia, Communist Party membership ‘slumped from about 8000 to less than 6000’,[15] which was followed by further divisions inside the CPA over the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.

Between 1956 and 1960, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China seemed to heading towards a major split in the international communist movement and it was up to each individual country or Communist Party to decide where their support lay. Right up until 1960, the CPA seemed to take the side of the Chinese in the dispute, with Nick Knight claiming that during the late 1950s, ‘virtually the entire National Secretariat of the CPA was ideologically and psychologically in favour of the Chinese position’.[16] However Sharkey, despite visiting China in 1959 and 1961, pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow when attending the 81 Communist and Workers Parties conference in Moscow in November 1961.[17] ASIO noted that the Sino-Soviet split also had a major impact upon the CPA’s relationship with the Communist Party of New Zealand (the only Western Communist Party to side with China in the split).[18] While Mark Aarons suggests that Sharkey was partially swayed by some large cash payments by Moscow, Tom O’Lincoln suggests that the rank-and-file membership had little appetite for the extreme rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party at this time, while Knight argues that it was Sharkey’s probable realisation that the CPA ‘would become isolated from the fraternity of the international communist parties should its support for the Chinese position continue’.[19]

After the realignment of the CPA towards Moscow, a pro-Chinese faction broke away and formed the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1963, led by Ted Hill. In Britain, the CPGB experienced similar breakaways from anti-revisionists. In the same year that the CPA (M-L) was formed, Michael McCreery formed the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Community Unity and led a small number of party members disgruntled with the ‘revisionism’ of The British Road to Socialism.[20] A larger group left in early 1968 when AEU leader Reg Birch formed the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).[21]

By the 1960s, the international communist movement had fractured, caused partly by the events of 1956, partly by the Sino-Soviet split and partly by the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, which presented an alternative to both Stalinism or Maoism for the new decolonised nations across the global South. This was very different from the situation in 1945 when communists the world over looked the newly triumphant Soviet Union, the People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe and the Chinese Communist Party on the verge of winning a decades long civil war. As the Cold War got underway, coinciding with the era of decolonisation, Communist Parties in the West shifted to the left and embraced this enthusiasm for socialism and anti-imperialism, including the Communist Party of Australia. The Communist Party of Great Britain, although taking a more conciliatory approach to domestic politics, was charged by Moscow with assisting anti-colonial struggles within the British Empire/Commonwealth. The CPA quarrelled with the CPGB over its reformism and alleged that this political shift had left the CPGB unable to assist its comrades in the colonial sphere. This tumultuous relationship was not repaired until the 1950s, when important figures such as Harry Pollitt visited Australia, and grew closer after L.L. Sharkey was replaced as Party leader in the mid-1960s. However the enthusiasm for Stalinism and Maoism, which had characterised the outlook of the Party in the 1940s and 1950s had given way to a proto-Eurocommunism by the late 1960s.

CPA pamphlet

[1] David Lockwood, The Communist Party of India and the Indian Emergency (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2016) pp. 10-11.

For further discussion of this division of labour, see: John Herouvim, ‘Australian Communists and Peking: New Light on an Elusive Source’, Politics, 20/1 (1985) pp. 127-129.

[2] See: ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, World News and Views, 31 July, 1948, pp. 332-339.

[3] L.L. Sharkey, ‘Critical Comment on Harry Pollitt’s Book’, Tribune, 25 October, 1947, p. 7.

[4] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey, 16 July, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[5] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey.

[6] ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, p. 334.

[7] Smith, ‘National Liberation for Whom?’, p. 289.

[8] Letter from Brian Pearce to CPGB Executive Committee, 7 August, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[9] Copy of letter from L.L. Sharkey to Harry Pollitt, 22 October, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[10] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Political Report to the Conference of the Communist Parties of the British Empire’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 24.

[11] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc, 2010) p. 172.

[12] Phillip Deery & Rachel Calkin, ’”We All Make Mistakes”: The Communist Party of Australia and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, 1956’, Australia Journal of Politics and History, 54/1, pp. 69-69-84.

[13] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218.

[14] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995); Wade Matthews, The New Left, National Identity and the Break-Up of Britain (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2013) pp. 1-26.

