The fear of communism in Australia
Following World War II, there was an increased fear of communism in Australia. This chapter outlines how Australians were concerned that communism would undermine Australian plans for a peaceful and secure future. The chapter also discusses how the fear of communism was intertwined with politics, often used as a 'scare tactic' for political gain.
After such a long period of world war and economic strife, Australians, like the rest of the world, wanted security and peace. While post-war Australia enjoyed economic and political stability, it was also a time of fear and tension. There was an underlying concern of this suburban security being taken away.
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The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by alleged communist plots to undermine Australian society. Like Britain, and especially America, Australia was obsessed with exposing communists and communist plots in all areas of society. For Australians fear took two forms: fear of communist invasion from without; and fear of communists within their own society.
During World War II, Australians had been bombarded with racist propaganda threatening them with the 'yellow peril' of Japanese invasion. The propaganda now changed to target communists. Communism was portrayed as a disease; the 'red scum' was spreading and was determined to destroy the Australian way of life. Australia had become more multicultural in the years since the War. There was a huge influx of immigrants from Europe, many fleeing the horrors of the Second World War and newly-established communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Foreigners from communist countries were viewed with suspicion. The stories of communist plots fell on fertile ground and many Australians became scared of the influence of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
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Creating the fear of communism for political gain
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, regained much support and was allowed to resume activities. The CPA continued to grow throughout the 1940s, however, it was never as great a threat as the government portrayed. Although the CPA was in control of a few trade unions, that strength never translated to success at elections.
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A number of strikes affected Australian industry in the late 1940s, and the communists were alleged to be responsible. Historians disagree as to how much control the CPA exercised over the strikes. After the coalminer's strike of 1949 it made little difference. The popular perception was that the CPA was trying to destabilise the country.
Meanwhile the 'red scare' was fostered by the newspapers and Menzies' Liberal Party.
Menzies attacked the CPA and Labor party with anti-communist and anti-Labor propaganda. This propaganda raised suspicions about Labor's communist sentiments and undermined Labor support.
The 1949 federal elections were held against this backdrop of fear, tension, conservativism and longing for security. While there was little danger of the CPA being elected into government, its high-profile position 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.
Communism was one of the major factors behind the Labor defeat. Although the ALP attempted to disassociate itself from the CPA, the ALP could not escape Menzies' propaganda. In 1949 communism was high 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. Menzies successfully exploited Australia's fears and defeated Labour.
Communism was one of the major factors behind the Labor defeat at the 1949 federal election.
Banning the Communist Party
The new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, took steps towards banning the CPA. The Communist Party Dissolution Bill 1950 (Cth) was made law on 20 October 1950. The Communist Party appealed the Act in the High Court and the Act was declared unconstitutional. The judges said there was not enough evidence of a threat to Australia. The government could not invoke the need to defend Australia against communism to gain more legislative power.
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Robert Menzies then held a referendum to attempt to change the Commonwealth constitution so the Communist Party Dissolution Act could come into force. The Referendum asked the Australian public if they were willing to grant the federal government more legislative power, so the government could deal with the threat of communism. The Australian public voted 'No' and Menzies and the Liberal Party failed in their bid to ban the CPA. The referendum was defeated because the government seemed to be trying to extend its power too far, not because Australians wanted to save the CPA.
The defeat of the referendum did not mean the end of the hunt for communists within Australian society. The 1950s saw an increase in the fear of communism. A popular saying at the time was 'Reds under the beds', because people were afraid that communists might be everywhere, waiting for a chance to start a communist revolution.