When Communists Invaded Cold War Canberra
When Communists Invaded Cold War Canberra
by ROSS FITZGERALD
The seemingly endless second prime ministerial stint of Liberal Party stalwart Robert Gordon Menzies from 1949 to 1966 was not, as it is now often portrayed, a period of unbroken certainty, somnolence and solidity. The first years of the Menzies restoration in particular were quite rocky.
For a start, when Menzies won the 1949 federal election, his incoming government faced a hostile Senate. Sixteen months later a double-dissolution defeat for Labor ended the impasse. But success on this front was shortly followed by the historic 1951 referendum campaign in which Menzies unsuccessfully sought to ban the Communist Party of Australia.
For a while, fortune did not favour the re-elected Menzies government of 1951. The Korean War, in which Australia was deeply involved, had degenerated into a stalemate. A war-induced outbreak of inflation forced the Coalition government to adopt harsh budgetary measures. This deflationary approach produced a recession, with unemployment in the second half of 1952 rising to what was then the high figure of 4 per cent.
The Liberals knew they were in trouble because of the downturn. Their anxiety is documented in a manuscript located in the National Library of Australia by my colleague, the Canberra-based researcher Stephen Holt. This shows that in July 1952 a Menzies cabinet minister and ex-Australian Olympian, Wilfrid Kent Hughes, lamented in a letter to a friend that, politically, things were “anything but pleasant” given that the “economic situation changes so rapidly from day to day”.
Menzies’s growing unpopularity in 1952 was highlighted in October when a self-styled “Oust Menzies Campaign” began to attract public attention. This “Oust Menzies Campaign” was the unalloyed brainchild of the Communist Party of Australia. The result of the 1951 referendum had saved the party from illegality, but a desire for retribution soon followed. Just as Menzies had tried to eradicate the Communist Party, the CPA planned to get even by denigrating and discrediting Menzies.
There were rank-and-file activists aplenty to support such a campaign. Left-wing unions such as the Seamen’s Union could be counted on. The same militants who had campaigned hard for a “No” vote in the 1951 referendum were ready to support the proposed anti-Menzies sortie in 1952.
Eventually someone came up with a bright idea. The Communist Party would be bound to make an impact if it could transport demonstrators from various parts of the nation to Parliament House in Canberra, where they could confront the Menzies government. Demonstrators were recruited from within the party, at meetings in factories, and at other working-class localities in Melbourne and Sydney and in other places in New South Wales, including Newcastle and the Illawarra.
The first thing the Coalition knew about the anti-Menzies cavalcade to Canberra was when it turned up. On Wednesday October 15, 1952, some 500 demonstrators arrived in Canberra in eight tourist coaches and a fleet of motorcars. When the protesters arrived, there was no security presence to block entry to Parliament House. After gathering in front of the building, the demonstrators swarmed into the King’s Hall lobby, where they buttonholed senators and members of the House of Representatives.
A deputation of three trade unionists, which included the militant maritime union leader and well-known Australian communist Jim Healy, drove to Yarralumla, where they presented a petition to the Official Secretary of the Governor-General, the ex-Labor Premier of New South Wales, Sir William McKell. The petition, which had 16,412 signatures from unemployed people, called on the Governor-General to terminate the commission of the Menzies government. This bizarre request, needless to say, was not acceded to.
Back at Parliament House, the demonstrators’ enthusiasm did not waver. After leaving King’s Hall they regrouped on the front steps of the building. They hooted and catcalled when some Liberal and Country Party worthies, including the federal Treasurer Arthur Fadden, appeared on a balcony.
The Leader of the Opposition, Labor’s Dr H.V. Evatt, did not support the protest. He had led the 1951 campaign against the proposed proscription of the Communist Party but he was now keen to distance himself from the communists. Evatt branded the demonstration, correctly, as a “Communist-inspired stunt”.
By day’s end the demonstrators had gone, but their unsettling presence was still felt. Just before the House rose for the night, the stridently anti-communist New South Wales Liberal MP W.C. Wentworth railed against them. The day’s events, he insisted, were part of a “plan to oust Menzies and put in a caretaker Labor government and then ride to revolution”.
For their part, the communists regarded the unopposed takeover of King’s Hall as an impressive achievement. The communist newspaper Tribune thundered, “It was a significant milestone in the march to People’s Power.”
The Communist Party was keen to capitalise on its successful springtime invasion of the capital. For leading CPA apparatchiks it was important to maintain the anti-Menzies momentum. A second march on Canberra was fixed for Wednesday March 11, 1953.