[15] Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained Wattle Press, 1985) p. 98.

[16] Nick Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 28/2, 1998, p. 236.

[17] Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010) pp. 172-185.

[18] ASIO, ‘Oceania: Communism’s Last Target ’, A 12388, 81 PART 2, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[19] O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream, p. 102; Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Aarons, The Family File, p. 192.

[20] Parker, The Kick Inside, pp. 45-50.

[21] Will Podmore, Reg Birch: Engineer, Trade Unionist, Communist (London: Bellman Books, 2004).

The Communist Party of Australia and Anti-Colonial Activism in Papua New Guinea

This is the extended part of a paper that I wrote with Padraic Gibson for the Eric Richards’ Symposium in British and Australian History, which was held at Flinders University last week. The abstract for our paper was as below:

Alongside the Communist Party of Australia’s (CPA) work for Aboriginal rights, the Party’s demands for independence for Papua New Guinea (PNG) arose in the late 1920s from a more complex understanding of the specific form of Australian imperialism. Originally the CPA made no differentiation between British imperialism and the settler colonialism that existed in Australia. This contributed towards an uncritical attitude to immigration restrictions and a silence on the colonial oppression experienced by Aboriginal people on this continent and Indigenous peoples in Australia’s ‘mandated territories’ in the South Pacific. In dialogue with the Comintern, from the late 1920s, the party developed a more nuanced theory of imperialism that highlighted the independent interests and initiative of the Australian bourgeoisie. In this context, the CPA started to campaign against Australian imperialism in New Guinea, highlighting the violent and exploitative rule by the Australians in the mandated territory. This provided an orientation that led to the development of important links between Communist Party members in northern Australia and the independence movement in the territories of New Guinea and Papua. In the lead up to the Second World War and during the early Cold War era, these links particularly worried the Australian authorities (including ASIO) as they thought that a successful anti-colonial movement in the territory would allow firstly the Japanese, then the Chinese or Indonesian communists to gain a base close to the Australian mainland. This paper will explore at this overlooked part of the history of the Australian Communist Party and the campaign against Australian imperialism in the Asia-Oceania region.

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However the paper that we wrote was too long to confine into one conference paper, so I am posting the second half of the paper, on the post-1945 period, here. This is very much a work in progress piece, so any feedback is welcome.

The period after the Second World War looked to present the international communist and anti-colonial movements with an ‘interlude of hope’ as the forces of socialism and national liberation seemed to gather pace.[1] Based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism,[2] communists saw the collapse of the European colonial systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas as the catalyst for worldwide socialist revolution.

In the era of decolonisation that started after the Second World War, the CPA increasingly look towards Asia and the revolutionary precedent established by the Communist Party of China. It is evident that as the dual processes of the Cold War and decolonisation got underway, there was a clear division of labour between Moscow and Beijing, with the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence concentrating on Europe, while it was accepted that the colonial countries of Asia would follow the ‘Chinese path’. The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Parties of Malaya, Indonesia and India, as well as the Chinese Party. A 1949 report on communism in Australia compiled by the CIA noted the support that the CPA had given to communists in Indonesia, Malaya and India, and stated, ‘It is one of the strongest Communist parties of the region and has extended assistance to various independence movements’.[3] The same report claimed, via ‘unverified reports’, that the CPA has set up amateur radio station in Queensland to communicate with sister parties in South-East Asia, and also used ‘smugglers and seamen’ to help in communicating with the armed rebellions in Malaya and Indonesia.[4]

As well as fighting British, Dutch and French imperialism in South-East Asia, the Communist Party revived the fight against Australian imperialism in the aftermath of the Second World War. During the Second World War, the CPA was relatively silent about New Guinea and self-determination for its people. Criticism of Australian imperialism was substituted for criticism of Japanese and German imperialism in the region and New Guinea was predominantly mentioned as a battleground against the Axis powers. Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought the Japanese during the war, the Communist Party celebrated those Papuans who helped the Australian Army and saw this fight against fascism as the beginnings of a longer fight against imperialism and racism.

