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Issue #1519      21 September 2011

Culture & Life

The vote that stopped Menzies

It is an axiom of modern life, under capitalism, that whenever reactionary political forces seek to take over the government of a country – whether by coup d’état or by running a rabble-rousing demagogue in an election – the first essential act of the new regime will be to neutralise (preferably by outlawing or – if feasible – simply killing) the Communists.

Hitler did it in Germany, Suharto did it in Indonesia, Pinochet did it in Chile; in fact dictators of all sorts did it across Asia, Latin America and Africa. The notorious Senator McCarthy (with influential backing) tried to do it in the USA, and in 1951 Robert Gordon Menzies tried to do it in Australia.

All of them recognised that, as the most class conscious and politically developed section of the working class, the Communists would always be the core of the opposition to big business control of government and the economy.

Menzies had tried to ban the Communist Party some years before, in 1940. He had always been a supporter of British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, finding Hitler’s authoritarian approach to trade unions and other troublemakers very much to his taste. He clearly saw the Soviet Union as the main threat to the kind of world he favoured, and just as clearly thought that Nazi Germany and Militarist Japan between them would be able to defeat and carve up the USSR after which Britain and its allies would be able to resume business as usual.

To Menzies’ chagrin, his ban on the Communist party was eventually declared unconstitutional by the High Court. He never disguised his hatred for the USSR, nor his contempt for the world’s first workers’ state. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Menzies rushed to assure everyone that “Russia won’t last two weeks!” The subsequent astonishing resistance put up by the Red Army and its defeats inflicted on the previously invincible Werhmacht, along with the tremendous prestige and popularity that accrued to the Red Army in both Britain and Australia, must have been very galling to him.

In 1949, thanks to sectarian errors on the part of the left in Australia (see Edgar Ross’ book Of Storm And Struggle) and a scare campaign against Labor’s proposal to nationalise the banks, Labor was defeated and Menzies’ Liberal Party was put in power. He immediately began the process of selling off profitable state enterprises to private companies, opposing trade unions and tailing after the US and Britain in their various neo-colonial military adventures.

Also in 1949, the USA was shocked to discover that it no longer had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. A climate of fear and paranoia was fostered. At the time, the USA was leading the other capitalist states in trying to “roll back Communism”. By skilful use of bribery and terrorism, they had largely defeated the Communists in Western Europe, and in the course of the next couple of years had sent troops to wage wars of re-colonisation in Malaya, the Philippines and Indo-China.

Beginning in December 1950, the US, Britain, Australia and other US allies were engaged in a full-scale war trying to do the same in Korea. Menzies was an ardent supporter of the Korean War and some months later introduced legislation for a referendum to change the constitution specifically to allow the banning of the Communist Party.

Menzies and his big business backers clearly hoped to whip up anti-Communist hysteria around the Korean War to get the referendum passed. One prominent radio ad at the time, that seemed to be played a lot of times, began with a male voice declaring: “I hate Commos!” and ended by urging everyone to vote Yes in the referendum. Curiously, it summed up Menzies’ own sentiments to a T.

The Communist Party, of course, launched an all-out campaign to defeat the referendum. The danger it presented was very real. If passed, it would have allowed the government to “name” members of parliament as Communists and remove them from Parliament. Lesser people faced jail for possession of Communist Party or Soviet or other proscribed publications.

The capitalist media – newspapers and radio, there was no TV in Australia then – were solidly in support of the Yes vote. It was a formidable foe that faced the Labor/Communist Party forces.

A police state was in the offing. The Communist Party was to be driven underground, its elected union officials would be ousted and probably jailed as well.

Progressive unionists and others recognised that although the referendum was nominally aimed at Communists, the real target was much wider, and included progressives of all types, the left wing of the ALP, anti-war activists, and militant trade unionists.

I heard many years later that to secure the ALP’s active support in the Vote NO campaign, the Communist Party had to make some deals with the ALP, probably involving agreements not to oppose certain ALP figures in union elections. But that is only conjecture as I have no hard evidence to support the claim.

What is undisputed is that the Party conducted a magnificent and massive campaign to oppose Menzies’ hate campaign. Everything was used, from street and cottage meetings to specially compiled propaganda comic books. Australians’ democratic rights were at stake and the climate of hate made it easy for people to see the urgency of the struggle that was being waged.

In the end, the referendum was defeated. In political terms and in terms of what it meant for the democratic rights of people in this country, it was a magnificent victory. But in terms of actual numbers, the result was scarily close. The reactionaries lost, but not by much.

Nevertheless, they lost, and the key to their defeat was the breadth of the campaign for a NO vote, the embracing of all who opposed or were simply dubious about Menzies’ motives or further intentions.

Although couched in the form of a referendum, this was an attempt to impose fascism on Australia, to make the country’s constitution that of a police state. Its defeat saved the people of this country from what could well have been decades of repression, violence and misery.  

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