The repeat performance was widely advertised in the Communist Party press. Prior publicity meant that the second rally would be bigger but it also meant that the vital element of surprise was lost. The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) opened up a dossier on the impending demonstration. The lack of security back in October would not be repeated. Far tighter precautions were evident once the second interstate cavalcade entered Canberra. Parliament House was now off limits. Well before the protesters arrived, a line of police formed in front of the building. On the orders of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate, all but three entrances were locked. There was an explicit ban on admitting anyone connected with the demonstration. For good measure, ASIO hired a newsreel camera to film the events
In all, almost 1000 demonstrators arrived in Canberra on March 11, 1953, this time also including contingents from Brisbane, Wagga Wagga and Lithgow. The demonstrators came in two trains as well as in buses and private cars. ‘Tribune
hailed the convoy as “the biggest deputation ever to invade Canberra”.
The protesters congregated at a central Canberra location, the Albert Hall, where their fervour was stoked by copies of the latest issue of ‘Tribune’, which was emblazoned with a photograph of the Soviet tyrant Joseph (“Uncle Joe”) Stalin, who had died a few days earlier. The demonstrators then marched en masse to Parliament House, where they ranged in lines thirty deep across the main entrance to the blocked building. They raised banners bearing slogans such as “We Want the Right to Work” and “Stop Murder in Korea”. They set up loudspeakers to allow selected militants to vent their anger.
In a curious act of symbiosis, all this action was filmed not just by ASIO but also by a rival film unit deployed by the Communist Party. The presence of these duelling film crews showed that what was happening was a significant event.
As the afternoon drew on, the demonstrators marched back to the Albert Hall where, before leaving Canberra, they passed a resolution protesting against their exclusion from Parliament House. In contrast to their October 1952 outing, they had been unable to lobby members and senators in King’s Hall and were not allowed to present Governor-General McKell with a second petition, which this time called for an immediate dissolution of the House of Representatives.
The heightened security measures may have frustrated the demonstrators but for some senior government ministers the restrictions were not severe enough. External Affairs Minister (and later Governor-General) Richard Casey was alarmed by the communist presence outside Parliament House. As Stephen Holt has recently discovered in another National Library document, Casey noted in his diary that it was “a bad thing that these meetings should be allowed to take place”. He clearly felt that this “large mob of several hundred Communists” should have not been allowed to demonstrate at all.
But the anti-Menzies campaign had already begun to lose momentum. The wider political climate was becoming less congenial to anti-government elements. The worst effects of the 1952 recession wore off and the level of unemployment fell. Positive and negative feelings about Menzies were now balanced. A half-Senate election held on May 9, 1953, reflected this situation. Labor polled more votes overall, but Menzies retained control of the Senate.
There was no third communist march on Canberra. The “Oust Menzies Campaign” of 1952-53 was allowed to peter out. Menzies had not been ousted, but in some communist and militant left-wing quarters the campaign had served its purpose by provoking considerable media interest and a serious conservative response. The demonstrators had reminded the wider Australian public that, for a while, the post-1949 record of the Menzies government had been characterised by involvement in war and recession. In the spring of 1952 communists in the Australian labour movement asserted their willingness to act as an aggressive campaigning force. They were not timorous Cold War victims.
Leftist militants saw the “Oust Menzies Campaign” as a useful training-run in campaign logistics. Consequently card-carrying CPA members, crypto-communists and their fellow travellers were well primed to team up again with Dr Evatt when he swung to the left in October 1954. This followed the Petrov Russian spy affair and a narrow Labor defeat in that year’s federal election—which, in large part, Evatt blamed on the activities of the fervently anti-communist, Melbourne-based Catholic layman B.A. Santamaria.
This lurch back to the left precipitated a huge split in Labor ranks in the mid-1950s, which was accentuated by an increasingly unstable and often paranoid Dr Evatt. The dramatic Labor Split was a self-inflicted wound that made the ALP unelectable for almost two decades. As a result, life became easier for Menzies.
The years up to 1954 were by way of contrast extremely testing. The “Oust Menzies Campaign” was very much part of this contentious period in Australian political history which should not be forgotten. Knowing about it makes us realise even more just how impressive the Menzies era’s longevity eventually proved to be.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of thirty-nine books.
‘Quadrant’, September 2017, pp 75-77
Ross Fitzgerald’s blog is available at www.rossfitzgerald.com/