During the war, the security services that predated ASIO started to be interested in any inroads that the CPA were making amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities in northern Australia. Of particular concern was the CPA’s activism with Indigenous people in the northern parts of Western Australia and in early 1944, inquiries were made out about possible communist activism in another frontline area – PNG. A memo from the Deputy Director of Security in Western Australia wrote to the Director of Security in Canberra, however, noted ‘[t]here is no evidence that the Communist Party in this State has show any interest in the future of the natives of New Guinea.’[5]

In July 1944, the Party first announced its programme for the nation once the war ended, looking to prevent Australian capitalism filling the vacuum after the Japanese occupiers left. In Tribune, the Party stated:

Now that the Japanese are pushed back and the danger is over, New Guinea capitalists are clamouring to return to their plantations and business with complete freedom to exploit and enslave the natives as before.[6]

Self-determination to the people of PNG was the ultimate goal, but the CPA also made several interim demands, particularly as the Communist Party argued that the people of PNG had ‘not developed to the point of setting up democratic organisations’.[7] These interim demands included restrictions on ‘non-native private enterprise and commerce’, restrictions on exploitation of land and the assistance of ‘native agriculture’, the funding of health and education services, and the ‘abolition of the indenture system’.[8] These interim measures, the Party claimed, were ‘aimed to assist [the] people of New Guinea to advance toward nationhood and to exercise their right to self-determination.’[9]

This gradualism in the call for self-determination in New Guinea is very different from the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the CPA and its support for national liberation movements in South-East Asia that were emerging at the same time. In 1945, the Party called for the rights promised under the Atlantic Charter to be applied to the countries liberated from Japanese rule,[10] including political independence, but by 1948, the Party demanded that ‘the labor movement as a whole must stand unswervingly for independence for the colonies’ as well as giving ‘fullest support to the great national revolutions proceeding in India, China, Indonesia, Viet-Nam, Malaya and Burma.’[11] In the same 1948 pamphlet, the Party warned that the ‘Australian imperialism is developing its own colonial empire’, but still insisted that the ‘natives’ in PNG, Fiji and other Pacific Islands needed ‘protection… against slavery to Australian capital’ and granting them ‘assistance… in the raising of their political and educational level’.[12]

A 1964 report on the activism of the Communist Parties of Australia and New Zealand in the Oceania region outlined some of the ways in which the CPA promoted raising the ‘political and educational level’ of the people of New Guinea. One was the encouragement, via the Australian trade union movement, of the formation of a Papuan Workers’ Union.[13] In Tribune, the Party argued:

Formation of such a union plus the establishment of co-operatives are two of the first steps in Papua towards realising UNO Charter aims of improving social, economic, educational and health standards of the peoples of the South West Pacific territories and assisting them to become in the shortest possible time fully independent self-governing communities.[14]

In the 1958 resolution on New Guinea published in Communist Review, the CPA announced that it ‘welcome[d] the ACTU decision directed towards the extension of trade union protection and rights to these workers.’[15]

In the early 1960s, ASIO noted, the Party also suggested an end to individual leases by ‘native occupiers’ on communal land, with farming co-operatives to be set up as alternatives to the capitalist exploitation of the farming population of Papua and New Guinea.[16] This system, Jim Cooper wrote in Communist Review, ‘would not be a violent change from the present communal lands, or the social set up’, but would ‘mean smooth transition by the New Guinea people [from the] commercial exploitation of their land’.[17] It would, Cooper argued, ‘guarantee the New Guinea people’s lands to them, and make for a prosperous and contented people as our near neighbours.’[18]

After increasing episodes on unrest in Papua and New Guinea in the early-to-mid-1960s, the Party more frequently featured the territory in the party press, particularly Communist Review, the monthly journal of the CPA. These episodes of unrest coincided with attempts by the Australian and British governments to establish some form of self-government in the territory of Papua and New Guinea, with a report by Sir Hugh Foot proposing in 1962 the election of a 100 member local parliament by 1964. The CPA saw these attempts at establishing a self-government by the Australian government to be an attempt to ‘hang on and develop a fully fledged capitalist economy’ in Papua and New Guniea.[19] The Party supported the reforms suggested by the Foot report, but argued that these proposals ‘would not mean independence’, and instead maintained:

