The election of 1949
The post-war era in Australia was paradoxical in nature. Although it was a time of economic and political stability with a prosperous new consumer class, it was also a time of fear and tension. For the previous three decades Australia (like the world) had suffered from two world wars and economic depression. The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s had hit Australia hard and the memories of that time had not yet faded. After such a long period of war and economic strife, Australians, like the rest of the world, wanted security and peace.
These factors help explain why in Australia there was a shift to a more right-wing conservative way of life and conservative political thinking after the War. Ordinary Australians wanted to settle down in suburbia and live a quiet life that revolved around the newest electrical appliance that was available. There was a definite shift away from political involvement, and a feeling that 'progress' was the new focus in Australian life.
In the late 1940s imperial, rural Australia was becoming a modern, international, industrial country. Like other 'baby boomer' countries around the world, Australians were moving to suburbia, having babies and buying electric washing machines. See image 1
But behind this picture of domestic happiness, there was also an underlying fear of this suburban security being taken away. The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by alleged communist plots to undermine Australian society. Like Britain, and especially America, Australia was obsessed with finding communists and communist plots in all areas of society. For Australians this took two forms: fear of communist invasion from without; and fear of communists within their own society.
During the War, Australians had been bombarded with racist propaganda threatening them with the 'yellow peril' of Japanese invasion. Now the propaganda changed to attack communists. Communism was portrayed as a disease; the 'red scum' were spreading and were out to destroy the Australian way of life. Australia had also become markedly more multicultural in the few years since the War. There was a huge influx of immigrants from Europe, many were fleeing the horrors of the Second World War and many were also fleeing from communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The stories of communist plots fell on fertile ground and many people became scared of the influence of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). See image 2
The parties involved
The CPA had been in existence since the 1920s but had never really overcome the dominance of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The Communist Party had been banned at the outbreak of World War Two, but when the Soviet Union joined the War, it regained a lot of support and was allowed to resume activities. It continued to grow throughout the 1940s but was never really the huge threat that it was made out to be. Although it was in control of a few trade unions, that strength never translated to success at elections.
This new era of fear, tension, conservatism and longing for security played itself out against the backdrop of the 1949 federal elections. The main players on the political stage at the time were the Australian Labor Party, the new Liberal Party and the Communist Party of Australia. There was never any real danger of the CPA being elected into Government, but its high-profile place in Australian politics meant that it would play a major part in the election, if only as a 'bogeyman' for the Opposition to use to their own ends.
By 1949 the Labor Party had been in power for eight years, firstly under John Curtin. And then when he died, under Ben Chifley's leadership. It was the Labor Party's longest period in power to that date, and had been a period of great success for them, both domestically and internationally. At the federal election of 1949 that was all about to change. See image 3
In 1949 the leader of the Opposition was Robert Menzies. Menzies had been elected Prime Minister in 1939 as leader of the United Australia Party (UAP), but his leadership had suffered from divisions in his cabinet and he lost power in 1941. Towards the end of the War, Menzies was one of the people behind bringing together remnants of the UAP and other non-Labor parties and groups to form the new Liberal Party of Australia. Menzies and his new party were determined to take advantage of the shift to the political right in Australian thinking and were also prepared to take advantage of the fear of communism in the country.
Before the election
After the election
The 1949 election was run against a background of growing fear of communism and this was one of the major factors behind the Labor defeat. Although the ALP tried hard not to be associated with the CPA, in the atmosphere of the Cold War, and with an opposition determined to create a link, that attempt was not successful. In 1949 communism was bound to be on the election agenda as Korea was on the verge of civil war, China had become communist and Russia had exploded its first atomic bomb. The only question really was which party could exploit the situation to its benefit. In the end, the new conservative mood of the country and the monetary backing they received gave Menzies' party the edge over Labor.
On the other hand, the Labor Party did maintain its majority in the Senate and therefore had the power to veto most of the new government's legislation. Robert Menzies went on to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Australian politics. He held the post from 1949 until he resigned in 1966. The Liberal party, in coalition with the Country Party, won seven successive federal elections and were in power until 1972 when a resurgent Labor Party came back under E. G. (Gough) Whitlam. See image 4