The only policy for the Australian working class is the principle of independence for the people of Papua and New Guinea. Assistance to help the people develop their country would come from socialist and neutral countries and even Australia itself with no strings attached.[20]

This push for immediate independence was a shift away from the view that the Party had in the late 1940s that the people of New Guinea were not ready for self-determination. Laurie Aarons, the General Secretary of the CPA since the mid-1950s, wrote in Communist Review in 1963 that both the trade union and national movements were growing in size and that the ‘past few years [had] seen many important struggles on a very broad front’, including ‘class struggles for wages and conditions’, ‘struggles to defend the land from alienation’ and ‘struggles against oppression and for democratic rights’.[21] Like other statements from the mid-1960s, Aarons stressed the importance of independence for Papua and New Guinea, but also proposed that the Australian labour movement had ‘to learn from the New Guinea people what their aims are and what help they require from our working class.’[22]

In the late 1960s, the Papuan independence movement became more militant and the CPA saw it in a similar vein to the other anti-imperialist and national liberation movements happening across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. In 1971, Alec Robertson, the editor of the CPA newspaper Tribune, called PNG ‘the last domino’ in Australian Left Review, writing:

PNG – a country very well suited to guerrilla warfare – is approaching a state of crisis already seen in SE Asia and is a potential theatre of large-scale counter-revolutionary war by Australia’s rulers. Each step in that direction should be opposed strenuously by the Australian anti-war movement, for it is essentially the same issue as Vietnam.[23]

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, ASIO were seemingly more worried about international intervention in PNG, particularly Indonesia, China and the Soviet Union,[24] but there was also a concern about the role that the CPA was playing in the Papuan independence movement. Files at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra reveal that in the early-to-mid-1950s, ASIO closely monitored CPA members and fellow travellers who visited PNG, often from Queensland.[25] Rhys Crawley has suggested that while ‘ASIO expected the CPA to continue its vocal criticism of Australian colonial rule in TPNG’ during the 1960s, it found that ‘there was no organised CPA or communist front activity’ in the territory.[26] It seems as though the role that the Communist Party of Australia played in the campaign for independence for Papua New Guinea was primarily a propaganda role in increasing awareness amongst the Australian labour movement.

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[1] Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.

[2] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Peking; Foreign Languages Press, 1975).

[3] CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, 11 April, 1949, p. 3, CIA-RDP78-01617A00300070002-5, CIA Online Library, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp78-01617a003400070002-5.

[4] CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, p. 3.

[5] Letter from Deputy Director of Security for WA to Director General of Security, Canberra, 4 May, 1944, A6122 357, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[6] ‘Party Asks for New Deal for NG Natives’, Tribune, 6 July, 1944, p. 8.

[7] CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress: Draft Resolution for 14th National Congress of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 5.

[8] CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 20.

[9] CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party, p. 20.

[10] CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress, p. 5.

[11] CPA, The Way Forward (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1948) p. 17.

[12] CPA, The Way Forward, p. 17.

[13] ASIO, ‘Oceania – Communism’s Last Target’, 1964, p. 3, A12839 A30 Part 5, National Archives of Australia.

[14] ‘New Deal for Papua is Urgently Needed’, Tribune, 31 January, 1947, p. 5.

[15] ‘New Guinea’, Communist Review, May 1958, p. 228.

[16] ASIO, ‘Oceania’, p. 9.

[17] Jim Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, Communist Review, January/February 1965, p. 12.

[18] Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, p. 12.

[19] Harry Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, Communist Review, January 1963, p. 30.

[20] Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, p. 30.

[21] Laurie Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, Communist Review, June 1963, p. 183.

[22] Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, p. 184.

[23] Alec Robertson, ‘The Last Domino’, Australian Left Review, 29, March 1971, p. 43.

[24] David Horner, The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014) p. 159; Rhys Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline: ASIO in Papua New Guinea, 1962-1975’, in John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 289-299.

[25] See: A6122 357, NAA.

[26] Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline’, p. 299.

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.

Celebrating VE Day in the Tribune and Daily Worker

To celebrate the 71st anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allies in May 1945, here’s how the Communist Party of Australia’s Tribune celebrated the victory, compared with the reporting of the victory by the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Daily Worker.

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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.